Splinters in Lifelines
Home by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008. Pages 325. $ 25. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, 2008; and, the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2009.
‘If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t let her go anywhere near a choir rehearsal,’ says Jack: he and his sister have courted trouble there. ‘Pious girls have tender hearts. They believe sad stories,’ he thinks; and, men go ‘looking for vulnerable women’ at churches, adds the sister (121-22). Twenty years ago, Glory was alone with her parents when Jack had left, and now, at thirty-eight, she is again alone with her widowed father when he returns. This makes her wonder whether their fates are ‘intertwined’ (248). ‘You and I, of all people, here, of all places, killing time for lack of anything else to do with it’ (85). Home. ‘What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?’ (282).
Home means different things at different times: the child knows no other; the grownup is eager to leave the natal home and make her own; the loser returns to the one he has left behind. And then there is the one above to which we all return. Marilynne Robinson explores ‘home’ in its myriad facets, the earthly and the spiritual, probing deep into the lives of Glory, Jack and their ageing father Robert Boughton.
Early in the novel, getting the child Glory to fuse and confuse the ‘secret’ and the ‘sacred’, Robinson sets the tenor of the tale with philosophical overtones; even as an adult, Glory admits, she has never really been able to distinguish the two words. The youngest of eight siblings of a pious household – four sisters and four brothers – she has had a highly sheltered upbringing, nursing allegorical convictions: ‘Truth must be stalwart, Loyalty absolute, Generosity unstinting, while Appearance and Convention’ are ‘children of the giant Hypocrisy and must be put to flight’ (15-16). A staunch defender of her brother Jack, Glory has her first encounter with the outside world at the age of sixteen, when she overhears her forever-forgiving father say: ‘some things are indefensible.’ Jack’s youthful escapade has left a teen pregnant; and, Glory is shocked that her brother does not want to marry the girl and flees the town. And their father has ‘come to the last inch of his power to forgive,’ and there is ‘Jack, still far beyond his reach’ (56).
‘Why should this staunch and upright house seem to her so abandoned? So heartbroken? The eye of the beholder,’ Glory ruminates (4). And, she has not been the only witness either, to the dispersal of the once bustling large household. ‘Her parents accepted the terms of life in this world as a treaty to be preferred to conflict, though by no means an ideal in itself. Experience had taught them that truth had sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness’ (17). Glory and Jack have had their brushes with ‘sharp edges and hard corners’ of truth, and are back home seeking ‘treaties’.
Glory has once ‘dreamed of a real home … very different from this oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent’ (102). Years ago, she had been engaged to be married; twice her fiancé had come home and withstood the scrutiny of the family; her father had liked him. The engagement has been long; and, when she comes to know that her fiancé is already a married man, she goes out one midnight and drops ‘four hundred fifty-two letters’ and ‘a cheap ring’ down a storm drain (119). She quits teaching and is back home: ‘her father needed looking after’ (37).
Taking her brother’s wounded hand, half in concern at the sliver lodged in his palm, half in jest to his asking if she reads palms, Glory says: ‘You have a splinter through your lifeline.’ Jack laughs, ‘I believe you may have found your calling’ (62). Both have figurative splits in their lifelines.
Robinson draws Jack a la Byronic hero: the British Romantic poet portrays the protagonist of his long poem, The Corsair (1814):
He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)
Jack’s family thinks of him in similar terms: ‘chimerical, piratical, mercurial’ (126). Mercurial suggests the attributes of Roman god Mercury – thievery, shrewdness, swiftness, and eloquence; the hero of Byron’s poem is a pirate; and, chimerical implies improbable and imaginary, given to fantasies. Robinson endows Jack with all these and more, bringing out the best and the worst of mankind, in one complex character.
Child hellion and college dropout, Jack has made up for it all by frequenting libraries and devouring both secular and spiritual literature (173). Among alcohol bottles in the loft, Glory finds The Condition of the Working Class, and a worn-out little Bible (286). His father, a Presbyterian pastor, and his godfather, a Congregationalist minister, both immersed in theology, concede ‘he knows his Scripture’ (223). And Jack – ‘an insensitive brute for the most part’ by his own admission (88) – has tested the limits of their patience and despair. He thinks he is in one universe and the rest in another (267). He knows what his problem is: ‘It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth about them’ (104).
The profligate returns home in his forties, with the noble purpose of settling down in Gilead, with his son and black ‘wife’ Della (not married to her, yet). But Gilead is still backwater; there are no colored people in the town (318); and he has to explore whether the town will accept the marriage of white and black, a daring thing for the time, even more so for a person who has been known to be the town thief, a scoundrel who has outraged a girl and run away. His return to Gilead has already raised eyebrows and whispers. He thinks people consider him the cause of recent burglaries, and goes through a Raskolnikov dose of agony – ‘I’m in hell over a miserable thirty-eight dollars’ (136) – till his sister tells him that the real thief, a student prankster, has confessed.
His father’s views on the blacks prod him to plot a debate. He picks up an old magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal; locates an article, ‘God and the American People’; points out that the seriousness of American Christianity is called into question by their treatment of the Negro; and says ‘there is something to be said for that idea.’ Ames thinks ‘the way people understand their religion is an accident of birth.’ Or color, Jack adds, and seeks the Reverend’s views on predestination, saying: ‘I’ve wondered from time to time if I might not be an instance of predestination. A sort of proof.’ He refers to Ames’ sermon on sin, suffering, punishment, grace, parents and children, and wonders if David and Bathsheba might have been a better choice for illustration than Hagar and Ishmael. He cites Moses: the Lord ‘will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation,’ and wonders if it works the other way too, the sins of the sons visiting on the fathers. He asks, ‘are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?’ Ames replies, ‘Scripture is not really clear on that point’ and he won’t ‘make nonsense of a mystery.’ Boughton says, ‘If there is one thing the faith teaches us clearly it is that we are all sinners and we owe each other pardon and grace.’ The discussion moves on to saving sinners and tent meetings on muddy riverbanks. Jack asserts, ‘Amazing how the world never seems any better for it all’ (217-27). This comes so close, crossing the globe, to the philosophy of the ancient Hindu scripture, Ashtavakra Gita.
On her part, Glory reflects on Abel and Cain, and concludes crime carries its own punishment, for what appears to be the Lord’s pardon of the first murderer is, in fact, a sentence to go on with life, marry, beget, and build a city (101) – more painful than death that ends all suffering. Thus, Jack is merely serving his time. So is she.
Jack knows he has not pleased his father and now tries to help him in his infirmity. He overcomes his initial gawkiness and decides to make himself useful. He tries to make ‘the house look a little less forbidding’ (86). He adds to the garden ‘sunflowers and snapdragons and money plants, several hills of cantaloupe, a pumpkin patch, three rows of corn.’ He rescues ‘the bleeding-heart bushes from a tangle of weeds’ and tends the gourds (150). He repairs the junked family car and drives it.
Jack plays piano for his feeble father and ailing godfather (196); pursues in vain the ‘last glimmer of hope’ of rehabilitation in Gilead (304); concludes, ‘Hope is the worst thing in the world… It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all. Except … what you can’t be rid of’ (275). He broods about ‘the non-bride of’ his ‘non-youth’ (276), his being ‘metaphysically responsible for the floweriest little grave in all Gilead’, of the daughter he never saw (278). He remembers his work in a mortuary (246), and feels like ‘Lazarus with the memory of cerements about him no matter how often he might shave or comb his hair’ (240). He wants to drive to his perdition, but the car won’t start. ‘Et ego in Arcadia’ (‘Even in Arcadia, there am I’ – Death, Evil, Misery…) Glory finds him drunk and filthy; helps him to sanity. But, the despondent Jack leaves Gilead and goes away. Robinson gives the novel a Thomas Hardy ending, with a difference: Della arrives in Gilead with her son, the second day after Jack leaves. Jack’s biracial son, named after his father, Robert Boughton, wants to be a preacher, like his grandfather. The circle is now complete.
Reverend Robert Boughton’s weltanschauung is ‘Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same’ (98). Father of eight children, he is an orthodox patriarch who thinks ‘the world’s great work’ is ‘the business of men’; women are ‘creatures of a second rank, however pious, however beloved, however honored’ (20). ‘Fealty to kin, actual and imagined, and the protection of them, possible or not’ are his ‘pride, his strongest instinct, and his chief source of satisfaction, frustration, and anxiety’ (236). He considers it an error to say that to understand is to forgive. It is the other way round, forgive to understand. ‘Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.’ Glory recalls her father has said this ‘more than once, in sermons, with appropriate texts, but the real text is Jack’ (45).
Friends advise Boughton to be strict with his son, ‘Lay down the law’, for his sake. But, Boughton feels he is dealing with a child, and goes on forgiving his transgressions. The matter of Jack and the girl and their baby shocks him, but he deals with it by trying to help the girl and her family. The doctrine of total depravity consoles him: ‘Who, after all, could cast that first stone?’ (112).
As the color issue crops up on the newly installed TV, Boughton says: ‘I have nothing against colored people. I do think they’re going to need to improve themselves, though, if they want to be accepted.’ Jack reminds his father, ‘I’m a little unimproved myself. I’ve known a good many Negroes who are more respectable than I am’ (155). He thinks his wife’s father ‘is a lot like’ his own (278), both priests, except one is black, the other white. And both his black wife and white sister are English teachers, help the church, sing in choirs; his wife also reads French and embroiders (290).
Boughton feels that his love for his son is like a curse and an affliction (273). He sees through his son’s desperate attempts to make him think that he believes in the Scripture. As he feels time is near for him to meet his wife in heaven, he regrets the things ‘left unattended to here’, his hope of telling her that Jack has ‘come home’ (297). ‘Come home’, Robinson invests with resonance: physical home, religious home, spiritual home, self-realization…
Plot-wise, Robinson starts medias res and goes back and forth, keeping the point of view in tact. Letters play a significant role – four hundred fifty-two, Glory sinks into the storm drain to put an end to her engagement to a married man. Letter a day, Jack writes to Della, with no response from her. As he wonders whether the letters reach her at all, Glory makes a suggestion and it works. A letter does arrive from Della, later she herself, but too late, for Jack has already left Gilead without a forwarding address. Della rues, ‘almost in a whisper’, ‘was it because of my letter that he left? Because, you know, I’d be very worried about that’ (322-23).
Home has its patterns and filiations with Robinson’s earlier novel, Gilead. Robert Boughton reminisces: ‘Sometimes his (Ames’s) grandfather would be down there, fishing and talking to Jesus, and then we would be pretty quiet, or we’d wade upstream a little way. He was a strange old fellow, but he was just a part of life, you know. Like the birds singing’ (108). And ‘He told me the story of his grandfather leaving Maine for Kansas because he had a dream that Jesus came to him as a slave and showed him how the chains rankled his flesh’ (204).
In Gilead, atheist Edward does not say Grace at the table, when his father asks him to (26). In contrast, renegade Jack, not at all expected to say Grace, writes it down, and despite his father’s misgivings, does it and earns his praise (Home, 183).
While, in Gilead, Grandfather Ames gives away anything he could lay hands on, even the sheets off the bed (32), Boughtons present a contrast in Home: ‘Other pious families gave away the things they did not need. Boughtons put them in the attic, as if to make an experiment of doing without them before they undertook some irreparable act of generosity’ (93).
Robinson usually steers clear of improbabilities by planting seeds in different places for the interested reader to dig them out, but there is one in Home that baffles the ardent fan, as much as the avid faultfinder – Glory’s marriage. She confides to Jack, ‘I was never married’; Jack tells her that their father thinks she has quit teaching because she has got married (118). ‘Her marriage failed,’ writes Ames inGilead (18). Jack is a habitual liar, but with bouts of honesty. Even if he has come to know that his father believes Glory is married, there is no need for him to have mentioned it to her. Nor, does Glory bother to correct her father’s impression. Is she, like her brother, sparing her feeble father of avoidable distress? But the father too never refers to his daughter’s fiancé, if he thinks she is still engaged to him, or to his son-in-law, if he thinks she is married. Is he being tactful? How could the marriage take place without the knowledge and presence of the bride’s father, who is a priest, and his alter ego, Ames, another priest? Surely two priests cannot be lying about such a sacred thing. And, if the marriage has not taken place, hasn’t the years-long engagement of the daughter of their beloved priest wagged the tongues of the closely knit Gilead? Even more so, as Ames’ own marriage to a woman half his age does become ‘the object of scandal’ (Gilead, 230). The novelist pulls off the implausibility of it all – almost – by plotting escape routes: Boughton’s periodic amnesia, Ames’ considerate affection, Jack’s selective reliability, and Glory’s understandable silence. The very improbability enhances the pusillanimity and pathos of the pious.
Also difficult to reconcile is Glory’s first awareness of Della in Jack’s life. As Glory and Jack exchange confidences of their ‘marriages’, we find on page 121, Jack talking of ‘the woman I mentioned – as I was walking by her apartment building one day.’ But on page 178, we are told, ‘That was the first’ Glory ‘had heard of Della.’ On page 232, Glory tells her father about Jack and Della but does not mention their son, why, we do not know.
On the flip side, Robinson gets the agnostic neighbors, who have occupied part of the Boughton property, remind the devout family that ‘they were, if they listened to their own prayers, obliged to forgive those who trespassed them… Owning land just to keep it from others. That is all you learn from your father the priest! Mine, mine, mine!’ Through this semi-comic rebuke in the early pages, the novelist hints at the pitfalls of ideology and theology, practice and profession. As the novel progresses, the lighter side of life is overpowered by serious concerns, as in any home.
At the end of the novel, what lingers most in the mind is the character of Jack ‘exempt from all affection and from all contempt’ – Robinson’s tantalizing contribution to American literature.
D.S. Rao, Ph.D., is an author, literary critic, retired professor, and former Editor of Indian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently, he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.