Sunday, December 7, 2008

Readings: Homeless

I have finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel, Home. I have returned it to the library—gotten it out of the house. It was, to me, a devastatingly sad book. It is hard to write about.

As in her previous novel, Gilead, of which Home is a sequel, various theological threads of Robinson’s Calvinist faith are woven throughout the plot. Of these Protestant doctrines, the question of Predestination figures largely in Home, as do the dynamics of sin vs. grace, justification vs. damnation, and knowledge vs. faith. These questions are largely examined through the tensions of the relationship of Jack Boughton, prodigal son and black sheep, and his moribund father, a retired Presbyterian preacher.

What one first notices in reading Home is Marilynne Robinson’s perfect ear. She knows how a young boy talks; how an old man on the brink of death talks; how a spinster English teacher, and how an American working-class woman in a rural setting talk. We recognize such types, as we have known them, in the words of Home.

The one character who stands out against this perfectly articulated backdrop is the novel’s deeply flawed, perpetually anguished, anti-hero, Jack. His speech is unique, non-typical, out of the ordinary.

Jack is a man with a troubled background, who has lived most of his adult life away from “home.” The mysteries of his past are revealed slowly, bit by bit, in his conversations with his younger sister, Glory, who has also returned home after a less than satisfactory fling at life-in-the-world to care for their aged father, a widower.

Jack is a study in alienation. He is a man who feels himself displaced in any setting. He is an idealist with high principles which he is repeatedly unable to enact; an essentially kind and serious man of learning who self-medicates with alcohol to kill the pain of his inability to be good. For Jack, there is no home.

The last thing we see of Jack in the novel is this:

She went to the porch to watch him walk away down the road. He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.

Some of us are, perhaps, unfortunate enough in our own lives also to recognize—even to know—Jack.


Anonymous said...

"What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? Couldn't he see, couldn't he see that? Everybody was privileged. There were only privileged people."

Rodak said...

A comment on Predestination?

Rodak said...

I don't quite see Jack as an existential hero comme Meursault. Jack feels too much guilt and doesn't find any personal satisfaction in his alienation.

Anonymous said...

Not a comment, THE comment. Meursault understands the destiny and authentically appreciates his destiny. At bottom. The alienated are those that don't authentically appreciate THE destiny.

Rodak said...

Meursault accepts certain metaphysical assumptions (call it THE assumption, if you will) within the context of which he can lead an "authentic" life, if he doesn't crack.

Anonymous said...

Death isn't metaphysical for any species except insane humans. Death is physical.

Rodak said...

That is a metaphysical assumption. There is physical death, to be sure. And one can live one's life based on the assumption that the physical life is the only life. Or not.
Jack's problem in Home is that he's not sure. He can't believe in an afterlife, but he wants to. He maintains his integrity to the extent that he can, but he's plagued by doubt.
To me, he is a more convincing character than Meursault, because he is less designed to represent his author's concept of an Ideal.