In the fourth novel in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead sequence, the eponymous Jack spends a long night alone with his thoughts. ‘After a while,’ he observes, ‘light will reveal itself in a very dark room, not quite as a mist, as something more particulate, as if the slightest breath had lifted the finest dust into the stillest air.’ This recalls Milton’s ‘darkness visible’, but it is not a description of hell so much as of the way things can contain their opposite. Robinson is looking at the idea or moment of creation. Jack is a love story; it contains miracles. It is also the most theological of Robinson’s novels, bound by religious paradox and poetic impossibility. The book ends with the word ‘grace’, something Jack has spent his life struggling to avoid or accept. Robinson is interested in love, not as desire but as salvation, perhaps even as resurrection: it is a light in the darkness, life in death, the emergence of something from nothing. No wonder the novel has to work so hard.
Jack and Della, two star-crossed lovers, meet in a graveyard in St Louis where Jack, a ne’er-do-well and binge alcoholic, is sleeping rough and Della, a young schoolteacher, has been accidentally locked in for the night. The two know each other a little already: there was a disastrous attempt at a date, when Jack fled the restaurant leaving the bill unpaid. Much of the story is still confused: the details will come later, though it is never entirely clear what brought Della to this place. As a black woman in a white graveyard at dusk, her social position leaves her open to a charge of solicitation. Della is the furthest thing available to literature from a prostitute, whatever that thing may be. Jack, though fallen, is careful to free himself of base sexual intent. They share a love of poetry. Her presence beside him reminds him of Milton’s embracing angels: ‘total they mix, union of pure with pure.’
They sit through the night among the tombs of the dead and talk. They discuss sin and God, harmlessness and predestination. What would happen if they were the only ones left, after the end of the world? It would be a place where they make the rules, one where they could live together as a couple. Everything Della says is lovely. ‘The dark quiet of her face soothed him, like a touch.’ When Jack is bitter or blasé she is serious and restorative. When he says meaninglessness has its pleasures, she says that the very idea of meaninglessness is so full of significance that it cannot really be said to exist. ‘You be my soul,’ Jack thinks, yearningly. ‘Her sleeve stirred against him. The plum-coloured cloth of her coat. He had once asked himself which colours yield to darkness first, and which of them float in it for a while. Twilight has nothing black about it, so black would be absorbed much more gradually than plum. She was clothed in twilight.’
Can this be true of blackness? It is the kind of detail you would need to research. The novel is reticent about skin tone, although racism is what threatens to keep the couple apart. In a society where it is illegal for them to marry, Jack can only damage Della’s reputation by loving her. She could get fired just for talking to him in the street. This causes Jack great difficulty and regret – it might almost be said that the colour of her skin is overwhelmingly Jack’s problem in the novel; she continues, for the most part, serene. Della is soft-voiced, even in anger, and this anger is never politicised, though it does exist. ‘I am actually full of rage,’ she says. ‘Wrath. I think I feel a little like God must feel before he just gives up and rains brimstone.’ The novel is too tactful to explain why she feels this way. Indeed, Della has grown up in a tactful world, one in which children are not told the difficult facts about American racism. Her father is a preacher in Memphis; Jack’s father is a preacher in Iowa: he is the Robert Boughton we’re introduced to in Gilead (2004), the first novel in the series, the broken-hearted apologist for his irredeemably wayward son. The fact that the characters live on either side of a racial divide is less important to their conversation in the graveyard than the difference between her Methodism and what she jokingly calls ‘the swamps’ of his Presbyterianism. ‘It’s all pretty straightforward,’ Jack explains. ‘Salvation by grace alone. It just begins earlier for us than for other people. In the deep womb of time, in fact. By His secret will and purpose.’
Oh, Jack, Jack, who are you telling? He seems a little on point for a lost soul, or a soul in hell, or a soul in purgatory, wherever it is that his soul resides. Perhaps it is in the ‘nowhere’ of the disbeliever, though he gives this nowhere many different names. ‘Maybe this was hell,’ Jack says of his life, ‘no flames at all, just an eternity of disheartened self-awareness.’ He is a ‘naked man’ who also calls himself ‘the Prince of Darkness’; he may be spiritually dead, or spiritually not yet born; he is Adam in a world that has ended, instead of a world that is yet to begin.
Jack is happy to describe his existence as ‘purgatorial’, despite the fact that neither Methodists nor Presbyterians ‘do’ purgatory. This is somehow irritating. What does Jack mean when he calls his life ‘a prevenient death’. Is this just a little theological joke, like Father Ted’s: ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’? Later, he says he does not believe in God, and things get more swampy still. Perhaps the superabundance of religious reference is just content, or distraction – the way Tolstoy’s characters keep talking about agrarian reform. More seriously, if a character believes, as Jack says he does, in predestination, does this make the author God? The reader may be better off forgetting what little they know about plot and prevenient grace as they try to figure out why Jack’s luck all runs bad, until it starts to turn good. Every action he takes in the first half of the novel brings more trouble. Money does not lift him out of poverty: it attracts robbery and accusation. Even love brings him difficulty and despair.
The novel takes place at night and on Sundays, a day of ‘no liquor, no cigarettes. All those bells’. Events are few and uncomplicated. Jack feeds a cat, argues with the clerk at his seedy lodgings, tries to stay out of trouble. He gets a job in a shoe shop and then as a ladies’ partner in a dancing school. He pawns one suit for another. Despite his best intentions, he walks over to Della’s house, or accepts her invitations, and berates himself on every page for being no good.
Midway through the book, Jack sees Della in a crowd talking to a couple of men who turn out to be her brothers. Instead of ignoring him as a down-and-out, she comes over to hand him a poem: ‘I can’t just be ashamed because people say I should be.’ Jack can’t believe she finds him becoming. It brings to his mind Ezekiel 37.3: ‘Mortal, can these bones live? Oh Lord God, you know.’ This is the powerful passage set in a valley of dry bones, where the bones come together, are covered with sinews, flesh and skin, breath is put into them and they live, ‘a vast multitude’. The scene is not one of resurrection, however, but of reanimation. Though Jack starts attending church again, though his love is returned and his luck begins to turn, the book remains hugely preoccupied with negative spaces and impossibilities. Jack is an ‘unhusband’ in an ‘unmarriage’; the lovers are caught ‘in a great web, that made every choice impossible’. This is not something that can be fixed – even by time.
History, in the novel, is represented by the future demolition of the black churches of St Louis, something that will happen after it concludes. For the most part, the characters live in the non-specific American past of the other Gilead novels. It is still Sunday, it is always night. No dates are provided, nor is there much in the way of wider context, apart from an incidental scene in which Jack is turned down for army duty in what we assume is the Second World War. This is a big war to leave unnamed, but the laws banning interracial marriage endured in the American South until 1967, so there is some justification for allowing the past to be undifferentiated. Jack’s relationship with Della exists in a blessed space: it is his soul she sees and loves. ‘A soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure.’ Given the eternal nature of the business at hand, it is no wonder that world events don’t get much of a look in. Nor can the soul’s problems be solved by a novelist’s ordinary tools: psychology is not much use here.
It’s hard to say what went wrong with Jack, though this book discusses his wrongness all the time. Maybe there is no reason. He was reluctant to be born. He became a thief, perhaps in order to feel a connection with the people he stole from. He is a hopeless case, a botched prodigal son incapable of returning home. Jack fails in his ambition to be harmless, he is tantalised by fragility and worried by the urge to do it damage. This unease is fleetingly linked to the loss of his fragile mother, but it is in no way explained by that – it cannot be understood or outgrown. The book works by repetition rather than development. Robinson circles the same few difficulties, while waiting for the story, or Della, or prevenient grace, to rescue Jack from the darkness.
In a late act of generosity, the novel parses Jack’s character for the reader: ‘Jack had come into the world trailing clouds, certainly, which must have had another origin than glory, one that would account for a grating precocity uncannily predicting a jaded adulthood.’ The reference is from Wordsworth: ‘Not in utter nakedness/But trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home.’ This is one of many allusions that feels theological but is actually literary, or even romantic. Maybe, Jack says, ‘he liked poetry because it also could not help lying,’ in which case the book is littered with hopeful falsehoods. There is Lear’s bare forked animal, plenty of Milton, Dante (that proto-Catholic with his slightly confusing ideas about purgatory) and possibly Yeats (‘Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?’). Jack carries Robert Frost around in his pocket, finds ‘good old Leaves of Grass’ in a bookshop, misses Hart Crane and channels Poe. When he hears church bells as a ‘clash and clangour’, we might think it’s a symptom of his fallen state until the reference is made explicit. No, it is not perdition, it is a poem. ‘Poe was exactly right – bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.’
When Della asks Jack to say grace, he recites instead a verse by Paul Laurence Dunbar. ‘I sometimes think the Lord might enjoy a few lines of poetry,’ he says. Dunbar’s parents were enslaved in Kentucky, though we do not learn this from the novel, which substitutes the sweeter, more tactful fact that Della’s grandmother held a book signed by him to be her greatest treasure. The poem is called ‘Paradox’ and it aligns very precisely along the axis of the novel itself: ‘Down to the grave I will take thee,/Out from the noise of the strife,/Then shalt thou see me and know me –/Death, then, no longer, but life.’
There is the problem, however, of what kind of life can be pulled from death, what kind of joy allowed to the reanimated or arisen. Robinson shares much with Milton: a sense that we are ‘overseen’, and a joyful reluctance to discuss the physicalities of sex. The couple are ‘married’ by the joining of their bodies, but you will not get any information here about how that business might work. ‘Eight o’clock came and went. In fact, he woke up the next morning with her cheek against his shoulder and her arm across his chest.’ Why talk about reproduction when you could discuss creation instead? There is also holy (or Miltonic) laughter to enjoy. After the long night in the graveyard, Della turns to Jack at dawn, a new Eve, her face washed and shining with dew. ‘Her laughter meant, Look at me, Jack! Look at my face all splashed with light.’ This is the way people laugh in heaven, perhaps, after a life spent joking about Presbyterian ‘swamps’. Robinson does not approve of the doubling effect of irony, which brings laughter close to cruelty. Jokes, for Jack, run close to self-consciousness, embarrassment and display: they are part of his endless ‘fidgeting of the brain’.
Sometimes, when a writer allows no humour into their prose, they keep sex out of it too, and they do this to reinforce their own sense of singleness, solemnity and self-importance. But Robinson is different: she serves a higher importance; she does not think that we are on our own. Towards the end of the graveyard scene, Della says that Jesus must exist, and her reasons have to do with the witnessed life. ‘There has to be a Jesus,’ she says, ‘to say “beautiful” about things no one else would ever see.’ For Jack, this sense of a ‘presence’ is less benign: it is ‘the kind that is conjured only by emptiness’, and is, for him, the origin of shame. ‘Just look at him’ is a searing phrase always on his mind; an inner voice like God’s, pointing at Adam’s nakedness in the garden. Late in the novel, he spends a night in the dance studio where he works during the day. He is surrounded by its freckled mirrors, so he cannot see the ‘difference between the reflected darkness and the darkness itself’. Full of unease, he considers the idea of ‘apophatic’ loneliness, a word that (when you look it up), involves approaching God in the negative, which is to say, understanding him by describing everything he is not. This is ‘God in the silence. In the deep darkness.’ Jack then considers a ‘benign presence’, one that would take the curse off loneliness and make the ‘human situation less an embarrassment’. Thinking about this exterior ‘kindly intent’, he decides that ‘it could not be altogether different if the presence were Jesus.’ You might as well believe. This is enough. ‘I’m glad that you’re alive,’ Jack says to Della, and this is also enough, it seems. This is everything.
On one, rapturous level, this book is a romance. Nothing can be wrong, at least for the moment, between these lovers. ‘And then they embraced, and what an embrace it was, as if they two had survived flood and fire, as if they had solved loneliness. Such an embrace.’ The animating spirit is Della, the holy fool, who cannot do other than she does. ‘Once in a lifetime … you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away.’ It might be said, of course, that if you are a character in a book, your choices are limited by the intentions of the author. Jack may be a theological argument so abstract it exists beyond ideas of sin or redemption. (Is that a sin in itself?) Robinson is pulling light from darkness, life from death. It is a remarkable fact of her genius that every page or paragraph of Jack could stand for the whole book. Every time Jack says something, he seems to say it all. The problems of the novel, both moral and theological, are so perfectly paradoxical that all we can do is circle around, waiting for them to eat themselves, turn into their opposites, or cancel each other out. And then, impossibly, there is Della.