[I read this 2020 novel in three sections, writing in detail about each section before reading on. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it. I do not refer to events in the other Gilead novels.]
20th March 2021
First section—mainly in the cemetery
I’m about a quarter of the way through the novel, and a page or two back I had to pause in my reading because I thought that all Jack’s efforts to do the right thing had come to nothing. He’s spent the night in the local cemetery, which isn’t unusual in itself. Plenty of men like him wait inside until after the gates are locked so they can find a place to lay down their bed-rolls and get a night’s sleep for free. What is unusual is that Della, a black woman he knows from a previous encounter, has accidentally also got herself locked in. She’d spent too much time vainly searching for a particular grave in this all-whites cemetery, and now she’s stuck. He approaches her and, despite things having ended badly last time, she eventually agrees to let him stay protectively close to her through the night. In the morning, as she is being lectured to by the cemetery guard as she leaves, Jack tries to help by sauntering up in order to distract him. The man knows Jack—this is by no means the first stay in the cemetery—and, quite understandably, misconstrues why he’s helping her. ‘Don’t think I don’t know what’s been going on here. Sleeping off a drunk is one thing, but bringing along a colored gal—we’re got dead people here!’
All night Jack and Della have been reminding each other—and the reader—how disastrous such an accusation would be for her. She is the respectable school-teacher daughter of a preacher and, in post-war St Louis, she would be ruined by the faintest suspicion of anything like this. But, as the chapter ends and she leaves the guard lecturing Jack, it seems that she’s safe. I’ve read two of the previous three of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels, and I can’t remember now what we might already know about Jack and this woman. At this moment, I’m hoping that whatever happens between her and Jack doesn’t smash up everything she’s painstakingly made of her life.
The novel doesn’t begin with their unexpected meeting in the cemetery, but out in the town some time before. It’s the inauspicious end of what Jack later remembers as an evening that had gone very well before the last hour: ‘He was walking almost beside her, two steps behind. She did not look back. She said, “I’m not talking to you.”’ Jack’s response, then hers, are in a style we come to recognise. ‘I completely understand,’ he says, and she comes straight back at him, not looking at him for a moment, ‘If you did completely understand, you wouldn’t be following me.’ Jack spends most of his life trying to put right mistakes he never intended to make. In Gilead, set at a time after this novel, I remember how difficult the other characters find it to understand how the bright, well brought-up son of a church minister could end up making such a mess of himself and his life.
But that novel isn’t written from Jack’s point of view, and this one is. It makes all the difference in the world, because everything he says is presented in the busy, detailed context of his own self-doubting thoughts. Not that Jack would agree to that appraisal of the way he’s constantly redrafting, in real time, his own assessment of how he’s getting through the day. He’d say ‘self-doubting’ is too positive. All he’s doing, to use one of his own phrases, is taking the path of least resistance. And, to adapt another of his phrases, look where that’s got him.
What becomes clear, as their night in the cemetery progresses, is that Della—or Miss Miles as he always addresses her, without a hint of irony—can’t help being as interested by him as he is himself. It shows in those first lines at the beginning of the novel. In expressing her annoyance at his behaviour—so far, we don’t know what he did, and maybe we never will—she talks to him, a lot, even as she insists that he should go away and never come back. There are plenty of men who would make a point of remarking on how much she’s talking to him, and it’s a mark of Jack’s—what? decency?—that he definitely doesn’t. Sometimes, during the night, his tongue gets ahead of his better judgment, but not too far ahead, and we’re there inside his mind as he thinks about how he might back-pedal, or simply stay quiet for a while and let the conversation move off in a different direction.
After the disastrous end to that previous evening, something like a year before, he had taken Della at her word. He had definitely not sought her out, except to leave on her porch one of the books and three dollars of the five she had lent him. And now here she is, where he would least expect her to be. Really, of course, it’s Marilynne Robinson’s way of bringing about an interesting ‘what if’ thought experiment. What might the conversation be like that could lead to the possibility, however small, of her taking Jack seriously?
After 70-odd pages of it, I’m thinking it might be something like what we’ve been seeing. A few dozen pages in, I wondered whether the novel might consist only of their conversation, but no. What we do get is Jack’s determination to leave his future self with a better memory of him and her—in other words, not to mess up this time—and, for her… what? It starts off very awkwardly, because she keeps mentioning the bad taste left by his previous failures. He didn’t even return all the money, nor the other book he borrowed. He meant to, of course, but isn’t that just like him? And isn’t it just like him that having started to write a poem on the flyleaf of the book, he left it unfinished? As they talk about it during the night, she tells him she likes the lines he did complete. But, as she doesn’t need to say to him, what use are good intentions without the follow-through?
These are the sorts of questions that go through his head all the time, which is why it’s so important that the narrative, third-person limited, is all from his point of view. As the night goes on, it means the reader is ahead of Della as she begins to understand that Jack really would like to be a better person, if only it didn’t take so much effort. Or if only making the first step were enough. It’s clear he’s taken a lot of first steps in his time, possibly most days of his life. He knows this, he isn’t proud of it… but, usually, he doesn’t feel ashamed enough to change his ways. If anything is clear from the outset, it’s that he couldn’t be more different from the upright, hardworking Christian that Della strives to be.
Or so it might appear. In fact, Robinson has not given herself an impossible job here, because as the conversation goes on, it becomes clear how much they have in common. Her father, like his, is a church minister. They are both from fine, upstanding families in the community, with siblings whose behaviour is exemplary. They are both used to family discussions on the details of ethics and church law, Methodist in her case and Presbyterian in his. This leads to discussions in the night concerning, for instance, his father’s self-questioning about whether God always knew that Jack would fall away from the faith—and Jack’s own refusal to attribute his own behaviour to anything as glib as predestination.
The overriding impression we’re left with after their hours together is of intimacy. Jack’s self-consciousness is heightened by this accidental closeness, examining everything he says for possible ambiguities. His nervousness, he knows from experience, often leads him to say the wrong thing or laugh inappropriately, and we see this sometimes. It’s why he has to back-pedal so often—and, interestingly, she gets what he’s doing and appreciates it.
Meanwhile, at first, she is on tenterhooks because her mistake could cost her everything. But, as it becomes clear that Jack is doing his best to think about how the situation might be retrieved, and as she starts to believe it’s possible, she becomes more open with him. It’s little things at first. They might seem trivial to a modern reader—she does not refuse to take his arm as they climb a grassy slope, allows him to sit close to her on the step of a tomb he knows well—but these are all first-time experiences for her. And they lead to a different kind of openness. One of them, I can’t remember which, talks about which of the old rules the last two people on earth might want to get rid of. It’s hypothetical, but before the night is over, these two people are definitely talking about the realities they wish they didn’t have to deal with.
She tells Jack things she’s never told anybody before. She describes a lesson that went wrong, when the girls in her class just didn’t get why she might use a popular song (if I remember rightly) in a serious English lesson. Maybe she knows before she tells him that Jack is going to understand perfectly what she had been trying to teach them, and he does. Later in the night, some of which she has spent dozing with her head on his shoulder, she tells him far more revealing things. Growing up with a father who is a preacher is never easy, and the expectations on her feel far heavier. And then she says it. What she really feels about her life is anger at the unfairness of it.
There’s no sense that she’s angry at Jack, the white man who has thrown away all his privileges while she has had to toil for every little thing. Hearing that she’d got the teaching job was the happiest moment in her life because… well, she doesn’t say. Except she hasn’t mentioned many other happy moments in her life. Meanwhile Jack is appreciative of the fact that she has treated him and his conversation with seriousness, and tells himself he’s satisfied enough merely that her future thoughts about him will no longer be based on those negative memories from the last time. He hates people thinking badly of him, telling her that his only ambition is to be harmless. She seems to understand.
It works for me. A real conversation lasting all these hours definitely would fill a novel-length book, but that’s OK, because this is Jack’s story. It’s convincing enough, right down to the thoughts he’s having as the guard humiliates him in front of Della, resisting the urge to punch the man because, well, he doesn’t need to be spending time in jail. And we wonder where Marilynne Robinson will take it next. At this time, when ‘miscegenation’ laws are so punitive in Missouri, Della has gone so far as to promise is that she will leave a secret sign in her window to let him know whether their innocent night together has had any repercussions for her. She’s also talked to him about his turning his life around. She’s interested in him.
Second section—to go to Memphis?
I can’t decide why I’m finding this book so hard to read. Robinson is one of the most sympathetic writers I know, constantly offering the reader insights that help us to understand why characters behave as they do. Or, because the point of view is entirely Jack’s in this novel, why he does what he does whilst constantly trying to understand what is motivating everybody else. A part of me thinks that at one level, it’s a masterclass. Another part of me wishes she’d give up on the idea of unpacking every last detail of this man’s consciousness. His tortured self-questioning reveals him as the thoughtful, principled man we came to know in the first few dozen pages. But I’m really, really not sure why Robinson is spending so much time on confirming this for us for chapter after chapter. Yes, we get it. Can we move on a little more smartly now?
Things have happened, but slowly and with no definitive outcomes yet. There’s nothing surprising about either of these, the slowness or the uncertainty. Jack’s problem comes down to his inability to resolve the dilemma at the heart of it. Perhaps, for a sensitive man like him, it’s insoluble. He recognises a soul-mate in Della, and everything she says and does suggests that the recognition is mutual. She loves his old-fashioned gentlemanliness, a trait he nurtures in himself as proof, I suppose, that a man in his situation can show grace. He is a failure according to every possible criterion—including an apparent disregard, despite his fastidious care with strangers, for the feelings of his own family. Whether the disregard is real or not might be deemed irrelevant—I find myself using the same language of measured consideration with which every question in the book is approached—because, for instance, it meant his mother’s funeral took place without him. Using money that his brother Ted had sent, Jack bought a dark suit. But he didn’t go.
He doesn’t tell Della everything, but nor does he hide from her what kind of a man he is. And she’s OK with it. Like so many things in his life, there had been something farcical about his first encounter with her. Wearing his dark suit, he had come to her aid as she dropped her papers in the wet street. The umbrella he proffers is one he’s recently picked up from beside a dozing old man on a park bench, but she doesn’t know that. She says, ‘Thank you, Reverend,’ and lets him escort her home. He lets her carry on in her mistake, accepting the tea she offers. He wants to tell her, but he doesn’t—and nor does he leave a note later as he thought he might. It’s enough, kind of, that when she next sees him he has swapped the dark suit for something more ‘raffish,’ as he thinks of it. She isn’t affronted, because she had enjoyed his conversation.
She’s always like that, except that one time when a pleasant evening ends with her feeling terribly insulted. As ever, the cause is farcical. Having treated her to a simple meal at a mixed café—i.e. one in which nobody remarks on their being together—he notices a couple of shady characters looking right at him. He knows them as men who, acting on behalf of one or more of his many creditors, would love to make things very difficult for him in a public place like this. He decides to leave through a back door, with no time to explain anything to Della.
We know this doesn’t make her give up on him for good. Before this, they had been establishing a kind of friendship. Like one Sunday, after he had mentioned being impressed by the Eads Bridge in the city, she had sought him out on a bench near a viewpoint of it. He thinks about how she would have known not to bother looking for him anywhere near any churches. They talk, now and at other times, sharing their ideas about poetry, talking about the pressures of having church ministers for fathers, trying out the kinds of questions neither of them ever talks about to anyone else.
It’s only a temporary setback when Jack’s genuinely sincere invitation to the café ends so badly. Sure, months go by before the night they spend together in the cemetery… but it seems that Della’s presence there is unlikely to have been as much of an accident as he had assumed. And by the morning, enough trust has been restored for her to suggest that he bring back that other book. Which he does, the following Sunday, not realising for a moment that she would have cooked for him. Before she had opened the door—or had it been her housemate, Lorraine?—he had been behaving like a shy adolescent. He had bought a bunch of red roses cheaply—he later explains he didn’t pay full price—but he had dumped them in the hedge. He had contemplated leaving the book on the porch. He… etc.
The visit lays bare the real dilemma of these people’s lives. Lorraine is appalled that Della is allowing a white man to visit, makes him so uncomfortable he can’t eat what Della has cooked—and, after he has fallen asleep following a nervous drinking session on the Saturday—she sits up watching him all night. It’s Della who points out that the same neighbours who have already been noticing him—he’s been passing up and down by the house and stealing glances at it—are unlikely to miss his leaving, whatever the time. Lorraine has no answer to this. By the time Jack does leave, he’s told Della about the flowers and they’ve picked them out of the hedge.
Lorraine is by no means the only bar to their impossible relationship. Soon, he receives a letter at the address he had written in tiny letters in the book he’d returned. It’s an invitation from Della’s aunt to visit her at Della’s place, and he knows it will be so he can receive his marching orders. (Is that what he calls them? It might be.) Nonetheless, he wants to make as good an impression as possible. He knows that if he looked like the most prosperous white man in America, it would make no difference. But he isn’t doing it to change anybody’s mind… and Della gets the message. He’s trying, however impossible it all is. For the same reason, he’s already told her about the job he got the day after their night in the cemetery. He decides there’s no need to mention the farcical set-up at the shoe store that has seen much better times—I nearly called it down-at-heel—or the fact that he really does seem to be helping the woman who had practically given up hope.
In Robinson’s presentation, Jack doesn’t seem such a bad sort of a guy. And maybe that’s another problem I have with this book. He’s so endlessly rueful about his own haplessness it becomes endearing. There’s the next job he has—the shoe store closes when he can’t go in to work for a while—teaching at a dancing school where they learn the moves the day before the middle-aged ladies they take on to the floor. One step ahead, he doesn’t say. And there’s a cat, brought by the rooming-house desk clerk who’s like the tricky guy in a Laurel and Hardy movie. He loses the cat, finds it again—is it grey with grey stripes, or the other way around?—and covers it in Old Spice so he’ll know next time. He takes it to Della, and she laughs.
But it’s serious too, however farcical his introduction to a new friend and mentor. He’s examining the worn-out inner band of his hat outside a Black church when first one parishioner puts in a coin, and then another… so he has to go in and take part, has to wait around to retrieve his hat after the usher takes it while he’s explaining about the money in it, ends up staying for lunch and to belt out old hymn tunes on the piano. Hutchins, the minister, sits opposite him at the lunch table, guesses his background—who else would know so many tunes?—and talks. The range and depth of the conversation is like those he can have with Della, and he goes back the following week. And then a new crisis comes.
The aunt’s prohibition hasn’t stopped Della from accidentally having their paths cross from time to time and, of course, this is noticed. As is the episode with the cat that reeks of his after-shave. She lets him know by letter that she has been summoned back to spend some time with her family in Memphis. Jack is mortified, at least as much by the imputation of untrustworthiness that inevitably hangs over him among her family as by the fact that they clearly want her never to see him again. He wants to let her father know that his intentions have never been dishonourable… but he isn’t sure that going to see him in Memphis will be the best way to put things right. Who to ask?
Hutchins, of course, who lets him know, gently but with no room for any doubt, that absolutely nothing could be gained from such a visit. Her father isn’t just a minister, he’s a bishop, and Hutchins’s forthrightness leaves Jack with no comeback. Instead, no doubt to prove the degree of harmlessness he’s capable of, he tells the story of how he met Della in the first place. He starts with the stolen umbrella—and that he had just got out of jail, a detail he has never mentioned to her—and Hutchins is gentle with him. ‘That’s a nice story… take any chance you get to do a kindness.’ He’s always gentle and, as Jack leaves, he tells him to take care. ‘That’s the first thing.’
Final section—impossible choices
This strange book continues to be what it was from the start. I described Robinson’s presentation of Jack and Della’s long night in the cemetery as a thought experiment—what could such a conversation as this be like? As weeks have turned into months (not that we ever know how many months, Jack being no great observer of the turning seasons), the ‘what if’ question is the same. What if a man like Jack, long convinced of his own failure, were to encounter a lovely, lovable woman who recognises him as the perfect soul-mate?
Presented like that, the question sounds a little silly. In order for it to work, Robinson needs us to believe two things. Firstly, that a man of his lifelong self-destructive habits could nonetheless possess such pin-sharp self-awareness that every recollection of his failures is a torture. And secondly, that his ability to articulate this is the very quality that this particular woman would find attractive. She is an intelligent woman, as aware of her own moral strengths as Jack is of his weaknesses. She sees his weaknesses, but his articulate, intellectually rigorous struggle with them makes her love him. In case we haven’t got it, Robinson has Della explain what she means by soul, and that it’s Jack’s that matters to her.
Robinson’s task is to make this seem plausible. She takes great pains to show us that as with so many other things in his life, Jack has brought this about by taking the path of least resistance. He liked this woman from the start—his feelings for her are genuine—and he does his level best to appear in the best possible light. The accident of his birth has endowed him with the ability to appear gentle and considerate. He speaks quietly and kindly to her when she thinks he’s a church minister, allows her to find out he isn’t rather than telling her and, basically, begins to work on her by way of his air of self-deprecating helplessness. Presented like this, it sounds manipulative—and I suspect that if presented in any other narrative form, Jack would come across as a sweet-talking, plausible rogue. But we only ever get his version of himself. Robinson depends on us being as seduced by his self-awareness as Della is. This, despite the fact that one of the things that makes him plausible is the way he is very careful to give the best version of himself to Della that he can muster. Even we readers are to believe that Jack’s prison sentence—does he ever tell Della about it?—was for a crime he didn’t commit.
Robinson needs something else to make her interracial take on the Romeo and Juliet story work. Della has to be even more active than Jack in moving things forward. I suppose if she had resisted, if there really had needed to be some sort of seduction rather than hangdog self-effacement, Jack would have come across to the reader has frankly unattractive. Instead, Robinson has Della behave in a way that is the opposite of resistant. In the cemetery, she shows her cards in a completely forthright way: in an ideal world, she would be very happy indeed to spend the rest of her life with Jack, and this daughter of the Church is very angry that the Church goes along with the lawmakers’ hateful directives.
But I’m not telling you the plot. Maybe it doesn’t really matter, because there is an inevitability about all of it. Jack, having conspired with Della to bring about this impossible situation, now wants to do the right thing. This, if he isn’t going to ruin her life, means giving her up—he puts it to himself explicitly that leaving her is the only act that would prove his love. However, Della isn’t having this. She returns from Memphis early, and pushes things on between her and him. She comes to his room unannounced, for no reason beyond proving to him that she is unconcerned about appearances. They do not make love and, despite the desk clerk’s efforts, he makes sure her return home is as discreet as possible.
What’s a man to do? More pointedly, what’s a man to do when she makes it absolutely clear to him that the only way available to them to make a lifelong commitment—to ‘marry’, in God’s eyes—is to have sex. Robinson is tactful about it, but that’s what happens. From now on, Della insists, they are husband and wife. He is in full agreement with her. Fine. But he knows, and the reader knows, that this is not the world they would wish it to be. It isn’t even possible for them to live out the fantasy compromise they have devised, in which they simply carry on meeting occasionally. The principal of her school has let her know she must stop putting her reputation in danger, the desk clerk has threatened, possibly seriously, to call the cops…. As before, no matter how respectable he tries to make himself—and he’s doing a pretty good job, even managing to save a little money now he’s stopped drinking—no white man in the world would ever be suitable.
She is called away to Memphis again, and this time her house is emptied. Her family clearly mean business… and Jack really does decide he’s going to have to let her go this time. He gets on a bus to Chicago—I haven’t mentioned the woman he once went to find there, knowing he would never be able to, after he’d made her pregnant—and, for eight pages, it looks as though his fantasy of a respectable life is coming to pass. He makes such a good impression on a woman on the bus that she tells him of a good rooming-house a few stops further down the road. He makes such a good impression on a woman in the book-store that he is able to walk into a job. He makes such a good impression on the landlady… etc. At first he treats it as some sort of cosmic joke, constantly expects the trapdoor to open and send him crashing back down to his real life. In fact, just after he’s been offered a bigger room with a separate study, ideal for the wife he’s talked about when she arrives, says the landlady… he opens the trapdoor himself. He tells her his wife is ‘a colored lady’—what on earth is he thinking of?—and that’s it. He has to get out of there before she calls the cops.
To return to St Louis? Or try Memphis, to find Della if she’s still there and explain his true motives to her father? He goes for the latter, and it’s… a polite kind of torture. Her father’s look when he sees Jack outside his church is like a ‘rifle shot’ and, although he invites him home, it’s as hard as it could possibly be. And, reader, you’ll never guess why Della hasn’t returned to St Louis. Oh, you have. Morning sickness is never a great aid to getting through a long bus journey. Different family members behave in different ways, from genuine-seeming welcome (that aunt of Della’s) to polite, super-reasonable rage (the father). Jack stays for dinner and one night in the kind of spare room respectable Black ministers can provide, and next morning he leaves. Della’s father has given him the bus-fare, explaining that he is firmly of the belief that Black people must seek to improve their lives entirely separate from whites.
It becomes clear that if Della wants to go with him nobody will stop her, but she will be on her own from now on. She goes, of course, and they will have to face whatever is coming to them—including a mixed-race child whose life will always be hard—and… what else can Jack do, given that Della has no intention of living without him? No speck of Jack’s life is ever simple, including this unlooked-for ending: ‘this was his greatest larceny so far, this theft of happiness from the very clutches of prohibition.’ Hah. If only that were the whole truth of it—which Jack knows perfectly well it is not. The ‘damage’ to her family, possibly echoing down the generations, and definitely including their own child. The end of any prospect for Della of ‘every good effect she would have felt from her education.’ The substitution of her powerful father as her guardian against life’s ‘insults and abrasions’ by—who?—‘mere him,’ that’s who.
But that isn’t the final message. ‘He could think of himself as a thief sneaking off with an inestimable wealth of meaning and trust…. Or he could consider the sweet marriage that made her a conspirator with him in it, the loyalty that always restored them both, just like grace.’
The end. No solutions, no fix. What will remain of us is… whatever it is they most definitely have. Go figure. And ponder, if only for a moment, the lifetimes of pain brought about by American race laws for century after century. Robinson isn’t going to shout anything from the rooftops but, in the year when Black Lives Matter became an international phenomenon, she’s happy to let us know that she understands how monstrous things have been for a very long time indeed.