The Vast Spaces Between Us
Marilynne Robinson was awarded the National Humanities Medal (2012) by the President of the United States of America, ‘for her grace and intelligence in writing.’ The citation goes on, ‘With moral strength and lyrical clarity, Dr. Robinson’s novels and nonfiction have traced our ethical connections to people in our lives, explored the world we inhabit, and defined universal truths about what it means to be human.’ Her other laurels for fiction include the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Orange Prize. She has published four novels, spread over thirty-four years: Housekeeping, 1980; Gilead, 2004; Home, 2008; Lila, 2014. Dr. D. S. Rao takes a look at all her four novels in a four-part overview.
Gilead. Picador edition. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2004. Pages 247. $ 14. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 2004; and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2005.
‘Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable … we take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness … all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us,’ muses John Ames (197), the Congregationalist minister of the fictional Gilead, recalling the Biblical hill of testimony. Novelist Robinson delves into the immense interiors of the human psyche through a few complex characters, spanning a century of turbulence in American history. The choice of a protestant pastor of seventy-six for a protagonist, writing to his seven-year-old son for future reading, at the suggestion of his wife half his age, is apt both for the theme and the plot of the novel. Coming from a family of priests for generations, Ames has been a witness to and participant in the interpretation of the gospel and its practice, ideally suited to raise issues of exegeses, faith, doubt, ritual, and more. Plot-wise, the choice enables the author to connect five generations, view religious and secular ways in the rough and tumble of life, from the American Civil War to the mid-twentieth century. The anecdotal, epistolary format rivets the reader.
‘We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once we baptized a litter of cats…’ reminisces John Ames (21). The Ames family moved to Gilead when the narrator, John, was a small boy; there was ‘no electricity for years, just kerosene lamps. No radio’ (76); and only in his seventies, does he get to television, courtesy the congregation gifting him a set to watch baseball (126). It was a small town; he ‘could walk down every single street, past every house, in about an hour’ (71). ‘This is a backwater’, thinks his older brother Edward, ‘leaving here is like waking from a trance’ (26). Yet, ‘excepting study at the college and seminary’ (9), John Ames has lived all his life in Gilead.
Robinson makes the two brothers part their ways. While the younger one stays on in Gilead and pursues the family profession of pastoring, the elder brother moves away, breaking hearts of the parents. As a young boy, Edward was a voracious reader; ‘the belief was general that he would be a great preacher … the congregation took up collections to put him in college and then to send him to Germany. And he came back an atheist’ ‘with a walking stick and a huge mustache. Herr Doktor.’ Disobeying his devout father asking him to say grace at the table, Edward leaves Gilead, taking a teaching position at a state college in a city (25-26).
While Edward openly questions the Christian ways, his grandfather has had his own take of the religion. A civil war veteran, he had lost one eye in battle. With a gun in his belt, he preached war to end oppression; ‘while there was slavery there was no peace’; ‘the God of peace’ called for an end to the degradation. ‘Even the littlest children’ said ‘Amen’ (101). He talks with the Christ, and follows literally the Biblical injunction, ‘To him who asks, give’ – and gives away, much to the chagrin of his daughter-in-law, ‘the blankets off his bed’, and even the meager cash she hangs on to in hard times.
The father’s religious views, in turn, differ from the grandfather’s: ‘I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing.’ The chasm between the two widens to the extent the grandfather leaves the house, with a note on the kitchen table, on the nature of good and evil, and the need for a vision (84-85).
The narrator recalls a sermon his father gave, after the breach with Edward: ‘he thanked the Lord for letting him know finally in some small degree what defection was, for allowing him to understand what it was he himself had done to his father in those days after the war when he had gone off to the Quakers and left his father to carry his terrible burden alone’ (193). Edward’s transgressions are ‘trivial beside his own’. Later, a mature John Ames concludes ‘it is seldom indeed that any wrong one suffers is not thoroughly foreshadowed by wrongs one has done’ (194).
Wondering how a ‘man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension’ (6), the chronicler-persona gives an account of the arduous journey he, when he was only twelve, and his father undertook to locate and restore the grave of the grandfather, leading to his own perplexities. ‘My father always said when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn’t want anymore. But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet ’ (13). This Christian belief, even the image of clothes, is so like the Hindu view: ‘Just as a person casts off worn-out garments and puts on others that are new, even so does the embodied soul cast off worn-out bodies and take on others that are new’ (The Bhagavadgita, II, 22, Radhakrishnan rendering from Sanskrit), except one is linear and the other cyclical.
In radiant imagery, Robinson makes Ames ponder the glory of life: ‘The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of the morning. Light within light… It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence’ (119). This again invites a comparison with the Hindu concept of the incarnate soul (jeevaatma) and the eternal soul (paramaatma).
Waking, sleeping, dreaming, living, dying… have fascinated preachers, poets and philosophers all over the world. For Ames, as for any other pious Christian, dying is like ‘going home. We have no home in this world’ (4). He goes on: ‘I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that’ (57). Among the poets Ames would like his wife Lila to read is Donne, ‘who has meant a lot to me all these years. “One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die”’ (77).
Invited to say a few words at the Independence Day celebrations, Grandfather Ames draws on the dream image: ‘We fly forgotten as a dream, as it says in the old hymn, and our dreams are forgotten long before we are’ (176).
Robinson is an admirer of John Calvin, the sixteenth century Protestant pastor and thinker, but gets her protagonist Ames say, aptly: ‘I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine is a Middle Westerner of New England extraction. Well, we all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can’ (124). Muse a little more; we may have numerous versions of one god of one religion, or several gods of the same religion. One who has made us, and the others we make.
Freewill, predestination, sin, perdition, pardon, hell, heaven, judgment and grace, are fiercely deliberated by believers, skeptics and atheists, leaving everyone more convinced than ever before of their own positions. Intuitively, Ames tells his congregation: ‘If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul’ (208).
Church, the brick and mortar, the thirst and quench, the grace and solace, have always been with Ames. He has seen them at close quarters, right from his childhood. He has heard from his father of his grandfather’s days of the church, smelling of sweat, gunpowder and horses (105); he pities the bats and the mice, the earth and the moon, the Lord himself (110); an older Ames wonders if he likes ‘the church with no people in it’ (70); Robinson’s punch line comes through Ames: ‘Well, the church is shabby for the same reason it’s still standing at all’ (199). It is about the building in urgent need of repairs; but it may as well be seen as a requiem for what the noblest of the faith has withstood for two millennia.
During his last year at the seminary, Ames marries his childhood sweetheart Louisa, who dies in childbirth; the child too dies soon after, leaving Ames a young widower. Later, in his late sixties, Ames sees Lila in her thirties for the first time in the church, and, a few weeks later, marries her. Reasons for the marriage are discreetly held back from the son; they come later in another novel, named after Lila. Old Ames is naturally worried that his youthful wife may attract young men, particularly his namesake, son of his very dear old friend and fellow preacher, Boughton – ‘I have noticed that toward her he is consistently obliging’ (195).
John Ames Boughton (Jack) ‘is not the eldest or the youngest or the best or the bravest, only the most beloved’ of the Boughtons (72). His transgressions are countless, from petty pranks and youthful indiscretions to thefts and crimes that land him in jail. But the family always stands by him. He violates a girl but does not want to marry her, deserts her pregnant and flees; later he falls in love with the daughter of a black priest, begets a son but is not accepted by the girl’s family; now he returns to Gilead, in the hope of rehabilitating himself with his wife and son, with the help of his godfather Ames. Jack looks up to Ames for help and goes to church to listen to his sermon, and is shattered to hear Ames preaching the biblical text of Hagar and Ishmael: the text that has given rise to numerous interpretations – God’s ways, patriarchy, surrogate motherhood, feminine rivalry, abandoned children, illegitimate issues, slavery, feminism, Arab-Israeli conflict and what not.
Robinson builds dramatic irony into the situation. Ames has no way of anticipating Jack’s purpose or presence in the church; but Jack thinks Ames has deliberately chosen the text of Hagar and Ishmael to humiliate him; gets his chance to retaliate that Ames’ own marriage to a woman half his age is ‘the object of scandal’, while his wife Della is educated (230). It takes a while for both of them to outgrow the misunderstanding. Ames now realizes ‘the beauty there is in him’ (232), as Jack asks if it is possible for him to settle in Gilead with his black wife and son who ‘wants to be a preacher’ (228). The frailty of the ageing Ames and the terminal illness of his own father make Jack leave Gilead and go away, again. Ironically, things go wrong for Jack whenever he tells the truth, but never when he lies (170).
Even as patterns recur in Robinson’s fiction, of sons and fathers differing on spiritual or secular issues, there are similarities too: the grandfather has a vision as he falls asleep by the fire, ‘Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains… Those irons had rankled right down to His bones’ (49). And the grandson too has a dream: ‘I was preaching to Jesus Himself, saying any foolish thing I could think of, and He was sitting there in His white, white robe, looking patient and sad and amazed’ (68). The two dreams reflect the dreamers’ times: the civil war priest’s crusade to end oppression, and the post-world-war pastor preaching to a sad and amazed Jesus.
While that is a pattern in similarity, there is another in the opposite: Jack is afraid of a settled life. But for Lila, it is one thing she has always wanted: ‘I used to look in people’s windows at night and wonder what it was like’ (200).
Robinson’s prose is remarkable for its lyrical beauty, laced with metaphor. Consider this paragraph on page 9:
I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping in the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.
Ageing father enjoying the scene of a mother and her child blowing bubbles, playing with a cat, is in itself a delightful scene on an earthy plane, but the bubbles rising, changing colors and bursting are a metaphor for life itself, more so when the canvas has a seven-year-old son, thirty-plus mother and a seventy-plus father, three generations on the move. That mundane joys have their own repercussions raises the image to a philosophical level.
Robinson blends the profane and the profound in this pastor’s poetic attempt (45):
Open the scroll of conch and find the text
That lies behind the priestly susurrus.
The conversational, episodic narrative is replete not only with serious spiritual concerns, but also with the lighter side of life. As the horse sinks through the road into the tunnel, ‘somebody got a bucket of oats and poured a couple of bottles of whiskey over them, and the horse ate them and pretty soon it nodded off.’ But, ‘the rider was a teetotaler,’ adds the novelist (59). A woman calls the pastor to witness ‘a reversal so drastic could occur in a lawful universe, that hot water came from the cold faucet and cold water from the hot faucet’ – when obviously the C and H on her faucets are mixed up. The pastor has to fetch his screwdriver and switch the labels, to restore order in the universe (132). Ames tries to remember ‘what birds did before there were telephone wires’ (165). He goes on ‘Much more prayer is called for, clearly, but first I will take a nap’ (125).
Gilead is a work to be read slowly. ‘Prod a little and the sparks will fly’ (72). Sparks do fly in this novel, smoldering in the reader’s mind long after putting it down.