Character Doubling in Marilynne Robinson’s Home: Salvation, Predestination, and Grace
Marilynne Robinson’s prize-winning fiction is known for its stunning and meditative prose, emphasis on domesticity and the quotidian mysteries of life, and Calvinistic impulse. Robinson is also a prolific writer of prose, and this critical eye and love of theology (though she claims herself no theologian) unite gloriously in Home, the second novel in the Gilead trilogy. Although Home is concurrent with Gilead, it is far from coterminous, and it expands the conversation on predestination that began in the first novel. This paper will examine the way Robinson uses the literary technique of doubling, or paralleling, to change the way readers look at salvation and predestination. Each of the four pairs of characters I will examine could at first glance be classified as saint and sinner; readers are inclined to categorize them as Christian or non-Christian. Analyses of these doubles invites us to reconsider their reducibility to one classification of either pious or disreputable. This irreducibility to classification, I argue, further obfuscates the way we can look at salvation in these novels and prepares us to understand Robinson’s assertion of predestination as an unknowable yet necessary and didactic doctrine.
Critical literature on Gilead and Home tends to trace one theological, political, psychological, or social premise throughout the books. Scott, Griffis, and Hancock address the theological themes of grace, predestination, and salvation, reading the books closely in tandem with Calvin and the prodigal son narrative. Lane, Pak, and Petit’s “Baseball and Historical Amnesia” analyze the books through a political or historical lens, focusing largely on racial injustice. Petit’s “Mourning Glory” and Milota offer a psychological perspective, examining depression and feelings of belonging. Finally, Schiff, Mariotti, and Nacol engage with the social domain through examining domesticity, homelessness, and aging. In this paper, I would like to offer both a literary and theological perspective, tracing the doubling of characters in Home and how this literary technique contributes to the theology of predestination, salvation, and grace. Several critics, especially Scott, Milota, and Kohn, have examined their topics through the doubling of Jack Boughton and John Ames, but I would like to extend this analysis to four other sets of characters: Jack and Glory, Jack and Lila, Lila and Annie, and Robert Ames and Robert Boughton Miles. Each case of doubling contributes uniquely to the discussion of predestination, often implicating other academic domains, so the voices of several of the aforementioned critics will comment on their specific areas of expertise within this paper.
To begin, Glory and Jack are the pair of characters most clearly delineated saint and sinner initially. Jack is the wayward son who returns home after a twenty-year absence to see if Gilead, Iowa would be a suitable place for his biracial family to live, while Glory is the faithful daughter who comes home to take care of their aging father. Glory is the “pious” one (Home 104), frequently on her knees praying or reading the Bible (101, 109). She is outwardly all that a Christian daughter of a pastor should be. Jack, on the other hand, is the self-described “disreputable” (143) sinner who views himself as resigned to perdition, out of place in the deeply religious Boughton family, a “stranger in a strange land” (92). Since his youth he has been the town reprobate, culminating in his impregnation and abandonment of a young girl, despite his family’s unconditional love and his father’s desperate attempts at discipline. As Glory remembers her mother saying, “‘I believe that boy was born to break his father’s heart’” (56). The classifications are clear, it seems: Glory is predestined to be the saint, Jack to be the sinner.
Yet throughout Home, Robinson threads together parallels that gradually reduce the divide between these two seemingly contrasting characters, seen in part through the function of swearing. Glory is shown crying out “Dear God” from the first page of Home, and repeatedly after (3, 23, 205, 238, 243, 300, 305, 315). They are “really cries of amazement” (3), she says, but what is swearing if not crying in amazement? Jack, on the other hand, is deeply conscious of and careful with foul language. Twice he notably mutters “Jesus Christ” under his breath (97, 155) but each time it seems to be an appeal to Christ’s help rather than a mere expletive, despite his father’s misunderstanding (97). Through careful positioning of when Jack and Glory cry out to God, Robinson is suggesting that even in their language Glory is not as pious as we think and Jack is not as vulgar.
Another motif that trickles throughout Home is Jack and Glory’s tendency to wash or clean things, suggesting that they each have a desire to erase the dirt of their past. In Jack’s case, this is a repeated desire to “clean up a little” (30, 148), and he is frequently shown washing himself or anything else he can try to purify (30, 33, 38, 175, 176). Glory’s penchant toward cleanliness, on the other hand, is a desire to sweep everything away into oblivion, leaving a room that was once cluttered with memories and artifacts sparse, clean, and new (50, 102). Jack desires cleanliness to shape himself up; Glory desires cleanliness to erase clutter and painful memories. These parallel motifs ask us to consider what it is that makes Jack want to purify himself to approach a situation, and what makes Glory want to sweep it into hiding. Robinson seems to suggest that Jack is in a more mature place to confront his sin than Glory because he is prepared to shape himself up for a situation, despite Glory’s superior reputation.
Jack is also assumed to be the liar of the family, while Glory is presumably the honest, loyal daughter; Robinson complicates this, too. In the scene where Jack confesses to slight “omissions” to his story of graduating college, Glory follows by confessing a secret far more grave and destructive: “‘I was never married’” (118). Although Jack begins to laugh, telling her that he was never married either, she responds, “’But no one ever thought you were. I mean, you didn’t make people believe you were’” (118). Throughout Home, Jack does not attempt to hide that “moral complexity” is “not [his] strong point” (118), while Glory has maintained the persona of the pious, truth-telling daughter of a pastor, all the while harboring a lie. Although Jack is the only person Glory reveals this secret to, as readers of Glory’s third person limited narration we are reminded too that the seemingly truthful can possess a secret just as easily as the blatant liars.
We started the book thinking that Jack and Glory were literary and moral antitheses of each other, Glory the saved Christian and Jack the hopeless sinner, but through language and motifs Robinson draws our attention to fluidity between their stories and characters. This begins to erase the perimeters of the boxes we put them into. We read of Jack going to church, seeking answers about salvation, “[confessing] a certain spiritual hunger” (104), and telling his brother, “‘I do wish to God I were religious, Teddy. That’s the Lord’s truth’” (266). Meanwhile, Glory admits that “[faith] for her was habit and family loyalty” (110), and that “[she] was pious, no doubt, though she would not have chosen that word to describe herself” (110). Petit argues, in fact, that Glory experiences severe depression until Jack pulls her out, claiming that, “until the gradual changes brought by Jack’s presence, [Glory] is wallowing in grief” (Petit “Mourning Glory,” 95). Regardless of Robinson’s intentions to portray depression, this is another example of how reversed the roles seem to be. Jack ends up saving Glory, as Petit reads it. Our initial assumptions were, perhaps, not quite right. The doubling of Jack and Glory reminds us that stereotypes and outward appearances are no indication of the state of one’s soul. There is always far more to the story.
Robinson also doubles the characters of Lila and Jack, with a similar effect of complicating salvific classifications. Lila is seen as the saint who used to be a sinner. Jack grew up in a family expected to produce saints, yet clearly deviated towards being a sinner. There is, however, a connection between the two of them, shown in Home heavily through Lila completing Jack’s thoughts. When Jack begins to play a song on the piano but cannot remember the words, Lila supplies them from memory (189). When Jack describes tent meetings, she completes his descriptions, and they laugh in their shared experiences (227). When Jack asks about predestination, she softly rounds off his question with, “What about being saved?” (226), and when neither reverend is able to give Jack a satisfactory answer, Lila provides one (227). By completing Jack’s thoughts, it is as if Lila is complementing his story and filling in the blanks for him. Her reminder that “[a] person can change. Everything can change” (227) is, perhaps, one final filling-in of his story that she offers him. Scott suggests similarly that Lila functions as a mirror-image to Jack, “as the prodigal who finally finds her way home” (Scott 160). They bond, Scott says, over their shared experiences of hardship, yet Lila offers Jack hope in her prodigality. “Her hopefulness contrasts with Jack’s despair, as her conversion contrasts with his state of spiritual exile” (Scott 160). The doubling of Lila and Jack contributes to the salvation conversation in that Lila is an example to Jack, a possible completion of his story reminding both him and us that “[a] person can change.”
A third pair of characters that Robinson doubles is Lila and Annie Wheeler, the young mother of Jack’s illegitimate child. Lila and Annie are a fascinating double in light of Kohn’s essay arguing that they are the same person:
Ames’ allusion to ‘everything that came before [his and Lila’s relationship]’ suggests the secret he is keeping from his son, from other people—namely that his wife, Lila, as she now calls herself, had been the fifteen-year-old Annie who gave birth to Jack Boughton’s baby more than twenty-two years earlier (Kohn 7).
Although Robinson’s release of Lila has since dispelled Kohn’s theory, the fact that he saw enough parallel between Lila and Annie to claim their singular identity suggests that Robinson intended there to be a noticeable link. Lila is roughly the same age as Annie (Kohn 6), carefully tends to Annie’s baby’s grave (Home 100), and has a child with John Ames just as Annie had a child with John Ames “Jack” Boughton. The significance of this parallelism is that we are asked to consider that Lila could have been an Annie-type in her past, living in sin and destitution, yet no longer is. Conversely, we must consider that Annie could now be living as Christian a life as Lila. The rules are not so confined as to preclude Annie as a pastor’s wife. We do not know where Annie is now, just as we do not know the state of her soul. The strong linkage to Lila hints that perhaps, although not literally the same person, as Kohn argues, Annie and Lila could have similar endings to their stories. We are not, notably, given enough information to make that judgment, which is yet another reason we must have a nonjudgmental posture regarding the salvation of Robinson’s characters.
Finally, the doubling of Robert Boughton Miles and Robert “Robby” Ames remind us that skin color or heritage are not determinants or indicators of anyone’s salvific standing. Robert Boughton Miles, Jack’s son through his wife Della, and Robert Ames, Ames’ son through his wife Lila, share more than just a name and the fact that they were both named after Jack’s father (Petit “Names,” 146). Scott observes that both Ames and Jack are “struggling with the present and future reality of their separation from [their sons]” (Scott 159), which conversely means each son is going to have to deal with separation or estrangement from their father at some point. Both boys also like to play baseball (Home 187, 322), making the scenes when Jack playfully tosses the ball with Robby Ames (91) or explains baseball terminology to him (186-188) poignant references to his own son. Finally, both Roberts are inclined to be pastors, either by disposition or desire (Gilead 8, Home 322). The significance of this doubling is that Robinson is extending her non-judgmental urge to a societal level. Jack’s biracial son, born out of technical wedlock to a veteran sinner and an African-American woman, living in a broken family in a racially tense time, represents the discrimination and prejudice that would condemn a black person a sinner on the basis of their skin color. Ames’ son, the child of a respected white pastor, is expected and predisposed to be a pastor himself. Robert Boughton Miles, the son of a sinner; Robby Ames, the son of a saint. Robinson, however, calls these classifications to a screeching halt. She invites us to look at these two boys who might be classified as predestined one way or another by structural racism and sin-laden stereotypes, yet who share names, love of baseball, a pastoral penchant, and an equal chance at salvation. Who can judge and who can tell? Robinson asks again.
These four sets of character doubles that obfuscate the way we can look at their salvation contribute significantly to the theology of Home by embodying the mystery behind predestination. Scott addresses this mystery through focusing on Jack’s ambiguous state of salvation, but I believe Robinson goes beyond Jack’s soteriology and extends the mystery to each of the characters she doubles. By breaking down the potential to classify characters as saved or un-saved, Robinson is underscoring the mystery of predestination and communicating that since we do not even know the salvific state of characters or people at this moment, we could not expect to know the eschatology of their soul, nor could we attempt to understand the role of God’s sovereignty in conjunction with this. To use Jack’s words, “This is a mystery, I believe” (Home 289). Scott emphasizes that Gilead and Home underscore how “divine mysteries resist conceptual schematization and systematization” (Scott 164), much like the characters in these novels, and that, “[w]hen we attempt to solve mysteries, we force false theological disjunctions between truths that are complementary, not contradictory, which collapses what must be kept in creative, productive, and perpetual tension” (164). Predestination should be viewed as a beautiful duality in which “God both predestines our lives and invites us to respond to the gospel” (165), rather than as a doctrine that could explicate precisely the relationship of divine sovereignty and free will. Robinson attempts no such penetration into the mind of God; rather, she offers a variety of characters that, especially through doubling, are shown to have backgrounds, motives, stories, stereotypes, concerns, predispositions, and triumphs that nuance the discussion of predestination.
The doctrine of predestination, however, is still didactic and necessary, according to Robinson. We are tempted to ask, if people are as irreducible as the characters Robinson writes, why include the pivotal porch discussion of predestination in both Gilead and Home? Essentially, is theology, which here seems to be over-reaching and over-systematizing, a futile endeavor? Robinson responds to these questions, writing that though “we lack the conceptual terms to make a useful approach to the question,” the doctrine of predestination is a necessary corrective against manipulation and judgment:
Predestination puts every impulse toward manipulation out of play. And it makes moot the notion that the spiritual status of anyone in the eyes of God can be judged by earthly appearances.…Predestination…[historically] was a corrective against practices in need of correction, and it brought attention to the fact that human worth and merit are profoundly complicated things, that our sense of justice is terribly flawed, and that God’s knowledge of us may be infinitely unlike our knowledge of ourselves (Stevens 263).
This is perfectly in keeping with Robinson’s insistence that we are all far more mysterious and nuanced than we portray, and summarizes her theological motivation for doubling characters as a way to challenge our judgment of others’ salvation.
There is a moment at the end of Gilead when Jack turns to Ames and says, referring to those he is leaving behind in Gilead, “‘You’re all saints’” (242). It would seem that way to Jack, the man irrevocably labeled a sinner in a town of spires and piety. Robinson has told us differently, however, from Glory’s narration of Home that uses motifs, habits, scenes, names, and dialogue to draw parallels between sets of characters that one by one reduce our ability to judge the state of their souls. Through these sets of four doubles that I have analyzed, as well as the oft-explored parallel between Ames and Jack, Robinson removes our ability to make conclusions about salvific matters, whether for specific characters or for the doctrine of predestination. We do not know the state of the souls around us. We cannot know. And that is the mystery of God’s sovereignty that reminds us again and again that “the word above all words is grace” (Robinson “Many Ways”).
Griffis, Rachel. “Sentimentality and Grace: Marilynne Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Prodigal Son Narratives.” This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, edited by Jason Stevens, Koninklijke Brill, 2016, pp. 254-269.
Hancock, Ralph. “Transcendence and Human Purpose: Marilynne Robinson and the Travails of Calvinism.” A Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson, edited by Shannon Mariotti and Joseph Lane Jr., University Press of Kentucky, 2016, pp. 223-252.
Kohn, Robert. “Secrecy and Radiance in Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD and HOME.” The Explicator, vol. 15, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-11.
Mariotti, Shannon and Joseph Lane Jr. “Introduction. The Mystery of Experience: Marilynne Robinson’s Political Theory.” A Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson, edited by Shannon Mariotti and Joseph Lane Jr., University Press of Kentucky, 2016, pp. 2-17.
Mariotta, Shannon. “The Housekeeper of Homelessness: The Democratic Ethos of Marilynne Robinson’s Novels and Essays.” This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, edited by Jason Stevens, Koninklijke Brill, 2016, pp. 21-55.
Nacol, Emily. “‘In Those Old Days’: The Old and Aging in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home. A Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson, edited by Shannon Mariotti and Joseph Lane Jr., University Press of Kentucky, 2016, pp. 113-137.
Pak, Yumi. “‘Jack Boughton has a Wife and a Child’: Generative Blackness in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.” This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, edited by Jason Stevens, Koninklijke Brill, 2016, pp. 212-235.
Petit, Susan. “Names in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.” Names, vol. 58, no. 3, 2013, pp. 139-149.
Petit, Susan. “Mourning Glory: Grief and Grieving in Robinson’s Home.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 51, no. 1, 2016, pp. 88-106.
Petit, Susan. “Field of Deferred Dreams: Baseball and Historical Amnesia in Marilynne
Robinson’s Gilead and Home.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., vol. 37, no. 4, 2012, pp. 119-137.
Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York, Picador, 2004.
Robinson, Marilynne. Home. New York, Picador, 2008.
Robinson, Marilynne. “Many Ways to Live a Good Life: An Informal Conversation with Philip Ryken and Marilynne Robinson.” Interview with Philip Ryken. April 4, 2018.
Schiff, James. “Robinson and Updike: Houses, Domesticity, and the Numinous Quotidien.” This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, edited by Jason Stevens, Koninklijke Brill, 2016, pp. 237-253.
Scott, Mark. “In the Face of Mystery: Soteriological Symbolism in Gilead and Home.” This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead, andHome, edited by Jason Stevens, Koninklijke
Brill, 2016pp. 148-170.
Stevens, Jason. Interview with Marilynne Robinson. This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, edited by Jason Stevens, Koninklijke Brill, 2016, pp. 254-269.Tags: Calvinism, fiction, grace, history, justice, literature, Marilynne Robinson, mystery, predestination, psychology, salvation, soteriology, theology