by Marilynne Robinson
ISBN 978 1 84408 550 7 • Virago 2009
First published in hardback in America in 2008 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Home is a companion novel to Gilead (2004). Robinson returns to the time-period, characters and setting of the earlier novel to tell the story from a different perspective. Both a companion to Gilead and a stand-alone novel, you don’t need to read Gilead in advance, although if you haven’t you won’t experience the sheer scale of Robinson’s achievement in building a further layer on top of the earlier story.
In Home, Glory Boughton, 38 year-old spinster and youngest daughter, returns to the family home in Gilead to care for her ailing father, Robert Boughton, the Presbyterian minister friend of John Ames. Confused and disappointed in love Glory is surprised and angry to find herself at home, a spinster still. She is joined shortly after by John Ames Boughton, known as Jack. The family’s wayward ‘prodigal son’ has returned home after a silence of twenty years seeking forgiveness and redemption, hoping to start over again. He brings secrets and doubt and an introspective yearning for acceptance from his father, from his surrogate father, John Ames and, of course, his Father.
Like Gilead the tone is ponderous, the language is homiletic, drawn out like the plain-speaking style of Middle Western America. Unlike Gilead, the narrative unfolds through the eyes of a reliable omniscient narrator undercut with insight into Glory’s thoughts and feelings, which is unsettling. It’s her view of her family that we get insight of so that we still might not get to the ‘truth’. For example, much of Robert Boughton’s religious outlook is filtered through her eyes.
With the dreadful rigor of an upright child, Glory had noted and pondered his accommodations, however minor or defensible. This was in part an effect of her finding herself in a suddenly quiet house with only her parents to think about. Still, Glory’s view of things had an authority for them precisely because it was naïve.
In Home, as in Gilead, a theological debate over predestination and redemption drives the narrative. All the characters display human frailty and tiptoe around hurt feelings and unspoken shame. One word from Robert Boughton would lighten the mood within the home, yet, at every opportunity with which he is presented, he fails to offer the right measure of words or scriptural advice. He fails because his religion is coloured by Jack’s behaviour. As his family grew up, Sabbath-by-Sabbath his sermons depended on Jack’s church attendance. As here, when Glory describes how Jack would change her father’s mood:
Sometimes, rarely, he would nod to himself and smile, and then they would know that Jack was there, and that the sermon would be about joy and the goodness of God no matter what the text was.
For a Presbyterian minister we never hear about his relationship with his congregation. His sermons are driven by his personal conflicted relationship with his second youngest son and not an urge to tend to the spiritual needs of his ‘flock’. As in the Christian parable of the lost sheep, Jack is the only one that matters.
By returning to the same story told from a different point of view, Robinson responds to critics who found Ames’s character too good, too reliable. They clearly hadn’t grasped her central conceit that it’s grace and not man that redeems. Both books are about perception. How people perceive each other and how humans perceive Grace.
A central scene in both novels is when Jack turns up unannounced at Ames’s church. He has pinned his hopes on finding comfort and acceptance. Afterwards, Glory finds him distraught and disappointed because he perceives that Ames has preached judgementally.
Jack tells Glory, “…these old fellows play rough. They look so harmless, and the next thing you know, you’re counting broken bones again.”
[…] he goes on
“…the text was Hagar and Ishmael, the application was the disgraceful abandonment of children by their fathers. And the illustration was my humble self, sitting there beside his son with the eyes of Gilead upon me. I think I was aghast. His intention, no doubt. To appal me, that is, to turn me white, as I am sure he did. Whiter.”
The same scene in Gilead is used to reveal Ames’s lack of perception. He fails to understand the significance of Jack’s church attendance and does not adapt his sermon to fit the situation when Jack turns up unexpectedly. Both fail to perceive it as a moment of God’s grace. Home shows how far the ‘plaster saint’ depicted in Gilead was self-deluded. In Gilead Ames moves on to ponder the significance of the sermon in his relationship with his seven year old son, while in Home, the Boughton’s are in shock and, mistakenly, think that Ames is too.
Her father was in mourning, and Ames stayed away, no doubt waiting for a sign that he had not alienated the Boughtons forever. He would be in mourning too.
Of course, as we know from Gilead, Ames is nothing of the sort. In the gap between perception and reality Robinson exposes self-delusion and hypocrisy.
Home reveals the limits of organised religion. Between them, Della’s minister father, Boughton and Ames all fail to minister to Jack, while both Boughton and Ames struggle to explain the Christian mystery. In contrast, their families show the practical application of Christianity. Glory (aptly named) reveals God’s glory through her unselfish actions. Duped and heartbroken she comes to tend house for her ailing father. It’s significant, too, that it’s Lila, Ames’s young, uneducated wife who speaks the ‘balm of Gilead’ to Jack at the end of a prolonged discussion about predestination and salvation which has “irritated Ames”. Ames tries to end the conversation. He says,
“I’m not going to apologise 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 what 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.”
[…] Lila, silent until now, speaks up.
“What about being saved?” She spoke softly and blushed deeply, looking at the hands that lay folded in her lap, but she continued. “If you can’t change, there don’t seem much point in it.” […] “A person can change. Everything can change.”
Up until this point it does not seem to have occurred to either Boughton senior or Ames that Jack could change and in changing, can be redeemed.
Ultimately, Home is a devastating critique of human misery and the capacity for humans to hurt each other, however unwittingly, with a look, a word, and a deed and also by withholding words of balm. In Home, hope is still deferred. While it might seem that the upbeat ending promises a redemptive future for Jack’s son, historically, the book ends on the cusp of the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.
Nicola Barr, writing in The Guardian of 6 June 2009 sums up both the emotional impact and literary qualities of the book:
This companion piece to Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead, now the winner of this year’s Orange prize, is a stunning novel, meditative and compelling, incantatory, breathtaking and ultimately devastating. Who knew that novels could still be like this?
Here’s a link to Marilynne Robinson speaking about Home, with some references to Gilead.