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"Jack" by Marilynne Robinson

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 Marilynne Robinson’s novels continue to demonstrate her utter mastery, and advance her to the very top rank of current novelists. She reigns over all others currently publishing in English. Her characters have more life and depth. Her themes flow from exalted planes, and her diction hews closely to the divine. In her latest, “Jack,” she explores the thoughts and impulses of Jack Boughton, a down-on-his-luck son of a preacher. Jack  falls in love with a “colored” woman (the term used in the book) in St. Louis, shortly after World War II.

Jack wrestles with so many contradictions. Something in his strict yet loving upbringing gave him a compunction of wreck fragile objects; he habitually steals things, out of a kind of curiosity; he’s an inveterate liar, and goes on drinking binges, and so obviously can’t hold a job. Be all that as it may, when Della comes into his life, it all changes. The light in Jack’s heart comes on for the first time; he curtails his drinking and stealing habits in honor of her; instead of an urge to destroy this fragile love he has, he works devilishly hard at protecting Della, at making sure their illicit and illegal love doesn’t ruin her. He’s a marvelous, touching, and very real character.

Jack and Della are son and daughter of preachers. Jack’s Dad is a Presbyterian minister, and Della’s father is an important Baptist bishop in Memphis. Their backgrounds determine their approaches to life, like everyone’s, and each in their own way rebels against that background. Jack’s mysterious battle against his upbringing embraces his conclusion that he’s an atheist, not needing God’s guidance to live (eventually) a scrupulous life. Della’s rejection of some of her indoctrination rests on an independence of mind, from a bone-deep fatigue at a life so full of strictures.

And this brings me to one of my favorite aspects of this novel. Jack worries constantly  that he will end by ruining Della’s reputation and life. Their love, after all, is socially unacceptable and legally proscribed. He decides several times that to treat her right he must leave her. However, Della overwhelms his determination with her own, deeper resolution to have him as her husband, and in the face of that he cannot tell her no. In this way, Della exists in full depth and rounding, a creature to love, for Jack and the reader.

“Jack” is that most challenging of writing: it sustains a full and accessible exploration of the character Jack’s inner dialogue from the first page to the last. And in what a lovely fashion. Consider this, at page 250:

Dear Jesus, what was he doing? This was not what he promised himself. This was not harmlessness. He was sure he had no right to involve her in so much potential misery. How often had he thought this? But she had the right to involve herself, or had claimed the right, holding his hand the way she had. She was young, the daughter of a protective family. She might have no idea yet that embarrassment, relentless, punitive scorn, can wear away at a soul until it recedes into wordless loneliness. Maybe apophatic loneliness. God in the silence. In the deep darkness. The highest privilege, his father said. He was usually speaking of death, or course. The congregant’s soul had entered the Holy of Holies. Jack sometimes called this life he had lived prevenient death. He had learned that for all its comforts and discomforts, its stark silence first of all, there was clearly no reprieve from doing harm.


Or this, at page 292:

… it had seemed to Jack that his father proposed a sort of Promised Land where troublesome categories did not apply. ‘Night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sum, for the Lord God will be their light.’ Those words nullified a very primary distinction. ‘God separated the light from the darkness,’ in the very first moments of creation. Verse 4. Then how was anyone to believe that any distinction was absolute, not secondary to a more absolute intention, the luminous reality concealed behind the veil of experience? He thought he should write this down, to show it to Della, maybe to her father. He and Della had been there, in that luminous absence of distinctions, in that radiant light.


So memorable is the character Jack: the exacting principles of his upbringing wage a constant battle with his reprobate adult self; under the benign influence of Della, his principles metamorphose into the higher calling of love.

“Jack” completes and reinforces the “Gilead” cycle of stories. At least as the cycle now stands. Take it up. Take it up, and marvel again at the artistry of Marilynne Robinson.

 Page citations from

Jack: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (Author) Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020), 320 pages


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