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Jack of hurts: Review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Jack’

Sometimes it is difficult to love the people we should, as great stories of the past like The Brothers Karamazov have shown us. And yet, in Dostoevsky’s sweeping family saga, which investigates faith, society, religion, crime and punishment, when the eldest, Dmitri, is wrongly accused of killing his father, he wants to accept responsibility as “everyone is guilty for everyone else”. In the Gilead quartet, Marilynne Robinson probes the American past, with its inherent difficulties of race, religion and justice, through the lives of two families that include a father who has some “fine children” but has set his heart on one: “the lost sheep, the lost coin”.

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The story is set in a town in Iowa, the eponymous Gilead, where Reverend John Ames, a Congregationalist minister whose heart is failing, begins to write a letter to his young son. It is 1956, the civil rights movement has begun, and it inevitably enters Ames’s world. As he narrates family history — his grandfather was an Abolitionist and his father a pacifist, both preachers — he brings up his namesake, John Ames Boughton, or Jack, son of his best friend and neighbour.

Return of the prodigal

The prodigal son has returned home after 20 years, burdened with secrets, and Ames is uneasy about it. Jack is perhaps one of the loneliest characters in literature: after making appearances in three novels of the quartet, he now gets a book of his own. Jack is always on the mind of his family, who love him, though not all of them unconditionally.

Jack calls himself the Prince of Darkness; he reminds his sister of Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment). Brought up in a family of preachers, Jack is unable to believe and feels he is on the road to perdition. He is “smart as the devil”, says Ames, though he also finds him “elegant and brave”.

Jack of hurts: Review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Jack’

Jack wants to know Ames’s views on predestination — “Are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?” Ames can’t give a clear answer but his wife Lila, who led an impoverished life before marriage, does: “A person can change. Everything can change.”

In Jack, we see how hard he has tried to change, but why he still feels he is a “ne’er-do-well” person: “I am ruining things. I do that. I try to keep to myself, and it happens, anyway.” His past — he abandoned the girl he impregnated, lost his child, and went into exile for 20 years — and the circumstances of the present weigh on him. After leaving home following the scandal, Jack ends up in St. Louis where he accidentally meets Della, a black teacher and the daughter of a bishop.

He helps her in the rain with an umbrella, and she invites him home for tea. The harsh world around is forgotten and soon Della is telling Jack: “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.”

They spend a beautiful night walking in the forbidden white cemetery discussing Hamlet and life.

Period of grace

Jack experiences a period of grace, for Della falls in love with him, against all odds: “this was his grandest larceny by far, this sly theft of happiness from the very clutches of prohibition.”

But Jack cannot open up to his father about this relationship because he knows the Presbyterian priest’s views — “I think we had all better just keep to ourselves”. Della’s father too makes it clear that Jack will never be welcome in his family: “The situation of black people must change. They must have the opportunity to decide what form the change will take and how it will be achieved.”

This is the 1940s and people are jailed for interracial relationships. Reading Jack in the year of Black Lives Matter is a reminder that the human upheaval over race continues, and that the cracks are yet to be healed. What Jack and Della face is still a reality for many. Jack seeks help from Ames to settle down in Gilead with Della and son Robert, but his godfather won’t be able to help him, as Gilead readers know. Though in Jack, the possibility that love can conquer all is just about there, hovering overhead.

Robinson, who never thought there would be a second Gilead book, has written four. Next we must hear from Della.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

Jack; Marilynne Robinson, Virago, ₹799

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