MARILYNNE ROBINSON’s Jack (Books, 27 November 2020) is the fourth novel in a series: the other books are Gilead, Home, and Lila. They centre around a “shabby little town” in Iowa where the Ames family have been Congregationalist preachers for generations. The Revd John Ames’s best friend, Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, names his son after him. Jack, as he’s known, spent much of his youth with Ames, possibly considering that his real father had abandoned him.
In Gilead, Jack made an uneasy return home after a protracted interval away. This latest story, in the mid-1940s, predates that. The primary location is St Louis, Missouri, where Jack lives. The city operates a rigorous segregationist policy. Jack’s drunken and footloose life causes the family concern, and they continue seeking his redemption.
It is not entirely certain that Jack wants to mend his ways. He is both ashamed of himself and resistant to their mundane conformity. That is, until he falls for Della Miles. The intelligent, good-hearted young woman is a high-school teacher from Memphis. She, like Jack, was born into a clergy family — in her case, Methodist. Della does not, out of Christian duty, take Jack on as some kind of project, but perceives in him a kindred spirit. This, however, will be problematic (as we already know from previous novels); for Della is black and Jack is white.
Robinson’s Ph.D. thesis was on Henry VI, Part 2, and there’s an aura in her book which for “believing souls gives light in darkness, comfort in despair”. Shakespearean allusions continue throughout: not only is Jack a lament for those “that loved not wisely, but too well”, but a recognition that “the course of true love never did run smooth.”
The couple’s plight opens up an examination of institutional racism. Although more obvious in America’s cities, it also infects the likes of smalltown Iowa. Robinson’s people, good in many other respects, are guilty of colluding with segregation’s oppression. This also goes for black communities such as Della’s family, back in Memphis, preferring the privileges of being left alone, thereby successfully operating within their own organisations and churches.
Jack risks being reported to the authorities when he is spotted consorting with a woman of colour. Della’s career and reputation remain in jeopardy should word get out.
Jack is not alone in feeling at odds with the universe. Della is, too. How, she asks, could the world have the sinful attitudes that it has? The book contains a strong element of Robinson’s Calvinism. Della the Methodist treats Jack to some thoughts on predestination: “Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. . . And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery — you’ve seen what life is about.”
It won’t necessarily make anyone happy in the book, but, as Kierkegaard wrote, “when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it . . . faith sees best in the dark.” “Home” is Robinson’s synonym for the soul. Jack’s pathway to finding somewhere — someone — where he belongs endures many a conflict, many a doubt. Nevertheless, whether it’s in the potted geranium that Jack acquires to adorn his flop-house room to honour Della’s visit, or her own courage to withstand quotidian attitudes with generous hospitality, the author endows these acts of love with a sense of divine grace.
Characters do, indeed, look through a glass darkly. Their perceptions are never wholly true. The preceding volumes furnished other (only partial) understandings of Jack. Calvin’s notion of depravity was based on the warped mirrors of his time, which failed to give the full picture. Jack, through sins of commission, sees himself as hopelessly incapable of being what he is meant to be. Della, by sins of omission, also sells herself short.
© Alec Soth/Magnum PhotosMarilynne Robinson, described by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams as “one of the world’s most compelling English-speaking novelists”
Several times, we read that Jack strives to be harmless, but this is a far cry from proactively trying to do good. It’s the best he can do, and, even so, he rarely attains it. Hamlet is a recurring motif in this present book: a lonely, despairing figure with whom Jack identifies. Naming himself the Prince of Darkness, his glimpses of self-knowledge which grace provides do not necessarily act on the will. St Paul had similar problems: “The good that I would, I do not” (Romans 7.19).
From mixed motives — hunger, curiosity, circumstance — Jack finds his way into a black Baptist church in St Louis. There, he’s graciously treated by the congregation. The unsparing hospitality nourishes not only his body but his “battered atheist soul”, endorsing, perchance, the notion that belonging precedes believing. It encourages Jack to steal “happiness from the very clutches of prohibition”, which culture, overlaying religion, imposes on this Romeo-and-Juliet couple.
Ultimately, all may be grace, but it has to operate in a world of law whose norms fail to recognise such gifts of the Spirit. Unsurprisingly, Robinson quotes Moby-Dick as an important influence, with its quest to discover meaning and beauty amid sham, drudgery, and broken dreams. Perhaps the varying perspectives of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet have some bearing, too.
In any event, we, too, can feel alienated from the world and even from ourselves. Fearful though it is, we may find love that becomes possible to reciprocate in spite of a very uncertain future. This, in accordance with Calvin’s doctrine, involves a letting go and letting God descend into yourself.
The Revd Stephen Brown is the Church Times film critic.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson is published by Little, Brown at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-0-349-01179-0.
This title is discussed in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a new monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
JACK — SOME QUESTIONS
- To what extent is redemption about the continuous process of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again?
- The book explores the sinfulness of racism, particularly in its institutionalised forms. How well does it concern itself with sins of omission, by which characters are complicit in it, and how conscious or unconscious do you think this is?
- What are turning points in Jack’s struggles to believe?
- Which characters give “light in darkness, comfort in despair”? How do they do this?
- Whom would you like to get to know better, either by reading the previous novels or future ones? Why?
- Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize citation for Gilead speaks of her vision of life as a wondrously strange creation, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. How does this continue to present itself in Jack?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 1 July, we will print extra information about our next book, Widowland by C. J. Carey. It is published by Quercus at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-5294-1200-0.
THE Coronation is approaching, but it is 1953 in an alternative universe, and Princess Elizabeth won’t be taking the throne. Widowland imagines a world in which Britain made peace with Germany in 1940. Under this new alliance, many of the men have been sent to the continent, or disappeared. As women now greatly outnumber men, they are categorised, when they reach 18, into a range of roles which shape everything about their future. Women over 50, and those too old to give birth, become marginalised and fall into the bottom rung of society. They live in a ghetto, Widowland. Outbreaks of insurgency emerge, and the Ministry of Culture gives the heroine, Rose, the task of infiltrating Widowland to find the source of this uprising. Will she carry out her instructions and betray the women?
C. J. Carey is a pseudonym for the historical novelist Jane Thynne. Widowland is her first book published under this pen name. Born in Venezuela, she was educated in England, and graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English Literature. As well as a novelist, she is also a broadcaster and journalist, and has worked at the BBC, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Independent. The inspiration to write Widowland came from her research into the treatment of older women in Germany during the Second World War, and also from her own experience of widowhood. Her late husband was the author Philip Kerr.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
August: Night of Fire by Colin Thubron
September: A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe