Marilynne Robinson's Lonely Souls
The Atlantic|October 2020
Her new novel, the latest installment of her Gilead series, explores the power of love and the legacy of race.
Jordan Kisner

In a scene in Home, the second in Marilynne Robinson’s sequence of novels known as the Gilead series, Glory Boughton, age 9, loses all patience with her older brother Jack. They’ve been playing a game with their six other siblings and Jack has disappeared, as usual.

When they were children he would slip away, leave the game of tag, leave the house, and not be missed because he was so quiet. Then someone would say his name, the first to notice his absence, and the game would dissolve. There was no point calling him. He came back when he came back. But they would look for him, as if the game now were to find him at mischief.

Glory, enraged at Jack’s power to end games simply by disappearing, and mystified that he does so, storms up to him when he returns and shouts: “What right do you have to be so strange!” It’s a scalding exchange, not just because Glory is furious but because she has spoken aloud the question common to everyone in their hometown of Gilead, Iowa. Jack is strange. Why? Who has given him the right?

Jack, the fourth and newest novel in the series, invokes characters who will be familiar to readers of Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). The Reverends Robert Boughton and John Ames, boyhood best friends who grew up in Gilead in the early 20th century and became preachers together, are now old men near death; the father and godfather, respectively, of Jack, they await his return home before it’s too late. Glory, the youngest Boughton daughter and the presiding perspective in Home, as well as Teddy, one of Glory and Jack’s three brothers, hover on the periphery. But Jack focuses on, as its title would suggest, the character who has eluded, bedeviled, and grieved all the people who have ever loved him: the prodigal son.

In the previous books, Robinson offered Jack to readers through the eyes of others. A strange and destructive child, he didn’t just vanish at inconvenient moments; he blew up mailboxes, stole things for the sake of stealing them, drank, skipped church, and was generally unbiddable. “There was an aloofness about him,” Glory recalls. “More thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile.” He is also, as a child and then as a man, intensely thoughtful, a voracious reader, gentle in his manner, oddly bewitching. He has been plagued from a very young age by a deep feeling of estrangement. For some reason no one can quite understand or articulate—himself least of all—he is set apart, unlike his family or neighbors.

Robinson has said, over the years, that she keeps returning to Gilead because she misses the characters, or wants to give some previously secondary figure the depth and attention afforded a protagonist. But in an interview with The Paris Review in 2008, after publishing Home, she rejected the idea that Jack would be a candidate for further excavation. “I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator,” she said. “He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.”

Robinson was prescient to predict that enlisting Jack as a primary protagonist would pose problems, and it is telling that she found him irresistible anyway. Robinson is a Calvinist, and over the course of these novels, Jack has stood out among her characters—troublesome, seductive, full of pathos—because he most represents a central theological question raised by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: Can a person be damned to perdition? Or, to use non-Calvinist language: Can a person be irretrievably and miserably wrong, broken, no-good, unsalvageable? If he is, and he knows that he is, what is he then to do? Does he have anything he can hope for?

Robinson’s fiction investigates, again and again, the connection between the soul’s isolation and its torment.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

RELATED STORIES

INSPIRATION IS TERRIFYING

Doubt is part of any creator's process, but our revulsion to change and uncertainty runs deep. Research shows that to move past it, we must get comfortable with stepping into the void.

9 mins read
Entrepreneur
June 2022

WHITE SPACE

WORKSHOP/APD GOES MINIMALIST IN ASBURY PARK, DIRECTING ALL EYES TO THE VIEW.

3 mins read
Ocean Home
April/May 2022

Bad Thoughts Make Good

A Strange Loop moves to Broadway, much to its own surprise.

5 mins read
New York magazine
May 9-22, 2022

OUR ABORTION STORIES

With abortion rights under attack, ELLE brought together five members of Congress perhaps most qualified to discuss the issue— because they’ve been there themselves.

10 mins read
ELLE
May 2022

What Elon Wants...

The world's richest man spent $44 billion on Twitter but says he doesn't "care about the economics at all"

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 02, 2022

ROUNDING LIFE'S SECOND CURVE A HARD ROAD OF SELF DISCOVERY

It took Jack Craven 20 years to grasp that running his family’s wholesale business selling goods to discount stores wasn’t how he wanted to spend the second half of his life. He also figured out his ever-mounting unhappiness had taken a toll on his relationships with loved ones.

6 mins read
Techlife News
April 30, 2022

I'M NOT A BUSINESSPERSON, BUT I PLAY ONE ON TV

Four stars dish about their characters' office politics.

10+ mins read
Soap Opera Digest
April 18, 2022

days of our lives

LOOKING FOR A NEW LOVE - Nancy tells Bonnie that Craig invited her to his wedding. She wants to honor their friendship but fears people will feel sorry for her. Bonnie thinks the solution is for Nancy to bring a hot date. After Bonnie sets up a dating profile for her, Nancy gets a positive response ... from Clyde. Nancy asks him to join her at her ex-husband’s wedding, but Clyde insists that Nancy is more than capable of doing this alone, and says that he’d rather have her all to himself on their first real date.

4 mins read
Soap Opera Digest
May 02, 2022

JACKIE COX ON DAYS RETURN

Jackie Cox, a New York-based drag performer who placed 5th on season 12 of RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE, won rave reviews for their impersonation of Lisa Rinna (ex-Billie, DAYS) while a contestant on the show, and was floored when it led to an invitation to appear alongside Rinna on Peacock's DAYS OF OUR LIVES: BEYOND SALEM last year.

3 mins read
Soap Opera Digest
April 25, 2022

Your Period Will Play Hide-and-Seek (And Other Truths About perimenopause)

Little-known fact: Menopause lasts for just 24 hours. It's the days, months, and even years leading up to it that can profoundly affect your mind and body. Not willing to quietly grimace and bear the changes, Gen X is bringing about a refreshing reframing of what this time in your life can be like. Our girlfriend's guide, with advice from women who have been there, will help you manage, because you've got options and a whole lot more life-including this time of life-to enjoy.

10+ mins read
The Oprah Magazine
Volume 2. No 2 - 2022