Av: Elina Takala, doktorand i systematisk teologi
A couple of years ago I plunged into Elena Ferrante’s famed Neapolitan quartet. I lay in my hammock beside a flowering lilac bush and was transferred to the bustle of an Italian city. After hours of reading I had to blink like someone who steps into the light from a dark room. It took a while until I stopped hearing the shrill voices of the two protagonists and I could shake off the smell of cigarettes and sounds of screeching car tyres in the streets of Naples.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead quartet as my summer reading beckons me to another dimension, turning my hammock into a a flying carpet that takes me to the American Midwest of the 1950s. I have been reading and re-reading Gilead (2004), Home (2005), Lila (2014), and Jack (2020) as I have worked on my doctoral dissertation on these novels. As a theologian I have always been fascinated with people’s life stories and the different ways they construct the narratives of their often hardship-filled everyday existence. For we all have shadows of sorrow in our stories, no matter how brightly and warmly the sun shines on us as we turn the pages of an engrossing book on the lazy days of July.
Marilynne Robinsons’ world, set in the fictional town of Gilead, is a much quieter and quainter than the one Ferrante depicts in her novels. In the Gilead quartet violence is subdued, the houses have pretty, if overgrown gardens, church ladies leave casseroles behind the doors of the needy, and the clamor of the outside world seems to be far away. Robinson’s protagonists are studious and theologically well-versed. Her characters express their anger, love, and disappointments more timidly than Ferrante’s Neapolitan workers. The narrative in Robinson’s novels appears often to meander as peacefully as the River Nishnabotna in which one of the protagonists is baptized, but the tranquil surface hides undercurrents as forceful as the emotions encountered in Elena Ferrantes world. In these novels the reader witnesses a pastor’s wife trying to wash away her baptism, a man attempting suicide in his father’s old car, a minister marrying a former prostitute, and an English teacher, a pastor’s daughter and a Christian who is gravely disappointed in her life, dropping a cheap ring and four hundred fifty-two love letters from a deceitful fiancé down a storm drain one midnight. Each character in Gilead quartet carries pain that is unique to them; pain that has its roots in the search for life’s meaning and in the fear of loneliness, death and the ultimate punishment. The characters try to contain this pain in different ways: by discussing it, in their constantly ongoing inner monologues, or even writing letters or sermons on the questions that torment them.
In Gilead quartet Marilynne Robinson studies how her protagonists try to find meaning for their lives through faith. Their personal theology is an essential building block for their identities. This theology is the structure within which Robinson’s protagonists construct their life narratives. For them – with the exception of Lila Ames, who is baptized as an adult – Reformed theology feels as natural as the rustle of a Iowan cornfield. Calvinist theology often frustrates them; they cannot live without their faith, but they would often like to forget it in the dusty cabinets of their homes, the two Iowan parsonages. Nevertheless, not even Jack, the black sheep of his mostly pious family and a self-proclaimed atheist, is able to renounce his faith altogether. Marilynne Robinson has written extensively on John Calvin’s theology, especially in her essays. She doesn’t shy away from theological dilemmas in her fiction either, not even doctrinal questions that have been debated during the history of the church, such as the doctrine of predestination. Robinson protagonists can adhere to the theological tradition they have been raised on, but at the same time make it creatively their own by engaging in a painful process of asking if their theology has anything to say about the suffering in their lives
But couldn’t we retreat to our hammocks with novels that do not have anything to do with theological scruples or troubling doctrines? The power of Robinson’s fiction lies in her ability to write beautiful prose that invites the reader to ponder questions about the meaning of life, existence, love, and faith in God. The disappointments, shame, guilt, and anger that Robinson’s protagonists experience as they struggle with their faith are depicted in a way that doesn’t leave us unaffected. Moreover, peace, joy, love, grace and tenderness stay with the reader as the shadows lengthen and we reach the last pages of Lila: ”There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.”
(bild: Giovanni Boldini, The Hammock)