Marilynne Robinson’s Prodigal Son

Her new novel, Jack, explores the loneliest character in her Gilead series and the legacy of race.

Cassi Namoda

In a scene in Home, the second in Marilynne Robinson’s sequence of novels known as the Gilead series, Glory Boughton, age 9, loses all patience with her older brother Jack. They’ve been playing a game with their six other siblings and Jack has disappeared, as usual.

When they were children he would slip away, leave the game of tag, leave the house, and not be missed because he was so quiet. Then someone would say his name, the first to notice his absence, and the game would dissolve. There was no point calling him. He came back when he came back. But they would look for him, as if the game now were to find him at mischief.

Glory, enraged at Jack’s power to end games simply by disappearing, and mystified that he does so, storms up to him when he returns and shouts: “What right do you have to be so strange!” It’s a scalding exchange, not just because Glory is furious but because she has spoken aloud the question common to everyone in their hometown of Gilead, Iowa. Jack is strange. Why? Who has given him the right?

Jack, the fourth and newest novel in the series, invokes characters who will be familiar to readers of Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). The Reverends Robert Boughton and John Ames, boyhood best friends who grew up in Gilead in the early 20th century and became preachers together, are now old men near death; the father and godfather, respectively, of Jack, they await his return home before it’s too late. Glory, the youngest Boughton daughter and the presiding perspective in Home, as well as Teddy, one of Glory and Jack’s three brothers, hover on the periphery. But Jack focuses on, as its title would suggest, the character who has eluded, bedeviled, and grieved all the people who have ever loved him: the prodigal son.

In the previous books, Robinson offered Jack to readers through the eyes of others. A strange and destructive child, he didn’t just vanish at inconvenient moments; he blew up mailboxes, stole things for the sake of stealing them, drank, skipped church, and was generally unbiddable. “There was an aloofness about him,” Glory recalls. “More thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile.” He is also, as a child and then as a man, intensely thoughtful, a voracious reader, gentle in his manner, oddly bewitching. He has been plagued from a very young age by a deep feeling of estrangement. For some reason no one can quite understand or articulate—himself least of all—he is set apart, unlike his family or neighbors.

Robinson has said, over the years, that she keeps returning to Gilead because she misses the characters, or wants to give some previously secondary figure the depth and attention afforded a protagonist. But in an interview with The Paris Review in 2008, after publishing Home, she rejected the idea that Jack would be a candidate for further excavation. “I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator,” she said. “He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.”

Robinson was prescient to predict that enlisting Jack as a primary protagonist would pose problems, and it is telling that she found him irresistible anyway. Robinson is a Calvinist, and over the course of these novels, Jack has stood out among her characters—troublesome, seductive, full of pathos—because he most represents a central theological question raised by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: Can a person be damned to perdition? Or, to use non-Calvinist language: Can a person be irretrievably and miserably wrong, broken, no-good, unsalvageable? If he is, and he knows that he is, what is he then to do? Does he have anything he can hope for?

Robinson’s fiction investigates, again and again, the connection between loneliness and perdition, between the soul’s isolation and its torment. Many of her novels feature thwarted love of different kinds between spiritual outsiders and insiders. She pairs Boughton, the preacher father, and his wayward son; Glory, the pious sister, and her atheist brother; Ames, the widowed preacher, and the transient woman, Lila, whom he loves—the ones who feel unhoused (Robinson’s trademark is the house as a metaphor for the soul) and the ones who wish to bring them in from the cold. This is the human drama and theological problem central to the Gilead novels as well as to Housekeeping (1980), Robinson’s fiction debut. Jack, in its way, represents the culmination of this exploration as she turns to the loneliest, most dispossessed soul in the world that she has spent the past 16 years making.

Living inside Jack’s head is not nice—which shouldn’t surprise us but does, given how compelling Robinson has made him in his appearances in previous books. “He knew he always looked better from a distance, even a little gentlemanly.” From the outside, he has a haunting allure; within, he’s steeped in recursive, debilitating self-loathing, which he dulls by getting drunk, though he knows it’s no salve. For most of his adult life, he’s been unemployed, shiftless, moving between flophouses in one or another state of disgrace. He “aspires to harmlessness,” as he says multiple times, the sole aim to which he can commit himself, yet one he regularly fails to achieve. He’s an admitted liar and occasional thief, but just as often he is lied to, stolen from, beaten, insulted, misunderstood, taken advantage of. He reaps what he supposes are the deserved punishments for one who doesn’t meet social expectations, though he is more pathetic than malicious. He lives in a mostly miserable haze, which in turn gives the book a hazy quality, ungrounded and restless.

Into this life comes, accidentally, a love. Jack sees a woman caught in the rain and offers her an umbrella; they get to talking; she invites him into her house for tea. Della is a schoolteacher and the daughter of a powerful minister, a respectable woman, and yet they share a sense of alienation. Hers is vague and hard to parse, as she acknowledges. Contemplating how uneasy and ill-adjusted she feels, she wonders aloud to Jack whether the problem really lies with her: “Maybe everything else is strange.”

“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.” Theirs is fated love, inexorable and mystical. “Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world,” Della says to Jack. “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. What it’s for.” It is a very Calvinist kind of love, in its way: a love that cannot be helped.

They might wish to help it. Della is a Black woman; Jack is white. In 1940s St. Louis, where they live, interracial relationships are punished with imprisonment. Jack is a danger to Della simply because he is white—not to mention a vagrant, a drunk, a man with jail time and dishonorable relationships in his past. She will lose her job, the support of her family, and any ability to remain a part of polite society, all vital protections against the racist systems that already render her survival and thriving precarious. Jack, whose intentions are now semi-reliably honorable, wants to do right by her, which is to say leave her alone. “He felt the warm chill of impulse, actually frightened himself a little with the thought that he could do harm so easily, so innocently really, except in the fact that he knew how grave and final the harm would be to her.” It’s almost too tidy a metaphor for Jack’s spiritual predicament: His love, the purest impulse of his soul, can only further alienate and cause harm.

What to make of this relationship as an object lesson or a metaphor, as one senses Robinson conceived it? They are clear foils: Della has religion; Jack does not. Della has a warm, welcoming home; Jack does not—though the mere idea that she could one day see his room at the boardinghouse where he lives inspires him, in one of the book’s most moving moments, to acquire a potted geranium. Della, who quietly and confoundingly persists in loving Jack’s soul despite his sorry trappings and upsetting behavior, appears to be a personification of Christian grace. Can it save him? In his eyes she becomes almost an abstraction, quietly omniscient:

Della was speaking to him sometimes in his thoughts, or she was quiet, simply there at the edge of his vision. In her gentle way she was making everything easier. What would she find becoming in him? That was what he did. And by putting himself in the way of survival, not to put too fine a point on it, he was doing as she had asked him to do, so forthrightly.

Yet the deep racism of the society they inhabit muddles any clean reading of Della and Jack as another Robinsonian insider-outsider duo. Della may be the educated and respected daughter of a powerful family in the Black Methodist community, but as a Black woman living in Jim Crow–era St. Louis, she is not even considered a full citizen deserving of equal rights. Jack, for all his outcast tendencies, can never share her estrangement—he can only deepen and complicate it. While they can provide each other companionship, comfort, even the mutual recognition of souls that Robinson suggests elevates romantic love to a kind of religious grace, neither can save the other.

That Jack doesn’t fall in with the prevailing white-supremacist worldview is another of his inexplicable “deviances”—one of the only redeeming ones—and it’s difficult to read Robinson’s intentions regarding this plot point. Jack is hardly an anti-racist visionary or a noble political dissenter, though in the previous novels he has prodded family members to reevaluate their own prejudices. He doesn’t examine with any acuity the bigotry of the world he lives in, or his failure to subscribe to it. Like so many of his personality traits, this, too, seems innate and immovable rather than learned or chosen. Yet why does the Blackness of his beloved, whose life has been marked by white supremacy, come up in his mind and in their conversations only insofar as it’s a material obstacle to their shared happiness? Why does our sensitive protagonist fail to imagine that this difference between them may be spiritually substantial and worthy of his curiosity, not because their souls are racialized but because their lived experiences have been? Is it his failure to see complexly, or Robinson’s? One begins to sympathize with Della’s relatives in their frantic attempts to shield her from him. Their refusal to see Jack’s love for her as at all moral or redemptive furthers the uneasy sense that if one is to root for these two characters, one would root for them to part, or for them to find, as Della says on one of their long nighttime walks, a world where only the two of them made the rules.

Because of the chronology of the Gilead series, Robinson has trapped Jack and Della in a kind of structural predestination: This book is set some years before the events of Home and Gilead, which means that we already know they come to grief. In Gilead and Home, we see Jack return to Iowa after he, Della, and their son were forced to leave their home in St. Louis when threatened with miscegenation charges. She’s taken their son to her parents in Memphis, and he thinks she has given up on him entirely. He writes letters; she does not respond. Eventually, after a suicide attempt, he leaves town, resigned to solitary perdition; she arrives with their son looking for him two days after he departs. With this as the prewritten outcome, Jack dramatizes the heartbreak of predestination while suggesting that the details and contours of a life—or a love—matter even if, in the end, that life or love will seem to come to nothing.

Robinson here enters Jack into the tradition of tragic heroes. To render his often-sordid path in this way dignifies a character who is routinely deprived of his dignity, which feels like a kind of authorial grace. It also makes him archetypal, his existence a parable. Likewise, Della and Jack seem designed to enact the parable of redemptive love undermined by a fallen world; they are undone by America’s “original sin.”

Because large portions of this book occur in dialogues between Della and Jack—their voices drifting toward each other in the dark—and because Jack’s senses are often dulled or confused by misery or alcohol, Jack lacks some of the lush materiality of Robinson’s past novels. Here, as Robinson predicted, Jack proves an imperfect vehicle. Robinson’s signature is her suffusion of love and poetry into the everyday business of human beings. No one has ever written age spots or July wind or the process of making a pie or the speech patterns of children with more attention to what she has called “a visionary quality to all experience.” Each of her novels has celebrated the fact that the ineffable is inseparable from the quotidian, and rendered the ineffable, quotidian world back to us, peculiar, luminous, and precise. If Jack feels somehow less like a world and more like a morality tale or thought experiment than her other novels, that is perhaps because its central character is so ill-tethered to the world.

Still, there are passages when Jack’s eye glimmers so clearly on the moment, when his dream logic feels so apt, that the whole world Robinson has illuminated with such care and attention reappears, and we are returned to the prophetic everyday.

Then she said nothing, and he said nothing, and the crickets chanted, or were they tree toads. It had seemed to him sometimes that, however deep it was, the darkness in a leafy place took on a cast, a tincture, of green. The air smelled green, of course, so the shading he thought he saw in the darkness might have been suggested by that wistfulness the breeze brought with it, earth so briefly not earth. All the people are grass.

This article appears in the October 2020 print edition with the headline “Marilynne Robinson’s Lonely Souls.”