Shells and Spheres of the Self: On Marilynne Robinson’s “Jack”

December 9, 2020   •   By Ben Libman


Marilynne Robinson

WE ARE NOT UNUSED to Marilynne Robinson’s characters wondering about the secret lives of things and people, their untold tales and deep histories. In Housekeeping (1980), a train slips off a bridge and sinks silently into the depths of Fingerbone Lake. Ruth, the novel’s narrator, knows that the waters of earth are not merely the swimming holes and reflective surfaces they appear to be. They tell the tale of everything they have ever received into their depths, back to the time of the Flood:

One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up.

Jack Boughton and Della Miles, the principal characters of Robinson’s latest novel, Jack, share this deep attraction for the hidden and the noumenal, even as Jack is less comfortable with the seriousness required to talk metaphysics. “My father would say that a sparrow isn’t just a sparrow,” he says to Della one night in a St. Louis cemetery, passing off his speculations about ontology onto his father. “Because its fall means something, cosmically speaking.” Della is more self-assured: “I believe we have souls,” she says, a few pages later. “I think that’s true.” These are Jack and Della: the one a ne’er-do-well transient and recent convict, well read and asocial; the other a kindhearted, luminous schoolteacher, unwilling to joke about God or grace — a true believer with a soft spot for an out-of-place soul.

Readers of previous installments of Robinson’s “Gilead” tetralogy will remember Jack, the black sheep of the Boughton family whose patriarch, Reverend Boughton, is the town’s Presbyterian minister, set as a foil to John Ames, the Congregationalist minister whose story makes up the main narrative of Gilead (2004). As a child, Jack was nothing but trouble, and as a young man he seduced and later abandoned a young girl, leaving her with their child who would die at the age of three. His return to Gilead years later to care for his dying father — the tale of a prodigal son if ever there was one — is documented from a distance in Gilead, Home (2008), and Lila (2014) from several different perspectives. But Jack’s past, those many years spent away from his hometown, have remained mostly opaque, checkered though we’ve known them to be. Wondering why no one other than Hamlet seems sorry that the old King is dead, Della hypothesizes to Jack that there must be some lost information that would explain these oddities: “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.” It is precisely in terms of gaps and glimpses that we have come to know Jack, until now — Robinson’s latest novel is an attempt to give us his histoire secrète, his Ur-Hamlet.

At the end of Home, Della shows up in Gilead with Jack’s son, Robert, just after Jack has left town, thinking that he and Della were done for good. In Jack, we find the two of them at the beginning of their slow and punctuated romance. Jack opens on the double cause of their frustrated coupling: Jack is walking Della home, or trying to, as he struggles to formulate an apology for some event they just experienced offstage. They are coming from a dinner that seems to have gone all wrong; “I have never been so embarrassed. Never in my life,” Della says. As they approach her door, Della asks Jack to leave quickly: “If some white people come along, you’ll be gone soon enough.” Within five pages Robinson has given us the two defining impediments to their union: Jack’s perpetual foolishness, and the fact of Della’s Blackness.

One could equally say the fact of Jack’s whiteness. The St. Louis and Memphis of this novel are governed by anti-miscegenation laws, and it is the opinion not only of their white citizens but also of Bishop Miles, Della’s father and a linchpin of the Memphis Black community, that separatism should rule the day. Della’s roommate, aunt, sister, and brothers all attempt to warn her away from a relationship with Jack, most of them noting that people “have been talking” about her dangerous dalliance with the shabbily dressed white man who skulks around her neighborhood. When Jack, sensitive to the fact that he might actually ruin Della’s life or land her in prison, seeks advice from the minister of a Black church in St. Louis, the reverend refuses to bless their relationship, telling him, “You’d better give some thought to how many people you’re making trouble for.”

But the remonstrations from without seem mostly to affect Jack. Della, from what we can glean, is more sensitive to the vicissitudes of Jack’s behavior. The first time they meet, she mistakes him for a priest; the second time, she finds him sleeping on a park bench. The first quarter of the novel mostly takes place over the course of a single night, when Jack and Della have run into each other in the cemetery, which has just closed until morning. Della was just wandering; Jack was sleeping there. It is clear that she doesn’t know how to approach him, or whether she even wants to. Who is he? A vagrant? A thief? A con man?

These possibilities are projected onto Della’s reticence from within Jack’s own mind. After all, the novel hews to a close-third perspective bobbing just above and sometimes inside of his head. The graveyard scene, which follows the post-dinner squabble by some weeks, unfolds like a one-act play in which the inner life of Jack — his insecurity, his shame, his desire — is revealed as he attempts to get closer to Della. We learn quickly that he is not hard, not the kind of bum who has grown rough and recalcitrant as a result of circumstance. He suffers, on the contrary, from an “[u]tter vulnerability.” He finds himself ill-fit for the world, even for the clothes on his back, and feels this most strongly when he is near Della: “Sometimes he thought of the naked man who lived in his clothes, that bare, forked animal.”

Despite the novel’s title, it is surprising to find that Jack is its only real character. Della, present nearly throughout the story, sadly lacks any actual presence. At times, she is the philosophical mouthpiece of her author, striking up a conversation about God’s omniscience (“Why would He want to limit what He could know?”). At others, she is spectral, a half-presence, as if real only to Jack, though never real enough to have wants or needs that might meaningfully collide with his own. He is difficult, hardly able to keep a promise or an appointment, liable to show up on her doorstep unannounced like a stray cat. And Della is only ever miffed, disappointed, tired — never angry, explosive, or compelling in any direction.

It is possible to read this Jack-centrism as a deliberate narratological manifestation of Jack’s solipsism. But if we concede this point, we should also concede that the novel, its plot, its characters, its intellectual problems, are poorer for it. And to give the benefit of the doubt would lead us to miss all the ways in which Jack works quite hard to be a good person, or at least a better one. Della’s flat character is a problem in its own right. She and Jack never get in one another’s way; only external circumstance can do that. And in turn their relationship mirrors that of Abelard and Héloïse, though less erotically honest, and Della becomes the sounding board for many of Jack’s problems.

At the core of Jack’s problems is his inability not to do harm. His youth spent squandering his promise and distressing his parents and siblings opened his eyes to “what an exquisite thing harmlessness must be.” He vowed, since then, to do nothing so as to do no harm, to leave only the lightest touch on the world around him. Yet the sad truth is that, for Jack, to “touch anything” is to “change everything”; “his error was to imagine that harmlessness was equivalent to insignificance.” It is this dialectical tension, between the desire to touch and not to touch, that is the most enduring impediment he constructs between himself and Della. “Dear Jesus, keep me harmless,” he says while thinking of the night in the cemetery, just after earning a job at a rundown shoe store. “He knew what that meant. Keep me alone.”

Jack’s nervousness emerges directly from this anxiety, from his incapacity to be harmless, which makes of him a schlemiel in all sorts of situations in which he is expected to act some way — kind, considerate, polite, honest — and contributes, by way of a coping mechanism, to his inability to take anything seriously. Della brings this part of him to the fore, acting in some ways as Robinson’s stand-in: the two are fond of probing the essential questions of Christian theology, notably predestination, divine omniscience, and grace. Although she won’t follow Jack, or Robinson, into “the swamps of Presbyterianism,” Della, in the darkness of the cemetery, is content to pursue these overarchingly Christian matters both directly and by metaphor. Yet whenever she embarks in this direction, Jack can’t help but poke fun: “Uh-oh. A sermon illustration.” His irony, though, is like an untamed reflex; it is always followed by regret.

It is a hallmark of Robinson’s work that she doesn’t allow her narratives to slide into the black hole of metafictional irony and self-mocking scorn. With Housekeeping, this was what so powerfully set her apart from the sardonic, Knowing Men of the period — Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, etc.: a commitment, in the style of Mallarmé, to the deep poetry of good prose, and to the wells of sincerity and feeling that pockmark the little lives of human beings. So it is a shame to see, in this novel, Robinson’s occasional use of Jack’s wry attitude as a means of avoiding cliché. When Jack thinks back on his time in prison, for instance, he recalls that he took “a very small comfort from the relative predictability of it all. What was the phrase? A sense of belonging.” Who wouldn’t know that phrase? Jack, well read and well versed in the world despite his errancy, certainly would. It is that authorial quiver, a slight hesitation to say something cheap or saccharine that would typically dog a lesser novelist than Robinson.

Della, faced with Jack’s reluctance to believe in matters of the spirit, ventriloquizes this anxiety often. In the cemetery, she tries to convince Jack that he is pure in his own way, and that he needs to do what he can to “keep body and soul together.” When Jack dismisses this as unlikely, Della says: “Well, there’s Jesus.” Jack is startled. “‘A gentleman I am at considerable pains to avoid.’ He thought, Sweet Jesus, don’t let her try to convert me.” We can feel, here, Robinson projecting into him her critics. And her response? “I’m sorry. I know how that sounded,” Della says. Maybe this is the problem: that after many novels and many attempts at a poetic philosophy, Robinson knows a little too well how it sounds.

This sliver of self-reflexivity is perhaps a consequence of the battle between meaning and meaninglessness, which Robinson stages in Jack’s story just as she does in all of her novels. It is no trivial matter to Robinson that the lines between significance and insignificance, being and nothingness, belief and totalizing irony, are one and the same, and razor thin. Here, more glaringly than in any of her previous novels, the contest is least convincingly decided on the side of meaning. Jack, whose life has been a long series of trivialities landing him in all manners of dire straits, “could not stop himself from thinking that triviality added to triviality however many times should finally have some of the qualities of nothingness, nonbeing.” This feels appropriate to him, and yet Robinson wants to assure us, “Suicide crossed his mind, but he really had forsworn it. That was true.” Was it? We are told this, but we are never given the opportunity to know it. The reader has little in the way of an objective correlative to confirm this. Robinson knows that she must say it is true to make it so, that a strongarm is needed: “Meaninglessness was no refuge,” the narrator tells us in the same passage — if you say so.

For the most part, though, Robinson needs to do little in the way of convincing to speak to us along her wide range of authorial frequencies. Jack is woven through with some of her best writing since Housekeeping, as when Jack approaches the dance studio where he has found work, late in the night:

Buildings dream at night, and their dreams have a particular character. Or perhaps at night they awaken. There is nothing cordial or accommodating about buildings, whatever they might let people believe. The stresses of simply standing there, preposterous constructions, Euclidian like nothing in nature, the ground heaving under them, rain seeping in while their joints go slack with rot. They speak disgruntlement, creaks and groans, and less nameable sounds that suggest presence of the kind that is conjured only by emptiness. Grudges, plaints, and threats, an interior conversation, not meant to be heard, that would startle anyone. Jack had never realized before that the city, the parts he knew of it, might despise its human infestation.

Robinson also returns to some of her familiar motifs, to the image of the lighted window and the darkness beyond. She records, like a compulsive Impressionist painter, the slender aspects of its shifting colloidal state: “After a while, light will reveal itself in a very dark room, not quite as a mist, as something more particulate, as if the slightest breath had lifted the finest dust into the stillest air.”

We also find certain of her characterological preoccupations, spanning the breadth of her work, more profoundly and successfully compounded in this novel. Like Housekeeping’s Sylvie and the eponymous protagonist of Lila before him, Jack is not only a bum and layabout, but also what Robinson would call a transient. Her transients are her most enigmatic and spellbinding characters; they live according to their own clocks, their own mores, their own vast systems of signs. The transient cherishes freedom and fears most of all being tied to some place, or to some people who want to hold them fast. (We recall that Sylvie “always slept clothed, at first with her shoes on.”) And it seems to take the right kind of love, the right idea of family — always a “rightness” whose particularities remain opaque — for the transient to slow down, to give of themselves, or to take on companions for the next ride down the rails.

The Robinsonian transient is effectively a solipsist, though this is not a narcissistic solipsism. It is fundamentally the state of being solus, with and by oneself. It is a loneliness always set against the strictures of a society that behaves like a host expelling a foreign body. The loneliness of the transient knows only the vocabulary of the self, because it is prevented in the first place from building bridges across the gulf of subjectivity to the selves of others. The transient reenacts this failure perpetually by way of attempting to cope with loneliness — that is, by traveling, moving, in a vicious circle. He or she is by consequence seen by those who are close enough to witness them (Housekeeping’s Lucille, for example, and the reader along with her) as fundamentally uninterested in the lives of others.

This misconception is undone in Jack, where the transient is given a further thickness. Jack’s obsession with the possibility of personal reformation provides a revealing glimpse into his behavior. “This sort of life has its costs, I agree,” he tells Della. “But I’m basically harmless. Most of us are. If we’re incorrigible, that might just be a sign of — contentment.” Harmlessness, once we understand what it means to Jack, here becomes a tragic principle. It is because he wants nothing more than to do no harm, and yet is unable not to harm, that he avoids all ties. The transient, Jack reveals, knows only what the most powerful empath can know: what it really means to harm another. It is a devastating knowledge, the purest understanding of fellow-feeling, and it leads only to the habits of the snail — a gathering-in, which amounts to a pushing-away, not for the sake of oneself but for that of another. “I am able to do harm,” Jack thinks, after getting as close as he has ever been to Della. “I can only do harm,” he concludes. “Ah, Jesus, get her home, keep her safe. Keep her safe from me.”

Della comes to see what we see, and it is for that reason (and apparently that reason alone) that she is moved to love Jack. Her disquisition on the nature of the soul is specifically about him and what she sees in him:

[A] soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it.

The soul is a transient, then, of a noumenal, idealized nature — making no history in the world, causing no injury, suffering no guilt. It aspires to a lightness of being, a touchlessness, which in less idealized terms must be a harmlessness. Della understands Jack’s value and individuality through this framework, even if it is too credulous a way of thinking for us and for Jack himself.

Della understands his story as the spiritual journey of a lost soul, even as we may understand it as a love plot. But no matter how it is figured, both she and the reader are left with the tale of Jack, and not the tale of Jack and Della. Indeed, in a world of flat and round characters, Della has received a few puffs of life, nothing more. We know little of her tears, her anger, her desires, the depths of her shame. She is animated only in Jack’s eyes, given movement only in the projector of his mind — deceptively real, yet at root a symptom of his cause.

Maybe this is fitting for a novel with such a title, and maybe it is to be expected that Della should lie outside the limits of Robinson’s free-indirect discourse. We are asked to stick close to Jack, to focus on his errors and on what he does to change his ways. Beyond his desire to be with Della lies something toward which he extends his reach, a plane beyond the sphere of his solipsism. “If he were an honorable man, he’d have left her alone,” he thinks. And he begins to move in this direction, to see how, as the St. Louis reverend says, Della is part of a wider community, a larger network of which she is an essential node. The closest he could get to altruism would be to suffer a heartbreak — and to suffer hers, too — for the sake of that community, to grant her the life of consequence she has beyond that which exists in his mind’s eye. Jack wants to take us there, past the sphere of the self; but Jack holds us back, keeping us from the straight and narrow.


Ben Libman is a writer from Montréal. He currently lives in California.