In his little devotional book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says we should not look to Scripture for answers first of all, but instead listen to the questions it asks. Good advice. Certainty is a luxury the human race can ill afford. Conviction that “we” have answers and “they” do not has created a good deal of misery, historically speaking. On the other hand, perpetual doubt can lead to misery as well, usually on a personal level. Maybe if we could ask the right questions, we would be more receptive to the gifts God offers, and to extending love and grace to others.
Marilynne Robinson’s novel Jack heartbreakingly but tenderly asks questions, and invites readers to empathize with her characters as they struggle toward answers. Many questions bedevil the title character Jack, but one stands out: What is the difference between faith and presumption? Robinson never implies glib answers. But, oh, the questions! It is an astonishing novel, drenched in sorrow circumscribed by grace.
Jack is a vagrant who lives in the dark, literally and figuratively. He is the son of the Reverend Robert Boughton, whom readers have met in Robinson’s previous novels. Jack says he is an atheist and describes himself thus: “I’m a gifted thief. I lie fluently, often for no reason. I’m a bad but confirmed drunk. I have no talent for friendship. What talents I do have, I make no use of. I am aware instantly and almost obsessively of anything fragile, with the thought that I must and will break it . . . I isolate myself as a way of limiting the harm I can do.”
Later in the novel he reflects that, “as a living creature he was ill-suited to the brittle, frangible world of things. It was as though planet Energy and planet Order had collided and merged, leaving displacement as the settling of the ruins.” Jack’s searing self-assessment shows that his is not a gratuitous, mindless dissolution. He is a lost soul hanging on by his fingernails and he cannot accept the world as it is, or God as he perceives him to be. He is reminiscent of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and also of the self-deprecating whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory.
Jack’s relentless honesty about himself is one of the sources of his despair. He has no idea why he is what he is (another question!) He does not defend or excuse himself. He accepts the beatings and shake-downs he receives on the street as a way of assuaging his guilt for hurting others, and as a sort of justice. He always assumes he “has it coming.” He constantly dissects his own motives for the things he does or says, and never finds them to be pure. He calls himself the prince of darkness. Jack’s father once said that The more scrupulous a conscience is, the heavier the burden it carries. By that measure, Jack’s conscience works overtime.
‘JUST LOOK AT HIM’
So he is an alien in the world and a misfit in the church. He is not comfortable in his own skin, and often feels naked and exposed: “It was a terrible thing to be looked at. He had always thought so, even before he had his history written all over him.” When he is sober, he cares about his appearance and often apologizes for it. His derelict clothing is emblematic of his tattered soul. One comment that hurts him deeply is “Just look at him.” One can imagine that if he were to attend some eternal feast, he would be the one not wearing a suitable wedding garment. Humiliation and embarrassment are his constant companions, made worse because he feels he has brought them on himself: “Sometimes I wish I were just a suit of clothes and a decent shave. Uninhabited, so to speak.”
The climax of Jack’s misery comes in a dark-night-of-the-soul experience when he spends the night alone in a pitch dark dance hall. “One mind by itself can fill a room,” Robinson writes. “In such a large space there are no strategies of concealment, neither of him from his thoughts, nor of his thoughts from his unguarded awareness of them.” In this case the darkness, usually a friend, does not shield Jack from his demons. We can identify: Who among us has never spent a sleepless night recycling regrets and groping for a way forward?
Jack’s love story begins seemingly by accident. (Another question: Is their meeting just a random event, or is it meant to be?) “Just when he thought he knew something about the rest of his life, there was Della.” Jack first meets Della when she drops some papers and books on her way home in the rain. Ever the gallant gentleman, he helps her pick her things up, and offers her his umbrella (which he has just stolen). He walks her home and she invites him in for tea. Della is an African American woman, a teacher in a Black high school. It is clear that they are kindred spirits in many ways, sensitive poetic souls, outliers in their respective families, though Della is Jack’s polar opposite in other ways.
A tender-is-the-night scene occurs when Jack and Della meet accidentally, in a cemetery of all places. The dark notwithstanding, they keep each other company in the most luminous sense of those words. This idyllic but fragile meeting of kindred souls cannot last of course, but it is a blessed time nevertheless. Robinson writes: “The black of the sky was dimming with light. . . . He could not bring himself to look at her directly, and she did not look at him, both of them as still as if the kindly dark were not receding from them. What would be the one sufficient thing to say before the flood of light swept over them, now that their world was ending? Amen, he thought.”
‘KEEP HER SAFE’
Over time, even as their relationship deepens, it stumbles, and Jack’s difficulties do not lessen, for now he feels additional guilt. Whereas he as a white man has nothing to lose, he is jeopardizing Della’s life and career as a teacher and as a Black woman. Her family is vehemently opposed to the relationship, and because of the miscegenation laws they cannot co-habit or marry. They cannot even be seen together. Time and again Jack resolves to remove himself from Della’s life in order to spare her further harm, but every time his resolve deserts him. He has received grace and mercy in the person of this kind, beautiful woman that knows who and what he is, and loves him anyway. He cannot give her up.
One evening Della is waiting for him in his room when he comes home. Robinson writes: “This was the most remarkable experience he had ever had in his life, when he considered the emotions it set off in him, joy and bewilderment, and only a little dread, since, whatever else might be true, she had come to him. He could actually think of no way in which he could be at fault.” A bit later, Jack says to Della, “A fellow told me that if the Lord gave this doomed soul a few minutes of grace, He wouldn’t mind if I enjoyed it.”
And yet. Even in these loving and gentle moments Jack undercuts his own peace and thinks of himself as “caught in the snares of loyalties he could only disappoint.” He is convinced that he is doomed to live under the law of unintended consequences. He wonders if he should mention that if eternity existed, his eternity would be very different from hers. He thinks maybe Hell is “No flames at all, just an eternity of disheartened self-awareness.” In the morning, when Della has to leave and is at risk of being seen, Jack thinks, or perhaps prays, “Ah, Jesus, get her home, keep her safe. Keep her safe from me.”
As the novel ends, Jack and Della face an uncertain future cut off from their families and their respective cultures. They can only hope that love is enough to sustain a relationship that, humanly speaking, is doomed from the start. But in the context of a story in which darkness is a refuge, and light a threat; where a white ne’er-do-well and a Black woman experience love in a climate of racial hatred; where each shared meal is a sort of sacrament; where hope and despair co-exist, who knows? Has their destiny been fore-ordained, or not?