Marengo, IL. One of my students, Jared Hackworth, recently read Marilynne Robinson’s Home. It convinced him: he finally “gets” what all the fuss is about. But, he added, “I swear to God if Jack is bad I will be officially done with 2020 because WHAT A YEAR.”

He refers, of course, to Jack Boughton, important in all of the Gilead novels, but the central character in Robinson’s feverishly anticipated eponymous novel (out this week). And the question of whether Jack is good or bad—at least, that is, good or bad in a “saved” or “damned” sort of way—has been, for many readers of Robinson’s novels, the major question. Heck, I’ve written about it myself. But in finally getting my hands on Jack, the thing I can’t get over is the way Jack helps me “get” what can’t be gotten over in this damned year of plague, racial reckoning, natural disaster, and rumors of war.

In light of the present cultural moment that has revealed (yes, yes, again) the infectious rot at the heart of the American project and the groaning of all creation, as it were, Jack explores the wretched way we keep hurting each other, even when—perhaps especially when—we don’t mean to. If the other Gilead novels, set some years later in time than Jack (I detest the word “prequel,” but there you are), demonstrate the outworkings of grace in its characters varied lives, Jack shows above all the need for the reception of grace, moment by moment, which may, after all be accomplished merely by loyalty to its manifestations.

The novel considers the love between Jack, a self-proclaimed “confirmed, inveterate bum,” a solitary wanderer on the earth, yet still a white man “assumed to know how many bubbles there are in a bar of soap,” and Della Miles, the black daughter of a prominent black minister and English teacher at a showpiece separatist high school in St. Louis, a “young woman with excellent prospects in life,” yet still full of rage.

And what better way to show the mystery of and need for reception of grace than the ill-fated, illegal love between a white prodigal son and a black daughter of the Talented Tenth when Loving v. Virginia is still more than a decade away? I spoil nothing to call it ill-fated, of course, since we had seen a glimpse of Della and the son that emerges from their union, Robert, at the end of Home, at which point Jack is not in their lives—though perhaps we maintain some sort of hope for their union (I do).

The form of the novel embraces the organic freedom espoused by Henry James. Much of it is free indirect discourse from Jack’s perspective, though the novel also showcases several major dialogues between Jack and Della. The conversations are prominent enough to make the work seem like it might have been (or might become) drama or film—an appropriate feel for a novel so closely linked to Hamlet, a play that for Robinson has stood out for its treatment of forgiveness. As Hamlet, Jack is tortured by ghosts, tortured by the thought of his father. But Jack’s ruminative considerations are more fundamentally about his sins and responsibilities and the unshakeable sense that he is predestined to damnation, even though he can’t even muster up enough belief to believe in God at all, damning or saving.

Jack is even closer, I think, to the gospel account of the man possessed by a legion than to Hamlet. The first major dialogue between Jack and Della occurs when Jack is literally among the tombs, calling himself the Prince of Darkness, self-flagellating (internally) so hard he might as well have been cutting himself with stones. The internal discourse that predominates, not only in that scene, but throughout, has the feel of the ruminative hamster wheel, a recurrent pattern of trying to get clear, to make up for whatever has been done, to not keep on wrecking everything. Jack is trying most of all, in his wanderings, not to hurt anyone, trying not to make anyone else pay for his sins. Deeply miserable for the most part, living on short-run jobs and money from a well-intentioned brother who leaves money for him with boarding houses, he is obsessed with the harmlessness he seeks, which he can never achieve. He apologizes constantly, but—and this is the most telling—at the same time, he longs, even fantasizes about a situation in which forgiveness wouldn’t need to exist.

The fragility of the world bewilders Jack—“all that breakage, without so much as intention behind it half the time. All that tantalizing fragility”—precisely because he seems to be caught up inextricably in all the breakage. And much of the novel reads like this sentence—the internal struggle of someone who wants—not forgiveness, nor salvation, really, but rather to not need to be forgiven, to not require salvation nor redemption, to maintain what dignity is possible, given irremediable forsakenness. He intends—by means of isolation and small living—to find a way to not hurt others, to, as the motto goes, “do no harm.”

Yet his thought-life is committed to figuring, figuring—how to make up for all the guilt, or, if he can’t extricate himself from guilt, to maintain some sort of dignity or honor in the refusal of rescue. Fastidious in dress, he wants to somehow be different than the rag-clad prodigal returning to his father, if even in a casket. He wants to avoid being taken for a beggar even when he really needs the sort of help one might give a beggar (there’s an amusing scene with a hat and some church ladies—you can imagine). If he can be isolate, against every man, as it were, like Cain, a marked man, or a ghost himself, a dead man, he won’t have any meaningful opportunities to harm someone. But as soon as he becomes, as he puts it “a person of consequence,” negative consequences ensue: “I am able to do harm. I can only do harm.”

Yet of course, the double bind is the tragedy of the case: his work to not cause harm causes harm. He avoids going home to his father to avoid hurting his family with his failures and other evidences of his predestined perdition—yet his staying away is just as hurtful to them, is a kind of bereavement; he wishes to end things with Della in order to avoid doing damage to her reputation and prospects, but in doing so, she says in the first pages, he is breaking her heart.

According to Frank Kermode, “In the perplexed figure of Hamlet, just because of our sense that his mind lacks definite boundaries, we find ourselves.” We feel the perplexity of Jack—his avoidance, anguish, bemusement, bewilderment—but less because his mind lacks boundaries and more because he is so confined TO them—the novel’s prose registers the turn and turn again—the hamster wheel of his self-absorbed anguish.

2020 provokes us to, like Jack, obsess over our own state of harmful/harmlessness. We are only just getting used to physically signifying our own virulence with the cloth masks that cover us; we find in everyday life (thermometer, we hope) guns toward our children’s heads—at school, at the doctor, assured again and again that we and our offspring are a danger to others. Who among us does not have reason to weigh the consequences our presence brings? And too, more and more, after months of such isolation, we find what our separation has done to us and through us: it has exacerbated our sense of others’ unreality to a point that people are merely virtual—not real, and all too easy to take down, or ignore. We hurt them even more easily now that their bodies are far from us. Infectious solitude of self-reliance. We are as ghosts, all of us, many of us trying to get by somehow, when jobs disappear, when it all cracks. And for a long time, we have been trying to mentally plan it all out, figure how we can manage it all with a shred of dignity at least, without making things worse. Albert Camus’s The Plague describes it as a sort of exile, which term, I think, is appropriate to Jack Boughton’s sojourn in a far St. Louis and to our own isolation in our own houses.

How poignantly then, how truly, as we may be in a position to relate to him, to use his ruminations as a way to purge our own, are we poised to join Della in her kindness toward Jack—

After a few minutes, she came and stood beside him, in the dark and the quiet, the water at their feet making its soft, idle sounds, sifting pebbles. She was in every way still. No words, just stillness, like a presence in a dream.
Finally he said, ‘You don’t mean to judge me.’
She said, ‘I don’t.’

And if we had read the other novels, which, of course, we have, we already knew we wouldn’t judge him either.

In his own novel, Jack keeps trying to walk away—for all of the reasons described above, for the terrible, ridiculous pride that would keep him from receiving grace. But none of us—not Della, not even Robinson, apparently—can let him go.

Grace walks toward Jack Boughton and stands beside him in the unmerited favor of a black woman who loves his particular soul and body in spite of, perhaps in part because of, his wretchedness and her unaccountable attraction to him. She is the grace of Christ—even confesses it—“All my life I’ve been a perfect Christian lady. . . . I plan to keep up with it,” extending to him a generous, socially prohibited, but no less rich love.

In an interview in The New Yorker, Robinson has insisted on Della’s character’s attraction as simply idiosyncratic. The interviewer asks, “Della clearly sees that Jack has misled her, that he is a drifter with a questionable past. And he’s white. Why does she pursue contact with him, knowing how dangerous it is in nineteen-fifties Missouri, where miscegenation is illegal?” and Robinson responds: “Della is interested in Jack and attracted to him, as people are to one another. And she doesn’t want to abide by the constraints of the larger society or the constraints of her father’s resistance to the norms of the larger society. She wants to act on the basis of her own feelings.” Fair enough.

And yet. It would and will be possible to criticize the novel on the grounds that Della is drawn in fewer dimensions than her position in the narrative warrants: she is given plenty of speech, yes, but also given a set of characteristics that will be read by some as over-generalized. Gracious and loving, full of fury and frankness, steadfast in faith and possessed of poetry. These characteristics are kind of a tradition among Black American church women.

Of course, Robinson’s novels all devote themselves to one central consciousness: this is Jack’s book. Maybe, like all the ingrates of the world, I’m asking for a fifth novel. But still. Readers experience the theological journey of a white guy on the back of a black woman in a plum coat whose insides we don’t see. Call her a revelation, a mystery; both are true.

It’s an old saw, perhaps by now, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the American Literary Imagination. But it sort of nutshells the critique that in too many American writers, blackness “serves as a vehicle for regulating love and the imagination as defenses against the psychic costs of guilt and despair” (52). The sentence might seem to serve well enough as a description of the novel—both the guilty internal state of the protagonist and the function that Della has in the novel.

Yet there are two differences. One is, of course, that Della does not regulate love and imagination for Jack—she gives love without reserve, on her own repeatedly articulated desire and on religious grounds: given the offer of an eternity of talking hard-boiled eggs and other trivialities with Jack, “there’d be nothing more I would want from death. I mean it. And I’m a good Christian woman.”

Two is that Jack and Della’s love persists despite the acknowledged racist structures of the American social and legal systems that stand to crush them. The novel knows what’s going on: Della teaches about the literary power of the Declaration of Independence while living under the old Jim Crow voter suppression, and not without rage; Jack can joke about a white privilege that, as Della puts it, he gets little good of. The novel doesn’t shy away from the horrible double bind: if Jack receives her love, he will hurt her—endanger her. He knows she stands to lose everything—job, housing, reputation—after they spend a night innocently conversing in the graveyard when she’s missed the locking of the gates and he stays to protect her. If she stays with him, she may lose not only her family and financial security, but even her freedom of movement (such as it is under Jim Crow), since they may be arrested at any time and probably would be, for cohabitation/miscegenation. Even if they do sail off into the sunset, er, worse parts of the colored part of St. Louis, there is no place for them in the United States. Their neighborhood is earmarked for eminent domain destruction (presumably Robinson is drawing on the history of the Mill Creek Valley section of St. Louis, which was marked for “urban renewal” in the early 1950s and finally demolished in the early 1960s, leaving an area so desolate it was nicknamed “Hiroshima Flats”). Time marching on and an interstate coming through; we’re not far from Ferguson, a fact not lost on the novel or its readers in 2020.

Neither Della nor her blackness can defend Jack against guilt or despair; nor can, one presumes, him or his whiteness save her. Yet they are drawn together in love and in—the novel’s word—“loyalty” (which, I might add, has come in theological circles to be seen as a fine representation of the biblical concept of “faith”). Maybe, we think, Jack really is not joking when he says, “Whom God hath joined” to Della. Perhaps his fidelity to her represents a fidelity even larger. For the direness of the situation, the love that they have despite the oppressive, unjust forces against it, pushes Jack into and through his own guilt and despair. He can’t keep himself from being guilty, but, he can pray—for her.

“Ah, Jesus, get her home, keep her safe. Keep her safe from me.”

That loyalty to each other’s person—

A prayer for 2020.

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  1. My question about this novel, which came to mind as soon as I heard it announced, is, is it coincidence that it has appeared just as all the racial unrest has been gaining more and more attention? I hate to say it, because I really like the three previous “Gilead” books, but this one unfortunately sounds somewhat contrived. One should be hesitant about such things with a writer of Robinson’s talent, but there’s a part of me that can’t help admitting to just a little bit of a temptation to roll my eyes and whisper, “Of course.” Maybe a reread of Home would relieve me of this feeling.

  2. This is a powerful, evocative review, Tiffany; my thanks for sharing it here. Gilead and Home both took me a long time to get through and process, but the power of those tales were perhaps magnified by the demands which Robinson’s dense, careful prose put upon me as a reader. I haven’t read Lila, though I ought to, and now I see another book I need to read. Thank you for putting thoughts in my head this morning.

  3. “Jack can joke about a white privilege that, as Della puts it, he gets little good of.”
    Gilead was perfect. It’s a strange fault of the modern media world that great works of art, whether Gilead, Star Wars, etc., can’t be left to stand alone, that what happened next has to be spelled out. Home was meh. I didn’t read Lila, and won’t read this. But this line strikes me as so strange, because any sort of even passing reference, implicit or explicit, to “white privilege” in this book would be horribly anachronistic. That term didn’t even exist a decade ago, let alone two or three generations ago…

  4. I’d also recommend reading “The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson” by Keith L. Johnson in the volume Balm in Gilead. In it he interacts with Robinson’s expressed views and wrestling with atonement. After reading her quotes, one sees and cannot unsee it in Gilead and Home (I haven’t read Jack, yet).

    • To be a bit clearer, Robinson sees in the cross the love of self-giving instead of necessary for atonement. This affects how grace is received and the possibility of forgiveness.

      Wilson, drawing on Johnson’s work notes, ““For Robinson, grace has become nature. Our life with God is not determined by God’s specific act to relate to us in time but by our act of recognizing God in our experience of creaturely being.” When John Ames receives the ashy biscuit from his father, for instance, he chooses to remember it as a Eucharist, and thus, to make it so. His will transubstantiates the meal. There is a difference between the sacramental and transcendental imagination. The former is one in which God’s imagination has reinvested the world with his presence, so that creation may point back to him again. The second relies on the reader to revision the world as to intuit or attend to the divine.”

      I commend her analysis as well, which puts in more sharply than Johnson.

      • “For Robinson, grace has become nature. Our life with God is not determined by God’s specific act to relate to us in time but by our act of recognizing God in our experience of creaturely being.”

        There is a sense in which this is true, but traditional Christian thought would not pose this as an either/or, but rather as a both/and, God’s “specific act” being the very thing that opens us to “recognizing God in our experience of creaturely being.”

        The entire Creation is indeed sacramental, but it’s grace that enables us first to see that and then to live in that reality. Makes me wonder what Robinson would say about Fr. Zosima’s “sermon” in The Brothers Karamazov. And I’m sure that she’s read Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. (You’d be surprised how many Calvinists have,)

        Thing is, I don’t think you can really shoehorn an Orthodox (or Catholic) understanding of sacramental theology into a Calvinist framework except on a fairly superficial level. Deeper down the two are fundamentally at odds, and I suspect that such a shoehorning would necessarily involve a distortion of at least one of them.

        Thus in reading her fiction, I think that a perceptive Orthodox or Catholic would recognize something close to a traditional sacramental worldview, but not quite the cigar.

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