He Tasks Me

Mark Ford

  • Home by Marilynne Robinson
    Virago, 325 pp, £16.99, September 2008, ISBN 978 1 84408 549 1

‘Home,’ Mary suggests in Robert Frost’s 1914 poem ‘The Death of the Hired Man’, ‘is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.’ To which her husband, Warren, replies: ‘I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’ Home is Marilynne Robinson’s third novel; published four years after Gilead and 27 years after her astonishing debut, Housekeeping, it explores with unsparing precision and the most delicate subtlety the implications of Frost’s rival definitions of the idea of home.

The home in question is that of the Boughton family. The Reverend Robert Boughton, readers of Gilead will remember, was the best friend of the Reverend John Ames, the narrator of that novel, which is written in the form of a memoir addressed to Ames’s seven-year-old son, Robert, a name given to him by his father in honour of his friend. Both Ames and Boughton are in their late seventies; Ames is the still active Congregationalist minister of the small town of Gilead in Iowa, and Boughton is the town’s now retired Presbyterian minister. Boughton, too, named a son after his friend, but John Ames Boughton, or Jack as he early on insists he be called, turns out almost from birth to be a wilful and serial miscreant who disappoints every pious expectation his parents, his seven siblings and his godfather Ames have of him.

Gilead and Home form a neatly dovetailed diptych. They narrate the same events in the same place over the same time span, but from different points of view. It is 1956 and Jack, after two decades of avoiding all communication with his family, refusing even to attend his mother’s funeral, has at last returned home, acutely conscious he has done nothing to deserve the love his father is still painfully eager to bestow on him. For throughout his absence, Jack has offered a silent but unignorable counter-argument to his father’s, and godfather’s, optimistic vision of the world as beneficently ruled by a caring God. Jack’s obstinate refusal to conform, his ingrained ‘meanness’, to use a phrase of Ames’s from Gilead, presents both reverends with a complex challenge to their theological beliefs. If only Jack could be ‘set right’, as Boughton puts it, there would be little to trouble the balm of Gilead, or the serenity of the two ministers’ slide towards death.

Jack is not, however, the only Boughton returnee. The youngest of the clan, Glory, is a shadowy figure in Gilead, much esteemed by Ames for her patient devotion to her rapidly failing father. In the opening pages of Home we learn her back story: she is 38 (five years younger than Jack), and for 13 years she taught English at a high school in Des Moines. For many of those years she thought she was engaged to a man who, it turns out, never had the slightest intention of marrying her, and it is her discovery of his turpitude that drives her to return to Gilead. ‘Home to stay, Glory! Yes!’ her father says, as the novel opens, ‘and her heart sank.’ During her faux-engagement she occasionally allowed herself to imagine a home and family of her own: ‘A modest sunlit house, everything in it spare and functional, airy. Nothing imposing about it at all. In front a picture window looking out on a garden, a patio in back. The kitchen would be spacious and sunlit, with a white painted table, no, a breakfast nook, where morning light would fall on it.’ Children would play quietly on the patio so as not to disturb Papa, and wear flannel pyjamas on cool nights. The home to which she returns ‘to stay’, ‘the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in’, and which she will one day inherit, is tall, awkward, gloomy, cluttered with memories, and stuffed with heavy Victorian furniture. The only children occasionally to be found playing there are Ames’s son Robert and his friend Tobias.

Glory’s consciousness permeates Home, which is Robinson’s first third-person novel. The pathos of her situation, and the stoicism with which she faces it, are handled with a restraint that may disappoint admirers of the breathtaking lyricism of the narrative voice developed for Ruth in Housekeeping. Home and Housekeeping might also be said to form a diptych, though one based on antitheses rather than similarities. The earlier novel, despite its title, is a paean to spiritual and imaginative freedom, both in its style and its narrative, a kind of magic-realism-inflected Huckleberry Finn for girls. As Huck Finn must escape the clutches of society, and in particular the attempts of the Widow Douglas to ‘sivilize’ him, so Ruth learns how to reject all social norms and material comforts, escaping with her hobo aunt Sylvie for a life as a drifter. The book culminates in their decision to abandon the family home in Fingerbone – which, for good measure, they set ablaze – and they set out by foot across the railway bridge that stretches over Fingerbone Lake, in whose waters both Ruth’s grandfather and her mother perished, the first in a train accident, the second a suicide.

‘When did I become so unlike other people?’ Ruth wonders in the book’s closing meditation. Huck’s ‘unlikeness’ is conveyed by Twain’s use of an immediately recognisable idiolect (‘You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter’), but Ruth’s ‘unlikeness’ is taken by Robinson to license an expansive, richly textured, elaborately cadenced prose of the kind that often gets called poetic. Here, for instance, is Ruth as she waits with her sister, Lucille, for the dawn after a night spent by the lake:

The absolute black of the sky dulled and dimmed and blanched slowly away, and finally half a dozen daubs of cloud, dull powder pink, sailed high in a pale-green sky, rust-red at the horizon. Venus shone a heatless planetary white among these parrot colours, and earth lay unregenerate so long that it seemed to me for once all these blandishments might fail. The birds of our world were black motes in that tropic.

‘It doesn’t seem to get any lighter,’ I said.

   ‘It will,’ Lucille replied.

The book’s structural contrast, between the strictly realist dialogue and the endlessly resourceful word-painting of Ruth’s descriptions and ruminations, mimes the distinction between the ordinary social world that Lucille opts to join, and the spiritual one of material deprivation but imaginative liberty into which Sylvie gradually inducts Ruth. One wintry morning Sylvie conducts her protégée to an occluded valley in the mountains overlooking Fingerbone; its frosted vegetation prompts the following flight of fancy:

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water – peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savours of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing – the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

While Lucille takes up dressmaking and works on strategies for becoming popular in school, Ruth adopts Sylvie’s topsy-turvy metaphysics of loss, in which the most spiritually rewarding form of housekeeping is to set one’s house on fire and flee into the darkness, allowing the world at large to believe you are dead. Just as for Huck, who cleverly fakes his own death before setting off down the river, there is a posthumous aspect to their freedom: throughout their travels Sylvie carries a newspaper clipping pinned to her right lapel whose headline reads: ‘Lake Claims Two.’

There is no such escape, however, for Glory in Home. Her life back in Gilead consists of real housekeeping – shopping, cooking, cleaning, gardening, washing, and making her father as comfortable in mind and body as she can. The sense of mystical possibility that irradiates Housekeeping has reduced, to use a culinary metaphor, in Gilead and Home to a more prosaic, quotidian ideal of goodness, one underpinned for Boughton and Ames, and to an extent for Glory, by their religious faith. Neither Gilead nor Home shies away from staging full-scale theological debates on topics such as grace and predestination, or the writings of Karl Barth or the atheistical Ludwig Feuerbach. Robinson is unusual in believing such dilemmas can be the stuff of modern fiction, but her preoccupation with transgression and its effects on a community situate both books firmly in the line of 19th-century American classics such as Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter.

‘He tasks me, he heaps me,’ Ahab declares of his great antagonist; ‘I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.’ Jack may be more a black sheep than a white whale, but it is the inscrutability of his childhood acts of malice that proves so disconcerting: he blows up Ames’s mailbox with wood shavings and a fuse of twine dipped in paraffin; when only ten he goes joyriding in a Model T Ford and steals the handle of the glove box, which he then shows to Ames, knowing his father’s friend can never tell his family or the authorities. He develops a way of breaking the windows in Ames’s study so the pane shatters altogether; he steals the mayor’s son’s hunting rifle, and Ames’s Greek Testament, his penknife, his reading glasses and a photograph of his first wife, Louisa, who died in childbirth. On one occasion Ames finds him in the parlour of his house: ‘He just laughed and said, “Hello, Papa,” cool and charming as you please. He made some small talk, in that precocious way he had, smiling as if there were a joke between us. It took me a while to figure out what was missing that time.’ The poor preacher worries throughout Gilead about the evil influence his wayward namesake may exercise over his own young son, and his much much younger wife, especially after his own impending death.

But Jack’s major transgression, like Hester Prynne’s in The Scarlet Letter, is sexual: in his early twenties he seduces and impregnates a teenage girl from a poor rural family who live out on a rundown farm in the vicinity of Gilead. After his misdeed Jack shows no further interest in either girl or child. Glory drives her parents over to see this ill-starred addition to their family, in the hope of offering support, or perhaps even adopting her, but their interest is rudely spurned. A couple of years later the child dies of a foot infection which should have been curable. Such an incident, as Boughton senior painfully acknowledges, can’t simply be chalked up as another of Jack’s bizarre, motiveless pranks:

She had never heard her father say such hard words – the cruelty of it! the arrogance! – and she had never seen him brood and mutter for days at a time, as if he were absorbing the fact that some transgressions are beyond a mere mortal’s capacity to forgive. How often those same hard, necessary words had come to her mind.

The return of Jack, then, out of work and almost penniless, prone to alcoholism but enigmatic as ever, presents Boughton with his long-awaited opportunity to play the role of forgiving father in the parable of the prodigal son. Jack never quite allows this; insistently respectful of the ailing patriarch, even while being preached to at tedious length, he flares up only when the two watch a television news item about the race riots in Montgomery, Alabama. ‘There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you,’ the reverend says. ‘In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.’ As the white police set about the black demonstrators with dogs and riot sticks, however, Jack can’t prevent himself exclaiming ‘Jesus Christ!’

His father shifted in his chair. ‘That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.’

Jack said, ‘I –’ as if he had been about to say more. But he stopped himself. ‘Sorry.’

On the screen an official was declaring his intention to enforce the letter of the law. Jack said something under his breath, then glanced at his father.

The old man said: ‘I do believe it is necessary to enforce the law. The Apostle Paul says we should do everything “decently and in order”. You can’t have people running around the streets like that.’

Jack snapped off the TV. He said, ‘Sorry, I was just kind of – ’

   ‘No need to be sorry, Jack. Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same. And who is to judge between thee and me? We just have to forgive each other.’

Readers of Gilead will know that Jack has fathered a second child, by a black woman called Della, with whom he is still in love, despite the vehement opposition of her parents. They are not married, or rather, as he tells Ames in the earlier novel, ‘are married in the eyes of God, as they say. Who does not provide a certificate, but who also does not enforce anti-miscegenation laws. The Deus Absconditus at His most benign.’

One of the reasons for his return to Gilead is to see if it might be possible for a black and white couple with a mixed-race child to settle there in peace. The answer seems to be no. But Jack is emphatically not presented as the novel’s progressive, tolerant hero taking on the forces of racial and religious bigotry, any more than Hester Prynne is unambiguously celebrated for her violation of her marriage vows in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne and Robinson are particularly interested in the workings of conscience, which they habitually explore in terms of American culture’s origins in New England Puritanism, and the premium it placed on the individual’s powers of self-examination. In a number of the ‘contrarian’ essays collected in The Death of Adam (1998), Robinson mounts a vigorous defence of the Puritans and their legacy, and she shares with Reverend Ames an abiding respect for the most influential early theorist of Protestantism, John Calvin, knowledge of whose work she sees as fundamental to an understanding of the history of America.

Jack and Hester both transgress against a belief system they can neither accept nor escape, and the conflict this generates drives them to the verge of suicide. Robinson gives us little direct access to Jack’s consciousness, choosing instead to create a sense of his inner life through his cagey, halting conversations with Glory, from whom he keeps his involvement with Della secret, and through his uneasy deflections of his father’s earnest probing and moralising. His half-confessions and endlessly rehearsed uncertainties develop into an excruciating ritual which deftly embodies the addictive self-questioning of a see-sawing conscience. I was repeatedly put in mind of Hawthorne’s description of Hester’s inner travails in her darkest hour:

Hester Prynne, whose heart had lost its regular and healthy throb, wandered without a clew in the dark labyrinth of mind; now turned aside by an insurmountable precipice; now starting back from a deep chasm. There was wild and ghastly scenery all around her, and a home and comfort nowhere. At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl [the child of her adultery] at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide.

Jack goes one step further, but is fortunately too drunk the night of his attempt to succeed in killing himself.

In Housekeeping the suicide of Ruth’s mother is narrated in a tone of almost delighted wonder at her quirkiness: on her first try she gets bogged down in the field leading down to the lake, and is found sitting cross-legged on the roof of her car eating wild strawberries – ‘which were prodigiously large and abundant that year’ – by some men who obligingly haul her vehicle out of the mud; she thanks them, rewards them with her purse, guns up the car again, and roars swerving and sliding back down the meadow, sailing ‘from the top of a cliff named Whiskey Rock into the blackest depth of the lake’. Jack’s botched attempt to asphyxiate himself in the family DeSoto is presented in a far less romantic way, and is interpreted by Glory just as Hester’s ‘fearful doubts’ are interpreted by Hawthorne, as a desperate attempt to escape ‘self-consciousness and all its humiliations’.

Like Gilead, Home proceeds in a gentle, meditative manner. Through Glory, Robinson observes Jack’s struggles with patient solicitude, allowing him neither to develop into a martyr nor to slip beyond the pale of sympathy. The jousting between the increasingly intemperate Reverend Boughton, whose mind has begun to wander, and his stubbornly unregenerate son becomes more and more harrowing. Though Jack tries to disguise his atheism, and knows his Bible inside out, his father isn’t fooled, and keeps returning to the fray. Home for Jack, far from being the place you somehow haven’t to deserve, is where his sense of his own lack of desert is most mordant. ‘I don’t mind. I deserve rebuke,’ he apologises to his father after some infraction:

The old man said: ‘You ought to let the Lord decide what you deserve. You think about that too much, what you deserve. I believe that is part of the problem.’

Jack smiled. ‘I believe you may have a point.’

‘Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It’s all grace. If you accepted that, you might be able to relax a little.’

Jack said: ‘Somehow I have never felt that grace was intended for me, particularly.’

His father said: ‘Oh nonsense! That is just nonsense!’ He closed his eyes and withdrew his hand.

Jack may, like a latter-day Esau, nurture hopes of receiving a patriarchal blessing from his father on his deathbed, but this plan is honourably impeded for much of his visit home by his unwillingness to misrepresent himself. Eventually, on the urging of his wholesome doctor brother, Teddy, he agrees to make a false declaration about his faith in God and the Scriptures, but it comes too late. ‘He’s going to toss the old gent an assurance or two, and then he’s out the door,’ is Boughton senior’s response.

No explanation is ever given for Jack’s unassailable difference from his God-fearing family. If on the one hand it renders him unreliable, unhappy and homeless, on the other it propels him to transgress against an odious and legally enshrined prejudice in a manner impossible for his siblings. The last pages of Home allow the future to devolve to Jack and Della’s son, Robert, who is about the same age as Ames’s son, also called Robert, and also the product of an ‘unconventional marriage’ of ‘unequally yoked’ partners, or so Jack mischievously contends in a barbed exchange with Ames at the end of Gilead, which causes the reverend much distress. Symmetries of this kind create the sense of a subdued, almost secret patterning underlying the double perspectives on the same events and characters presented by Gilead and Home. And while these brilliantly intertwined novels may not have the shimmer and dazzle of the prose of Housekeeping, their attention to detail and nuance enables each facet of the story they tell so exquisitely to assume a shape and radiance of its own.