Acts of Apostles

Marilynne Robinson is, above all else, a novelist of transfigured reality. In her fiction, the everyday is made eternal through humble, reverent attention to places and people. Robinson’s novels and essays, deeply influenced by her Calvinist reading of theology, reveal a world freighted with God’s presence.

In “Credo,” a beautiful essay published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Robinson writes of the Psalmist’s “primary intuition of the strangeness of it all, of our single selves as unspeakably fragile and brilliant observers of a grandeur for which we have tried through all our generations to find words.” In her first two novels, Housekeeping and Gilead, Robinson continued the Psalmist’s project, attending to the uncanniness of mundane realities. She is a master of what the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky called defamiliarization: the making strange of the world through careful perception. For Robinson, this making strange is a prayerful act. To see clouds that soak up the light “like a stain” and the sky become “bright as tin,” as Ruth does in Housekeeping, is to apprehend how the world is laden with significance. To perceive, like John Ames in Gilead, that there can be “the feeling of a weight of light—pressing the damp out of grass” is to begin to commune with God through his creation. An ecstasy of perception leads to the ecstasy of revelation.

Robinson’s latest novel, Home, continues to bear witness to the strangeness of the world, but in an altogether different key. It is written in the third person, a bold departure for a writer who convincingly inhabited first-person narrators in her previous novels. In both Housekeeping and Gilead, one can pick up the narrative at any point without diminishing the effect; every part of the story seems implicit in every other part, all of them unified by the narrator’s voice. These novels are like crystals: each chunk contains the entire crystalline structure within it. First-person narrative is the easiest way to create a distinct voice; to depart from it is perhaps the greatest challenge that Robinson sets herself in Home.

Another daring choice is to make the events, place, and characters of Home overlap with those of Gilead. At the beginning of Home, we again find ourselves in Gilead, Iowa, a small town with a long abolitionist past; we are again surrounded by characters whose faith is a source of constant discussion; and we again see in the distance the events of 1956—the Montgomery bus boycott, the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson, that year’s National League pennant race.

There is, however, a shift in focus. Where Gilead consisted of a series of letters from the aging John Ames to his son Robby, letters that brimmed with memories and theological musings, Home deals with the family of the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, Ames’s best and oldest friend. The narrative is focused through the perspective of Glory Boughton, Reverend Boughton’s youngest daughter. To address the theological issues that Robinson finds most pressing-grace, predestination, the sacraments—from a layperson’s perspective is another challenge Robinson confronts and masterfully surmounts in Home.

The novel opens as Glory comes home to Gilead following a failed relationship. She returns to tend her ailing father and to salve her own wounds, marveling and shuddering at the unchanging nature of her childhood home. Gazing at the family’s old barn, she thinks, “It seemed sometimes as if her father must have meant to preserve all this memory, this sheer power of sameness, so that when they came home...there would be no need to say anything. In the terms of the place, they would all always have known everything.” Glory fills her days with caring for her father: she bathes him while politely ignoring his naked, shrunken form; she plays checkers with him and helps him with the crossword puzzle. It is “a tolerable kind of life.”

Then Jack, Glory’s brother and the black sheep of the Boughton family, also returns home, intruding on this tenuous peace. The transgressions of Jack’s adolescence are numerous and puzzling in their meanness. He breaks into houses to steal inconsequential sums of money; he takes his godfather’s baseball mitt to arouse the gentle man’s ire. In his early adulthood, Jack gets a local girl pregnant and then abandons his daughter, who soon dies. He flees Gilead and doesn’t return for twenty years, during which time he has a son with Della, a black woman. When Della, whom Jack truly loves, leaves him, he comes home.

He is greeted by his father with tears of joy. Jack is the Prodigal Son returned, the source of the Reverend’s greatest pain and the recipient of his purest blessings. The three Boughtons establish an uneasy coexistence: Jack works in the garden and in the barn, trying to fix up the family’s abandoned car and his life; Glory tries to maintain peace and protect Jack’s jealous sense of privacy; the Reverend prays and sleeps, alternately reproaching Jack for his sinful behavior and tearfully forgiving him.

Even as Jack works his way into the domestic routine, however, he remains elusive, indecipherable. He is “a foundling,” a foreigner in his own land. Glory asks, “What it was that made him stand when she or her father came into a room. It looked like deference, but it also seemed to mean, You will never see me at ease, you will never see me unguarded.” Jack’s strangeness and estrangement are one of the novel’s central motifs: Glory wonders, “How could he have seemed so estranged to them”; a scar on Jack’s face seems to ask Glory if “its estrangement” disturbs her. Early in her childhood, Glory angrily demands of Jack, “What gives you the right to be so strange?” This innocent question gives rise to the main questions of the novel: Why is Jack so strange, and what does his strangeness demand of those who love him?

While Home most obviously parallels the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, it also recalls another story of homecoming, the Odyssey. Like Homer’s epic, Robinson’s novel is concerned with hospitality, with the giving of care to the exile and the stranger. And like Homer, Robinson lavishes her myriad stylistic gifts on the description of rituals of hospitality: Jack’s odd care as he dresses in hand-me-downs for dinner, “polish[ing] the old man’s shoes and brush[ing] his jacket”; Glory’s tender ministrations to her brother after a drunken night, beginning “to wash him down, starting with his hair and face and neck and shoulders, wringing out the cloth again and again, scrubbing his arms and his hands, which were soiled with grease and were injured, marred.”

In Home, rituals of care take on an almost sacramental nature. As Glory prepares dinner one night, she thinks, “How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant.” These rituals, just like her father’s saying grace, are a way of “thanking the Lord for all the wonderful faces around his table.” In Gilead, ideas of grace and seeing God in others were written and argued about; in Home, they are realized in acts of domestic care. As Jesus reminds his disciples in the Gospels, welcoming a stranger into one’s home is welcoming the Lord himself. Robinson’s story makes a similar argument: by treating the estranged with care, by continuing to forgive and love despite all, we come to recognize the godliness of others.

Robinson’s prose remains remarkable in its attention to sensual detail and philosophical depth. Early in the novel, Glory looks at an oak tree in the front yard: “There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa.” Like Glory, the reader is forced to see the oak anew, to appreciate its history and its posture of frozen motion. The novel’s second half is particularly breathtaking. As the old man sickens and Jack’s personal life crumbles, there are passages that surpass anything in contemporary American literature:

That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if ever it has a home at all.

The writing—with its biblical cadences and its Lear-like vision of “unclothed” humanity, its unembarrassed evocation of the ideal of charity coupled with its acknowledgment that this ideal cannot heal all wounds—is simultaneously chastening and nourishing.

What, in the end, gives Jack the right to be so strange? Home argues that it is simply his divine existence, the holy spark that belongs to him despite his weakness and cruelty. In “Credo,” Robinson writes, “Of all the privileges and mysteries that should inspire gratitude and reverence in us, the first should certainly be the fact that we live among these images of God.” Robinson knows that the godly nature of men like Jack does not lessen the pain they cause. It does, however, require that we attend to them, that we minister to them, and that we try to forgive them. This—the task of accommodating, of comforting, and of caring—is what hospitality, and Home, are all about.

 


Related: Thinking Again, by Marilynne Robinson
Valerie Sayers reviews Gilead

Published in the 2008-10-24 issue: 
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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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