Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004).
Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York: Picador, 2014).
The luminous novel Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, takes the form of a book-length epistle from a Congregationalist minister to his seven-year-old son, offspring of a marriage late in life. Recognizing that his age and heart condition will prevent him from watching the boy grow up, Rev. John Ames renders an account of his history as it intersects with the lives of his grandfather, father, wife, child and fellow citizens in an obscure Iowa town, between the 1850s and the 1950s. It is a narrative resplendent with faith, humility, wonder, and mercy. Gilead’s companion piece Lila relates in powerful vignettes the sorrowful past of Rev. Ames’ wife. With few exceptions, her life is one continual struggle to simply survive until she encounters love and mercy in the tender embrace of the old minister. Lila becomes a metaphor for the soul in all its vulnerability and courage, redeemed by an unlikely bridegroom and the eternal Bridegroom whom he images. Because of this redemption, she acquires a new identity and dignity.
Gilead is a most unusual last will and testament. Rev. Ames reveals through the meandering collective histories what he holds dear. He constantly acknowledges his wonder in front of each human being, pointing out that God recreates each of us every day and that viewing each man as a proposal, “an emissary sent from the Lord,” allows us to be free from purely instinctual feelings. Throughout the entire book, the minister returns to the mystery that is man, incomprehensible to others and even to himself. Rather than this being a source of despair at the impossibility of true connection between people (as in Virginia Woolfe’s novels), this reality is hopeful, because of that mysterious origin which they share: “We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be.” This awareness, reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, is critical to the testimony Ames bequeaths to his son.
An integral part of this immersion in Being is prayer, as natural to John Ames as breathing. He embodies St. Paul’s exhortation “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). Lila is moved and comforted by her husband’s habit of continual prayer, as well as by his love of Scripture, in which he likewise immerses himself. Over and over, he sees the circumstances of his life, and those of his flock, in terms of images from Scripture: the lost sheep, the Prodigal Son, Hagar and Ishmael.… In these he finds reassurance of divine fidelity and providence which more than compensates for human fragility.
Confronted with the evident fallibility of man, Rev. Ames insists on mercy as the only course because it is God’s course. “Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence.” All relationships, be they spousal, parental, filial, or friendships, belong to and participate in the love God has for mankind. Rev. Ames declares that mortal love and love of God are not separate things. For example, he sees in the parent/child relationship a beautiful possibility to be godlike by loving the being of the other and delighting in his existence. He concludes his testimony, “I’ll pray and then I’ll sleep.” This six word summary of his daily life and his life in its entirety conveys to his son that all life is to be lived in relationship.
Lila opens with a desolate scene of a neglected and abused child of 4-5 years “on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out….” Sick and nearly starving, Lila is rescued by the mysterious and equally lonely Doll, who spends the rest of her life on the run for abducting the girl. Their first night together Doll holds Lila against her heart wrapped in a shawl as they take shelter from the rain under a tree. She mothers Lila “as if she were a child someone could want.” She teaches her survival skills, including which plants and animals are edible: fish, dandelion greens, mushrooms, pine sap, nettles, squirrels, turtles, snakes. She makes sure Lila can read and write, even settling in a town for one year so the child might attend school. All in all, years later when she has learned something of Scripture, Lila sums up the pivotal intervention: “Doll had come to her like an angel in the wilderness,” a harbinger of divine providence of which Doll herself knew nothing.
As nurturing, protective, and sacrificial as Doll is, she is able to only provide a hardscrabble existence for the child. While Lila remembers her with intense love and gratitude, she nonetheless arrives at adulthood tragically lonely, a spectator of life, like a person at the movies. During a particularly dark period after she is separated from Doll, she works at a whorehouse to feed herself. On the move again, Lila comes across an abandoned shack outside the town of Gilead where she decides to rest for a while. One day wandering into town, she seeks refuge from a downpour inside a church during a service. There, she encounters the merciful gaze of Rev. Ames, a gaze which compels her to return to him with questions time and again, to the point of requesting baptism. She is drawn to the Christianity she witnesses in him: “a life, not a doctrine.”
“Borrowing” a Bible from the pew helps her pass the time in her isolated shack but it also helps her understand Rev. Ames’ preaching and his person. She copies out verses which interest her until she comes across some from Ezekiel which pierce her heart and become the leitmotif of her story. “And as for your birth, on the day of your nativity your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water… but you were cast out in the open field” (16:4-5). If Lila feels this abandonment to the marrow of her bones, she also comes to experience the verses that follow. The Lord takes pity on the exposed baby “weltering in [its] blood” and says, “Live…” (16:6). He tells Israel, “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered a covenant with you…and you became mine” (16:8).
Marrying the old minister, Lila experiences a human love which reflects that of the divine Bridegroom. Despite Rev. Ames’ constancy, she fears rejection if he knew the darkness of her past, telling him bleakly, “I ain’t what you seem to think I am. I done some things in my life.” But he reassures her, “You are the only person in the world I want to have sitting here beside me.” He strives to make her feel at home, something she has never felt, and he introduces her to everybody as his wife so that she might share the courtesy extended to him. She knows well that her precarious existence has indelibly marked her features and her personality and marvels at the miracle that she found “the one man on earth” who would embrace her in all her woundedness because that story in Ezekiel was real to him.
Precisely because Rev. Ames strives to see others with the eyes of God, he has the mercy and audacity to marry such an “unsuitable” woman. Human love and divine love are of a piece for him, and so the blessing of a wife and child fill his old age with an unimaginable joy. When Lila caresses their newborn at the book’s close, she notices with satisfaction that his cord has been cut and he has been cleaned. Her child is launched into the world surrounded by love, embraced from his nativity by both his natural father and heavenly Father. Lila resolves to raise the child in the faith which saved her, making her both a cherished wife and a loving mother. When they go to the church for their son’s baptism, she experiences this maternity in its fullness. “There you were, right against my heart, with a shawl around us both.”
Melanie Danner holds a M.A. in English Literature. A member of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, she lives with her husband and four children in the Maryland countryside.