Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943) is a prize-winning novelist whose books are unlike much of contemporary fiction, particularly in their explicit engagement with the Bible and Christian thought. Her first novel, Housekeeping (1980), won the PEN/Hemingway Award and, after more than twenty years, her second novel, Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize. In the intervening period, she published two collections of essays. While her novels all share thematic resonances, their engagement with the Bible shifts in that decades-long interim. Before the gap, Housekeeping speaks the language of the Bible but does not interpret it in the way that Gilead, Home, and Lila do. When these later novels appeal to the Bible, it is with an interpretive seriousness befitting theology.

Housekeeping In Housekeeping, the Bible functions more as a kind of background knowledge, a shared vocabulary one might expect of a narrator who came of age in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi haunting the novel’s peripheries, the biblical flood plays a substantial role. When Sylvie arrives to care for Ruthie and Lucille, it rains for three days until “the houses and hutches and barns and sheds of Fingerbone were like so many spilled and foundered arks” (61). Even here, however, the story of Noah remains in the background while the novel depicts an actual—rather than symbolic—flood: “If we opened or closed a door, a wave swept through the house, and chairs tottered, and bottles and pots clinked and clunked in the bottoms of the kitchen cabinets” (62). As the novel approaches its conclusion, the story of Noah begins to take on greater significance, and Robinson’s exploration of Ruthie and Sylvie—women who live on the periphery—begins to color the retelling of the biblical narrative:

"One can imagine that, at the apex of the Flood, when the globe was a ball of water, came the day of divine relenting, when Noah’s wife must have opened the shutters upon a morning designed to reflect an enormous good nature. […] True, the waters were full of people – we knew the story from our childhood (172)."

Here, Ruthie highlights the “nameless woman” of the flood narrative, implicitly commenting on Ruthie’s options: she either becomes what society expects of a woman, as her sister Lucille does, or she exists on the periphery, as her aunt Sylvie does, “at home among all those who were never found and never missed, who were uncommemorated, whose deaths were not remarked, nor their begettings” (72). The novel continues its reflection on Noah’s wife in the penultimate chapter where Ruthie’s loss of her mother and of her sister Lucille echo the loss of all those nameless women who died in Noah’s flood (193–194).

Housekeeping might be said to use the Bible as a way of deepening Ruthie’s story, of providing it with resonances beyond the story of a girl running away with her aunt to live the life of a wanderer. Through the biblical allusions and retellings, Sylvie and subsequently Ruthie are linked to all the women who have come before them, who have stood and watched as other nameless women and children died and were not remembered.

The Gilead Novels While Housekeeping certainly engages the biblical text as a way of emphasizing the fundamental humanity of Ruthie’s story, Gilead approaches the Bible in a more multifaceted way. Told from the perspective of John Ames, a Congregationalist minister, Gilead is so full of biblical citations and allusions that it would require an index to investigate the matter completely; even then, nearly every page would be referenced. Three distinct types of interpretation can be identified, styles that might be termed “homiletical,” “theological,” and “extended commentary.”

In the homiletical mode, Ames recounts sermons, where he engages with texts such as the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Ames notes that the narratives about Isaac and Ishmael are “the only two instances in Scripture where a father is even apparently unkind to his child” (129). He works to interpret them, much as a preacher would do: “About the cruelty of those narratives I said that they rendered the fact that children are often victims of rejection or violence, and that in these cases, too, which the Bible does not otherwise countenance, the child is within the providential care of God” (130). The biblical text is not here used as an allusion, nor simply as a way of deepening the story. Rather, Gilead engages with the biblical text and seeks to interpret it, to grapple with its themes in order to express a truth about reality; this kind of engagement would not feel out of place coming from a pulpit on any given Sunday morning.

This homiletical mode of interpretation shades often in the book into the theological mode. Gilead uses the biblical text to investigate the theological topic that appears to haunt Robinson’s Gilead novels more than most: predestination. When Ames visits old Boughton and speaks with him, Jack asks what Ames’ views are on the doctrine of predestination (149). Ames struggles to articulate an answer and ends recommending that Jack read Karl Barth on the matter (153). Barth’s engagement with the doctrine shifts from thinking about whether certain individuals are members of the elect or the reprobate to the recognition that there is only one fully elect and fully rejected person: the Son of God on the cross (Barth, 161–175).

In addition to the homiletical and theological styles of biblical interpretation, Gilead offers extended commentary on particular passages. For instance, Ames spends pages on a discussion about the fifth commandment—“Honor your father and mother” (134–139). Much as a commentator might do, Robinson through Ames engages with possible interpretations of the passage. Ames narrows the importance down to how honoring would apply to “an actual mother,” and he reasons that such a move places the commandment on “the first tablet, among the laws that describe right worship” because one can “only fulfill a general obligation to show honor in specific cases” (135–136). Ames would no more stand up and read his reasoning from the pulpit than he would stand up and read a commentary. While such extended commentary fits the characterization of a preacher, Gilead goes further than simply depicting Ames preparing a sermon: these discussions grapple with the biblical text in ways one might expect in a biblical commentary.

Though covering the same time period as Gilead, Home takes the perspective of Glory, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She often thinks in biblical language. For instance, she thinks at the end of the novel, “Sweet Jesus, she thought, love this thief, too” (328). The Bible is the language of her household, a fact visible throughout the novel’s many scenes of dialogue consisting of biblical quotations that appeal to the Bible as a kind of shared story, one the whole family is familiar with (see, for instance, p. 155).

The one exception to this pattern is the extended discussion about predestination initially seen in Gilead. In it, biblical texts about David and Bathsheba, texts from the Pentateuch and Ezekiel and from the Gospels are all discussed (229–238). Jack says, “I’ve wondered from time to time if I might not be an instance of predestination. A sort of proof. If I may not experience predestination in my own person” (235). As in Gilead, the conversation ends with Lila appealing to the doctrine of salvation and insisting that a person can change (236–238).

This conversation about predestination highlights Home’s more subtle engagement with the Bible. Though there is little by way of biblical interpretation in the book, biblical themes and theological concepts are continuously beneath the surface. In that conversation, the very question that haunts Home makes itself known, showing that the concern of the book is the very biblical concern of God’s election, of God’s grace, of salvation.

When Glory falls asleep on Jack’s final night in the house, she thinks, “If I or my father or any Boughton has ever stirred the Lord’s compassion, then Jack will be all right. Because perdition for him would be perdition for every one of us” (329). The theological reflection of the book once again surfaces but without the layering of biblical citation or interpretation. Rather, it arises out of the character’s love for her brother, expressing what is a profound understanding of the doctrine of election without the theological vocabulary. Instead, the appearance of the Bible is more subtle, more in keeping with the way Glory would think: it functions as something more like her native language, her thoughts articulated in its words.

In contrast to Gilead and Home, Lila places the reader on the side of a woman who has not been steeped in biblical language from childhood. Robinson seems to be exploring just how clear the Bible is, how “perspicuous,” a reader of Calvin might say. When Lila steals a Bible from Ames’ church, she has never read it. In her early engagement with it, Lila is alone in a shack, copying out verses: “Strange as all this is, there might be something to it” (68). That “something” is Lila’s personal connection to a parable from Ezekiel 16 comparing Israel to an infant God rescues. That parable begins to function both on the surface of the novel as Lila’s way into the Bible, and as the deeper allusion of the book, where Lila begins to see herself as like that child, like Israel, and her guardian, Doll, as like the Lord, but always in a nuanced way. Any correlation is less than perfect, but the book itself becomes something like a meditation in fiction on the very truth of the biblical story as found in Ezekiel.

Throughout the novel, Lila grapples with the visions of Ezekiel. Ames attempts to correct her reading at one point by letting her know it is “Poetry and parables and visions.” Lila responds, “Well, it’s true what he says there. It’s absolutely something I know about” (128). The novel’s conception of the Bible becomes clearer: the ones who think they own it—the preachers, academics, theologians—might well have domesticated it, covering over its deep connection to reality by appealing to metaphor and poetry instead of grappling with the way the world of the Bible is in many ways representative of even the modern world: “She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book” (176).

Lila’s appreciation of the Bible grows as she finds places in it that feel real to her, those places Ames and Boughton might dismiss or cover over with technical vocabulary. By the end of the novel, she has begun to see the world in a way informed by biblical language, but she never loses the part of her that connects the biblical text to real people, to her experiences. The novel ends with Lila entertaining a vision of eternity in which everyone she has known and even those she has not known are caught up, and once again, predestination is given a human touch: “If any scoundrel can be pulled into heaven just to make his mother happy, it couldn’t be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans” (259).

Lila is not ready to tell Ames her conclusions about predestination. “Someday,” the book closes, “she would tell him what she knew” (261). The implication is that Lila’s reading of the Bible, one attuned to the ways the Bible touches reality, is sufficient to balance, even to correct, the more learned exposition practiced by Ames. Lila’s very ability to reason her way out of the conundrums of election and reprobation stem from her willingness to read the Bible as a text expressing fundamental truths about the way the world is. It is not any old book full of stories; it tells her story: “she’d show [her son] that part about the baby toiling in its blood, and she’d say, That was me, and somebody said ‘Live!’” (254). One might suggest that Robinson’s view of the Bible in Lila is that people still read it precisely because it tells everyone’s story.

Assessment Robinson’s novels interpret the Bible on a number of levels, ranging from the complex theological stylings of a minister well-versed in Karl Barth to a woman who opens the Bible for the first time in her thirties and still finds something in it compelling and true. While Robinson’s essays engage with the Bible in similar ways, it is striking just how enmeshed the interpretation is within her novels. Of course, that can be attributed to her choice of characters, but many contemporary novels have ministers and priests who function without such a nuanced or knowledgeable appeal to the Bible. Perhaps one of the more interesting facts about Robinson’s novels is what they reveal about the writer herself: all four together bear witness to an inquiring authorial presence struggling with what it means to read the biblical books in the modern world, a world that has grown aware of the “forgotten woman,” but a world—equally—that has forgotten just how strange the biblical text is, how strange yet how so very true to life.

Bibliography

Works of Marilynne Robinson

  • Housekeeping. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980. Page numbers from the London: Faber and Faber, 1981 ed.
  • Mother Country. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989.
  • The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Picador, 1998.
  • Gilead. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.
  • Home. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008. Page numbers from the London: Virago, 2008 ed.
  • Absence of Mind. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • “The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible.” New York Times Sunday Book Review, 22 Dec. 2011. www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/books/review/ the-book-of-books-what-literature-owes-the-bible.html.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012. Page numbers from the London: Virago, 2012 ed.
  • Lila. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.
  • The Givenness of Things: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015.

Secondary Works

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, vol. 2.2, The Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957.
  • Fay, Sarah, “Marilynne Robinson, The Art of Fiction No. 198.” The Paris Review 186 (Fall 2008). Interview. www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5863/ marilynne-robinson-the-art-of-fiction-no-198-marilynne-robinson.
  • Hungerford, Amy. Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. See especially chapter 5.
  • Jamison, Leslie. “The Power of Grace: Review of Lila.” The Atlantic, Oct. 2014. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/the-power-of-grace/379334.
  • LaMascus, R. Scott, ed. Special Issue: Marilynne Robinson. Christianity and Literature 59, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 197–340.
  • Latz, Andrew Brower. “Creation in the Fiction of Marilynne Robinson.” Literature and Theology 25, no. 3 (2011): 283–296.

James A. Andrews