The Waif and the Priest
Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2014. Pages 261, $ 26. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, 2014.
‘In a song a note follows the one before because it is that song and not another one,’ ruminates Lila (259). So is life, one is not like any other. Herself a castaway child, stolen or rescued – there is enough in the novel to support either view – and raised by a woman in vagrant life, Lila tramps through jungles, towns and a whorehouse to become a pastor’s wife, and bears him a child. Looks like a fairytale, but Robinson turns it into a masterpiece of fiction, remarkable for its plausible plotting, credible characterization, psychological realism, and religious riddles.
Even as a four year old, Lila could cuss, she yelled at the young woman who had carried her off and the old woman who had given shelter to both for a while – ‘they could rot in hell’ – giving us a peep into the life of the people who had abandoned her to spend the night on stoop. But her rescuer, Doll, ugly and proud though (121), has better morals: she keeps telling her not to curse. ‘A couple of dresses out of flour sacks with holes cut in them for her head and arms’ clothe the child (7). As they go hungry, Doll kills a rabbit with a stone and cooks it with pigweed (14). They join other wayfaring families, going wherever they could find work. ‘Work meant plenty to eat and a few pennies for candy or ribbons or a dime for a minstrel show when they passed through a town’ (16). As work becomes scarce, Doll finds it hard to find food and clothing; the itinerant families fall on even harder days. ‘When folks are down to the one thing that keeps them alive, that one thing can be meanness’ (56). And meanness can be anything, from filching to deserting children. An older, married, Lila wonders, if the thief, crucified along with the Christ, went to heaven, what is wrong with stealing! (230)
Lila, however, imbibes a strong work ethic. She recalls Doane’s caution, ‘if you start after sunrise, you’ve wasted the day’ (78). She toils as hard as any of the children (56); gathers sticks and firewood for cooking or warming herself (51). She has never taken a dime that is not hers, nor has she ever hurt a living soul (254). As she thinks she has been paid more than her due, she decides to ‘go over to that farm the next morning and do some chores for them’ (51). She never asks anybody for anything except work, and if they give her something else ‘they did it for their own reasons’ (4). And when the pastor gives her things, she doesn’t know what to make of it. He is grateful that she has been tending his neglected patch of vegetables and fruits, roses on the graves of his wife and infant daughter, and wants to repay. She blurts out, ‘You ought to marry me.’ ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘you’re right. I will’ (80).
The abruptness of the woman proposing and the man accepting sounds absurd. But the novelist makes it credible. Preacher John Ames is a widower, an old man nearer seventy, living a lonely life, suddenly confronted with a marriage proposal from a woman half his age, enough to tempt even a man of cloth. Lila has lost all hope of marriage; nobody has ever wanted to marry her; the pastor has a good house; and winter is coming (84). She is honest enough to point out that he knows nothing of her; she has been in a whorehouse; the law could be after her. Nevertheless, the thought of a man of God providing sacred marital status to a destitute woman overrides all other scruples and seems even noble. Both Ames and Lila get over their misgivings and marry.
A close reading shows that their mutual attraction has been nurtured over weeks, from his parson-like care of her as a new entrant into his church to visiting her at odd places and times; from her girly day-dreaming of reclining her head on his shoulder; her discovery that she has four letters in each of her names (Lila Dahl), and he has four letters in each of his (John Ames); she has a silent h in her last name and he has one in his first (68); to the ‘thought of him was about the best thing she had’ (50).
By instinct and training, Lila is incapable of staying too long in one place. Ames is scared that some young man she knew once may show up at the door and she will go away with him. He is delighted when she says, ‘My child is going to have a big old preacher for its papa, and live in a good, warm house, and eat ham and eggs three times a week. And it’s going to know all them hymns by heart. You’ll see’ (168).
The marriage of the barely literate woman with the learned preacher sets the stage for humdrum life and religious conundrums. ‘There is a baby cast out in a field, just thrown away. And it’s God that picks her up. But why would God let somebody throw her out like that in the first place? … If God has all that power, why does He let children get treated so bad?’ (129). ‘Why did they waste candles on daylight?’ (74). Her questions bring to mind Fynn’s Mister God, This Is Anna. The four-year-old Anna asks: ‘Mr. God made everything, didn’t he?’ ‘Does Mr. God love us truly?’ ‘Well then, why does he let things get hurt and dead?’ ‘Keeping on going to church was because you hadn’t got the message or didn’t understand it or it was “just for swank”?’ When there are no satisfying answers, faith helps, certainly for Ames: ‘I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end. Why it’s pointless to ask them’ (21).
Lila listens to a conversation between her husband and his friend, both preachers, about people ‘who had never heard a word of the Gospel’; ‘that souls could be lost forever because of things they did not know, or understand or believe.’ Doll never said anything about soul; probably she did not even know she had ‘an immortal soul’ (21). People she had grown with ‘stayed away from churches, walked right past them as if they were smarter than the other people’ because ‘churches wanted your money’ (11). ‘All those people out there walking the roads all those years, hardly a one of them remembering the Sabbath. Who would know what day of the week it was? Who wouldn’t take work when there was work to be done?’ (21) The only way God can dare appear to the hungry is in the form of food, said Mahatma Gandhi. One cannot talk of soul to the starving.
She recalls that whenever Doane wanted children to behave, he would say, ‘We ain’t tramps, we ain’t Gypsies, we ain’t wild Indians!’ ‘She asked Doll one time, What are we then? And Doll had said, We’re just folks. But Lila could tell that wasn’t true, that there was more to it anyway. Why this shame? No one had ever really explained it to her, and she would never explain it to herself. Thou wast cast out in the open field. All right. That was none of her doing. She had worked herself tough and ugly for nothing more than to stay alive, and she wasn’t so sure she saw the point of that’ (47). She is perplexed, ‘I am baptized, I am married, I am Lila Dahl, and Lila Ames. I don’t know what else should I want. Except for the shame to be gone, and it ain’t’ (94). She struggles to reconcile her new life with the old. Her habit of copying ten times passages from the Bible only raises more questions.
When she hears of the horrors waiting on those who are not baptized – the Last Judgment, the resurrection, souls ‘out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place’ (101) – she puts on her old dress, goes to the river and washes herself in the water of death and loss and whatever else is not regeneration (103). She hates the thought of resurrection, prefers ‘that folks are their bodies.’ (172) And bodies die, that’s all.
Of sin, punishment and the Last Judgment, Ames admits he cannot reconcile hell to God’s grace. But, he quibbles, ‘you really can’t account for what happens by what has happened in the past, as you understand it anyway, which may be very different from the past itself.’ Lila points out that he is trying to reconcile things by saying they can’t be reconciled. ‘If you thought dead was just dead, then you wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.’ Ames asserts, ‘God is good.’ Lila modifies, ‘some of the time… I’ve been tramping around with the heathens. They’re just as good as anybody, so far as I can see. They sure don’t deserve hellfire.’ A truly Christian sentiment! (222-25).
Lila recalls Ames saying, ‘we should attend to the things we have some hope of understanding, and eternity isn’t one of them’; she adds, ‘this world isn’t one either’ (259). She feels, praying looks like grief, shame, regret and worry (95). The best things are those we never prayed for; and the worst things come like the weather (237).
At the shack she occupied once, Lila spots a boy ‘ugly, dirty, lonely little cuss, half scared to death … could’ve been any child that had nobody to take him up and see to him’ (168). She takes off her coat and drapes it over him (154). This leads to her husband’s temporary scare and worry; but he gets over them and appreciates her kindness.
Quotes from the Bible are deftly woven into the fabric of fiction, either for the protagonist, eager to teach herself, to copy, or to raise a discussion, or connect the past and the present. She reads ‘The Book of Job’: ‘She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book. So Job gets all covered with sores. Dogs licking them. That could happen. Dogs have that notion of tending to you sometimes. Maybe flies do, too, for all anybody knows. Strange the story don’t mention flies, when the man is sitting on a dung heap.’ The flies connect Lila to Doll: ‘There were flies bothering her that day, after Doll came to her all bloody. You’d think the cold might have killed them, even houseflies, but there they were. That mess had roused them, and they were nuzzling at the stains on the rug, clinging to her skirt’ (176).
The narrative shuttles back and forth. The wife of the Reverend on the eleventh page is the abandoned child of the opening paragraph. The omniscient author blends plain storytelling and point of view, with pattern, reverie, and stream of consciousness. For example, child stealing recurs, first as a fact of Doll stealing child Lila, then as a nagging idea in the mind of grownup Lila, to steal a child yet to be born in the brothel (201), and still later to steal her own child from her husband and run away. ‘Two or three times she had even had the thought of stealing him, carrying him away to the woods or off down the road so she could have him to herself and let him know about that other life’ (16-17).
One word – credenza (187) – sends Lila down the memory lane, recollecting the saddest phase of her past, the brothel, where the keeper collects the ‘treasures’ of the girls and locks them up in a credenza, which looks like a coffin. Lila, not as good looking as the others, is the last choice of ‘the gentlemen’, consequently running up a debt with the mistress and obliged to take up menial chores to pay for a part of her keep. The device of credenza connecting to the cathouse is indeed a masterstroke of plotting. Having thus far juxtaposed the heathen life with the orthodox Christian belief, of the lost and the elect, of the condemned and the saved, Robinson makes her protagonist, Lila, break the Seventh Commandment – Thou shalt not commit adultery – and has the old preacher, Ames, not only forgive her sin but marry her.
The novelist invests the priest with rich ambiguity, of complex characterization. Ames is capable of both doubt and belief, as most of us are. He says, ‘It’s true; no one really knows anything about when Jesus was born, the time of the year. But there’s just a certain amount of exuberance that people have to burn off now and then, Christians and pagans. I like the idea – Druids rejoicing just because they felt like it. We took up where they left off. That’s all the sense it has to make’ (230-31). Imagination is more attractive than reality. Aren’t the birthdays and birthplaces of the Hindu gods Rama and Krishna similar?
The imagery is remarkable. ‘The roses on the grave … the likeness of a woman, and in her arms the likeness of a child’ (71). ‘The sky was gray and the wind was acting like it owned the place, tossing the trees, and the trees all moaning’ (156). ‘When a house is shut up like that in the middle of a summer day the light that comes in through any crack is as sharp as a blade.’ (190)
Robinson relieves the gravitas with an occasional light touch: ‘Lila had no particular notion of what the word “married” meant, except that there was an endless, pleasant joke between them that excluded everybody else and that all the rest of them were welcome to admire’ (75); ‘Gilead was the kind of town where dogs slept in the road for the sun and the warmth that lingered after the sun was gone, and the few cars that there were had to stop and honk until the dogs decided to get up and let them pass by’ (122); Lila ‘meant to ask the old man sometime what would happen when they were all resurrected and he had two wives’ (92); Doll would say, ‘I’m hiding real good here. That Almighty of yours can’t even find me’ (139).
Doll’s knife serves as a recurring metaphor. Her ‘patience and her dread were all worked into that blade… It was the only thing Doll had to give her (Lila), too good to be thrown away and much too risky to keep’ (133). ‘Such a mean old knife’ (257). Yet, Lila is very possessive and decides to keep it, telling herself: ‘There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them. Doll hunched in the firelight whetting her courage, dreaming vengeance because she knew someone somewhere was dreaming vengeance against her. Thinking terrible thoughts to blunt her own fear’ (260). Practical and philosophical concerns of all religions, fear, vengeance, guilt, bitterness, patience, despair, pity and grace, are all packed into the knife that can take or save life.
Marilynne Robinson makes Christian theology and its praxis accessible to readers in a classic tale of waif and priest, applicable mutatis mutandis to all religions.
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.