Posted in Short Stories

John Updike: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth


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One aspect of the television show E.R. that I always thought interesting was the way the writers, in many story lines,  would only let the viewers see what a real Emergency Room staff would see. The viewers would not know much about a patient’s background except what they would tell the doctors and nurses.  In the same manner, viewers usually never knew what happened to patients when they left the hospital.

John Updike

I was reminded of this in reading John Updike’s short story “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” this week.  While it’s not set in a hospital, it’s set in a high school classroom, the reader only gets to know the students through the point of view of the teacher, Mark Prosser, and his thoughts are focused on one class.

Given the title, it didn’t come as a surprise that Prosser is an English teacher and this specific class concentrates on Shakespeare’s MacBeth and the title character’s famous soliloquy.  I recall having to memorize it for my 11th grade English class.  Prosser approaches the class with a little knowledge and much nervousness.  His lack of confidence coincides nicely with the students’ questions.  Though it might sound like a cliche, I couldn’t help but smile when a student asks why MacBeth stopped in the middle of a war to make this big long speech to himself.  This only enhances Prosser’s feelings of inadequacy:

Mark winced, pierced by the awful clarity with which his students saw him.  Through their eyes, how queer he looked, with his chalky hands, and his horn-rimmed glasses, and his hair never slicked down, all wrapped up in “literature,” where, when things get rough, the king mumbles a poem nobody understands.

The reader never knows what actually happens to any of the students after the bell rings for the end of class.  Updike uses Prosser’s honesty in a manner that makes the teacher understandable and likeable as opposed to being a weakling.  My guess would be that Prosser is not the students’ favorite teacher but he’s probably not the most hated, either. This story corresponded to the Nine of Hearts which I selected for Week 25 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

3 thoughts on “John Updike: Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth

  1. The nervousness of a teacher in front of a classroom sounds like a good theme to explore in a short story; students probably rarely – if ever – consider that they may not be the only ones in the room that have some anxiety. I know I never thought of my teachers like that. I don’t recall there being much middle ground in our feelings for teachers either. We either admired and exalted the good ones or ridiculed and discounted the bad ones. Mr. Prosser doesn’t seem to in one of those two default modes…

    1. I remember that it dawned on me sometime my senior year in high school that teachers talked about students the same way students talked about teachers. That was an eye-opener! While this story wasn’t my favorite, it did take a different turn than a lot of the stories I’ve read lately. I read Updike’s novel “In the Beauty of the Lilies” about ten years ago and liked it. This is the only other of his works I’ve read.

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