Farrar, Straus and Giroux | September 29, 2020
Jack, Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel, following Gilead, Home, and Lila, devoted to the families of John Ames and Robert Boughton, respectively the Congregationalist and Presbyterian pastors of Gilead, a small town in southwestern Iowa, during roughly the ten years following World War II, opens abruptly. The story begins with a man and woman in a tense conversation; the man is Jack Boughton, already familiar to longtime Robinson readers as the prodigal son of the Boughton family and longtime thorn in the flesh of John Ames. The woman is Della, known by those same readers to be Jack’s spiritual wife (but, owing to Missouri’s miscegenation laws, not his legal one), the mother of Jack’s son, and the disowned daughter of a prominent African American family in Memphis, her father an AME bishop. Sometime after their conversation, Jack leaves a copy of Hamlet at Della’s door, which somehow—we are not told the specifics—leads to them spending a night walking and talking in St. Louis’s Bellefontaine cemetery. This episode is surprisingly long, about seventy pages, and it is one of the most audacious scenes in recent American fiction.
Its audacity has nothing to do with shocking events or radical narrative experiment. The couple does not have sex, although they worry that whomever they encounter in the morning will assume that they did. There are no big set pieces in their talk—no elaborate confessions, no desperate avowals, no long anecdotes of personal history. Readers might think that nothing is happening in this scene, that we are learning nothing important about the characters. But as Jack and Della walk and talk among the late Victorian funerary art of Bellefontaine, they come to understand each other as they have never before understood by anyone. It is an interval of blessedness. Robinson lets us feel every delicate, evanescent, seemingly impossible minute of it.
Alone overnight with no company but the dead and a wandering night guard, Jack and Della are temporarily free of all other obligations. This creates the somewhat eerie, free-floating mood of the night in the cemetery—to a large extent, our obligations define us. Without familial expectations, the mores of community, the laws of the state, the conventions of social class, the book seems to ask, does a person still have a self? Most contemporary thinking would suggest no, we do not—the “self” is an effect constructed by our encounters with the world. But Robinson provocatively suggests that there is more to the self than that. In the cemetery, the burdens and constraints of family, society, and history are for a short space suspended, and Jack and Della can be something like themselves—their actual selves, not the types their families and others have cast them as. Jack does not have to be “Jack”: the prodigal son, doomed to a cycle of briefly raised hopes followed by inevitable disappointment. Della does not have to be “Della”: dutiful daughter, exemplary employee, upholder of her family’s pride.
True, this blessed, liberating interval in the cemetery is only temporary, an exception, an anomaly—or is it the world that advertises itself as “real” that is the anomaly? “Maybe everything else is strange,” Della says. Jack reflects, “Well, this happened to be a thing his soul had said to him any number of times, wordlessly, it was true, but with a similar inflection, like an echo, like the shadow of a sound.” Family, society, and history will be back on them with a vengeance when morning comes and they leave Bellefontaine, but the night they spend in the graveyard becomes a moment of grace that sustains them through trial and humiliation. Both will be tempted to deny and renounce what they experienced there, but they never let go of it entirely. At novel’s end, they are together. Robinson agains sounds the great Miltonic chord, adding a minor seventh: “The world was all before them, such as it was.”
Grace holds together the Calvinist theology that both the Revered Ames and the Reverend Boughton have preached all their careers, and it occupies the center in Jack as it did Gilead, Home, and Lila. Jack’s perspective and voice, in free indirect discourse, frame Jack (as his sister Glory’s did Home and as Lila Ames’s did Lila), and he is the character in this universe who seems the likeliest to be among the reprobate. “I’m a gifted thief,” he tells a Black minister in St. Louis in whom he, to his own surprise, confides. “I lie fluently, often for no reason. I’m a bad but confirmed drunk. I have no talent for friendship. What talents I do have I make no use of. I am aware instantly and almost obsessively of anything fragile, with the thought that I must and will break it.” Assessed by normal community standards and expectations, Jack seems as obviously beyond the pale of grace as the rootless, vagabond Lila in Robinson’s previous novel, if not more so, given his perverse drive to disappoint every hope. But in Jack, as in Lila, normal community standards and expectations have nothing at all to do with grace. Grace will have its own confounding way, and Jack will have as little success dodging it as did the speaker in Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven,” or as did Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes. Grace will have the last word. (In Jack, it literally is the last word.)
But we ought not to speak only of Jack being saved—by Della. In Gilead and Lila, John Ames saves Lila, but is just as surely saved by Lila from dry theologizing and Laodicean complacency. In Jack, while Della is doing Jack a world of good, he is doing the like by her. Responsible and accomplished, she is the sort of young person that older persons wish more young persons resembled. She teaches English at Sumner High School, the oldest and probably the most storied high school for Black students west of the Mississippi (Arthur Ashe, Dick Gregory, and Tina Turner went there). For all that, however, there is much to her that has gone unseen. When Jack gives her a drawing he has made of her from memory, she says, “You think I’m pretty,” sounding unaccustomed to being found so. During that night in the cemetery, she tells Jack, “I actually am full of rage. Wrath. I think I feel a little like God must feel the second before He just gives up and rains brimstone.” A few moments later, she muses, “You’re the first person I ever spoke to about that. That rage. You’re the only one. You’ll probably be the last one, too.” Della loves her family, and we can tell they love her, but we understand why she never could have told them that. Her father is no tyrant, but he is obviously a man unused to being contradicted, and some things he just will not hear. Jack’s is the ear Della has been waiting for.
Robinson’s novels are like glaciers. They move slowly, but they leave behind a transformed landscape.