A Return to Home

**Spoiler Alert: this post contains material that give away some details about the endings of Gilead and Home, by Marilynne Robinson**

Upon finishing Robinson’s Home, I felt strangely unsettled–very different from how I felt at the end of Gilead, which closes with a quiet sigh of contentment.

Home is not a sequel, but rather a companion piece to Gilead that covers approximately the same time span and similar events from the perspective of Boughton’s 38 year old daughter Glory. Glory has returned home after many years as a single school teacher, ostensibly to care for her aging father, but also to escape the shame and disappointment of a foiled romance.

Unlike Gilead, this story is narrated in the third person: readers gain a broader perspective on the the setting, the town, and the time through narrative description than Rev. Ames had the patience to write out in his letter to little Robby. While we share primarily in Glory’s thoughts, the story really focuses on the character of her ne’re-do-well brother, Jack—a rebel in his youth and a struggling alcoholic in his middle age–and Jack’s strained relationship with their father.

Robinson’s writing style in this novel is, as always, poignant and lovely. The story moves slowly, for she does not rush past important moments of peace or anticipation or tension. (Sometimes, I’ll admit, it moves a little too slowly for my tastes.) She gives passages and pages over to Glory’s quiet reflections on her difficult childhood and Jack’s present dilemma. Being no Rev. Ames, Glory’s thoughts don’t often ascend to the same poetical heights as those of Gilead‘s narrator, but they’re strikingly honest and simple. She cries when she’s sad and cooks when she’s worried and goes out of her way to keep the peace in a household choking with formality. All in all, she’s much easier to relate to than the semi-saintly Ames.

Home is certainly superior to 98% of novels being published today and I do recommend it, especially if you enjoyed Gilead. But, like I said, it left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Consider this excerpt from Robinson’s NPR interview immediately after the book’s publication:

Ms. ROBINSON: It’s about love. You know, it’s about the fact that love is not earned and love is not felt in anyone at their will, because they have made some calculation of someone’s worth. That’s one of Jesus’ most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life.

Pastor LEVIN: You know, with the story in “Home,” it’s really that sense of what happens after the prodigal son does come home. You know, after people are glad to see him, then what?

Ms. ROBINSON: And this is so much a story of someone seeking forgiveness and not really getting it. I don’t think it’s really forgiveness that he’s looking for. I think he’s – he knows, I think, that his father forgives him to the degree that his father’s capable of forgiving him. I mean, you know, behind the failure to forgive that you can sense in Boughton is a much stronger desire to forgive, which I consider forgiveness.

There it is: that’s what’s been bothering me. A desire to forgive ISN’T the same thing as forgiveness. Jack suffers so horribly in his adulthood–suffers natural consequences for poor choices AND suffers from the fear that he is predestined to do wrong, doomed to the hell of being the worst version of himself, if not doomed to Hell-Capital-H for all eternity. And Robinson depicts Boughton’s human limitations so accurately: he sees himself as doomed to love this prodigal son despite all the disappointment he causes. Yet, in the end, Boughton’s own sense of suffering embitters him against Jack so that he cannot show him the love that he’s cherished for his son for forty years.

And while Jack and Glory experience some healing, some growth in their time at home with their father, the fundamental problem remains.

What Jack needs is absolution.

In Jack, Robinson creates a perfectly true picture of a man trapped in his own sin and trapped in his conception of himself as a purely sinful person. His attempts to confess are  squelched by the requirements of propriety. And even when he seeks spiritual counsel from two different ministers — his father and Rev. Ames — his openness is met with judgement or rebuke. Only once does another character offer him a morsel of hope: Lila, Ames’ mysterious wife who has a deep sympathy for Jack’s confusion, concludes a frustrating conversation about predestination by telling him that “People can change. Everything can change.”

And she’s right. But Jack can’t experience that change without the sacrament of reconciliation. I doubt that this was an available option in the little town of Gilead, and it clearly wasn’t an option from Robinson’s philosophical standpoint. I’m not saying that the book should have ended differently than it did: its conclusion is natural and fitting. I do think, however, that it points directly to an unfulfilled spiritual need that can only be satisfied through the effective grace of sincere confession, absolution, and penance.

If you’re interested in other opinions about Home, I recommend going through the full NPR transcript, which gives some good background on Robinson’s faith and perspective.

This New York Times book review describes the text well, but also contains a fair number of spoilers for those who haven’t yet read Gilead.

The New Yorker review is written by a fellow who seems ideologically incapable of appreciating the tone of Home: some of his interpretations make me think he missed the larger point. But he notices different aspects of Robinson’s writing than I would have, and gives a good example of how non-religiously-minded people might react to the novel.

But maybe I missed the larger point, too. What do you think?



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3 responses to “A Return to Home

  1. I’ve only read Gilead, so can’t compare the two, but do agree that wanting to forgive and forgiving aren’t the same thing—you can tell because when you want to forgive it’s still a big issue, but after you have forgiven the issue is almost closed. It might reoccur, but it doesn’t shake you the same way.

  2. That’s a pretty thorough review. I’d like to point Marilynne Robinson to this post and see how she responds.

  3. Zach

    That’s a pretty thorough review. I’d like to point Marilynne Robinson to this post and see how she responds.


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