Thoughts on Marilynne Robinson’s Novel, Home

I wrote Unknownthe following to help me digest what I had just read in the novel Home. If you’ve not read it, this might not make sense. And if you intend to read it, you’ll find I give the novel away, so be warned of that.

What a devastating book. When I finished the book, on that last stunning line – The Lord is wonderful – I broke into weeping with a mix of emotions. Hope, yearning, sadness, even confusion and despair. All of this is wrapped up in these pages. The estranged son, Jack, seems to be a chimera, but I also sense he acts as an archetype. Someone mythological, strange in his purity and the alien way he exists. He comes home, looking for something he doesn’t even know, but never really finding it. At the beginning of the story he is hopeful, but he is least himself. Guarded, flashes of cynicism, unsure. By the end, he is resigned to perdition (as he says), but he is also the most gentle, the most pure, the most honest at this point. But he is by no means good. He lists his “venial” sins: pride, malice, thievery, dishonesty, vanity, drunkenness, and so on. And yet, for those who see him at his most honest, they say, “He is a good man.” In that, they see his beauty, the image of God in him. They see his gentleness, his kindness, his love. There is, for all his faults, a kind of consistency and purity to his character, a consistency both good and bad. But where he is most estranged is his inability to be loved, to be on the receiving end of it, naked and unashamed. For some reason, his whole life he seems to have doubted that it could be true, that he was loved. When he begins to hope that it might be true, he finds reason to disbelieve it, with a devastating consistency. A seemingly providential consistency, as though he were damned. Jack poses the question of whether a man could be predestined to damnation, caught up in the inevitability of it, and be aware of it happening to him despite his deepest wishes not to be a sinful, wretched thing. It’s the loneliest, saddest thought of the book. And by the end, he seems resigned to it.

In many ways, Jack is like a black hole of grace. Grace comes to him, but nothing seems to come out that acknowledges it. His family loves him to a fault, his brothers and sisters, his father especially. By the end of the book, it breaks his father, this unreciprocated grace. “Jesus never had to be old,” he says. He tires of doling out forgiveness, and the weight of Jack’s sin crushes his spirit. What is revealed, finally, is that Rev. Boughton’s sin was to carry Jack’s sin. To have loved his son so much to want to carry the responsibility himself, if that can be called a sin. That would not “fix” Jack, and when Rev. Boughton realizes that Jack is a black hole he becomes embittered and angry. In a sense, the Reverend wanted to be Jesus for Jack. He wanted to carry his sins so that Jack could be clean. But he couldn’t bear that burden, and it breaks him. As a man, he can only sustain love for so long, when every time he extends forgiveness he receives nothing in return (perhaps the equivalent of a face-full of spit). In a way, this reveals at root a selfishness in the Reverend. And pride. Selfishness, that it turns out the forgiveness and grace he had extended to Jack was not without bounds, but that he hoped for something from it (though who can blame him for wanting his son?). Pride, that he could think to cover the sins of his son so diligently, so perfectly. Jack, with a skill that seems god-like, and yet inadvertently too, finds ways to break down his father’s pride. Both Jack and his father are disillusioned by the end of the story, yet strangely Jack seems the purer, more honest for it. The Reverend seems stripped of his piety and revealed for how sinful he was all along. Jack’s arc moves him from sinful to redeemed (though not in the way we expect). The Reverend’s arc moves him from good (such a banal, dangerous word) to wretched.

Glory has her own arc too. She, too, comes home, not knowing what she’s looking for. There is shame in her past, despair at hopes lost. She is looking for meaning, it seems. Why did it all matter? What point was my life? By the end of the book, it appears she has found her meaning. It is simply to have witnessed to who her brother was. To preserve the house as a symbol of all that is good and hopeful in Jack. In many ways, this echoes some of the pathos of the previous book, Gilead. In both, the memory of a father is preserved for a son who will only barely know him. At the end of Home, Glory has a vision of Jack’s son as a young man, coming back to the house Jack grew up in. Because one of the few things Jack has passed down to his son are the idealized memories of his homestead, by preserving the place Glory is able to preserve Jack’s memories for his son. Glory, one of the few witnesses to Jack’s goodness, will essentially sacrifice her life to preserve that witness for his son. Thus she finds meaning.

So there is a strange beauty to the story. A sort of devastating car wreck of broken souls, colliding with one another, limping away. That is perhaps Marylinee Robinson’s gift, to show the raw ugliness, and the beauty therein, of the human soul. The Lord is wonderful, indeed.

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