The Literary Calvinism of Marilynne Robinson PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   

Before Jack Boughton left Gilead, Iowa, he was the town ne’er-do-well, a heartache to his father, Rev. Robert Boughton, and an object of suspicion to everyone else.  He fled under a cloud after impregnating a young girl, and had not returned since, despite many promises.  As Marilynne Robinson’s Home begins, the prodigal has returned. Little has changed.  Even twenty years later, the clerks at the stores in town keep a watchful eye on his hands when he walks in, and his sister, Glory – herself home after a long absence and a failed romance – is reluctantly thrust into the role of the reluctant older brother.

Guarded and awkward, Jack is deferential toward his father (always “sir”) and gently teasing toward Glory.  Wanting to make himself useful, he goes to work in the garden, but the handle of the old spade gives him a splinter, and the little household is thrown into crisis:

Jack said, “If I can borrow a needle, I can take care of it, I think.”

“No, no.  That’s pretty deep, Jack!”

Her father’s face was animated with concern.  He held to the wrist of Jack’s upturned hand and almost hurried along beside him.  “We’ll put some iodine on that.”

Glory said, “You can wash up and I’ll disinfect a needle.”

“I’ll get the iodine!” the old man said, and launched a determined assault on the staircase.

Jack looked at her.  “It’s just a splinter.”

She said, “Not much happens around here,” and he laughed.

She had made him laugh twice.  She took a certain satisfaction in the joke about the towel, but in order to laugh at this little remark he must be feeling pretty kindly toward her, she thought.  He was never one to laugh when you hoped he would, when other people would.  He was a restless, distant, difficult boy, then twenty years passed with hardly a word from him, and now here he was in her kitchen, offering her his wounded hand, still damp with washing, smelling like lavender and lye.  They sat at the table and she took his hand to stead it.  A slender hand, still unsteady, with a few blisters rising on it from the work he had done that morning. Cigarette stains.

He noticed her scrutiny.  “Do you read palms?” he asked.

“No.  But if I did, I would say that you have a splinter through your lifeline.”  He laughed.  “I believe you may have found your calling.”

She put the needle down.  “I’m afraid to do this.  It might really hurt.  And your hand is trembling.”

“Well, if that one is, so is the other one.  I could do myself harm if I tried it, I suppose.”

“All right.  Stay as still as you can.”  She thought, If he really were a stranger, this would not seem so odd to me.  She could hear his breathing.  She could see the blue traces of blood under the white skin of his wrist.  “Just a second – there.”  She extracted the splinter easily enough.

“Thank you,” he said.

The cane and the creaky railing and the hard, slippery shoes, and their father hurried into the kitchen with a bottle of iodine and a spool of gauze.

“Yes, you’ll want to wash it and dry it again,” he said.  Then he daubed iodine here and there, finally where it should be.

Jack said “Ow,” for old times’ sake, by the sound of it.

“Yes, but it is very effective!”  Her father was afire with solicitude.  He went to the refrigerator and opened the door and stood there, purposive.  “Supper!” he said.  “I believe the pies are missing.”

All of Robinson’s virtues as a novelist are on display in this little scene, a tiny masterpiece.  The rhythm is impeccable.  Glory’s reverie, and ours, is interrupted by Jack’s teasing question about reading palms.  Boughton’s return with the iodine and gauze is announced before he shuffles through the door by the tapping cane, the creak of the railing, and the shuffle of his shoes across the floor.  “He daubed iodine here and there, finally where it should be” is like a good one-liner.  Think of how this might have been written: “He daubed on the iodine”; “he daubed the iodine here and there”; “he daubed the iodine in all the wrong places”; and so on.  None works.  Even “He daubed iodine here and there, finally on the wound” would not be as good.  The humor of “where it should be” depends on the expression of purpose.  It reminds us that Boughton’s early daubs were aimed at the wound, but missed the mark.

None of the alternatives possesses the perfection of Robinson’s sentence. We read to the comma, thinking Boughton is simply applying medicine.  She makes us pause slightly at the comma, time enough for a rimshot, and then the punch line.  As in the best jokes, the punch line forces us to reconsider the whole sentence, and it’s the second reading that makes the sentence funny: Contrary to what we initially thought, Boughton was not simply applying medicine; he was dotting Jack’s hand with blots of useless iodine.  (No doubt my delight in this sentence is partly personal.  I cannot read it without thinking of my mother.)

Old Boughton is there in full, in all his earnestness, his feebleness, his hovering pastoralness made habitual over decades of caring for his flock.  His excessive concern for Jack’s splinter makes him pathetic, and, given his age and frailty, his trip upstairs requires all the effort and will of a military operation.  He “almost hurried” alongside Jack as he examined the splinter.  When he returns, he carries enough gauze to wrap a mummy, and his application of the medicine is haphazard: “he daubed iodine here and there, finally where it should be” (it’s worth repeating!).  As compressed as haiku, this sentence captures not only Boughton’s ineffectiveness in crisis, but opens up on decades when he has been ineffectually “afire with solicitude,” love, prayer, and pain.  Then, as soon as it began, the fire flickers out, and old Boughton is searching for pies in the fridge.

In his wonderful How Fiction Works, James Wood notes that the “unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile.  It is getting those people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard.”  He goes on to recall Joseph Conrad’s fear that he never was able to “get a character in”: “he was never convinced that he had convinced the reader.”  One of Conrad’s examples of what he sought was a line from a story of Maupassant: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”  That man is in, even though Maupassant gives him only whiskers and a gesture.  Robinson’s magic is similar – a tapping cane, slippery-soled shoes, daubing iodine and missing; that’s all we need and old Boughton is in.

In Robinson, all the characters are in together.  Without Jack and Glory, Boughton wouldn’t be so fully in, and vice versa.  Characteristically, Boughton and Jack are on different levels, almost occupying different dimensions of reality.  Jack’s “Ow” comes with the same ironic wink that accompanies his every word.  Boughton takes it at face value, and carefully explains the need for pain as if Jack were still that restless difficult boy.  The splinter episode catalyzes the relation of Glory and Jack as well.  Glory is rarely as physically proximate to Jack as in this scene, where she holds his slender hand long and close enough to smell the lavender and lye, to see blisters and cigarette stains and blue blood vessels, to hear his breathing, to feel its alcoholic tremor.  She makes him laugh, twice in a few moments, and his laughter is not the nervous laughter of the newcomer but the shared laughter of brother and sister.

Robinson accomplishes all this with extreme simplicity.  There are no titanic eruptions of emotion here, or elsewhere.  She uses few adjectives or adverbs, and the prose is spare and sinewy.  The scene is characteristic.  “Nothing much happens” Glory says, and she could be talking about the novel itself.  If you’re looking for plot twists and action, look elsewhere.  I found myself turning the pages of Home because I couldn’t wait for the next luminous, memorable, glistening sentence.

Stylistic clarity and uncluttered simplicity are the qualities of Robinson’s work that puts her in the tradition of American literary Calvinism.  As Wood says, “There is a familiar American simplicity . . . which is Puritan and colloquial in its origin,” found in “the Puritan sermon, in Jonathan Edwards, in Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, in Mark Twain, in Willa Cather, in Hemingway.”  And Robinson.  Wood quotes a line from Robinson’s Pulizer Prize novel Gilead: Literary Calvinism possesses “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essentials.”

Robinson comes by her Calvinist literary inclinations honestly, from what she calls “neither inconsiderable nor exhaustive” reading in American Puritanism.  In an essay entitled “Puritans and Prigs,” she notes that Puritanism encouraged simplicity in dress and manner and an aesthetic interest in the functional which became bone and marrow of what we consider modern.  Certainly the idea that a distaste for the mannered and elaborate should be taken to indicate joylessness or an indifference to beauty is an artifact of an old polemic.  No acquaintance with New England portrait or decorative art encourages the idea that Puritan tastes were somber.  Even their famous headstones display a marked equanimity beside headstones in Church of England graveyards in Britain, with their naturalistic skulls with bones in their teeth and so on.

For Robinson, surely, “distaste for the mannered and elaborate” does not translate into “an indifference to beauty,” but entirely the opposite.

The substantive themes of Home are equally inspired by Calvinism.  Glory tells Jack that he has a “splinter in your lifeline.”  It is a joke, but one that one that hints toward the discomfort that haunts Jack’s life.  Old Boughton had a shelf of ponderous theology books, bought by his father from Edinburgh.  When Jack was young, he alone among the Boughton children had dared to take down some of their father’s books to read.

[He] took down a volume from time to time and read or seemed to read a page or two, perhaps only to worry his father, who was as respectful of the Edinburgh books as they all were, and as little inclined to open them, and who clearly dreaded the thought that they might be damaged.  “Are you finding anything of interest there, Jack?” he would say, and Jack would answer, “No, sir, not yet,” and seemed to read on, and then, after a few minutes, set the book on its shelf again.

A conversation between Boughton, his friend, the Presbyterian minister John Ames (protagonist of Gilead), and Jack late in the book shows that Jack had long been pondering the problem of predestination.  “I’m the amateur here,” Jack says:

“If I had your history with the question I’d be sick of it, too, no doubt.  Well I do have a history with it.  I’ve wondered from time to time if I might not be an instance of predestination.  A sort of proof.  If I may not experience predestination in my own person.  That would be interesting, if the consequences were not so painful.  For other people.  If I did not seem as though I spread a contagion of some kind.  Of misfortunate.  Is that possible?”

Ames said, “No.  That isn’t possible.  Not at all.”

“No,” his father said.  “It just isn’t.”

Jack laughed. “What a relief.  Because that visiting of the sins, it seems to describe something.  It works the other way, too.  The sins of the sons are visited on the fathers.”

Jack clarifies his question: “Are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?”  Ames and Boughton sidestep the question, and Jack states his question differently: “People don’t change, then.”  Quietly, Ames’s young wife, Lila, interrupts, “A person can change.  Everything can change.”

Home is, among many other things, a literary meditation on reprobation, a doctrine that Robinson has been careful to get right.  In an essay on “Marguerite de Navarre,” she notes that Jean Cauvin borrows from Augustine the view that “we are lost or saved as God wills and our destiny has always been known to him.”  She recognizes that this doctrine “is a consequence of his refusal to allow any limit to the power or knowledge of God or to the efficacy of his grace.”  Yet, she also knows that this has not had the effect of nullifying action.  Comparing Cauvin to Ignatius of Loyola, she writes that “neither Cauvin nor Loyola lived the life of a fatalist, nor does either show the least reluctance to urge others to act decisively.  Anomalies must be expected along the conceptual frontier between the temporal and the eternal.”  Or, as Rev. Ames says, “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.”

Jack is a reprobate, a gentle and sad but not a lovable reprobate.  His selfishness, cowardice, lack of self-control and irresponsibility grow ever clearer as the book progresses.  But Robinson never takes cheap shots, never dehumanizes him. Nor does she succumb to the temptation to make old Boughton an object of mockery.  “He daubed iodine here and there, finally where it should be” is not an attack; it is funny because it is so thoroughly and warmly gentle.

Surprising as it may seem, this too is an aspect of her literary debt to Calvinism.  In her essay on Puritanism, she quotes a long passage where Calvin explains who is a neighbor:

we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves.  When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors.  Therefore, if we rightly direct our love, we must first turn our eyes not to man, the sight of whom would more often engender hate than love, but to God, who bids us extend to all men the love we bear to him, that this may be an unchanging principle: Whatever the character of the man, we must yet love him because we love God.

In short, “no one is so contemptible or worthless ‘but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.”  Universal sympathy is not a sentiment usually associated with Calvin, but there it is, in Calvin’s lovely exhortation to imitate the Father who sends rain on the just and the unjust, the elect and the reprobate, the prodigal, the elder sister, and their doting father. And few writers are so skillfully Calvinistic as Marilynne Robinson.

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