Christianity and Literature Vol. 58, No. 3 (Spring 2009), 485-92.


Further Thoughts on A Prodigal Son Who
Cannot Come Home, on Loneliness and Grace: 
An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

Rebecca M. Painter

Editor's Note: Marilynne Robinson, the winner of the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature, has written three award-winning and highly praised novels and two works of nonfiction. Her most recent novel, Home, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award in Fiction. Gilead, published in 2004, received several awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and her 1980 novel, Housekeeping, won a Hemingway Foundation / PEN Award for best first novel. Robinson's nonfiction, Mother Country (1989) and The Death of Adam, (1998) have also received critical acclaim.

Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, agreed to answer questions by email for this interview, which was conducted by Dr. Rebecca M. Painter, of Marymount Manhattan College, New York. Dr. Painter submitted questions for the author in September 2008 and received the responses in December.

Also in this issue, read remarks made by CCL President John D. Cox on presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Robinson on page 493 and a review of Home, written by Steve J. Van Der Weele on page 546.

RMP: Was there a significant personal memory from your childhood or youth that shaped your world view as a writer? Did it shift the lines of your reasoning in a substantial way?

MR: I can only assume that my childhood influenced my world view. The landscape was important to me in ways that are reflected in Housekeeping. More generally, I seem always to have been interested in religion and religious thought, and to have assumed that it had something to do with the most modest and ordinary aspects of life. Something that elevated them and revealed mysteries in them.

RMP: For those readers of Home and Gilead who are uncertain of their faith or the existence of God, what kinds or aspects of religious experience would you hope they might receive or become aware of in reading these novels?

MR: I love "religious experience." It is the most profound, most aesthetically instructive, most thought-liberating experience I have ever had. (I am not quite sure what we mean by the phrase—I love to be in the universe of religious thought and art and music, to feel the rightness of religious insights and obligations—). I write out of that interest, probably having no real choice. A great deal has been done, recently and historically, to obscure the beauty and the depth of religious thought. For my own pleasure, in my own way, to the extent that I can, I try to recover them and explore them. I hope other people find value in it all, without respect to their own state of belief or disbelief.

RMP: How do these novels reflect your own understanding of old age and aging? How does old Boughton's frailty shape Jack's and Glory's understanding of themselves, their past, and the issues of their father's lifetime? Do you see aging as a particular challenge to family and personal loyalty?

MR: It is really more a matter of generations—the fact that the most devoted father is finally powerless to protect his children, to soothe and reassure them. Boughton is restless with the awareness that in many senses his fatherhood has ended, and that he can only see and feel the sorrows of these children of his. And the fact is also that what grown children want from the world is a happiness of their own, not in the gift of a parent. Circumstances make this less true in Jack's case. He wants the blessing and protection of his father for his unrealized marriage, his wife and child, and is afraid to ask for it, in part because his father is so frail (Iowa was one of three states where interracial marriage was legal, so it might have been home to his family). He has a lot else on his mind, but this is most important to him.

RMP: For many readers, one of the most appealing qualities of Home may be the sense of familiarity one feels, having heard many of the Boughton and Ames family stories from John Ames in Gilead. What challenges did the connections between these novels present you as a writer? What sort of challenges might, or ought, the parallel narratives present for readers?

MR: It was interesting to me to write another book on the basis of the stories behind Gilead. Every book has problems, but so long as the problems are interesting they are welcome. I think any writer feels that way. There is always more to any situation or character than one book can contain. That is my feeling, at least. There is always another way of seeing or knowing. All sorts of strategies have been used to make that point. I was pleased when I hit upon this one.

RMP: Flannery O'Connor and Muriel Spark, two Christian female authors from an earlier generation, certainly shared an interest in social critique. Yet their work seems more heavily ironic than yours. Is it fair to say that the difference between your irony and theirs, at least in your fiction, stems from your commitment to character?

MR: I think you may be right. I love my characters, which seems to me the only justice I can do them, since they have only the faults and failings I give them.

RMP: You have described theology as "the level at which the highest inquiry into meaning and ethics and beauty coincides with the largest-scale imagination of the nature of reality itself." Would you place great literature within this definition? If so, what great works do you feel have achieved this level of inquiry? Do you strive for that level in your fiction? In your non-fiction?

MR: Some great literature could be described in these terms—the Book of Job, King Lear, Moby Dick, certain poems by Emily Dickinson. As for my own work, I try to do justice to the material at hand. I would fear paralysis if I held it up to the standard set by works like these.

RMP: I am not alone in believing that you have achieved a theological level of inquiry in your writing, especially in Gilead and Home, as they explore the depth and breadth of Jesus's parable of the Prodigal Son. Jack Boughton's return to Gilead and his father's house takes that parable beyond the stage of the initial reception and the celebratory meal. But in some ways it does not, as Rev. Boughton's reception of Jack does not quite live up to the all-forgiving embrace of the father in the biblical parable. What are some of your thoughts about the agonies of genuine forgiveness? What would you hope for readers to take away from this story, in which the prodigal son cannot come home to stay?

MR: I am exploring and inquiring in my novels, putting questions to myself that are real for me. I have changed the terms of the parable in ways that go beyond the fact that the story continues beyond the prodigals return. In the biblical story the prodigal has squandered money and consorted with prostitutes, and he is brought home by sheer destitution. I really see this as a parable about grace, not forgiveness, since the father runs to meet his son and embraces him before the son can even ask to be forgiven. Or it is about love, which is probably a synonym for grace. The prodigal can leave his old life behind him. Jack brings his to Gilead—in the form of loss and loneliness and also hope, and a painful and precious secret. Again, for me the issue between him and his father is not one of forgiveness. His father cannot absolve him of the pain and difficulty of his life, and Jack does not expect him to. He comes home seeking help in restoring a good life he had made, which has been destroyed by the pressures of law and social custom. I suppose people take the issue to be forgiveness because they think about Jack's youth rather than about his present situation. But really he is bringing judgment home with him, and he finds himself continually having to forgive his father and to love him graciously, that is, despite all.

RMP: To this reader there is a mystical openness of perspective, a meditative space, created by the parallel accounts of Jack's homecoming in Gilead and Home. Was this your intent? Do you feel that narrative fiction—the mysticism of poetry seems more of a given—can or should be mined more attentively for its spiritual consciousness, especially in our value-conflicted times?

MR: I think we have learned in the last few months that we know less about our times, that is, our culture and society, than we might have thought. I feel that words like "value" are by now so shrunken and calcified that they are unfit for use, and that those who use that language intend by it things I could never endorse. I think everyone and everything would, seen properly, have a meditative space around them. Our understanding of the world is fragmentary, and we are extremely prone to overstate and over-interpret it. The sense of mystery may itself be the great missing value. By that I don't mean a conjured mystery but an intrinsic one, the kind that comes with a good long look at things, and people, as they are.

RMP: Mystical or not, the Calvinist concept of predestination gets an intense probing in your two recent novels. This almost culminates in the conversation among the two old pastors and Jack, listened to intently by Lila Ames, in which Jack asks his father and godfather whether someone, clearly implying himself, can be consigned to perdition from birth. Both versions of the conversation appear to reach closure when Lila insists that people can change, everything can change, and Jack seems to accept this as true. And yet Jack's doleful departure tends to prolong the debate in our minds. What are your views about predestination, especially in contrast to the belief in free will as gifted by God to all human beings? Is free will an illusion if one is destined to heaven or hell before birth? How do you see the Christian perception of grace fitting into these apparently conflicting religious formulations?

MR: I really feel that there has to be something we don't understand about being, time, causality, something that would allow us a richer sense of alternatives than is offered by free will and predestination, both of which are very problematic notions from a theological point of view. I don't know if he did this, but Calvin could have made a predestinarian argument on the basis of the prodigal son—which tells us that whom God loves he loves, and no choice the erring son makes or fails to make changes that. So with the dutiful brother—everything that belongs to his father is also his. Each of the sons in his own way is disappointing enough, neither gives any sign of love toward the loving father, but both of them have the status of son, and that is all that matters. Seen from that side, predestination is grace in a very radical form. Jack sees it from the other side, of course. He can never answer to the faith and the virtuousness he sees in his family (and Della's family! as if his weren't enough) and he feels that the course of his life is determined, tending always toward "perdition." A good predestinarian would tell him he can't know that, that he might well be among those God loves no matter what. The irony of the question theologically is that free will implies we can be judged on the basis of what we do, and can at least tentatively judge ourselves and one another, while predestination means that God's view of us is essentially mysterious, that grace is a freedom he reserves to himself. In that light, free will implies a less fatherly view of us on the part of God than does predestination, which is always represented as harsh. Very few readers seem to find Jack beyond their compassion. On what grounds do so many of them assume that he would be beyond God's compassion, or his love? I think I let him be available to understanding in other terms.

RMP: You have stated that the loss of seriousness in today's society seems to be, in effect, a loss of hope. Jack's thin shred of hope—at least on the part of many readers—when he boards the bus out of Gilead to parts unknown, is painfully serious. Yet he leaves having received Rev. Ames's miraculous blessing, which some might consider a baptism of desire, a harbinger of redemption. Equally serious is Glory's hope to see Jack's son Robert again when he becomes a young man. Are the hopes you inspire for your characters tied to what you wish this country would do to become more serious about its children's future? What are those hopes? Can literature have any leverage in this? Can literature be a blessing to those unwilling to open themselves to religious experience?

MR: I really should not be so willing to interpret my own books as I seem to be this evening. But the blessing Ames gives Jack is an act of recognition that blesses Ames, too. He is profoundly moved that he has had the occasion to do it, that Jack accepted it, wanted it. I really do believe that all blessing is mutual, and that the moment of blessing is when people rise to the very beautiful seriousness of what they are. I feel that we ought to value ourselves and one another far more than we do, and I'm speaking theologically here, but also with an awareness that always haunts me, that we are the wonder of the universe, incomparably complex, brilliant, poignant—and perverse, of course. Our own overwhelming problem. But there are good grounds for awe in any human encounter. If we came anywhere near respecting the richness of this improbable life—hopes would flourish and blossom as they have never done before.

An irony of Home is that for Jack's wife and son Gilead might well be a foreign and perhaps a hostile country. I fervently wish that America will some time be a good, welcoming home to her whole family.

I know so many people who love literature very deeply. Whether it can stand in the place of religion I doubt, but it has an enormous, humane value all its own.

RMP: You have expressed appreciation for Calvin's idea of experience as encounter, in particular that any person one encounters is an image of God, and as such is a profound mystery. Jack is beautifully characterized as haunted by and unable to understand his own waywardness. Yet he is a kind, exquisitely compassionate individual, deeply offended by what has been called our country's original sin, racism. Some commentators have seen themselves in Jack; he may remind others of loved ones who have caused them great pain, especially those suffering from addiction. Through Jack, are you in effect using the wisdom of Calvin's emphasis on human encounter to take aim at the reformer's doctrine of predestination? Are you gently nudging readers in the direction of scripture's warning that we cannot understand the thoughts and ways of God?

MR: Your last sentence is very close to the mark. I don't know what is meant by "take aim," but Calvin's very Renaissance sense of the majesty of the human person (tempered always by a sense of our fallenness) is crucial to his understanding of, in effect, God's fascination with us. If Jack feels like an experience of human encounter, someone the reader might know, or be, then I am well pleased.

RMP: In other interviews you've explained that you wrote Home to give some of the other characters in Gilead their "own lives." However, two women in these novels remain fascinating and unexplored: Lila Ames and Della, Jack's wife. Is there a chance you might write a trilogy, giving these women their own lives, and / or their sons in later years? For readers who care deeply about what will happen to Glory after her father dies and she inherits the Boughton homestead, and about what will happen in Jack's second exile from home in his forties, can you offer a glimmer of hope that they will see a continuance of their stories? (Excuse the coercive nature of this question, but I'm one of those readers.)

MR: I don't know the answer to this question. Time will tell.

RMP: Though little happens in terms of plot, Home's narrative is oddly thrilling—a page-turner—in its rendering of personal observation and perception. The dialogue between Jack and Glory, two of the loneliest characters in recent literature, is extraordinarily sensitive. We watch their perceptions take form, stumble, regroup, and embrace the other in ways that seem to reveal what actually constitutes "home" in human relations. Would you speak to us about your fascination with attention, perception, and the vagaries and blessing involved in building trust, and its artistic expression in character development and interaction?

MR: I feel that people create themselves from a fabric of postures and gestures and expressions, a music of words and hesitations, and that in watching these things you learn who they are. This is what fascinates me about character—to the detriment of plot, I have been told. But to my mind, the movement from estrangement to trust, for example, means much more than some contrived event. But then literature is full of whale hunts and sword fights and wars in heaven. My fascinations are what they are. I love loyalty and trust, and courtesy, and kindness, and sensitivity. They are beautiful things in my mind. They require alertness and self-discipline and patience. And they are qualities that sustain my interest in my characters.

RMP: Would you reflect upon the matter of loneliness and personal isolation as it relates to our culture's distancing from religious consciousness? What would you wish for the Jacks of this world, who are legion? For the Glorys, for whom religious conviction does little to assuage their loneliness?

MR: I am not sure religion is meant to assuage loneliness. Who was ever lonelier than Jesus? "Can you not watch with me one hour?" I think loneliness is the encounter with oneself—who can be great or terrible company, but who does ask all the essential questions. There is a tendency to think of loneliness as a symptom, a sign that life has gone wrong. But it is never only that. I sometimes think it is the one great prerequisite for depth, and for truthfulness.

RMP: As the charms of postmodernism gradually fade, what are your hopes for future exploration—creative and scholarly—of Christianity and literature?

MR: I would like to see a revival of real, exacting, no-nonsense scholarship, and the emergence of rigorous theologies that are especially attentive to human sanctity and divine grace.