American novelist Marilynne Robinson earned the Pulitzer Prize for her book Gilead, an epistolary novel that recounts the memories and legacy of Reverend John Ames, a preacher’s son from Iowa. Ames, who is dying, struggles with serious doubts about mores, existence, and God as he narrates his life stories and experiences via letters to his young son (whose name is never revealed in the novel).
Robinson writes in a manner that encourages readers to read slowly and attentively since the book is contemplative and even calm. The central idea in the novel is the difficulties of communication between different generations, especially between fathers and sons, which is particularly examined via the lens of the parable of the prodigal son at several points in the narrative.
The main characters of Home, the second book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead tetralogy, are Glory and Jack Boughton, two siblings who have returned to Iowa, where Jack spent his childhood. It takes place during the same time period as the first book, Gilead, but from a new point of view, as told by Glory Boughton, who retells the previous novel’s events.
Former English teacher Glory breaks off her five-year engagement to a married man and returns to Gilead, Iowa, to care for her ailing father, Reverend Robert Boughton. Jack returns to the place they once called home to determine who he is and if he deserves a second shot at happiness with the woman he loves. In fact, this narrative may be interpreted as a thesis on family, a rich inventory of the many ways in which a father can harm a son, a brother can harm a sister, or vice versa, just because they love one another so much.
Marilynne Robinson’s 2014 novel Lila is the third in the Gilead tetralogy and follows the love and marriage of Lila and John Ames, as well as Lila’s difficult background and the tangled web of connections she’s established throughout her life. Lila was abandoned as a child, but a smart young vagabond named Doll rescued her, and the two of them built a nomadic existence together, scraping by on their sisterly connection.
The novel combines the present-day tale of Lila and John with flashbacks of her youth on the run with Doll to examine feelings of guilt, isolation, and resentment. After years of wandering the countryside, Lila finds cover from the rain in a small-town Iowa church, where she sparks a romance and a dispute that will change her life forever. She marries John Ames, a clergyman, and starts a new life while attempting to make sense of the one she left behind.
John Ames “Jack” Boughton, son of Robert Boughton and namesake of John Ames, left Gilead in disgrace after fathering an unwanted child with a poor woman but returned to care for his ailing father. During the course of the narrative, we learn more about Jack, the rebellious son of a Presbyterian minister in Gilead, and Della Miles, a high school teacher who also happens to be the daughter of a minister.
For readers who’ve already read the previous books in the Gilead series, they will not be surprised to learn that Jack and his deeds continue to serve as the focal point around which the emotional gravity of the whole series revolves. In the end, the novel doesn’t provide sentimental resolutions; instead, readers are encouraged to write their own happy endings while holding on to the faith that grace will find its way to those who desire it.
The Givenness of Things (2015)
The essays in this collection are an in-depth analysis of Marilynne Robinson’s thoughts on issues that have bothered and inspired her throughout her career, such as the enduring value of the writings of great thinkers like Calvin, Locke, and Shakespeare, as well as the emergence of the self-declared elite in American religious and political life.
For believers or nonbelievers alike, Robinson’s The Givenness of Things is a noteworthy read due to its 17 essays’ passionate and intellectual defense of Christianity in the face of the Richard Dawkins-inspired new atheism that has dominated in recent years.
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other faces besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.Opening paragraph, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.Page 282, Home by Marilynne Robinson
There are the things people need, and the things people don’t need. That might not be true. Maybe they don’t need existence. If you took that away, everything else would go with it. So if you don’t need to exist, then there is no reason to think about other things you don’t need as if they didn’t matter.Page 76, Lila by Marilynne Robinson
But once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery—you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for.Page 208, Jack by Marilynne Robinson
The great given, the medium of all gain and all loss, the medium within which change is possible and inevitable and constancy persists through endless transformations, the medium of act, incident, and thought, disruption and coherency, is time. No one knows what time is, or whether it began when the universe began or is a constant in a system of Being that preexists the one we know. For our purposes it accommodates everything that has existed or will exist, utterly indiscriminate but by no means neutral, transparent, or passive. The ideas we all live by change over time, inverted, eroded, distorted, amplified, recombining in time, which might seem to be a space that permits movement and change, or a kind of liquidity that irresistibly effects movement and change, though the inadequacy of both metaphors makes the point that it is something else entirely.Pages 89-90, The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson was born on November 26, 1943, in Sandpoint, Idaho. Her father was a farmer and a teacher, and the family was Presbyterian, so she was raised around both of those professions. In addition to her doctorate in English from the University of Washington, Robinson holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from Brown University.
Robinson’s novels are well-known for their examinations of faith, ethics, and Midwestern small-town life. In 1980, she released her first novel, “Housekeeping,” which quickly became a bestseller and was honored with the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best debut novel. Another of her books, “Gilead,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. Some of her essays have been collected as “The Death of Adam” and “The Givenness of Things,” and they cover a wide range of topics from religion to history to literature.
Robinson is best known for her work as a writer, but she has also held teaching positions at a number of prestigious universities, including the University of Michigan, the University of Kent in England, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Both the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences have honored her with fellowships in the past.
Robinson has received acclaim for the lyricism of her writing, the profundity of her philosophical ideas, and the breadth of her examination of the human condition in her works. She is considered a major figure in modern American literature.
The Revelations of Marilynne Robinson by Wyatt Mason, The New York Times
Marilynne Robinson interview: The faith behind the fiction by Kay Parris, Reform Magazine
What Kind of Country Do We Want? by Marilynne Robinson, The New York Review of Books
On “Beauty”: Marilynne Robinson on Writing, What Storytelling Can Learn from Science, and the Splendors of Uncertainty by Maria Popova, The Marginalian