Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson; illustration by Hope Gangloff

John Ames, the old preacher who has lived in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, all his life, where he is the Congregationalist minister, tells the story of Gilead, the first of a series of interconnected novels that Marilynne Robinson has been publishing since 2004. Toward the end of that meditative, troubled, searching book, the dying minister says that other peoples’ souls are, in the end, a mystery to him. Try as we might, “in every important way we are such secrets from each other…there is a separate language in each of us.” Each human being, he thinks, “is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations.” We have “resemblances,” which enable us to live together and socialize. “But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”

The passage is at the heart of these four books, Gilead, Home, Lila, and now Jack. (The much earlier Housekeeping, published in 1980, stands edge-on to the Gilead novels. It is set in a different part of America, with different characters and a different tone, and, unlike the later books, is entirely about women’s lives. But it shares their preoccupation with loneliness, outcasts, poverty, and the possibility of finding again what has been lost.) Ames’s ruminations on the soul are prolix, philosophical, and profoundly sad. And Robinson’s work, which takes its inspiration as much from Virgil and classical tragedy as it does from American Protestant literature, is heavy with lacrimae rerum, the “great sadness that pervades human life.”

The Gilead novels, set in the early to mid-twentieth century, enter inside the minutely attentive and often unsuccessful efforts of a small group of people—essentially two families in one small town, over many years—to understand their own and one another’s “separate language.” The books, which go back over the same scenes and stories, and which Robinson has come to think of as “one enormous novel,” are suffused with solitude and estrangement. But they are shot through, too, with extraordinary moments of acceptance and understanding.

The Reverend John Ames makes his observation with reference to a younger man called John Ames Boughton, who is a kind of surrogate son as well as namesake, though Reverend Ames would much rather he weren’t. Boughton’s father, Robert, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, named the child after Ames, his oldest friend. The two old preachers, whose memories and failing health and touchingly querulous relationship are at the heart of Gilead and Home, have had nothing but trouble, all their lives, from this son of Robert, known to everyone as Jack.

Gilead, set in 1956, takes the form of a letter John Ames is writing to his own son, the child of his unlikely late second marriage to a much younger woman named Lila, who has come as a wanderer and a waif into his church, and found sanctuary (at least while Ames lives) in his home. It tells the story of Ames’s family (of his wild abolitionist grandfather, a fighting preacher who was inspired by a vision of Christ to leave New England for the Midwest, and his conflicts with Ames’s pacifist father), of his love for Lila, and also of Jack’s unwelcome return to Gilead, at the age of forty-three, after twenty years away. The novel slowly tracks Ames’s change of feeling toward Jack, from resentful suspicion to sympathy, while he worries away at predestination, sin, and grace.

In Home, the narrative belongs to Robert Boughton’s daughter Glory, youngest of his eight children, at the moment of Jack’s return. Glory has reluctantly come home, after her own great disappointment in life, to look after her old father. Through her eyes we learn of the Boughton family’s past, and watch her attempt to understand her baffling brother and to ease the painful relationship between Jack and their father, who is as overjoyed as he is disturbed by his prodigal son’s return. In Lila, we move away from and back into Gilead, as John Ames’s young wife tells the story of her harsh life of abandonment, poverty, and bare survival, traveling on the road in the Depression years, living rough, minded by the tough, desperate Doll, for a time made to work in a brothel, and finding her way, by miraculous chance, to her rescue in Gilead. The friendly understanding that grows up between Lila and Jack, which Ames is jealous of in the previous novels, is made intelligible here: both of them, like characters in Housekeeping, are outcast wanderers. But unlike Jack, Lila had no choice.

Jack is an object of attention to everyone; he’s also a black hole and a zone of turbulence. Why, of all Boughton’s children—including saintly Teddy, the doctor, and tenderhearted Glory, the teacher, who never give up on Jack—should he be the mean, harmful one, the one set on earth to test his father and his godfather’s belief in grace, forgiveness, and redemption? From childhood he maliciously steals things that are precious to other people, blows things up and breaks things, always with a mocking smile on his face. He makes a young, poor white girl pregnant, and abandons her and her baby, who later dies. He gets Teddy to sit an exam for him, and he flunks out of college. He runs away from home to Chicago and St. Louis and stays away for twenty years, missing his mother’s funeral and breaking his family’s heart. He’s a gambler and a drunk, a cheat, a thief, and a liar. His reputation is even worse than his record: he’s turned down for military service, though he lets people believe he’s a draft-dodger; he’s sent to jail for two years for a crime he didn’t commit.

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We know from Gilead and Home that in the years since leaving prison, Jack’s life has improved. He has a wife—in all but name—and a young son. And his “wife,” Della Miles, whom we meet in a somber, tender scene at the very end of Home, is an African-American woman—in the parlance of the times, a Negro lady, or, more insultingly, “a colored gal.” There are “a thousand barriers” against their relationship: everything in the world is against it. He has come back to Gilead to see if he might be able to bring her and his child there. But it isn’t possible. And so he leaves home again, for God knows where.

Asked in an interview in 2008 why Home was told from Glory’s point of view and not Jack’s, Robinson replied:

Jack is thinking all the time—thinking too much—but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.

Clearly that challenge stayed in her mind over the next decade. She speaks in that interview of feeling bereaved when she parts with these characters, of wanting to return to them. She wrote this fourth Gilead novel, she has said, because Jack’s voice “was in my head.” But Jack’s version is not in the first person, perhaps because he is as baffling to himself as he is to other people. Nor does his novel alter the plot, since we already know this story is not going to end well for him. What we don’t know until we read this book is what it feels like to be him, and how the relationship with Della Miles came about. It would be possible to read Jack as a self-contained novel about that relationship, but without the other Gilead books much would remain opaque.

Jack goes back to the start of his relationship with Della in St. Louis, after the war (the dating in these novels is sometimes a bit fuzzy, but it’s probably 1947). As is her habit, Robinson keeps going over the emotional ground, edging backward and forward in time, in slow scenes with many passages of repetitive, inconclusive dialogue. In the long first section, Jack and Della are locked in together in St. Louis’s white cemetery, and as they talk through the night they begin to find out about each other. It takes seventy-nine pages for dawn to break; readers may well feel they too have been locked in all night. The rest of the book keeps us inside Jack’s self-accusing mind, wavering between despair and hope: “Nevertheless. But. Still. And.” It is extremely claustrophobic. All the same, this method of attentive close-up does painstakingly illuminate a strange and difficult character.

Is there no help for Jack out of his muddle of self-loathing? He is an atheist steeped in religion, who can work up “barrelhouse versions of some very solemn hymns” on the piano in prison. He is a bum who also has gentlemanly, perfect manners. In between bouts of drinking and contemplating suicide in his dismal lodgings, he haunts the public library and tries to hold down a job, as shoe salesman, dance instructor, or bookshop assistant. His hopeful gestures—brushing up a terrible old stained suit, making a courtly flourish with a bouquet of roses, taking his girl out to supper, returning a book—always go wrong, in some comically drastic way. That is his “doom,” “the story of his life.” He is a bad joke as well as a tragedy.

He spends much of the book calling himself names. He is “trouble,” a “shabby outsider, self-orphaned,” a reprobate, a mendicant, “a stranger in the ordinary world,” “an indigent, disreputable self,” “an unsavory character…a bum.” “His life was an intricate tangle of futility.” He is a kind of nothing:

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Della, I’m ridiculous. It never changes. Every day is a new proof…. It would be like a curse, the everlastingness of it, except that it is so trifling, so meaningless.

When defects of character are your character, you become a what. He had noticed this. No one ever says, A liar is who you are, or Who you are is a thief. He was a what, absolutely.

Mythological and literary metaphors are lavished on this “special case,” to the point where the novel can feel like a parable or a case history of a lost soul in need of grace. He is the Prince of Darkness; he is Lazarus; he is Satan; he is the Prodigal Son. At times Jack seems almost boastful about his dreadful specialness, and one of Della’s helpful roles is to bring him down to earth: “I am the Prince of Darkness.” “No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”

But more often the novel endorses Jack’s self-mythologizing. Emphatic words for his condition—“embarrassment,” “shame,” “harm”—resound throughout. Set in the balance against those words are terms of redemption—“angels,” “light,” “grace,” “loyalty”—that are within his reach, in the figure of Della. She is a highly educated young woman from a distinguished family (her father is an eminent bishop in Memphis and a leader of the black separatist movement), an English teacher with a love of poetry who went to the first all-black college in St. Louis. The novel doesn’t quite persuade us as to why this noble character would have any interest at all in this useless, self-defeating wastrel.

Since both characters are literary, Robinson floods the book with quotations and allusions. They discuss Hamlet, he compares himself to Raskolnikov, he frequently cites his favorite Frost poem (“I have been one acquainted with the night”), he recommends William Carlos Williams’s Paterson to her, and the air is thick with quotations from Milton and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Thoreau and Paul Dunbar, as well as the Bible and Thomas Traherne and old hymns. This makes for a heavily loaded text, unlike Housekeeping or Lila, which beautifully stay within the eloquent, unliterary language of their female narrators. More like Ames in Gilead, Jack often sounds like a theologian or a philosopher; phrases like “homiletical legerdemain” or “the garments of misfeasance” drop easily into his mind:

A metaphysics is a great help in rationalizing scruple-driven behavior.

He would abandon all casuistry, surrender all thought of greater and lesser where transgressions were concerned, even drop the distinction between accident and intention. He was struggling in a web of interrelation.

She might have no idea yet that embarrassment, relentless, punitive scorn, can wear away at a soul until it recedes into wordless loneliness. Maybe apophatic loneliness.

Robinson has said, in one of her essays, that she enjoys reading about “the apophatic—reality that eludes words,” and that “as a writer, I continuously attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said…the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me.” These are interesting clues to her pursuit of Jack. But she runs the risk of making him sound too like her.

In her essays, she has often drawn links between Shakespeare, Puritan writings, and American literature, which she sees as a sanctification of the individual,

a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection…. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention…. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary.

Whether she’s writing about Renaissance literature or seventeenth-century Puritan preachers, Dickinson or Wallace Stevens, Robinson looks for that attention to “the incomprehensible complexity—spiritual, intellectual, and emotional—of anyone we encounter.”

Clearly this is her own model for writing fiction. She says that she is exploring “intuition.” She wants to “simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting.” Fiction for her is “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” She is trying to get as close as she can to the soul of an imagined human being, who becomes real to her, and to us, in the process. She thinks of character as having “a palette or a music,” “a kind of coherency of tone and manner…a repertory of behavior.” She works “from a sense of the experience of human presence,” without passing judgment. Hence the slow deliberation of the narratives and the minute internal details of the workings of a mind. And hence the attempt to identify with someone who thinks they have no meaning, no value or significance: the hardest challenge she could set herself.

But Jack is not only a personal story of “apophatic loneliness.” It opens out into a social and political history of painful significance and relevance. Out of his despair, Jack has decided to “aspire to utter harmlessness.” It is a policy of “quietism,” of keeping his distance, staying utterly alone. But in this he fails. And in involving Della in his life, he finds that, far from achieving “utter harmlessness,” he is becoming part of the world’s harm:

What if…he was sunk in that dark flood of unstoppable harm, somehow adding to its appalling weight, lost in it…. He had made an outcast of himself, yet he now knew he was not only a part of society, he was its essence, its epitome.

The novel touchingly creates the particularity of the lovers’ relationship before we start to think about society’s “harm.” But the national history of racism and bigotry that presses down on their personal lives gradually piles up. Every encounter they have, every street they walk down, every person they meet, is a threat to them in 1940s and 1950s Missouri, where the state’s “criminal code” decrees that they can both go to jail for “cohabiting.” Most shops and restaurants and bars don’t “serve colored.” If he brings a “colored gal” to his lodgings he risks someone calling the cops. This “stark prohibition” has nothing to do with them as individuals, with “the particulars of their situation.” Simply by being together they become “an offense, a provocation.”

These foul realities are done with sharp effectiveness. Jack thinks he has found a sympathetic landlady in Chicago until he tells her “my wife is a colored lady”:

She said, “That isn’t possible. It’s against the law.” She turned her back to him. She said, “Just when you think you know somebody!”

So, just like that, it had ended. He knew there was no appeal to be made. But he said, “She’s a wonderful, gentle woman. She’s educated. She’s a minister’s daughter, an English teacher.”

“She’s a Negro. I don’t want her coming around here.”

“Well then, I’m leaving!” he said, as if this were a threat….

She turned and looked at him, eyes bright with wrath. “You damn well bet you’re leaving! Now! I took you for a decent man!”

The “whole world” has made “transgression and crime of something innocent”: “Society was a great collaboration devoted to making everything difficult and painful to no good end.” Della’s own family—we meet her sister, her aunt, her formidable father, her brothers—knows that if she stands by Jack she risks losing her job, her home, and her reputation. The father tells Jack that, following the teaching of Marcus Garvey, they have adopted separatism as their only possible way of life. They would never acknowledge him as the father of Della’s child: their children would be brought up as Negroes and would “live Negro lives.”

And we know already, from Home and Gilead, that in Iowa, in “the gentle old home he had abandoned,” there are no signs of sympathy from the old men for race riots such as the protests in Montgomery: “These things come and go,” says Jack’s father. Ames’s grandfather’s visionary battle against slavery and support for John Brown have not lasted down the generations. Black migrants came up to Iowa from Missouri and Mississippi in the pre–Civil War years. But in the mid-twentieth century there are no more black families in Gilead, and the black church has been burned down. Old Boughton thinks, “So much bad blood. I think we had all better just keep to ourselves.” Iowa, Jack says bitterly, invoking a famous phrase of General Grant’s, is no longer “the shining star of radicalism.”

Jack’s feelings are close to Robinson’s heart. She has written a great deal in her nonfiction on the history of slavery, abolitionism, and racism in America. “Race,” she writes, with feeling and with continuing relevance, “has only the meaning culture gives it—and we learn every day that culture is a heavy-handed enforcer of the distinctions it has made.”

Educated (and freed from a conservative upbringing) in the civil rights era, she is a liberal and a Democrat. As a Midwesterner, she is proud of the historic resistance of Iowa, her fictional territory, against the takeover by the proslavery southern states. Iowa, as she reminded her friend President Obama in a public conversation they had in 2015, “never had laws against interracial marriage” or segregated schools.* She likes to tell the story of Oberlin College, in Ohio, which sent out reformist abolitionists to many parts of the Midwest. Ames’s grandfather has been to Oberlin, and Gilead is modeled on Tabor, a settlement founded by a group from Oberlin based on principles of equality and inclusion. That past, she feels now, has been forgotten.

A self-described religious writer, she has long been battling in print with the racist and exclusionary stance of some branches of fundamentalist Christianity. It’s the central tenet of her religious belief, derived from Calvin, who identifies Christ with “the poor working man,” that the Bible, and Jesus, and the Protestant preachers she most enjoys (like the seventeenth-century William Ames, who gives his name to the hero of Gilead) mind above all about the poor, about inclusiveness, and about the value of individuals. Della voices Robinson’s view: “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.”

The question that haunts her work—can people change?—is one to be asked of societies as much as of individuals. It is a theological question too. Like the great American writers she is so steeped in—Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, Twain—there is a profound issue of freedom at the core of her novels. Can we change our lives?

As if in answer, every so often Robinson unlocks the prison of the self and lets us out into the world of other lives, wider spaces. She has always written with great tenderness and delicacy about the very poor, people at the bottom of or on the margins of society. And there’s a great deal of feeling in Jack (an urban novel, unlike her other books) for people living under adverse circumstances: the seedy, satirical desk clerk at the terrible lodging house; the kind librarian who knows Jack is stealing her books; the woman trying to keep her shoe store going; the cemetery keeper who patiently turfs out the homeless sleepers at the end of the night; the black waiter at the cheap, mixed restaurant (“I hope you like pork chops, because tonight that’s what we’ve got”); the woman coping with a sick child on the night bus; the harassed, conscientious minister at the Mount Zion Baptist Church; Della’s wonderfully caustic, disapproving roommate.

Every so often, groups of young people pass Jack by, as at the Baptist church, “a stream of children passing under his elbow, laughing, intent on some plan they had, all of one mind like a flock of birds.” The confirmation class let out from Della’s father’s church in Memphis goes away

adolescent fashion, jumping from the top step to the sidewalk two or three times, laughing, bickering companionably, scuffling a little, expending energy that came with being released from expectation.

In such moments, this remarkable, profound, and difficult writer lets us breathe the air of what in her masterpiece Housekeeping she calls “the dear ordinary,” before we are locked in again all night with the Prince of Darkness, in his “eternity of disheartened self-awareness.”

  1. *

    See “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa,” The New York Review, November 5, 2015.