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Witnesses to a Mystery

Home

by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 325 pp., $25.00

In the opening paragraphs of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead, the elderly narrator John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in the small Iowa town of Gilead, tells his young son:

I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like…. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say….

He goes on to explain that this was an analogy born of what he elsewhere refers to as his “dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, [which] was most of my life”: “I didn’t feel very much at home in the world, that was a fact. Now I do.”

The joy in Ames’s later years—born of his union with the much younger and rather mysterious Lila, and of the birth of their son, Robby, to whom Gilead is addressed—has been, for him, transformative. But his—or his creator’s—decision to link death and home so decidedly, and so early, is telling. The opening words of Robinson’s new novel, Home, are Robert Boughton’s: he, Ames’s lifelong friend and fellow minister (Presbyterian rather than Congregationalist), is speaking to his daughter, Glory: “Home to stay, Glory! Yes!”; and Glory’s response, albeit unspoken, is “Dear God…dear God in heaven.” If death is like coming home, then, too, coming home can be like death.

Home is a companion piece to Gilead, an account of the same time (the summer of 1956), in the same place (Gilead, Iowa), with the same cast of characters as the earlier novel. Each book is strengthened and deepened by a reading of the other. It is tempting, indeed, to liken them to the gospels, dovetailing versions of the same epiphanic experiences, each with its particular revelations, omissions, and emphases; except that instead of telling the stories of Christ, Robinson’s novels tell those of the all-too-human antihero, the struggling prodigal son, Jack Boughton.

Any story, Robinson reminds us, is many stories; and, as John Ames reflects in Gilead :

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.

The two books, different in their form and approach as well as in the details they reveal and the stories they ultimately tell, are an enactment of Ames’s tenet, and, metonymically, an enactment of humanity’s broader dance of ever-attempted, ever-failing communication—through a glass darkly.

This is not, of itself, a novel endeavor for the novel (Edith Wharton once wrote, with typical concise wit, “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story”); rather it is the gravitas and patience with which Robinson approaches her task that are extraordinary. Robinson, whose 1998 book of essays The Death of Adam revealed her rigorous Christian spiritual inquiry, has, in these two novels, channeled that rigor in fictional form: the result is two works of art of impressively unfashionable seriousness and engagement.

While Gilead took the form of John Ames’s written musings for his son to read after his death—and in so doing allowed Robinson and her character the leeway for philosophical musings, apparently incidental anecdotes, and digressions, while simultaneously liberating both narrator and creator from the burdens of multiple character development and scene-setting—Home assumes what seems to this reader a greater challenge: to animate fully formed fictional characters who operate in both the mundane and philosophical spheres, and whose spiritual and psychological underpinnings truly are so divergent as each to represent a “little civilization.” When Jack explains to his brother Teddy that “it’s hard to talk to people. Religious people,” because “sometimes it seems as though I’m in one universe and you’re in another. All of you,” he is, in fact, echoing Ames’s reflection from the earlier novel, from a less lofty perspective: Ames sees that each person is in his own universe; Jack sees only that nobody around him is in his own personal universe, but imagines them all together in another.

Robinson, throughout Home, is tackling almost the opposite of what she undertook in Gilead : rather than granting a direct and illuminated voice to a single, thoughtful soul, she stands back—writing in the third person, albeit in a third person that privileges Glory’s point of view—and allows her characters to perform their small daily rituals, to have their conversations, to live through their misunderstandings, each in his or her particular isolation. Crucially, she allows at least two very distinct experiences—that of the devout, to which John Ames, Robert Boughton, and even Glory could be said to belong; and Jack’s secular universe—to interact with one another, each with its own language and its own jurisprudence.

In this way, the pure metaphysics of Gilead—so intensely admired by many, but to me, in its stalwart piety and resolute humorlessness, a noble but rather wearing exercise—give way in Home to the messier, slacker, more repetitive, and at times more strained rhythms of quotidian life, while addressing, no less intently, broader spiritual, ethical, and philosophical questions. Gilead, told by John Ames, is, as his wife tells their son, “your begats”—the family history, interspersed with Ames’s exultation over the small miracles and beauties of life (on baptism, for example: “That feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand—how I have loved this life”), and ultimately shaped by Ames’s fraught relationship with his friend Robert Boughton’s son, his namesake, John Ames Boughton, known as Jack. Home, on the other hand, is about the three Boughtons in Gilead (there are six further Boughton children, scattered elsewhere)—not only Jack but Robert, whose failing health and almost offensively noble character are movingly portrayed, and also Glory, Jack’s youngest sister, who, at thirty-eight, has come home to care for their father and, reluctantly, probably to stay.

Both books tell of Jack’s return to Gilead, to his dying father’s house, after twenty years’ absence. At forty-three, he is a ne’er-do-well with an unknown adulthood, doing his best to keep sober, a prodigal whose difficult adolescent history still lingers in everyone’s minds. A former petty thief and prankster, Jack committed the culminating youthful sins of impregnating a young local girl from miserable circumstances and then failing to care for the child that ensued, a little girl who, in the days before penicillin, died of a common infection.

To John Ames, Jack is an unremitting problem: “He is not a man of the highest character. Be wary of him”; “I have never been able to warm to him, never”; “I can’t judge him as I might another man…. He’s just mean.” To Glory, however, Jack is “the weight on the family’s heart, the unnamed absence, like the hero in a melancholy tale.” For old Boughton, Jack is the much-loved and much-regretted sign of his own parental failure:

I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavyheartedness. In a child! And how could I be angry at that? I should have known how to help you with it.

And for himself, Jack is clear-eyed and self-pitying at once:

I really am nothing…. Nothing, with a body. I create a kind of displacement around myself as I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble. This is a mystery, I believe.

In both novels, this mystery is articulated as a question Jack poses of his father and of Ames: “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” The matter of predestination is a conversation the ministers have had many times before, and neither seems fully to appreciate Jack’s personal investment in it. The exchanges that result from Jack’s query are recorded in both books, in slightly different iterations, one Ames’s recollection and the other Glory’s. It is as much a novelistic question as a spiritual one: Jack is asking, essentially, whether he has had any choice in the unfolding of his life. The nature and shape of his homecoming would suggest that, as long as he is at home, the answer is no.

In Gilead, Jack will always be defined by the past, by the impressions and projections and desires of his father, his “Papa,” as he calls Ames, and his siblings. As the prodigal son, he is both the center of the stories and the cipher at the center of the stories. The novels are at once about Jack Boughton and, by some other light, by the light of his unknowability, about anything or anyone but Jack Boughton. He is an example—just one, but a telling example—of how little any person is known, even by those who are supposedly closest to him. As Glory says to Della, Jack’s wife, when finally they meet:

Jack didn’t trust me well enough to tell me much about anything that mattered to him. It’s always been that way. There’s a lot I didn’t tell him. Maybe that’s just how we are.

Just as we must with God, we take our understandings of other people—of who they are—on faith. We read the signs, contradictory and unsatisfying as they may be, and we claim a coherent truth, when no such thing is possible. All we can know is that, as Glory observes while dressing a chicken, “This life on earth is a strange business.”

If Jack is the cipher upon whom all attention is focused, Glory is the novel’s quieter mystery. (Interestingly, her presence in Gilead is so circumspect as to be ghostly. She flits all but invisibly through the narrative like a Victorian servant.) We know that she has returned to her father after the failure of a long engagement to a man who proved to have been married all along. She has abandoned her career as a schoolteacher; she has abandoned her dreams of marriage and children:

The town seemed different to her, now that she had returned there to live. She was thoroughly used to Gilead as the subject and scene of nostalgic memory. How all the brothers and sisters except Jack had loved to come home, and how ready they always were to leave again. How dear the old place and the old stories were to them, and how far abroad they had scattered. The past was a very fine thing, in its place. But her returning now, to stay, as her father said, had turned memory portentous. To have it overrun its bounds this way and become present and possibly future, too—they all knew this was a thing to be regretted. She rankled at the thought of their commiseration.

Glory combats this sense of doom with the concrete reassurances of homemaking, with a selfless caring for her father and brother. When Jack is finally coming home, she prepares a particularly fine meal:

When she walked in from the garden, the house had already begun to smell like Sunday. It brought tears to her eyes. That old orderliness, aloof from all disruption.

Much later, after a particularly distressing crisis involving Jack, she returns to the kitchen: “How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did.”

Because of Glory, there is a good deal of cooking in this novel—chicken and dumplings, apple pies, pancakes, bacon, pork roast, fresh-picked strawberries, meat loaf, roast beef, glazed beets, string beans, mashed potatoes, to name but a few of its enticing foods—and there is a good deal of radio-listening and board game–playing, too. These are, quite literally, the comforts of home, standing in for all that has been sacrificed in the return. The Boughtons’ existence is circumscribed by Robert Boughton’s frailty, and again by the hermetic confines of Gilead. Glory makes outings to the hardware store, the grocery, the Ameses’ house; once Jack has repaired the family’s old DeSoto, they make a tour or two in the car. It’s as if everything in her life that occurred beyond this house, beyond this town, has been obliterated or repressed.

We know from Jack’s own account that there have been upheavals and tempestuous relationships in his wider world, even if their details remain largely oblique. Of Glory’s fiancé, and of the life she had outside her father’s house, we know very little. It seems, even, that she knows very little: when considering her fiancé’s letters, she reflects,

He was at the center of her life, and who was he, after all? Why did it comfort her to trust him? The letters were so precious to her, and what were they? They were bland and prosaic, three readings out of four.

There is little drama in Glory Boughton, but she is no less significant a creation than her brother. Robinson has given life and tender individuality to a type—the pious and devoted spinster daughter—and, in so doing, has honored the complexity of someone formerly invisible. Glory has grown up in a world in which

she seemed always to have known that, to their father’s mind, the world’s great work was the business of men…. They were the stewards of ultimate things. Women were creatures of a second rank, however pious, however beloved, however honored.

She is both aware that her selflessness creates such sense of home as there is for either her father or Jack; and aware, too, that all her efforts are bound to be insufficient:

She had tried to take care of [Jack], to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him. That old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. She had been alone with her parents when Jack left, and she had been alone with her father when he returned. There was a symmetry in that that might have seemed like design to her and beguiled her with the implication that their fates were indeed intertwined.

In the Boughtons’ Gilead, Glory is the balm. It is she who alleviates, insofar as is possible, her father’s suffering, and her brother’s. They, in their various selfishnesses, are only intermittently aware of it; and the wider world’s degree of inattention is marked by Glory’s near-complete absence from Ames’s version of events. Jack is prone to comments like

Tell him [his father] my life is endless pain and difficulty for reasons that are no doubt apparent to anyone I pass on the street but obscure to me, and that I am flummoxed and sitting in the DeSoto but will probably be in for supper.

Old Boughton, whose efforts at good grace fail with his health, remarks late in the novel:

Last night was about as bad a night as I have passed on this earth. And I kept thinking to myself, asking the Lord, Why do I have to care so much? It seemed like a curse and an affliction to me. To love my own son. How could that be?

Both of them, however, are too self- absorbed, and too certain of her capability, to pay heed to Glory.

And yet, the novel makes clear, it is Glory who will continue, after her father dies, long after her brother has left for good. It is Glory whose observations—like John Ames’s in Gilead—capture, in Woolfian moments of being, the beauty of their lives. When Jack takes the DeSoto out for a spin for the first time, she records:

Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage.

Again late in the book, as the trio’s time together is drawing to an agonizing close, she wakens to the new day:

And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas…. Another summer in Gilead.

The thought that arises from this observation is not, especially, a happy one (“Why would anyone stay here?”); but the novel’s close provides her answer: she will stay to provide the continuity of family, to provide a home in the world for any Boughton seeking rest.

What is remarkable about Home—and why it is, to this reader, an even stronger accomplishment than its companion volume; not in spite of its longueurs and its repetitiveness but because of them—is that it is both a spiritual and a mundane accounting. In her lonely fortitude, Glory marries the two. Robinson makes clear that it is Glory and, like her, John Ames’s wife Lila who are the creators and the perpetuators of Home, whatever that may be; and, moreover, that this selfless creation requires self-sacrifice, if not self-abnegation. It is Lila who, in the men’s fateful conversation about predestination and perdition, reassures Jack that “a person can change. Everything can change”; and yet it is she, and Glory, who, in tending the gardens and preparing the meals, ensure that things—the orderly and reassuring things—stay the same. For themselves, it may be a death of a kind, the resignation of all that the wider world once seemed to offer (in Glory’s case, falsely, for the good; in Lila’s case, one surmises, frankly for ill). But as John Ames observed, from the outset, death and homecoming are inextricably linked.

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