Book Review

“Jack,” by Marilynne Robinson

Patricia Anders
Marilynne Robinson
Saturday, May 1st 2021
May/Jun 2021

By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
309 pages (hardcover), $27.00

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” These opening lyrics to the Beatles’ 1966 song “Eleanor Rigby” came to me while reading Jack, the latest book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. This is probably because the title character is so lonely. In fact, all the main characters in these four books are lonely, suffering together and apart in their aloneness. As the Irish poet John O’Donohue writes in Eternal Echoes:

Each one of us is alone in the world. It takes great courage to meet the full force of your aloneness. Most of the activity in society is subconsciously designed to quell the voice crying in the wilderness within you. . . . Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary. . . . It takes years to bring your mind home.

Robinson introduces us to Jack in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (the first book of the series), which takes place in a small town in 1956 Iowa. In this story, the big news in Gilead is that Jack Boughton has come home after being away in parts unknown for some twenty years. Told from the perspective of Reverend John Ames, Jack’s godfather after whom Jack is named (John Ames Boughton), this book consists entirely of Ames writing a journal about his life for his young son, who was born to him in his old age. Having lost his first wife and baby in childbirth decades earlier, Ames lived alone until Lila (whose touching story we learn from her perspective in Lila) wandered into Gilead. They married and had a son, whom Ames named after his best friend, Robert Boughton (Jack’s father).

Ames has a heart condition and knows he won’t live to see his son grow up, so he writes this journal to share his family history, as well as his theological reflections (which focus on Feuerbach, Calvin, and Barth) and his own personal struggles, which mostly involve how to deal with Jack now that he’s come back after years of estrangement from his family to see his ailing father. The two pastors—Ames, the Congregationalist, and Boughton, the Presbyterian—have been lifelong friends and are now coming to the end together. Since he knows he could die any day, Ames becomes worried when Jack and Lila seem to get on so well and his young son takes to him. Jack is the black sheep of the Boughton household, and Ames doesn’t want him to have anything to do with his family. Through Ames’s journal writing, we learn of Jack’s sordid past history—from Ames’s perspective, of course, and personal bias against Jack.

We don’t find out what’s going on down the street at the Boughton house until we read Home, the second book. This is what I would call a “coquel” as opposed to a “sequel,” because it takes place simultaneously with the events in Gilead, though now from Glory Boughton’s perspective. The youngest daughter of eight children, Glory has returned home to care for her elderly father. Wounded from a failed relationship and now middle-aged, Glory feels doomed to spend the rest of her years in the old homestead. Soon, her father will be gone and her siblings—except for Jack—and their families will visit once in a while. “‘Home to stay, Glory! Yes!’ her father said, and her heart sank” (Home, 3).

Like all of Robinson’s Gilead books, the stories unfold solely through the eyes of the main character of each book, which in the fourth book is finally Jack Boughton himself. Although we’d heard a lot about him from John Ames and Glory, we never knew what Jack was feeling or thinking. We could only wonder why he’s the way he is. But in this book from his perspective, we soon realize that even Jack doesn’t know the answer. He is like a dark romantic hero in the vein of Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (or, to update the analogy, Anakin Skywalker in George Lucas’s Star Wars saga). Jack is one of those misunderstood, confused, tortured “bad boys” of literature. Or like Prince Hamlet (who actually plays a small role in Jack), who thought too much and finally made up his mind to act only when it was too late.

On the first page of Jack, we find him walking behind Della who says, “I’m not talking to you,” to which he responds, “I completely understand” (3). At this point, we have no idea what happened between them to anger her or why he’s following behind her like some lost puppy. The next scene takes place a year later in a cemetery. Accidentally locked inside for the night, Della actually seems happy to have Jack for company.

If we’re reading the books in the order in which they were written, then we already know that Della Miles is the true love of Jack’s life. After years of trying to fit in with his family and deserve his devoted father’s love, Jack doesn’t feel he belongs anywhere or with anyone until he meets Della one rainy afternoon when he gallantly offers her an umbrella. A schoolteacher at a Black school in St. Louis (where most of Jack takes place), Della shares his love of poetry and Shakespeare—as well as his feeling of alienation. In the graveyard, we see Jack’s hope revived as he thinks to himself,

So here I am. . . . And here she was, Della, the woman he had recruited into his daydreams to make up for a paucity of meaning and event he sometimes found oppressive. No harm done. She was safe in his daydreams. Cherished, really. (62–63)

By beginning the book with this long scene in the cemetery, Robinson gives us a chance to get to know both Jack and Della—these two lost souls wandering around the graves of the dead in the middle of the night (“Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name”). At one point during their conversation, Della says,

“Sometimes I shut myself in my room and throw myself down on my bed and I just let it run through me. All that wrath. In every bone in my body. Then it seems to sort of wear itself out and I can go for a walk or something. But it never goes away.” (65)

Given the place and time of the story (the Jim Crow era of the South), we can surmise that her anger stems from how she is “kept in her place” by the world around her. Although educated with a respectable job and family, as a Black woman Della still has to be careful to follow all the “rules” laid down by society—such as sitting in the “colored” section of the bus, separated from where Jack sits with the other whites. She must act the part of “the good Christian lady” (65) and never cause any problems or scandal for her family—especially her father, an AME bishop in Memphis who firmly believes in the segregation of Blacks from whites.

Eventually, she bursts out of those oppressive bonds, and in freeing herself loses her job and grieves her family. Della and Jack are soulmates, but they can’t legally live together as husband and wife (interracial marriage wasn’t made legal until 1967 by the Supreme Court, and much later in parts of the Deep South). To do so was to face imprisonment.

This is where Marilynne Robinson’s artistry and mastery of storytelling and writing can overwhelm the reader. Her books seem so subtle—there’s not much action but lots of character development and dialogue—then all of a sudden, you’re hit with the emotion of what’s happening on a much deeper level and we feel what the character feels. I understood Jack and Della’s authentic love, and I was angry at such unfair laws made by those who sought to keep control of their own world. Painfully aware of the consequences of being together, Jack and Della pledge their undying love and loyalty as husband and wife. From that point on, they consider themselves truly married and brace themselves for the fallout they know will come from her family, especially her father.

This feeling of empathy for Jack, however, takes us into a dark and uncomfortable place. He is a tortured soul who dreads eternal damnation, teetering on the edge of the abyss. He desperately wants to know if he’s one of the elect for salvation or if he’s doomed to perdition. As a Presbyterian pastor’s son, Jack was well versed in the doctrine of predestination. But unsatisfied by this unshakeable uncertainty that had plagued him all his life, he turns to the Congregationalist minister (Ames) for some comfort. There is a conversation—which includes Ames, Boughton, Glory, Lila, and Jack—on the front porch of the Boughton residence about this topic. It must be a crucial scene since Robinson includes it in three of the books, from three different viewpoints (Ames, Glory, and Jack).

Jack knows his father loves him more than any of the other children. And though he grieves at how he constantly breaks his father’s heart, he just can’t seem to stop his hurtful behavior. When Jack leaves home around 1936 during the Great Depression, he begins to drink heavily and falls on hard times, even landing in prison for a while. It’s almost as if he had to prove to himself that no matter what he did, he knew his father would welcome him back with open arms (the classic prodigal son story). Of course, on a deeper level, he’s really putting God to the test through his self-destructive behavior, which includes serious thoughts of suicide. But then he meets Della, and the world becomes a different place for him. In her eyes and in her arms, he finally finds that love and acceptance he has longed for his whole life—something he could never find at home in Gilead for some reason. He knows he doesn’t deserve her love, but he also knows he desperately needs it. And the beautiful part of it all is how much she needs him.

Toward the end of Gilead, John Ames writes in his journal that he feels he’s to blame for why Jack rebelled—or at least seemed to rebel—against his father and the church. He believes it was the “cold baptism” he gave to him as a result of being surprised at the font that the child was to be christened “John Ames Boughton.” All Ames could think was that this wasn’t his son—why should he bear his name? He always felt “a burden of guilt toward that child, that man, my namesake” (Gilead, 188).

It’s in the closing pages of Gilead that we see Jack for the last time, in any of the books, when Ames walks him to the bus stop. Sitting on a public bench, the godfather finally blesses his godson and namesake: “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father” (241). Ames knows about Della and their young son Robert (whom Jack also named for his father), but he allows his love for Jack to finally rise to the surface—his love, God’s love, God’s grace. Ames writes:

I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment. . . . I said, “We all love you, you know,” and he laughed and said, “You’re all saints.” (Gilead, 242)

In Jack, before he arrives in Gilead after his twenty-year absence, as he takes his leave of Della in St. Louis, Jacks thinks to himself:

The knowledge of good. That half of the primal catastrophe received too little attention. Guilt and grace met together in the phrase despite all that. . . . He could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace. (Jack, 309)

Judgment and grace. The knowledge of good and evil. The two high wires Jack had been trying to balance on his whole life. Unless Marilynne Robinson provides us with more of the story, we don’t know what happens to Jack once he steps onto that bus at the end of Gilead, bidding farewell to the place of his birth, the “hill of testimony,” the “mound of witness.” He doesn’t stay to wait for his father to die; he couldn’t bear to be there when all his happy siblings and their happy families gathered at the old homestead.

Soon, there would no longer be any earthly father or godfather waiting there to welcome him home, no matter what he did or how long he was gone. I like to think, however, that Jack understood at last how much his heavenly Father loved him, unconditionally, that there was an unending grace that had finally blessed him—and perhaps even Della and their son as well.

Patricia Anders is managing editor of Modern Reformation.

Saturday, May 1st 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology