“What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world.” This remark, made by Glory in Marilynne Robinson’s third novel, Home (2008, p. 102), encapsulates the ubiquitous yet contingent, reverent yet quotidian position that the Bible occupies across Robinson’s work. One might argue that Robinson has devoted her career to “strange old” stories, the “things of the world” that rarely draw the attention of mainstream secular literary voices or popular religious discourse. Yet while her work often concentrates on that which is overlooked, “overlooked” is not a word one could easily apply to her contribution to contemporary American literature. Robinson’s novels have won the PEN/Hemingway award and the Pulitzer Prize, and she teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. This notoriety has emerged not despite, but largely because of, her persistent and sincere engagement with religious concerns, including the Bible. In fact, there may be no American writer since Flannery O’Connor for whom the Bible has figured so prominently.
In Robinson’s frequent evocations of the Bible, we do not find didactic invocations of the Bible as a locus of cultural authority or a repository of timeless, transcendental truths. Instead, Robinson’s gentle yet pervasive reference to the Bible draws her characters and her readers toward newfound aesthetic and ethical attention to ordinary moments and temporal concerns, as illustrated by Housekeeping (1980), her first novel. Housekeeping is saturated with biblical references even as it maintains persistent attention to the minutest details of the mortal world’s insuppressible transience. Near the novel’s beginning, the narrator, Ruth, demonstrates this overlap between faith and finitude by imagining the daily activities undertaken by her grandmother after the death of Ruth’s grandfather: “performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith” (p. 16). Ruth continues, describing how “the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary” (pp. 17–18). Throughout Housekeeping, faith is a theme concerned less with grand supernatural or metaphysical abstractions, rooted instead in the daily experience of dwelling faithfully amid what is ordinary, quotidian, and little regarded.
Pondering this motif of resurrection, Ruth remembers the missionary brochure that, quoting the Gospel of Matthew, drew her aunt Molly away from her family: “At the foot of the page was printed, in italics, I will make you fishers of men” (p. 91). This biblical reference merges associatively with Ruth’s knowledge of the lake in Fingerbone, which claimed her grandfather in a train accident and her mother in a suicide. Ruth expounds upon the image of a fishing net to envision “a harvesting” that “would put an end to all anomaly” (p. 91). Sweeping across “the whole floor of heaven” until it reached “the black floor of Fingerbone,” this imagined net resurrects all that has been lost in the lake, from the “paleolithic and neolithic frequenters of the lake” and “the swimmers, the boaters and canoers” (p. 92) to “a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole” (p. 92). Ruth’s generalized desire to stitch together the incomprehensible fragments of her life is called into focus by a stray biblical passage on a missionary brochure. Christ’s promise to make his followers “fishers of men,” alongside the eschatological hope of resurrection, provides the means by which Ruth reimagines the tragic deaths of her mother and her grandmother as engrossed among the innumerable untold stories lying at the bottom of this remote and unremarkable lake.
If the Bible serves to spark Ruth’s imagination, it also serves as a basis for her name. The novel’s first line, “My name is Ruth” (p. 3), evokes both the biblical book of Ruth and the opening of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Toward the end of the novel, Ruth’s choice to abandon the familiarity of home to follow her aunt Sylvie draws heavily upon the story of Ruth and Naomi, while the Moby-Dick allusion alerts the reader to the story of Ishmael—both the biblical Ishmael who is cast off to wander and Melville’s Ishmael, whose request, “Call me Ishmael,” announces what is perhaps the most famous of all biblical character names in American literature. Consequently, the Bible not only offers material for Housekeeping’s characters to construct their own stories; it takes biblical tradition as given, further commingling it within a broader American literary tradition to structure the background in which these characters and their stories may be understood.
The biblical story of Ishmael, with its themes of wilderness and wandering, recurs briefly in Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004). It comes to the narrator John Ames’s mind in a moment of prayer, shortly after the unexpected return of Ames’s wayward godson, Jack. Ames interprets this difficult story, somewhat surprisingly, as “a story full of comfort,” noting how, despite our best efforts, “we send our children into the wilderness” (p. 119). He continues, reflecting that many, even from “the day they are born,” appear as “a kind of wilderness unto themselves.” Nevertheless, he concludes from the story of Ishmael: “Even the wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s” (p. 119). Deeply troubled by Jack’s continuous wandering, exacerbated by Jack’s estrangement from family and community, Ames finds a degree of solace in the hope that even Jack, for all his alienation, is never abandoned. More generally, Ames’s concern for Jack, expressed through his meditation on the story of Ishmael, highlights the tendency, throughout Gilead, to envision the Bible as the shared inheritance uniting otherwise fractured families and communities.
Familial rifts run deeply throughout the novel, and Ames makes no effort to hide them. He recalls the bitter dispute that separated his father and grandfather—both of whom, like Ames, were ministers. Ames remembers how his father, a pacifist, challenged his grandfather, a vigorous abolitionist: “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt,” his father begins. “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus” (pp. 84–85). This bitter argument drove Ames’s grandfather from the family home in Gilead, and he departed leaving nothing but a note on the table: “No good has come, no evil is ended. That is your peace. Without vision the people perish. The Lord bless and keep you” (p. 85). This note not only quotes scripture to make its discursive point, it also comes to share an honored place in the family’s relationship to the Bible itself. “I still have that note,” Ames concedes. “I saved it in my Bible” (p. 85).
Ames stores the memory of family conflict in his Bible, an act that imbues the Bible with unique significance. Not only the words and the stories, but even the physical object itself harbors the memories of familial, cultural, and historical inheritance. This theme of inheritance amid familial strife extends to a Bible that the characters of Gilead pass down intergenerationally: a Greek New Testament carried by Ames’s grandfather onto a Civil War battlefield. Ames remembers the Greek Testament being sent to his father shortly before undertaking their arduous journey to the Kansas cemetery where Ames’s grandfather was buried. The book originally provided his grandfather with credentials to serve as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and its return to the family in Gilead prompts Ames’s father to search for the grave in a last attempt at reconciliation. Although it was mostly ruined from falling into a river during a retreat, Ames proudly reflects: “I still have that somewhere, what remains of it” (p. 75). The book had been sent back to Ames’s grandfather by a Confederate soldier in Alabama who found it in the river after the battle (p. 90). Despite the innumerable conflicts, from the Civil War to the rift between Ames’s father and grandfather, the Greek New Testament continues to change hands until, Ames hopes, it will one day be passed down to his son. “I hope you have it,” he muses. “It’s the sort of thing that might appear to have no value at all” (pp. 90–91).
Much like the “rituals of the ordinary” evoked through biblical allusion in Housekeeping, Ames’s narrative throughout Gilead attends to the finite, mortal world in the way that Ames reveres the tattered Greek New Testament. It focuses with care and precision on that which “might appear to have no value at all” (p. 91) but can, nevertheless, “shine like transfiguration” for those who have “the courage to see” (p. 245). Consequently, Ames’s persistent quoting of scripture demonstrates far more than the religious didacticism that he refers to as “the pulpit speaking” (p. 91). Instead, the Bible—the book that Ames knows best—provides the means whereby he can look back lovingly and thoughtfully over his life, reflecting on decades of joy and grief while approaching his own imminent death.
Robinson’s third novel, Home (2008), revisits the characters and themes of Gilead, complicating Ames’s narrative by dwelling primarily on the troubles of the Boughton household. Robert Boughton, Ames’s lifelong friend and fellow minister, is dying, and his daughter Glory has returned home to care for him following the demise of both her engagement and her career as an English teacher. The most uneasy homecoming, however, is Jack’s. While Ames, in Gilead, envisions Jack’s inward isolation as akin to the wanderings of Ishmael, Jack’s arrival in Home alludes to Christ’s parable of the prodigal son. The son who left in disgrace returns unexpectedly. But Jack is a complex, unlikely, and at times problematic prodigal. Though he is embraced by his father, he is also scolded, and while he has brought his family a measure of joy through his return, he remains restless and unsettled, never fully at home in his father’s house. Contributing to his unease, his mind is constantly preoccupied with the family he has left behind in St. Louis and the inescapable memories of his mischievous youth. For Jack, this homecoming is less like the biblical celebration and more like returning to “the scene of the crime” (p. 124). While the biblical allusion to the prodigal son lingers in the novel’s background, Home reconfigures this story by aligning it with Jack’s alienation from his original family and community.
Home also acknowledges the tenuousness of scriptural interpretation and application, portraying the fallibility of even the most well-meaning religious communities. In Gilead, Ames concedes that the human expression of faith, in all of its many forms, contains elements of “awkwardness and falseness” despite its “essential dignity” (p. 146). Through reimagining the prodigal son narrative in Home, Robinson elaborates on this theme, employing the Bible to scrutinize the ways in which religious belief, however sincerely held, can obscure the ethical complexity of familial, social, and political crises. Jack’s homecoming, for example, is dampened by the deteriorated race relations in Iowa, a state once famous for abolitionists like Ames’s grandfather but that, by the 1950s, has grown markedly less welcoming. “I’m home again in Iowa, the shining star of radicalism,” Jack quips, with a tone drenched in sarcasm and sadness. “It’s the desire of the tattered moth for the shining star that has brought me home” (p. 210). Unbeknownst to his father, Jack has an African American wife and a young son, a family he wishes to bring to Gilead for the hope of a settled, peaceful, and unmolested future. But a probing conversation about the civil rights movement with his father shatters this possibility. When Jack denounces religion’s complicity with racial segregation, suggesting, “we’ve done pretty badly … by Christian standards” (p. 217), his father, and the town of Gilead more generally, dismisses his concerns under the auspices of generosity and grace. “I don’t believe in calling anyone’s religion into question because he has certain failings. A blind spot or two,” Boughton remarks (pp. 217–218). To his chagrin and confusion, Jack finds that a faith that quotes the Bible eloquently on the subject of God’s grace can also be blind to the moral and social demands that their commitment to grace may require of his town and family.
While Robinson’s work has yet to amass a vast body of critical literature, two common orientations to her work have begun to emerge. The first, exhibited by the articles of a 2010 special issue of the journal Christianity & Literature, focuses on the theological and biblical concerns of Robinson’s work. Such articles emphasize Robinson’s efforts to resuscitate a vocabulary that has gone out of fashion, taking the language and experience of religious belief seriously on its own terms. As Robinson insists, in her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books: “Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the world ‘soul,’ and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling” (2012, p. 8). Largely due to statements such as these, which reintroduce terminology such as “soul” and “grace” into an otherwise secular literary discourse, much of the current scholarship on Robinson has sought to parse the precise biblical and theological content of her novels.
Another common approach to Robinson’s fiction has been to consider it in light of broader patterns in the relationship between religion and contemporary American fiction. Amy Hungerford’s Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (2010) and Thomas Haddox’s Hard Sayings: The Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction (2013) are two such examples, book-length studies that account for Robinson’s work within what many are beginning to call the postsecular turn in postmodern literature and culture. Hungerford argues that Robinson’s approach to religion, particularly in Gilead, imagines “belief made capacious” (2010, p. 121), characterizing John Ames as a figure deeply enmeshed in “Charles Taylor’s secular age … profoundly aware of the possibility—even the plausibility—of unbelief” (p. 114). According to Hungerford, characters such as John Ames demonstrate what committed but gregarious religious belief might look like amid a hybrid, pluralistic society. Similarly, Haddox emphasizes Robinson’s interest in the “suppressed link between political liberalism and Christian faith” (2013, p. 166), and he argues that Robinson’s fictional project is largely invested in exploring how “unfashionably Christian doctrines and virtues can remain, even after so much secular tub-thumping, the raw materials of great art” (p. 187).
While critics have concentrated on the literary-theological vision at work in Robinson’s fiction, as well as her work’s pertinence to broader trends in contemporary literature, much remains to be said about Robinson’s use of biblical reference in order to concentrate on matters of ordinary, unremarkable, and quotidian finitude. In a 2011 New York Times essay, Robinson invited her readers to revisit the Bible’s immeasurable impact upon literary history, stating: “There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and the wonderful. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them.” Robinson lauds the Bible’s propensity for illuminating the immanent and unremarkable, a vision she adapts to her own fiction. She does so by imaginatively uncovering the poignant depths of inwardness to be found among those who are so often deemed provincial and uninteresting—drifters, rural preachers, and small town ne’er-do-wells. Thus, while much of the popular imagination envisions a Bible peopled with larger than life characters and stories, tales of “biblical” proportion preoccupied with the timeless, eternal, and other-worldly, Robinson’s work reminds her readers of the immediacy, fragility, and perishability ensconced in the familiarity of this “strange old book” (Robinson, 2008, p. 102).
Reflecting on Glory’s religious upbringing, the narrator of Home explains: “Faith for her was habit and family loyalty, a reverence for the Bible which was also literary, admiration for her mother and father. And then that thrilling quiet of which she had never felt any need to speak” (Robinson, 2008, p. 110). Each of Robinson’s three quiet and meditative novels displays this equally religious and literary reverence for the Bible. Whether conceiving the Bible as a cultural and literary inheritance from which to fashion new stories, depicting the tender and sometimes troubled relationships that gather around a family Bible, or reconfiguring a well-known biblical narrative in order to consider what might be overlooked in the story’s conventional arrangements, Robinson’s fiction places the Bible once again at the forefront of contemporary literary attention.
- Haddox, Thomas F. Hard Sayings: The Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013. A response to studies of religion in postmodern literature, this book considers the work of post–World War II writers who, the author claims, self-consciously seek to persuade readers of religion’s contemporary salience.
- Hungerford, Amy. Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. A seminal study of religion in contemporary American literature, including a chapter on how Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home engage the religious pluralism of postmodernity.
- LaMascus, R. Scott. “Toward a Dialogue on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.” Christianity & Literature 59, no. 2 (2010): 197–201. Introduces the special issue of Christianity & Literature devoted to religion in Marilynne Robinson’s later fiction. This issue of the journal includes nearly a dozen articles that closely examine the interaction between the theological and literary dimensions of Gilead and Home.
- Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Picador, 1980.
- Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Picador, 2004.
- Robinson, Marilynne. Home. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
- Robinson, Marilynne. “The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible.” New York Times, 22 December 2011.
- Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
- Douglas, Christopher. “Christian Multiculturalism and Unlearned History in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. ” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 44, no. 3 (2011): 333–353. Considers Robinson’s work in relation to multiculturalism and uses this critical framework to examine her later novels’ meditations on religion, slavery, and race relations.
- Mallon, Anne-Marie. “Sojourning Women: Homelessness and Transcendence in Housekeeping.” Critique 30, no. 2 (1989): 95–105. Discusses Robinson’s engagement with the biblical book of Ruth as a primary thematic and mythic source for Housekeeping.
- Tanner, Laura E. “ ‘Looking Back from the Grave’: Sensory Perception and the Anticipation of Absence in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. ” Contemporary Literature 48, no. 2 (2007): 227–252. Considers the religious subject matter in Gilead alongside the novel’s dramatization of the psychological and physiological experience of death and dying.