‘This sly, cold arbiter of the fates of the bail-seeking and the creditor-pursued looked at Jack as if he were weary of him.’ – Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

October 30, 2020 at 7:30 pm (Book review, books)

Jack is an unusual work of fiction. I was going to say that you need to have read Marilynne Robinson’s other Gilead novels before reading this one, but I changed my mind about that. Coming to it cold would have its own enchantment and its own challenges.

Jack does not have much of a life. His main problem is that he has trouble holding down  a job. Actually, he has another problem, just as severe. He is a thief. The urge comes upon him as an impulse, to simply take  things that don’t belong to him. He secretly rejoices in the opportunity to do so.

Much of the early part of the novel takes place at night, in a graveyard. Jack has encountered Della Miles there, a young African American woman  who teaches school. She’s the daughter of a Methodist minister; Jack is the son of Reverend Boughton of the Presbyterian church. Jack and Della engage in one of the seemingly endless conversations that can sometimes try the patience of the reader. Hang in there, though; some really good stuff works its way to the surface.

At one point, the subject of nihilism comes up. In a typically insouciant manner, Jack declares that “…meaninglessness…has its pleasures.” Della disagrees:

Meaninglessness would come as a terrible blow to most people. It would be full of significance for them….That’s where I always end up. Once you ask if there’s meaning, the only answer is yes. You can’t get away from it.

There is nothing insouciant about Della. Such questions as this are deeply fraught, to be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Della is solemn and beautiful, Jack’s very opposite, and he falls in love with her. I haven’t mentioned that the place is St. Louis; the time is mid-twentieth century America. Talk about fraught.

They walked along through the ranks and clusters of the dead. Forever hoisting their stony sails, waiting for that final wind to rise.

At length, Jack comes to consider sin and its consequences. He wants to test his ideas and their ffect on Della:

“I suppose sinning is doing harm. Agreed?  And everything is vulnerable to harm, one way or another. Everybody is vulnerable. It’s kind of horrible when you think about it. All that breakage, without so much as an intention behind it half the time. All that tantalizing fragility.

Jack comes to the conclusion that he will henceforth be to aspire to harmlessness. In his view, this is a noble aspiration. One wonders at Jack’s use of that word ‘tantalizing,’ in the above disquisition. He himself later regrets the phraseology. He calls harmlessness “A banner with a strange device.”

One sentence about Jack really struck me powerfully: “He has made an early start on a wasted life.”

Yet now he had a purpose. He had found Della. He loved her and wanted to protect her. But given the time and place in which they both live, this will be next to impossible. Her family, gentle and loving as they are, try to point this out to him, to both of them. Racist assumptions on the part of the people they encounter casually erupt as sharp, stinging barbs – more so for me as the reader, I felt, than for Della and Jack, who endured them with a kind of gorgeous stoicism.

The two are as fixed as stars in their purpose.

Marilynne Robinson has a wide ranging mind. At times it seems as if she is daring you to follow her along a difficult path. Her locutions can be challenging; her enormous vocabulary, even more so. Some readers may find this off putting. I can understand that. For me, the underlying power of the narrative made everything right about this book. Rarely have I cared as much about fictional characters as I came to, where Della and Jack are concerned. That caring stayed with me, long after I had finished the novel.

A rare and transcendent reading experience, I would  call it.

Marilynne Robinson


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