Marilynne Robinson is famous for depicting the splendor of God’s glory in ordinary things: soap bubbles, moonrise, an irritated cat. She also explores the presence of God in “destitution,” which makes us “more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise.” Jack, the newest novel in what is now the Gilead tetralogy, brings us inside the mind of her primary symbol of destitution: Jack Boughton, the beloved, estranged son of Gilead’s Presbyterian minister. In Gilead and Home, Jack’s alienation from middle-class Christianity reveals Gilead’s fall from its radical Christian founding, and his return promises painful but necessary renewal. Jack, Robinson’s darkest novel since Housekeeping, probes the paradoxes of Christian love and forgiveness to imagine how Jack himself might be redeemed.
Readers familiar with Robinson’s earlier novels know Jack Boughton well. The son of the Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa, Jack has a large and generous family that cannot cross the barrier of loneliness that separates them from him. As a child in the 1910s and ’20s he torments his father by committing spiteful crimes against their neighbors. He is a strange thief whose pranks are always aimed at hurting someone rather than obtaining any material gain. He steals irreplaceable family photographs or keepsakes but never cash or valuables.
Eventually Jack seduces a very young, very poor girl and abandons her while she is pregnant with his daughter. The daughter lives about three years before succumbing to a preventable infection; Jack never meets her. After telling his family about the girl, Jack leaves Gilead and no one hears of him for twenty years. Then he returns, and, in the events chronicled in Gilead and Home, he seeks reconciliation with his dying father and godfather. But he has an ulterior motive: he is now a husband and father himself and he wants to ascertain whether Gilead will welcome his family. It does not: the year is 1956, his wife Della is African-American, and anti-miscegenation laws prevent their marriage’s being recognized by law.
Jack is set in the mid-1940s and records how Jack and Della met, fell in love, and married. In each of her novels Robinson invents a new style to reflect the thought patterns of her point-of-view character; Jack records Boughton’s tortured consciousness in a tight, claustrophobic third-person narrative. Robinson is celebrated for a style that can use a single adjective or a simple phrase to make the material world spring to life and meaning; that style is still here, but the meanings are twisted. Jack thinks of his true self as “the naked man in his clothes”; he refers to the “occasional leering strangeness of his dreams,” and the adjective “leering” makes us see his dreams through a filthy haze. At night he seems to hear the buildings’ “creaks and groans” at “the stresses of simply standing there, preposterous constructions, Euclidean like nothing in nature, the ground heaving under them, rain seeping in while their joints go slack with rot.” This world is as alive as John Ames’s world in Gilead, but it is alive with menace.
Jack is anxious and sensitive and lives with an acute sense that he is watched. Shortly after marrying Della he reflects that “Whenever he did something he thought might be ordinary, marrying for example, it was as if he’d bought a ticket and a box of popcorn for an event everybody was going to, streaming in, the quick and the dead.” He makes literary and Biblical allusions that pull him away from the scene at hand and into his thoughts or memories. Jack’s stream of consciousness drifts from association to association so that readers can easily lose sight of where he is or what he is doing. The style renders a man whose overactive thoughts isolate him from the world.
Jack is cruel because he is lonely. Stealing or destroying an object that someone values it is “an attempt on his part to weave himself into the emotional fabric of another life.” Unable to feel himself a part of other lives, he feels that to hurt someone is to matter to them. He used to “test” his father’s love for him by “stir[ring] up a little trouble to make sure the old fellow was still keeping an eye on me,” until he “took the experiment much too far” with the girl whom he impregnated. After his daughter’s death he commits himself to “harmlessness,” which entails a constant struggle to resist weaving himself into someone else’s life. Harmlessness ends up meaning “insignificance, as if he could elude existence and its consequences by dint of sheer quietism.” Even remaining alive is an attempt to avoid hurting others: Jack plans to take his own life but he refuses to deprive his father of the hope that he might return home, so he is postponing suicide until after his father’s death. It is in this state that he meets Della.
How does this difficult, self-conscious, self-hating man enable the salvation of Gilead? The philosopher Jonathan Lear once wrote that the Gilead novels are about “a form of life” being “hollowed out from the inside, with people barely noticing.” They “instill . . . a dawning sense of loss” for a Christian faith that once drove abolitionists to rescue fugitives at midnight, urged on by visions of Christ in the chains of an American slave. Christianity in Gilead lost itself by becoming a culture: the well-meaning politeness of Robinson’s own mainline Protestantism enables its citizens to evade their own sinfulness. Jack’s sister Glory reflects that “faith for her was habit and family loyalty” and is shocked that Jack worries about his damnation: “Maybe she had never before known anyone who felt, or admitted he felt, that the state of his soul was in question.” The “spiritual complacency” in her hometown was “assumed to be justified in every case,” for in order to avoid singling out any one sinner, her father’s sermons considered only those sins that were “so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them, either—the uncharitable thought, the neglected courtesy.” No one except Jack would be rude enough to wonder whether someone’s soul might be in jeopardy.
None of this works on Jack, an agnostic whose sense of his own sins expresses a tormented religious seriousness. Jack is a Flannery O’Connor character in a Marilynne Robinson novel; unable to believe and unable to set belief aside, his confrontation with faith troubles characters who have made their peace with the world. His sincerity reveals how thorny doctrines can manifest in acts of love and how attempts to smooth them can be surprisingly unloving. As a child Jack “had asked his father if the devil could feel regret,” and his father tried to explain the devil away, saying: “‘Well, you know, the devil might be no more than a figure of speech.’ Satan is Hebrew for adversary, and so on. So Jack didn’t ask the next question, whether the devil had nightmares. The abysmal has no place in polite conversation.”
Jack asks out of fear that there is something devilish about him, and he is justified in his fear because, so often, he seems unable to resist committing some act of cruelty. He wants to know whether repentance is possible for someone like him. His father, afraid to acknowledge Jack’s inexplicable, “devilish” tendency to hurt, transforms a frightening Biblical text into a metaphor. By doing so he reflects his own lack of love: he understates Jack’s sinfulness because he cannot see how the God of love could reach someone like his son. Reflecting on his seemingly endless shame, Jack thinks “that it had at least that much to do with hell—also probably figurative, his father had assured him, tears in his eyes as there often were when he had to curtail another part of the great explanatory system his theology once was, to spare himself the implications it might have for his son.” Robinson’s language here is as precise as Jack’s assessment of his father: Boughton did not seek to spare his son the implications of hell’s existence but to spare himself the thought of what it means about his son. His father’s unwillingness to countenance the reality of hell cheapens grace and makes it something in which Jack, the congenital liar who is in his way the most honest character in the tetralogy, cannot believe.
Jack’s pain lets him see through our culture’s self-defensive pieties. He confesses his relationship with Della to a minister who tries to dissuade him but ultimately concludes, “I know that you will do as well as you can in the circumstances, by your lights, which is all I can ask, all you can do.” The phrase “by your lights” speaks the language of personal autonomy: morality consists of being true to myself and doing what seems right to me. Jack can see how lonely it makes us: “By your lights, said the preacher to the man wailing in outer darkness.” To say that each of us will do our best by our lights avoids judging our neighbors at the cost of any chance that we could help one another to do right. If I am free to create my own morality I am robbed of anyone to help me find what is truly right and wrong—and this is especially harsh for people, like Jack, who find it hard to be good.
Jack’s mind is an uncomfortable place to spend three hundred pages, but when something does break through, the effect is sheer joy. At one point during their strange courtship, Della gives him a note containing a short poem. Jack believes he is a “deeply arrogant man” because his contempt for himself also expresses itself in an instinctive contempt for other people. He expects the poem to be bad. He grows anxious in anticipation of the smugness he will feel toward her wounded pride until, at home, he opens the note and it “deflated his condescension instantly.” She has not written a poem at all, but copied out a poem by Thomas Traherne, which disarms him. Because he can consider rhymes that don’t work to be outdated, rather than bad, he can actually hear the poem.
Traherne’s poem celebrates the human ability to act according to the love of God even when we do not feel that love. Unlike angels, to whom God is always present, we can act as though we saw God even when we do not. The poem makes Jack reflect on the immense joy that the dead will feel when, arising at the last judgment, they find they are still human: “Wings are fine,” he thinks, “and a kind of luminosity would be very nice, but to hear a familiar laugh would be an almost unbearable joy, a human joy exceeding anything seraphim could feel, since angels cannot know death.” Imagining the sheer joy of ordinary life restored—yes, we are alive after all, it was all real—has special meaning for Jack, who so rarely feels these things in his pre-resurrected life. When the prose breaks through the nagging anxiety of his thoughts, it is bright sun and open sky.
Almost always it is Della who causes Jack’s breakthroughs. Enigmatic but irreplaceable, she disrupts Jack like Jack disrupts Gilead and Home. In the long nighttime scene that opens the novel, Jack and Della run into one another in a graveyard after having spent a year apart. The gates have been locked, so they spend the night wandering the graveyard, talking, and falling in love, and we see that there is much more to Della than we ever know. They visit Jack’s favorite tomb, which looks like “a gingerbread house,” and imagine a witch admitting them. Jack says he would take the witch’s cookies and Della, suddenly serious, warns him, “Dealing with a witch wouldn’t be that simple.” When Jack suggests that she speaks from experience she concedes the point. We never learn who or what Della’s witch might have been. She admits that she has deep regrets, too, but we never learn what they are.
We do not see Della in herself; instead we see how Jack sees her and, in glimpses, how she sees Jack. Those glimpses are crucial to this novel because Robinson is not simply giving us Jack from the inside. She gives us a binocular vision, showing us Jack’s thoughts and Della’s interpretation of him as though neither were complete without the other. This binocular vision allows us to understand something like the meaning of Jack even when Jack himself cannot see it. In one of my favorite examples, Della insists that Jack feels alienated from other people because he is so much like them, not so different. She tells him, “most people feel a difference between their real lives and the lives they have in the world. But they ignore their souls, or hide them, so they can keep things together, keep an ordinary life together. You don’t do that. In your own way you’re kind of—pure.” Jack tries to dismiss Della’s “poetical impulses” and insists that he will inevitably “disillusion” her, but Della sees what Jack cannot. His “destitution” is that he will not shirk the burden of consciousness that we all bear.
In an interview many years ago Robinson described human experience as “emblematic.” Her novels express a sense that our lives mean things that are only apparent to others. Only Jack can experience his inner life but only his wife can understand it. The double vision of these novels enables Robinson to depict Jack’s redemption as something that occurs outside his conscious awareness. He does not know how thoroughly he changes. He thinks of his marriage as “his grandest larceny by far, this sly theft of happiness.” Jack’s happiness does not pacify his hyperactive mind, but it does not need to do so. By giving us Jack’s consciousness illuminated but not wholly transformed by Della’s love, Robinson shows us something about God’s forgiveness, which does not simply eliminate our sins but makes them the vehicle of our salvation. Like the thief on the cross, Jack is the same old Jack but his thievery is used to reveal his need for love and enables him to accept love when it is offered. Robinson’s artistic strategy is, of course, also a vision of reality: her experiment in representing a person at once from the outside and the inside suggests that we cannot know ourselves simply by diving deep within. Like Gilead, saved by an outsider, we need our loved ones—and strangers—to show us what our lives mean.