Marilynne Robinson, best known as a novelist (especially for her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead of 2004), is also a scholar. She received her doctorate from the University of Washington in 1977, with a dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two. She now admits, wryly, that she would not gladly read that dissertation. She also said, when she turned seventy, that she had neglected Shakespeare for decades, but was boning up on him again. I don’t believe her. She clearly has been pondering the plays all her life. She thinks through Shakespeare. She does not try to draw meaning out of the plays, but brings her own intuitions to them for validation. Her novels have many indirect references to lines from Shakespeare, and the essays in her new collection, The Givenness of Things, discuss his works directly.
When, for instance, she reflects on the meaning of “servant,” she reminds us that Shakespeare’s troupe was known as the servants of the Lord Chamberlain and later of King James. In both capacities he and his fellow actors wore the livery of their “Lord.” No wonder Shakespeare shows a great awareness of the duties and privileges of servants of various kinds in the plays. The servants can be treacherous, loyal, or sycophantic. Some prove themselves a truer servant of their lord by disobeying him (like the disguised Kent disobeying Lear’s decree of banishment). Others carry out their lords’ evil directions (Antigonus exposing the baby Perdita in the wilderness).
One might expect that Robinson, when she considers the social conditions of Shakespeare’s time, might be joining the New Historicists, such as Stephen Greenblatt, but she gives them the back of her hand. She is always more interested in theology than in the social sciences. According to some of Robinson’s favorite authors, we are all servants to God, and that service is ennobled by the fact that Jesus came as a servant to us. John Wycliffe called Jesus “a servant God.” William Langland wrote that “Jesus is truly his [the poor man’s] servant (for He said so Himself) and wears the poor man’s livery…. Jesus bears the sign of poverty, and saved all mankind in that apparel.” Paradoxes of that kind are present in servants’ conflicting obligations throughout Shakespeare.
The importance of theology is even more pressing when Robinson brings one of her favorite themes to the plays—grace, by which she means giving more than one owes and receiving more than one deserves. She finds a very riot of such givings and receivings in Shakespeare’s “romances.” The agenda she perceived in these plays seems set by Posthumus in Cymbeline: he says, when Iachimo kneels to ask for forgiveness, “Kneel not to me; the power that I have on you is, to spare you.”
The importance to Robinson of grace lets her bring together “Shakespeare, my theologian” and “my particular saint, John Calvin.” She sees theology in Shakespeare and poetry in Calvin: “Shakespeare’s theological seriousness is simultaneous with his greatness as a dramatist.” And both men impress her by seeing the importance of grace.
Robinson’s conception of grace has had a real impact in our lives, marked by what I take to be President Obama’s greatest speech, his eulogy for the nine people murdered in their church, the historic Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina. The speech is a profound meditation on grace, occasioned by the relatives of the slain who addressed the killer in open court and forgave him, asking God to have mercy on him. They did not give in to death but reknit their community for life by forgiveness. The president said:
That’s what I’ve felt this week—an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think—what a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
There are not many political speeches in America that have any theological depth—William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech, perhaps, or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. That is the company the president’s eulogy has joined. Robinson can prompt such considerations. There are any number of places the president could have drawn from in her work—as when she has the Congregationalist pastor in her novel Gilead rebuke himself for not being forgiving enough: “The Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault.” The president emphasized again the importance of Robinson in his interview of her for this journal (November 5, 2015).
Robinson found this deep concept of grace in Calvin (of all people) by traveling toward him on a literary path. Before her graduate work on Shakespeare, she was an undergraduate at Brown majoring in American studies (a new discipline at the time). She found in the intellectual keenness of New England Calvinist ministers an amazing grace of style. Looking for its source took her to the French writings of Calvin, whom she sees as an aesthete as well as an enlightened Swiss leader. She says, “Cauvin’s [the original spelling of his name] virtuosic scholarship could be thought of as monumental public art, by analogy with the work of contemporaries like Michelangelo.”
Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew Calvin well—he was the most-read foreign author at the time. Shakespeare’s many scriptural citations are from the Geneva Bible, created by exiled Calvinists in Calvin’s town. Arthur Golding, whose translations of Ovid so influenced Spenser and Shakespeare, was an adherent of Calvin and the translator of his sermons and his commentaries on the Psalms.
A central figure Robinson uses to link Shakespeare and Calvin is Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of Francis I, king of France. Her salon fostered both the arts and Reformers like Calvin. In fact, Robinson says that “the world she created around herself created him [Calvin].” Even English Reformers knew of and admired Marguerite. Anne Boleyn, for example, was formed as a young woman in her salon, and Anne’s daughter, who would become Elizabeth I, translated one of Marguerite’s religious works into English.
This approach to Calvin as a Renaissance humanist as well as a Reformer is far from our popular conception of him as a gloomy theorist of predestination, with a hard division between saints and the unsaved, in a dark world of sins and punishments. Robinson says that this picture is radically wrong. It neglects his belief in the human mind as a beautiful miracle that processes all the miracles of nature. She thinks he believed in predestination only in the sense that God foresees the future, not that he decrees it.
For Calvin, she argues, the doctrine of the Incarnation, of God becoming flesh, does not apply simply to Jesus. She sees God as entering matter from the beginning of creation. She has the concept of a Cosmic Christ that seems more like Teilhard de Chardin than the Calvin of popular reputation. Creation is an Incarnation; humankind is an Incarnation (we are made in the image of God):
If Christ was present at the Creation, and if existence was made with or through him, how is this manifest in Being as we know it? To put it another way, what do we fail to see or sense in Being if we exclude the role of [the Cosmic] Christ, the hypostatic [underlying reality of the] Person of Christ in the Divine Creator, in the making and sustaining of it [Being]? For me a high Christology [finding God in Jesus] implies a high anthropology [finding God in all humans].
Robinson, with her sense of the miraculousness of all being, is dismissive (sometimes too dismissive) of much of science—of reductive Darwinism, Freudianism, or biblical form criticism—claiming that they take us away from our immediate experience, our taste of the human, our separate identities. Unfortunately, she does not recognize that many people use these scientific tools without treating them as exclusive of other considerations. She says, for instance, that neuroscientists who can chart how fear lights up one part of the brain go on to imply (when they do not assert) that fear is just a local spasm of the nerves rather than a function of the whole human person. What one fears, and to what degree, is deeply different for people who fear mice or the End Times, math tests or terrorists. Yet I know of neuroscientists who are not simply reductive. Not all Darwinians are social Darwinians. Not all biblical critics are unbelievers.
But in effect she is saying to hasty rationalists, “Don’t understand me too soon—be puzzled by me, as I am puzzled by me.” To quote again the pastor 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.
Robinson is right to treasure what she calls the givenness of things. There are epiphanies to be found in the everyday. She would agree with G.K. Chesterton, who said that no one can deserve a sunset or earn a rose. To quote again her fictional pastor, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.” Given this attitude, we rightly expect her to be a great nature writer, and she does not disappoint. She can put effects of light and water into words. Her description of the iris is something Ruskin could be proud of. She finds even in tiny plants and insects a “squandered intricacy,” with “a small grandeur of form.”
Her doctrine of “givenness” makes her a special kind of fundamentalist. She shudders at the thought of being lumped with right-wing fundamentalists:
To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal.
Her biblical “givenness” takes the Bible—both Old Testament and New—as something to be accepted, not as literal truth but as a set of attempts at understanding God. She does not sort texts out in terms of their source, form, or scientific validity. If there are four different accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus, she savors them all because “by the time they were written down, they were the cherished possession of the early church and had taken forms many had already found to be persuasive, and also beautiful and moving.”
Because Robinson treasures Calvin’s theology, she joined his church: “I have shifted allegiances the doctrinal and demographic inch that separates Presbyterians from Congregationalists.” Or as she puts it elsewhere, “I adopted myself into Congregationalism on the basis of affinity, as most of its present members have done.” She now delivers the homily at her church when the pastor wants her to (lucky congregation!). Some of the material in this collection and in her earlier collection of essays, The Death of Adam, clearly comes from her sermons. Yet she could not be farther from the “preachy,” as her four novels prove.
Three of her four novels trace four generations in a fictional Iowa town, Gilead, founded in the 1850s by Protestant abolitionists. Gilead is modeled on a real town with another biblical name, Tabor. She amuses herself at one point by making some people in Gilead, her fictional town, visit the real town, Tabor, which is its model. Robinson admires a founding generation of Calvinist reformers on the frontier. She describes in an essay
the settlement of the Midwest, a region that became a bulwark against the spread of the slave economy. Strikingly and crucially, it scattered a number of fine little colleges along the frontier, among them Knox, Grinnell, Central, Carleton, and Oberlin, all of them centers of abolitionism, stations on the Underground Railroad.
She describes those Iowa towns without idealizing them. (They were founded to keep out Roman Catholics as well as slaves.) A comic memory of the founding generation in the novel Gilead is of a tunnel dug to hide runaway slaves. When a horse crashes down through the surface dirt into the tunnel, they do not know how to extricate it, or how to hide the tunnel again. Burrowing to get the horse out, they so honeycomb the site that they have to move the whole town to a new location. Meanwhile, the one slave who was in town when the horse incident occurred runs away from his would-be rescuers, frightened by their incompetence.
The characters in the three novels describe the same events in the same time period (the 1950s). But this is no Rashomon, where people give mainly exculpatory accounts of the same event. Robinson’s characters are self-inculpatory, unable to understand other people (or themselves). She is exemplifying what she has one man say—that we are mysteries to each other, inhabitants of different civilizations. The characters, mainly Congregationalist or Presbyterian, have different politics—some supporting Eisenhower, others Stevenson—but there is no emphasis on politics. One could even think, from the novels’ evidence, that she is not interested in her characters’ political views. But there is no doubt where her political sympathies lie in her nonfiction writing.
Sometimes, in her later essays, one has to look carefully to get her political references, since she usually talks in generalities, and the essays bear single-name titles like “Servanthood” or “Grace.” There was no such restraint in her first nonfiction book, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989). In 1983, she spent a sabbatical year in England, perhaps to focus on literary matters (like Shakespeare performances). But that year there was a scare that closed beaches in the Lake District (breeding ground of British Romanticism). She saw from the newspapers that the closure was caused by a project in Sellafield, the major producer of plutonium for the British hydrogen bomb. She began doing her homework on this combined government-business operation with a terrible record of leaks, loose storage, and disposal practices that was endangering a previously idyllic part of England. Her anger mounted so that, back in America, she wrote a scathing attack on the whole project.
She did not limit herself to a study of England’s nuclear program, but went after the entire British way of governing. She found that British critics of their political system—people considered radical in their day (Carlyle, the Webbs, Shaw, Orwell)—were complicit with the status quo in roundabout ways. Those writers “criticize in such a way as to reinforce the system which is supposedly being criticized.” The one critic of England’s political arrangements that she considered basically right was the one writing in and observing from the British Museum, Karl Marx. So, just as she is a Calvinist with a difference, a biblical fundamentalist with a difference, she is also a Marxist with a difference. For one thing, unlike many of Marx’s admirers and almost all his opponents, she has actually read Marx. She says that a caricature often substitutes for the real man. For instance, he is presented as the opposite of Adam Smith, though in fact they often agree in their analysis and recommendations. Both, for instance, argued that higher wages increase productivity (a point ignored by modern Republican freemarketers, and by Margaret Thatcher in the England of 1983).
In the essays for her new collection, she writes less polemically than in her Sellafield book—in fact, her attention is not mainly directed to contemporary politics. But every now and then, lightning darts down from those Olympian heights, with flashes of her old fighting attitude. In an essay titled “Value,” for instance, she can describe the current state of our politics without limiting herself to any named member of the Koch family:
There are old men now who spend their twilight using imponderable wealth to overwhelm the political system. I am sure this is more exciting than keeping a stable of racehorses, or buying that fourth yacht. After a certain point there isn’t much of real interest that can be done with yet more money. But imagine how great a boost to the aging ego would come with taking a nation’s fate out of its own unworthy hands and shaping it to one’s particular lights.
I think we better pay attention to these essays. When, after all, will we get another Marxist Calvinist who writes prize-winning novels and preaches in her church? Every element in that combination enriches the rest. Lucky us.