Abram Van Engen on Marilynne Robinson
In her 2004 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson includes an odd scene. The narrator, an old, dying minister named John Ames, visits an old, dying woman named Lacey Thrush. “She died promptly and decorously, out of consideration for me, I suspect,” he says. The paragraph comes and goes, and Lacey Thrush is never mentioned again. “These old saints bless us every chance they get,” Ames concludes.
The existence of Lacey Thrush in Gilead does not materially affect the plot. If the paragraph had been removed, the absence would not have been noticed. But the presence of Lacey Thrush also reveals the gratuitous, something “done, made, adopted, or assumed without any good ground or reason; not required or warranted by the circumstances of the case; uncalled-for; unjustifiable.” As Lacey Thrush blesses the minister John Ames with her life, so the recounting of her life, even in miniature, illustrates a simple idea guiding Robinson’s novels: we are surrounded by the gratuitous. All of existence, including each person, is ultimately uncalled-for, unjustifiable, and therefore freely bestowed: a gift.
In Robinson, the gratuitous nature of existence comes to the fore most obviously in the human soul, which she finds beautiful in its strangeness, an inexplicable world unto itself. Each passing stranger is a paragraph hiding a novel we have not yet read, and each novel in Robinson’s Gilead series expands on paragraphs left hanging from before.
Jack presents us with this idea as part of the novel itself. Early in the book—which takes up characters Robinson first introduced in Gilead—we find Jack discussing Hamlet with a schoolteacher he has recently met named Della. Together they notice gaps in the play, things left unexplained. “Do you ever wonder why no one except Hamlet seems sorry that the old King Hamlet is dead?” Della asks. “And why would Horatio have been around for months without letting Hamlet know he was there?” Jack wonders later. “It seems as though there were stories behind the play we only get glimpses of,” Della muses.
As a novel, Jack is consumed with exploring the story behind the play. “I think most people feel a difference between their real lives and the lives they have in the world,” Della suggests. “But they ignore their souls, or hide them, so they can keep things together, keep an orderly life together.” This sense of the self—as private, intimate, and filled with inner turmoil and history unknown to others—returns us to the spring that has watered so many of Robinson’s writings: the American Renaissance. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “We may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.” It is an idea that runs through Dickinson, Melville, and Whitman—and Jack is shot through with their influence.
But this novel takes its lead most of all from Thoreau. Thoreau called himself a “sojourner in civilized life.” He tested the assumptions and presumptions of his society by the simple fact of his difference from it. As Thoreau did, so Jack also finds himself wandering with hardly any possessions through civilized life—this time St. Louis not Concord—utterly at odds with the world around him. “Simplify, simplify,” Jack tells himself, echoing Thoreau.
Nothing reveals Thoreau’s influence on this novel quite like the clothes Jack variously dons. As Thoreau reminds us, a tailor measures the clothes someone wears, not the character of the person who wears them. Most of us, Thoreau says, are tailors. We see only a set of clothes. When Della first meets Jack, she thinks he is a minister because of his dark suit. When he tilts his hat a certain way, he becomes Slick—urbane, cynical, slightly dangerous. One day, taking off the same hat to fiddle with a loose thread, strangers mistake him for a beggar. Another night, a worker sheds his overalls and pays Jack to put them on: Jack becomes, for a moment, “Bradshaw”—a different man fleeing debts unknown. Later, in a bookstore, unslept and disheveled, Jack is taken for a poet. “Clothes do make the man,” Jack says more than once—as though it is a hypothesis he is testing. Try as he might to believe it, however, the clothes never do make Jack. The test fails. He lives as “the naked man in his clothes.” He is, in the end, a soul.
It is Della alone who sees that soul. In a memorable scene, Jack and Della spend a long night together in Bellefontaine Cemetery, wandering and talking and falling in love. In the dark, Della sees more than others have ever seen of Jack. This is no coincidence. The clothes can pose no presentation in the dark, no play. This cemetery scene is Jack’s turning point. When morning comes, he begins to walk from death to life, unmerited, unearned, enabled by a simple unaccountable fact: Della’s love.
In his great meditations on faith, hope, and love, the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper once commented that, at its root, love expresses the approval of the existence of another: “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world!” Pieper calls this a “mode of willing,” an affirmation that someone or something else simply is—like God at the beginning saying “It is good.” As Pieper writes, “The first thing that a lover ‘wills,’ is for the beloved to exist and live.”
That may seem too simple, but when it comes to Jack, it utterly overwhelms him. Throughout the novel, Jack contemplates suicide. But in the cemetery, he hears a startling summons: “I want you to be alive,” Della says. “That’s all. Nothing complicated.” Almost immediately, she says it again: “I mean, I’m glad you’re alive.” In the course of things, Jack hides his address in the spine of a book, not expecting Della to see it. He thinks of it as his answer to her summons—“a sort of ‘I exist!’” he sends her way. Della sees it, of course, and she sends Jack a note. And this is love. In the art of Marilynne Robinson, these acts are radiant, a remarkable combination of perception and affirmation. “Nothing complicated,” Della would say. Yet they are uncalled-for, unjustifiable, freely bestowed—and so, in the end, irreducibly complex.
For Della, such love leads her finally to believe in a God who sees a “person’s actual life, everything they didn’t mean or couldn’t say or wished for or grieved over. That’s reality,” she declares. And that reality counts, she insists. We are recognized, known, and dignified not by those who measure our clothes or judge our performances, but by someone—“some spirit,” Della says—who sees the story behind the play. “I just think there has to be a Jesus,” Della tells Jack, “to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.”
In Jack, as in all of Robinson’s novels, people pass like strangers, wanderers whose worlds we never know, clothes that show us only a play. But the glimpses we get of the story behind the scene gives us a sense of the sight of God. For to be Christ in this world is to see for a moment as Christ sees—to perceive the soul with a love undiminished for all its flaws. “Once in a lifetime, maybe,” Della says to Jack, “you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world.” Such acts of perception and affirmation lie at the heart of Robinson’s theology and at the center of her fiction.
In pitch dark night, Della sees Jack. She has no illusions, no delusions. She has seen him sneak away, seen him lie, seen him drink himself to a stupor, seen him harm himself and others. “Just look at him!” various characters keep saying. But it is Della who actually eyes him, whose heart wants him, whose care haunts him. And so it is Della who says to Jack what no one else will say, something so simple only Christ might say it: “I’m glad I know you,” she tells Jack. I’m glad that you exist. Telling a minister about Della’s words, Jack throws up his hands: “I have no explanation. I don’t think there is one.”
Della’s love is, quite simply, gratuitous. And it restores Jack’s soul.
Abram Van Engen is an associate professor of English at Washington University in Saint Louis. He is the author of City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism (2020), and co-host of the podcast Poetry for All. Tweets @AbramVanEngen