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Marilynne Robinson: Jack

The eponymous Jack of this novel is Jack Boughton. We have come across him in the previous books in Robinson’s Gilead series, particularly Home and Gilead. He is the son of the Reverend Boughton and he is very much the black sheep of the family. He is a drunk, can never hold a job and behaves badly. He has spent time in prison. He got a young woman pregnant in his youth. The child subsequently died. We know he later marries Della Miles, the black daughter of a minister and they too have a child. He does not marry her in Missouri, where this novel is set, as anti-miscegenation laws in Missouri banned mixed marriages till 1967, when the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision overruled State laws on the matter.

This novel is set earlier than the other two as it is set in the early days of Jack’s relationship with Della Miles. Though they have met before, their main introduction is set in a cemetery in St Louis where they are locked in overnight. Jack had been planning to sleep there. He often sleeps in the open. Robinson cleverly has them trapped in this way, allowing their relationship to develop in a relatively short time span. How it develops is superbly portrayed by Robinson. Initially, as couples sometimes do on first meeting, they spar, each one somewhat wary of the other and also, doubtless wary of where the relationship might be going.

We see changes in Jack’s humour. At first he makes silly remarks, clearly out of embarrassment. He is, after all, an outcast from society, something he is only too well aware of. I am the Prince of Darkness. Her response is No, you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks. Later, however, his humour changes and it becomes more of the sort of humour couples share.

We know Jack to be a bad man from his past history in the previous books. However, if you read this and have not read the previous books – and it certainly can be read on its own – you will not get the impression that Jack is a bad man. He is clearly weak, clearly a failure but neither of those make him bad. Clearly, Della does not see him as bad.

Indeed he describes his aim in life: You know, I actually sort of enjoy my life. I know I shouldn’t. It could stand a lot of improvement. But maybe it’s the feeling you have that makes a life bad. Or makes it all right enough most of the time.” He said, “I aspire to utter harmlessness and I have not actually chosen this life. The path of least resistance is not a choice, in the usual sense of the word. I know it appears to be one. But when the resistance you encounter on every other path seems, you know, indomitable, then there you are. I’m sure I have been too easily discouraged.

The pair have much in common, apart, of course from the two obvious differences, namely that she has always followed her parents’ wishes and has successful career as a teacher and she is black and he is white. Both are the children of ministers and, therefore, despite their racial difference, will have had a similar upbringing. In both cases, their fathers were focussed on their careers and often the well-being of others, more than on their children. Both clearly have had an intellectual background in their upbringing as they freely discuss Milton, Shakespeare and the like, in a way that, I suspect, their present-day equivalents clearly would not and would not be able to.

Hamlet plays a key role here. Jack had a limited knowledge of Hamlet. My father cut it up with scissors and taped the pieces into a loose-leaf scrapbook, so we could act it out. So they could. What was left of it didn’t make much sense. Della had a complete knowledge of Hamlet. These issues can be seen as symbolic of their lives. Jack’s limited knowledge of the play and the fact that it did not make sense rather sums up his attitude to life, which he clearly has not fully grasped. He will later identify with Hamlet as the loneliest man in the world.

Della goes on to say It seems as though there were stories behind the play we only get glimpses of. But nothing is done to hide them, either, I mean the gaps they leave.. Again this could be said to sum up Jack. What is the real Jack and has anyone ever seen it? Clearly his family have not. Della clearly does.

Robinson fills in the gaps about what happened before this meeting, i.e. how they first met as well as his messy life prior to their meeting, and also what happened afterwards as the relationship progresses. Jack tries to be a better person, giving up drink and getting a job, even though there is still no formal relationship between the two. Inevitably, he eventually fails on both counts, though he does try. They continue seeing each other so Della’s aunt is dispatched from Memphis to warn him off. He agrees that the relationship is not appropriate and agrees to keep away from Della but…

He tries to improve, getting another job and even going regularly to church where he has a heart-to-heart with the minister. Yet, somehow, he cannot make that important step. It surprised Jack to realize that, in some part of his mind, he aspired to being an impeccable white gentleman. On the one hand, there was jail time and destitution and a slightly battered face, and on the other, there were neckties and polished shoes and a number of lines of Milton. Ultimately, however, as he himself says, his oldest question is How do people live? He doesn’t have an answer to the question and if he cannot answer it for others, nor can he do so for himself.

Indeed, he sums himself up in the works of Robert Frost’s poem:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.

Though this book is essentially told from Jack’s point of view (though told in the third person), we do see Della’s point of view. She had been, till meeting Jack, a sensible, well-balanced woman, a credit to her parents and a good schoolteacher. However, if she had ever loved or been loved, it is not mentioned. Meeting Jack changes everything for her. Jack considers himself a stranger in the ordinary world. However, for Della, once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and 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. Clearly, for her, as for him, their love is something very special and something worth sacrificing her conventional but respectable life for. She pays the price as we know from Home but she seems to think it is worth it. We also know in this book, she pays price, in terms of her family and job.

Robinson is concerned with many things but one of her concerns is clearly the idea of lost souls and how to save them. That Jack is a lost soul is without question. Many people try and have tried to save his soul: his parents, of course and, to a lesser degree, his siblings, for example. In this book there is the Reverend Hutchins, the minister at the church he visits. There is only one person who comes close to it and that, of course, is Della. The love of a good woman is, of course, a literary cliché but, in Robinson’s very skilled hands, it is not a cliché here, particularly, if we have read home Home, as we know that he is not saved.

Of course, we can look at this book in a non-religious way. It is about a man who has lost his way, who has a bad streak in him, which he frequently tries to overcome but invariably fails. He admits one of his few skills is petty theft (though we learn he goes to prison when he is considering theft but is set up). Much of the time, we see him simply drifting, sleeping outside, drinking, occasional arguments, occasional jobs which never last, little social contact till he meets Della. He has no purpose, no interest, no friends, nothing to sustain him. Della offers him purpose, interest, friendship and something, in particular, to sustain him. Here he tries to grab it, but by Home, his weak side will have asserted itself.

This is an absolutely superb book about a man who is lost and tries, but ultimately fails, to find himself. You can read it as a religious work, about a lost soul, or simply as the story of a man who may be basically good, but has many failings, one of them being the inability to get on the right track and stay there, whatever the right track might be. It is also about the woman who tries to save him and ends up paying a price and hers might be the saddest tale of the two.

Publishing history

First published 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux