Searching for God and the self
The word is as twisted with complications and mystery as all those other household words we use every day: wife, mother, father, son, daughter, family. Home slips from our mouth easy as air, yet only in our hearts and senses can we really discern the meaning of the word. Some of us have lived in the same homes in which we were reared. Some find a home in middle age, some live in a home constructed from their memories. Some people never truly feel at home anywhere on the earth. Say the word to one man, and he will think of the small Piedmont town in which he grew up 50 years ago. Say it to another, and he will tell you that “home is where you hang your bathrobe.”
In Marilynne Robinson’s Home (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Publishers, 2008), Glory Boughton, 38, returns to her family home in Gilead, Iowa, to care for her frail and elderly father and to recover from a failed engagement. Returning to he house in which she grew up, where her father’s greets her with open arms — ”Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” — Glory feels both a sense of relief from her ordeals and a feeling of entrapment, as if her failed plans regarding her future, to marry and begin a family of her own, have somehow thrown her back into the past. Here in the old house, birthplace to Glory, her five siblings, and their father, she assumes a routine of tasks — cleaning, gardening, cooking, visiting her father‘s best friend, John Ames — that brings order to her exterior life while she inwardly ponders the meaning and direction of her life.
Shortly after her return, Glory is joined by her brother Jack, who left Gilead and their father 20 years before. An alcoholic, unable to hold a steady job, remembered in Gilead as both a beloved child and a troublemaker, Jack has come home to try and sort out his own troubled life. Stricken with guilt over his many past failures, Jack nonetheless behaves as if he is unable to change. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack still has more questions than answers, that he is troubled by his lack of faith in God and by his inability to fit into the world — not only in Gilead, but in the world at large. He struggles, too, to connect with his father and with John Ames, both of whom are ministers in the small town.
These inward struggles, these attempts by the characters to connect with one another, lie at the heart of Home. As in Gilead, her previous novel about these same characters, Robinson’s characters engage in a dialect of the interior self that flares occasionally into conversation with friends and family. In both books, the greatest source of tension exists between John Ames and Jack, his namesake. Neither man can understand the other — Jack considers the Reverend Ames somewhat puritanical and judgmental, while John Ames views Jack, who abandoned a lover and child, as wild and irresponsible. The young man and the old maneuver around each other like a pair of wary chess players, each seeking to understand the moves and positions of the other.
In the passage below, Jack, Glory, their father, and the Reverend Ames and his wife Lila are discussing hell and salvation:
“Jack said, ‘People don’t change then.’
‘They do, if there is some other factor involved. Drink, say. Their behavior changes. I don’t know if that means their nature has changed.’
Jack smiled. ‘For a man of the cloth, you seem pretty cagey.’
Boughton said, ‘You should have seen him thirty years ago.’
‘Well, you should have been paying attention.’
Ames was becoming irritated, clearly. He said, ‘I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.’”
In addition to her gemlike prose and her powers of description, these two books together amaze us because of how they dovetail together. Written from John Ames’ point of view, Gilead gives us a different take on Ames and on Jack than we find in Home. Though the novels may be read independently, in tandem they illustrate the ways in which we misinterpret the motives of our friends and family, the words they speak to us, the gestures of love that we all too often take as rebukes or insults.
Readers who are put off by any discussion of religious faith might find Gilead and Home tedious. Readers who want the tenets of their faith ranked and orderly as church pews may also raise objection to these books. To those, however, who want to delve deeply into the lives of fictional characters, including their ideas of God and those ongoing debates over comprehension which engage most earnest Christians, Gilead and Home provide a feast for thought.
Home by Marilynne Robinson. Strauss & Giroux, 2009. 336 pages