by Jill Stegman
Told through the eyes of a middle-aged spinster named Glory Boughton, Marilynne Robinson’s Home is a challenging story played out in a Midwestern kitchen, involving heavy doses of theological discourse. However, while the scenes all take place in the kitchen and area surrounding the Boughton residence in Iowa, Home is anything but a domestic drama. As in real family life, all the tension lies beneath the surface, where expectations and stubborn refusal to change can lead to despair.
Robinson introduced the characters of the Boughton family in her previous novel, Gilead, which focused on the elderly Reverend Ames and his reminiscences told to his young son. Meditative in tone, Gilead charts the history of the town and Ames’s position in it. The characters of the Boughton family lurk in the background, introduced, but not completely realized.
In Home, the story of the tangled family of Ames’s best friend and fellow reverend, Robert Boughton, emerges from the tangential threads of Gilead. Filled with despondency over a failed love affair, Glory Boughton has come home to Gilead to care for her ailing father. The tedium of her life is alleviated by the appearance of her brother, Jack, who returns after a twenty-year absence, ostensibly to assist the family and make amends to his father. After a somewhat abrupt departure from home following the birth of his illegitimate child, Jack has been incommunicado all this time, not even appearing for his mother’s funeral.
Robinson’s characters represent archetypes; Jack and Robert Boughton, for example, play out the universal Oedipal conflict between returning prodigal son and demanding father. This is a common theme in literature, but Robinson succeeds in digging beneath the surface to reveal the historical reasons why different generations can fail to connect. Events are played out in the early 1960s, when segregation was the status quo and most Americans were intolerant of anything that challenged authority. Reverend Boughton’s frequent recitations of Christian tracts and the religious underpinning of the family are awesome in their depth and cerebral intensity, yet ultimately hypocritical. Although his theology is grounded in the enlightened thinking of Transcendentalists and their abolitionist beliefs, Boughton observes the beating of civil rights demonstrators with indifference. He even argues with Jack that civil disobedience is wrong. Jack seems mesmerized by the events, and we later learn why he might have so much emotional investment.
While the obvious protagonist may be Jack, it is ultimately Glory who emerges from the sidelines, providing the emotional resonance that allows us to comprehend this sad story; her faith and love prevent the tone from becoming overly morbid. Glory observes the interactions between her father and brother without judging either. She sees the tragedy unfolding, but can do nothing to stop it. Although she weeps throughout the book, she does not appear pathetic; as Robinson simply writes, “She wept easily. This did not mean that she felt things more deeply than others did. It did not mean that she was fragile or sentimental or ready to bring that sodden leverage to bear on the slights that came with being the baby of the family.”
Glory is as complex as her father and brother, making her the perfect observer of the events that unfold. She simply applies the principles of her upbringing to the task: “Glory’s view of things had an authority for them precisely because it was naïve.” Glory also serves brilliantly as a lens on this world because she suffers from rampant male arrogance and sexism: “She seemed always to have known that, to their father’s mind, the world’s great work was the business of men . . . They were the stewards of ultimate things. Women were creatures of second rank, however pious, however beloved, however honored.” Like women before her, Glory puts her personal disappointment aside for the sake of her father and brother. Still, Robinson makes evident the depths of her hurt at not being regarded as importantly as her male kin: “None of this had mattered much through all the years of her studies and teaching, but now, in the middle of any night, it was part of the loneliness she felt, as if the sense that everything could have been otherwise were a palpable darkness.”
It would seem that the novel is headed toward a grim conclusion: both father and son want the other to change, and when it does not happen, it leads to the end of the relationship. It is up to Glory to make sense of the shambles. As her father becomes frailer, Glory must also witness Jack’s withdrawal and final exit from home. Realizing that she will probably never see Jack again, she understands that she will most likely remain in Gilead for the rest of her life, accepting a largely unfulfilled existence. However, Glory does not despair; she sees herself as a conduit through which the positive characteristics of the Boughton clan will pass, promising Jack that she will keep the Boughton home intact for the rest of the family. Finally, it is Glory who patiently looks for optimism in the next generation when, after meeting Jack’s biracial son, she imagines him returning to a changed Gilead as an adult and thinks, “He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment.”
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009