Reading a Marilynne Robinson novel is like going to church. Her books put us into conversation with the Bible, “a great ancient literature” (her words) whose powerful stories reveal their meanings gradually in multiple and ongoing ways. They posit a community of people who take their faith seriously and strive to live by it; they depict a fallen world, full of common sinners in need of redemption and in whose lives the operation of grace is evident at every turn; and they reveal the luminous beauty of that world, shot through with the goodness of the God who loved it into being and continues to care for it, in ways both large and small.
Marilynne Robinson herself equates the writing and the reading of fiction with churchgoing. In an interview in which she describes the Congregational United Church of Christ she attends, she compares a church to a village: “If you go to a church and stay there over time, you see babies baptized, and children confirmed, the middle-aged becoming the elders, becoming the much lamented. It configures your sense of things around the defined arc of human life.” This is the uncanny effect of reading Robinson’s trilogy of acclaimed novels, Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014), all of which are set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and feature the same small cast of characters who abide there—the aged Rev. John Ames, his young wife, Lila, and their son.
At the center of the community is Ames, who as a minister has a circle of acquaintance that encompasses all the members of his flock; however, the focus remains on him, widening only slightly to include his lifelong friend and neighbor, Robert Boughton, the old man’s daughter, Glory, and his ne’er-do-well son, Jack. This intensity of focus is also evident in the plots of the three books, each of which explores the same set of events but from differing perspectives. Robinson’s trilogy is a marvel of economy and expressiveness, as we become intimately acquainted with each of these characters, invited to see the events of their lives through their eyes and to hear their stories told in their own singular voices.
At one point in Gilead, John Ames sounds the keynote that echoes through all three books: “We are such secrets from one another.” Robinson invites us to explore the hidden life and the private consciousness of the men and women she creates, to see ourselves in them and to come to love them, for all of their flaws. In her essay “Community and Imagination,” she describes this experience as a primary function of fiction:
Community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.
Much like the faithful practice of a religious tradition grounded in love, the reading of excellent fiction can enlarge our sensibility, create in us a tolerance for human error and remind us of our need for forgiveness, mercy and redemption.
This is especially true of Marilynne Robinson’s unabashedly Christian novels. In an era when religion is often maligned, lampooned by satirical magazines and blamed for outrages around the world, her novels are bestsellers—even among so-called nones and atheists. Mark O’Connell confesses in The New Yorker, “I have read and loved a lot of literature about religion and religious experience—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, the Bible—but it’s only with Robinson that I have actually felt what it must be like to live with a sense of the divine.” There is a wisdom and beauty in her depiction of the faithfully lived life. Robinson thoroughly inhabits the world and the consciousness of her characters because she knows them, in a deep and intense way. As a committed Christian—and a Calvinist of no ordinary stamp—this is her world and these are her people. Through the process of imagination, and her finely honed skill as a writer, she is able to invent an idiom that captures each person’s speech and conveys the heart of his or her mystery. She states her purpose clearly and without apology as a novelist and as a Christian humanist: “There is nothing more valuable to be done than to make people understand that religion is beautiful and it is large.”
The Miraculous John Ames
The beauty and breadth of religion (despite her small canvas) comes through most clearly in the character and voice of John Ames. We first meet Ames in Gilead, the 76-year-old father to a 7-year-old son destined to die before his child can properly know him. The reverend’s failing health and impending mortality move him to write a long letter to the boy, describing his own extraordinary family (his grandfather a firebrand abolitionist, his father a peace-loving preacher), the loss of his first wife and newborn daughter as a young man, the joy of his late-in-life marriage to the boy’s mother, Lila, and the near-miraculous birth of the son that has redeemed his life of long loneliness.
The poignant circumstances of the letter give Ames (and Robinson) ample space within which to address issues of ultimate concern. Ames wants to tell his story, but he also aims to teach the boy how to live a good life. The author describes the novel as a book “about a man interpreting the Ten Commandments for his son”—a description that is accurate enough, as the book includes generous amounts of theology and fatherly advice. Ames offers a series of small sermons, parables and didactic stories in keeping with the sensibility of a lifelong preacher. But this description does not take into account the real strength of the novel—the extraordinary tenderness of Ames’s voice and vision. The old man’s stories are powerful meditations on the beauty of being human. Even his most ordinary observations bespeak his wisdom and love.
In one poignant passage, in which he describes holding his infant daughter just after her birth and seeing her face for the first and last time, he says:
[T]here is nothing more astonishing than a human face.... It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.
Ames’s faith might be described as the practice of everyday mysticism. He believes, in the words of fellow mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and bodies forth its Creator, betraying an analogical (and remarkably Catholic) vision. He tells his young son: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” Ames’s abiding affection for the world is enhanced, perhaps, by the fact that he is looking through posthumous eyes, but his unwavering devotion to this one place, this one flock, this one small life suggests he has long seen it for the miracle that it is. It is the life of the local, of particularity, that John Ames loves. He instinctively knows (as does Robinson) that everything one needs to know of the human predicament—its glories, its pleasures, its grand achievements, as well as its weaknesses, sorrows and failures—one can find in Gilead.
The Return of the Prodigal
The second novel in the trilogy, Home, returns us to Gilead, only we are no longer inside of Ames’s house or head. Instead, the narrative focuses on the story of Robert Boughton, fellow-preacher and friend to Ames, and his wayward son, Jack. Like Ames, Boughton is ancient, facing his final days, and desperate to clarify his relationship with his son before leaving this life. Jack, however, is a mystery—to his father, to Ames (his godfather), to his sister, Glory, who serves as the novel’s center of consciousness, and to himself. Even in the author’s generous economy of salvation, Jack seems beyond God’s grace. Unwilling to own the considerable gifts he has been given, unable to return the love of his large and affectionate family, he betrays himself and everyone else over and over again. Amazingly, despite all of his sins against his father (or perhaps on account of them), Jack has long been Boughton’s favorite of his eight children. Now, as his father is dying, Jack returns home, presumably to make amends, and Glory tries to serve as peacemaker.
Home, like Gilead, is rooted in the Bible, offering an extended meditation on the story of the prodigal son. We see the limitlessness of a father’s (and of the Father’s) love as old Boughton practically runs to greet the boy upon his return. The first words of the novel capture his joy, “Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” even as his daughter’s heart sinks, knowing that Jack is not likely to stay. Their differing responses remind us that we don’t know what happens to the original prodigal son after his much vaunted return. We like to believe he spent the remainder of his life by his father’s side—but, given human nature, we assume too much. This possibility of relapse or abandonment, however, does nothing to dampen the love of either the prodigal father or of Jack.
Home conveys the same generous theology as Gilead, highlighting the need for forgiveness (70 times seven, and more), the abundance of God’s mercy (the door of one’s home is always open) and the many forms of penance human beings practice. (Jack’s self-imposed exile from Gilead demonstrates his sense of his own unworthiness.) What is missing from the novel, to my mind, is a compelling voice. The third-person narrator tells the story from Glory’s perspective, but the novel does not immerse the reader in her consciousness. After the rich intensity of Gilead, the spiritual insights seem less keenly felt, and we are kept at a distance from the events that unfold. Nonetheless, Glory’s story gives us the opportunity to see the characters from a new vantage point, a perspective that yields some surprises. Seen through her eyes, instead of Ames’s, Jack appears more vulnerable, as much a victim as a perpetrator of his sins. More notably, John Ames seems less kindly and saintly than he does in Gilead. Motivated by his affection for his old friend and his distrust of Jack (for he is not blinded by a father’s prodigal love), Ames is suspicious, impatient and judgmental. Like a painter, circling her subject in order to see him from all angles, Marilynne Robinson offers us in these two books a three-dimensional depiction of her central character. Home enables us to see Ames from the outside, with all his flaws and limitations, providing a complement and corrective to the book-long soliloquy that is Gilead.
Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Lila, offers a masterful conclusion to the Gilead trilogy. Combining the perspectives of Gilead and Home—the intimacy of a first-person narrator with the enlarged vision accorded by a third-person narrator—the book tells the story of Ames’s wife, a hushful woman who, up until now, has seemed entirely without a history. And what a history she has had. Lila’s first memory is of being rescued one cold, rainy night from a cabin stoop, having been set outside as a punishment by the shadowy adults who mind her. (Whether Lila was being raised by her parents is never clear.) Doll, the woman who kidnaps her, removes the 4-year-old from her abusive household and begins an itinerant life with the child, moving from place to place, sleeping outdoors, getting work when and where they can, trying to keep body and soul together. Though theirs is a life of material poverty, it is rich in love. For a while they fall in with a community of itinerants, headed by a man named Doane, who insists, “We ain’t tramps, we ain’t Gypsies, we ain’t wild Indians.” “What are we then?” asks young Lila. “We’re just folks,” Doll answers. In contrast to the settled people of Gilead, Lila’s life has been rootless and nomadic. Wandering through the dust-bowl desert of America, she is on a pilgrimage with no destination.
When Lila arrives, by accident, in Gilead, she finds the home she never knew she wanted. Traveling alone, having lost Doll along the journey, she wanders into John Ames’s church one day, and when he sees her face—her astonishing, mystical, human face—he falls in thunderstruck love. But this is no storybook romance: though still in her mid-30s, Lila is neither youthful nor beautiful. Her hard life has taken its toll. It is difficult to say why Ames falls in love with her, or why she returns the old man’s affection—there is some mystery in this. Perhaps the best explanation is offered by Ames in Gilead: “When she first came to church she would sit in the corner at the back of the sanctuary, and still I would feel as if she were the only real listener.” Lila is unchurched, a person who knows nothing of religion, who has never even heard the vocabulary Christians take for granted (“immortal soul,” “baptism,” “grace”), and she arrives at Ames’s church hungry for the language and saving vision he has to offer.
Lila is set in the present, telling the story of the unlikely relationship that develops between the two, but embedded in her present is her past—involuntary flashbacks to events that are revelatory, disturbing and, at times, violent. The novel proceeds by degrees, through incremental revelations, peeling back the protective layers that have kept Lila from knowing who she is. Ames proves to be the instrument of her self-knowledge, leading her, gently, toward living an examined life. Yet Lila keeps all these memories to herself, pondering them in her heart. Ames doesn’t get to hear the details that he craves—only we do. Thus, we become Lila’s intimates, her consciousness an open book to us, even as it awakens to itself.
Lila is a triumph, in part, because it succeeds in the same way Gilead does. Embedded in the third-person narrative is a distinctive voice, an idiom that is genuine, compelling and entirely her own. The author mingles Lila’s interior monologue with dialogue—often between herself and Ames—enabling us to hear Lila’s voice and also to take the measure of the distance separating her from the genteel world of Gilead and her bookish, godly husband. We are constantly reminded, through these dueling perspectives, that Lila is in Gilead but not of it. Her bald speech, vaguely Southern accent and unconventional grammar mark her as not belonging. Fiercely individualistic, at home in the natural world (she would rather bathe in a river than in a bathtub), Lila is not quite tame, a descendent of other powerfully evoked outsiders in American literature, including Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Toni Morrison’s Sethe, who chafe against the strictures of society. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s iconic Hester Prynne, she is a woman with a past who is unashamed of having lived outside the bounds of proper feminine behavior. Finding herself mired in one place for an extended period of time, ensconced in the reverend’s comfortable house, Lila feels trapped and has to suppress the urge towards flight, for it is the oldest thing she knows.
In many ways, Lila’s story is one of accepting the unexpected grace that has been offered her—a husband, a child, a home—and learning how to live within its constraints. At least for a while. For as in Gilead, we are constantly aware of Ames’s mortality, of his imminent departure from this earth, and of the fact that Lila and her child will be left without a house or an income. For better or for worse, Lila will likely leave Gilead behind, as we all must, eventually—even its creator.
With Lila, Marilynne Robinson completes her mythic cycle, this intimate portrait of an imaginary town filled with very real people. Like her forebears James Joyce, William Faulkner and William Kennedy, among others, Robinson has created a world unto itself, as cleanly evoked as Dublin, Yoknapatawpha County or Albany; only in Robinson’s case, her alternate universe is one of the blessed places of the earth. At the end of his letter to his son, Ames says of Gilead, “It seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.... I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love—I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.”
Ames bequeaths his body to the forsaken little prairie town that has given him life. But there is nothing new in this—it is what people do all the time. What Marilynne Robinson enables us to see is how beautiful, how large and how generous this gesture is—for every place is blessed, in her profoundly Christian vision. All lives “can shine like transfiguration,” she assures us, if only we bring to them “a little willingness to see.”