Home What is goodness and evil, and what makes a person's contribution good or evil?: Home, by Marilynne Robinson

Literature is full of stories about the broken relationships of children, especially sons, with their Protestant pastor fathers.  But why do these families have special problems, especially when these pastors try to model goodness with their behavior?  Is civilized and cooperative behavior enough?  And how does their religion enable them to understand their children, or make it more difficult?  How should sin be discussed, if at all?  And if sin (as well as redemption) is not discussed, is forgiveness possible?  And how does forgiveness work, and what are its true benefits and manifestations?  What makes one person experience a failure with guilt, and another experience it with shame?  Finally, how do suspected but unproven sins fit into the mix?  In the last analysis, what makes one a good person or an evil one, at least in terms of one's attitude and how it guides one's actions?  Religion is meant to unite us in a single view of important things, but each of us experiences religion in a unique way.  Home (as well as the associated novel Gilead) explores the ways in which this tension affects two neighboring mainline Protestant families in a small Midwestern town.

Home is set in 1956, but treats its material with a modern complexity, where conflicting personal goals are sometimes fraught with uncontrollable psychological forces.  Jack, one of the eight children of the retired Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton, has fled from his small Iowa town (Gilead) in disgrace, and hidden out in St. Louis, Missouri for 20 years.  When he returns, his father and former English teacher sister, Glory, the youngest child, welcome him and let him take a place in the household.  However, although Glory and Jack perform various household duties graciously and help their disabled father get around, there seems to be more an air of detente rather than of family feeling in the house, since the 20 years of separation have made them strangers to an important extent.   As the novel progresses, Jack and Glory gradually become closer and even on easy terms at times, while the emotional distance between Jack and his father continues to widen.  We see how these characters interpret their religion and translate its abstract theological concepts, ethical teachings, and ritual practices into their behavior in their quests to lead the good life, and the different approaches Jack and Glory take to freeing themselves from the shame associated with key incidents in their pasts.  How well, how sensibly, they weave these teachings into their lives, and how patient they are with their mystery, has everything to do with their ability to carve new identities and achieve the family relationships they hope for.

Glory, through whose eyes we see this story, experiences religion in a mainly nonverbal way, with ritual and good works.  The narrator describes her as "pious" but not self-consciously so.  She is guided by her father's teaching about goodness and grace, though it is not clear what the latter concept means to her.  Every night at bedtime she prays on her knees, although she has difficulty shaking off the discomfort she feels when called upon to say grace at dinner.  Good works come more naturally to her, especially in her caring for her father; in one memorable scene, she carefully cuts his hair and then kisses him on the top of his head.  Her relationship with Jack is not typical of siblings: when he left the family for parts unknown, she was 18 and saw him as an admired, aloof, older brother, and when he returned, they had to work at building what was as much a friendship as a sibling relationship.  She is also on cordial terms with her father's best friend, the Reverend John Ames, the pastor of a local Congregational church, and with his wife, Lila, and their son, Robby. 

A dutiful, helpful, and a conscientious respecter of boundaries, Glory on the other hand avoids intimacy of any kind until Jack gradually draws her out of her tight comfort zone. She develops her direction in life by following conventions which gradually develop deeper meaning as she observes their positive consequences and responds gladly to the positive responses of others to her actions.  In the end, she is able to shed the shame associated with her loss of a relationship with an unworthy man, and of the teaching position that she had apparently resigned in expectation of marriage, by recognizing that her character and skills are more important to others than her having made a certain mistake acting in good faith.  In the end, she appears to benefit more from her relationship with Jack than he does, because of her willingness to live with uncertainty, to act on the obvious facts while allowing a part of her identity to remain unformed until circumstances call for steps in that direction. 

Rev. Boughton lives in a world narrowly circumscribed by his ivory-tower divinity training.  He was at ease ruling over his large family and congregation, handing down the dictates of that training to the others in that sheltered world, all on the high level of abstraction characteristic of mainline Protestantism.  He enforces Biblical civility, down to the point of crying foul when he hears the Lord's name taken in vain.  But he is apparently indifferent to social issues in the outside world, even that as near as his neighbors, who resent his maintaining a larger plot of land than he needs at their expense.  This is even more clear when Glory's purchase of a TV for him brings an even larger world to him.  His acceptance of segregation is more a function of indifference rather than of hate.  While he tells Glory and Jack that he thinks that "negroes" could improve their situation with better behavior and is under the impression that they initiated the rioting plaguing their peaceful march, he admits that he has also met "negroes" who were more respectable than he was.  But he dismisses Jack's outrage at this moral wrong by focusing instead on his use of obscene language to express it.  Jack prudently avoids mentioning to his father that he has a love relationship with a Black woman whom he met in St. Louis and that he has come back to Gilead to see whether it is more accepting of mixed-race marriage than St. Louis is, although he eventually opens up to the more sympathetic Rev. Ames, the grandson of a fervent abolitionist, about this.

Rev. Boughton's feelings of resentment toward Jack bring a toxic flavor to his interactions with his son.  His message is an accusation packaged as an apology, which Jack interprets as an attack.  Rev. Boughton believes that the gentle language he has learned from his divinity training should be effective in reaching Jack, but fails to see that the disguised anger in his words and the harsh judgment implied by them is showing through.  He fails to consider the possibility that Jack is repentant, and that the latter might prefer to express that by performing substantial yardwork and getting his father's car, neglected since Jack left, working again.  In fact, he perceives Jack to be using these activities merely as a way of avoiding confrontation, telling his star son, Teddy, the doctor, that Jack "doesn't talk to me, but he talks to (Glory)."  He asks Jack for forgiveness, but because that implies that Jack's wrongdoing is the main manifestation of that sin, Jack hears only criticism and refusal to forgive him.  Rev. Boughton, in essence, wants Jack's love, but is unable to give him the kind of love that Jack needs from him in part because he has made no effort to get to know him as an individual, and the results of his lack of insight have caused his feelings toward him to congeal into bitterness.  By playing the Martha, rather than the Mary, role, Jack courts misunderstanding.

Where did this misunderstanding begin?  What motivated Jack's early misbehavior?  Jack manifests a questioning mind throughout this novel, although the questions he asks now as a middle-aged man have harder answers.  Joyce Cary, in the forward to his novel Charley Is My Darling, said that, to a child, a crime is a "moral experiment".  Jack, naturally resistant to unexplained dogma, perhaps was uneasy with the contradictions in what he was taught.  His childhood household was governed by strict rules, with the implication that they needed to set an example for the community by vaguely defined exemplary behavior.  However, Christianity also taught the lesson of forgiveness.  Perhaps Jack was testing his father, trying to figure out what his most deeply-held values were.  But, all too early, he found that one of his experiments had terrible and irreversible results: because of his careless sexual activity, an unwanted child was born and died soon afterward.  Though forgiveness can lift the burden of sin in some perhaps only vaguely understood way, sometimes nothing can erase the effects of the sin.  

No longer the questing soul, Jack has descended into hopelessness, a slave to his unbearable sense of shame.  His desires and what he feels that he deserves are at odds.  Unable to take the long view, he focuses on getting by and keeping his pain at bay.  He becomes an off-and-on alcohol abuser and uses his extensive repertoire of manipulative behaviors to get what he needs from others.  Back at home, he typically succeeds in getting others to do what he wants, including accepting the boundaries he sets; for example, Glory quickly learns that his smiles indicate when she has just crossed the line.  But he never derives any satisfaction from his relationships because of his persistent sense of shame.  It is not enough to Jack for others to reach out to him; they must negotiate their way through his challenging defenses to make him feel forgiven and respected, and fairly so.  And even this delicate balance can be upset by unforeseen circumstances, when a local shoplifting incident triggers a family crisis by triggering Jack's suspicions that his father suspects him.  Glory makes the most progress toward winning Jack's trust by showing quiet respect for his contributions to the running of the household while firmly discouraging his attempts to manipulate her into reinforcing his self-hatred.  Rev. Boughton, however, fails because he cannot transcend his resentment toward Jack for disappearing for 20 years, during which Mrs. Boughton died, and finds subtle ways of showing it that defy confrontation.  That Jack was his favorite, named after his best friend Rev. Ames, does not count.  He loves Jack for what he believes to be all of the wrong reasons, offending Jack's strong sense of justice, completely untempered by mercy.  

But matters come to a head when Rev. Ames visits the Boughton household, quickly settling into a lively theological discussion with Rev. Boughton.  Jack hopes to steer the conversation in a personally relevant direction by asking the reverends what their stand is on predestination, a Calvinist teaching associated traditionally with both of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches.  But the discussion remains on an unsatisfying abstract level.  Eventually Lila ends the discussion by suggesting that predestination does not preclude salvation, which the reverends quickly agree with.  They move on to another topic, scuttling Jack's attempt to ask them to view his wayward past in the light of the recognition of this limitation. 

This novel can stand by itself in its presentation of the misunderstandings that can crop up among family members who are still strangers to an extent that they are in denial about.  It also reminds us that forgiveness is not a straightforward concept; it is not a guarantee of good feeling and trust.  It does not erase the past or the consequences of sin.  Ideal forgiveness might in fact be divine, but it sometimes poses an insurmountable challenge to ordinary humans.  Even if one has decided that one has succeeded in forgiving another, how does one convince that such forgiveness has taken place?  Welcoming the prodigal son home is a step in the right direction, but achieving an understanding of his choices is a bigger one.  To see the degree of such communication gaps in this story, we could "cheat" by reading the romantically mystical Rev. Ames' eloquent account of his experience of Christianity and family life in Gilead, and about Jack's quest for meaning, now reduced to mere survival and guided by rationalizations, in Jack, both by the same author.  

The latter book engages an issue only lightly dealt with by the other books, i.e., the dynamics of Jack's relationship with a Black woman, Della Miles, and how they are shaped by his moral strengths and weaknesses alike.  Jack is open-minded enough to recognize what he and Della have in common, i.e., fathers who are Protestant pastors who have afforded them a solid academic education, but also sly enough to take advantage of her and to resist successfully the well-meaning efforts of her family to keep them apart.  One has to go over to Gilead to see Rev. Ames' account of the middle-aged Jack's explanation of his largely rationalization-based choices with regard to Della, and of the "beauty" he sees in Jack as a result.  But Home only tells us only about Jack's disappointment, not having succeeded in extracting the practical result of having his reputation rehabilitated.  Rev. Ames has come to respect him for his value as a person, but has no plan for what would count with Jack as redemption.

Copyright © 2021 by Dorothy E. Pugh.  All rights reserved. 

 

SHARE: