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From Death to Life: A Theological Reflection on Marilynne Robinson’s Jack

February 4th, 2021 | 10 min read

By Matthew Emerson

In one sense, Marilynne Robinson’s Jack is a simple love story, one complicated by the harsh realities of Jim Crow, but still at bottom the beautifully quaint tale of how Jack Boughton and Della Miles met and fell in love in segregated St. Louis, Missouri. On the surface, the narrative is both agonizing and exhilarating, suspenseful and inevitable. It is agonizing and suspenseful because we’ve been introduced to Jack in a prior Robinson novel, Home, and we expect him to be irredeemable and unloveable. In many parts of the book he meets those expectations.

But it is also exhilarating and inevitable, because while we watch Jack fall in love we also watch him grow and change into the man that could court and woo a woman, the same woman who we already know he brings home to meet his anxious father at the end of Home. Thus in this literal sense we can say that Robinson’s novel is one that captures the reader’s attention and, for readers of Home, leaves us with a somewhat different impression of Jack Bougton.

But – and this should be no surprise for readers of Robinson’s “Gilead” series – there is much more going on underneath the surface. Robinson not only tells an interesting tale; in doing so, she combines story, poetry, philosophy, and theology, teaching her readers profound truths about humanity, sin and repentance, new life, and grace. There will be much more to say about Robinson’s literary allusiveness, her ability to bring the racial tensions of the time into stark relief, her storytelling abilities, and the like in other reviews and reflections. But here I want to focus on what I believe are the theological themes of this novel – grace that comes unexpectedly and from the outside; kindness that leads to conversion, new life, and change; and love that is grounded in seeing the image of God in another creature.

We find Jack alone in the dark in a cemetery. Although (as far as we know initially) he is the only living man walking among the dead, he may as well be a dead man walking. In subsequent inner monologue and dialogue, Jack clearly believes what his father suspects in Home – that Jack is irredeemable, unable to walk truly among the living. But as Jack’s own reflections make clear, his father is not quite right in his suspicions. It is not that Jack is irredeemable because of divine fiat, but that Jack chooses not to be redeemed. His “raffishness,” as he calls it, his self-characterization as “Slick,” isn’t something bestowed on him by God’s reprobation or by birth defect but by Jack’s own volition. Jack cannot help but lie, because he likes to lie. Jack cannot help but steal, because he likes to steal. And yet, despite these tendencies and choices, Jack also has attempted to reform himself in some small way, to become “harmless” to others.

This amounts to his living alone, without friends, family, or vocation, and frequently wandering the houses of the dead. His commitment to harmlessness is not so much a death to self as it is a death to every potential relationship into which he could enter. Jack at the beginning of the book is a dead man, but only in half-measure – he *might as well be* dead to his family, to the city in which he lives, to his creditors, to his sometime employers, to his own proclivities, to anything and anyone that could bring light into his life. And so he wanders the place of the dead in the dark, a living ghost.

But it is into Jack’s dark, ghostly existence that light shines, the light of Della Miles, a black schoolteacher who shockingly appears in the same cemetery on the same night. Della – “noble,” “virtuous” – and Jack talk through the night, waiting for the guard to open the gates in the morning so that they can both rise and escape through the cemetery’s gates, with Della leading the way. During their nocturnal interlude, we find out that Jack and Della already know each other, and have even been on a date. This isn’t the first time that Della’s light has shone unexpectedly in Jack’s life; they met in the rain, when Jack courteously helped pick up her dropped papers to save them from soaking, and smiling, laughing Della invited Jack inside for tea as thanks.

But the façade of Jack’s Midwestern manners was shattered when they subsequently had dinner together, as Jack had to duck out and thus missed paying the bill because some of his violence-prone creditors walked into the restaurant. Jack, with his preacher suit and Iowan upbringing, could appear righteous for a moment on the outside, but he and everyone else – except Della – knows who he truly is on the inside. And Jack knows that a societal Judgment Day is always coming for him, exposing his works and his will for all to see.

Jack thus spends a great deal of this initial graveside conversation trying to apologize for what he did to Della, and to explain what kind of man he is. These kinds of conversations, where Jack attempts to head off any kind of further relationship at the pass, happen throughout the book. But in small ways in the cemetery, and then in greater and more frequent ways in the rest of the story, Della simply shows kindness to Jack. She is there when he tries to avoid her. She is there on his worst behavior. She is there after he’s confessed some of the worst bits of his past. Even while Jack vacillates between fecklessness and commitment, deceit and honesty, theft and self-giving, Della remains constant – in presence and in love for Jack.

As Della’s kindness leads to certain kinds of repentance and reform in Jack’s life, and thus as their relationship grows, he struggles more and more with the implications of their relationship. She could lose her job, her family, her reputation, her freedom. And yet Della is willing to give up all of that for the love she has for Jack. There is no stopping her in her commitment to him, despite the scandal – both racially and societally – it could entail. For Jack, this brings up old memories, doubts, and questions, ones that lead him to linger over his most painful and shameful and regrettable acts (particularly his fling with the poor young girl whom he impregnated and then abandoned) and his strained relationship with his family and especially with his father.

We find Jack in one moment longing to wash in the river, the one near his childhood home in Gilead and next to the home of his dead baby’s mother, which would be a kind of baptismal return home. In another moment, he is staying the night in the dark in his place of employment (a second floor dance studio), and there wrestles, in an allusion to Jacob at Jabbok, with himself and his past until he finally lets go. Intermittently and throughout, we find Jack wanting to drink himself into a stupor, or commit suicide – a irreversible act only prevented by the knowledge that his father is still alive – to escape the pain. What Jack needs, in other words, is to be washed, to forgive himself, to be welcomed home.

It is in Della that he finds all these things. He is washed in the rain when she suddenly appears in his life, all light and life and loveliness. He forgives himself because she forgives him. He is home when she is with him, no matter where they lay their heads. (And we know that in Home he actually returns with Della to his father’s house). Whereas Jack’s various methods of dealing with himself – giving into his impulses without thought, giving into his impulses in thought only but not in deed (which landed him in prison), or attempting if at all possible to be “harmless” – all fail, it is Della’s unexpected arrival and constant presence thereafter that changes him.

This change doesn’t happen all at once, of course, but in spurts and stages and moments as their relationship grows. We watch Jack move from a lack of identity, as seen especially in his use of varying names for himself, to a confidence in who he is, where he is from, and his given name. We see him refuse responsibility for his actions and blame his “impulses” in the beginning of the novel, while by the end he has listened to the African American Baptist pastor, Rev. Hutchins, and realized that these are not impulses to be indulged but temptations to be resisted. The works of Jack’s flesh are futile and only bring death, and left on his own he cannot ever pay back his debts. But Della’s presence and love bring life and peace, and in that love and peace he moves on from those acts that put him into debt in the first place.

This is inexplicable, this love that Della has for Jack. Everyone around both of them tells them that Jack isn’t worth it, and Jack shares and frequently voices that same opinion to Della and to himself. But Della is able to see the beauty in Jack’s soul, a soul of which “she has a high opinion” (p. 229). In one of my favorite passages of the book, she says this to and about Jack:

. . . you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery – you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it (p. 208).

Quite simply, Della loves Jack because she truly sees him for who he is – an image bearer of God, in all the peculiar and unique ways that make him John Ames Boughton.

In the end, there really is no other explanation for this love story, one in which a respectable black woman with an important civic role as a schoolteacher falls in love with a white bum. As Jack puts it, “I have no explanation. I don’t think there is one” (p. 230). The simple fact is that Della appears unexpectedly and persistently, a “grace upon grace” that was unlooked for and, in some sense, unwanted by Jack. And yet this irresistible grace of Della’s love, her inexplicable kindness towards the reprobate Jack, leads Jack to repentance. He was dead in a graveyard, but then Della’s light shone in the darkness and brought him to new life.

None of this means the actual spiritual, personal, religious conversion of Jack from a convinced atheist to a confessing Christian. But just as Paul compares marriage to the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:22–32), so, I believe, we can find hope in comparing Della’s love for Jack, and especially it’s unexpectedness and persistence, to God’s love for sinners. Robinson may hint at this hope in Jack’s recollection of his and Della’s night together in the white cemetery, in what is perhaps my favorite paragraph of any work:

“Sovereign Joys” – when he dared, he would think about that long night with her in Bellefontaine, the beautiful graveyard. So many angels in attendance, not one of them stirred up, enflamed, roused from the encumbrance of her stony flesh, not even the angel that reached toward the baby forever, day and night, and never held her. He laughed at the thought of all those angels ecstatically liberated, finally seeing the fulfillment of everything their presence had promised for so long. This had to be the dream behind all the statuary. The angels would open up the caskets and lift up old Mrs. This and young Mr. That, making themselves, to their great joy, much less marvelous and interesting than the recently disinterred. Wings are fine, and a kind of luminosity would be very nice, but to hear a familiar laugh would be an almost unbearable joy, a human joy exceeding anything seraphim could feel, since angels could not know death. . . . In such a blast and glare of astonishment, what offenses could be remembered? Those who can’t hope can still wish. (152–53).

For Jack, this is nothing more in the moment than a wistful thought. But the truth is that Jack is no more immune to the unexpected inbreaking of God’s grace in his life than he is to Della’s undeserved but persistent love. And so the angels wait to rejoice with unspeakable joy for the conversion of those who feel irredeemable but who are loved by the God who made them in his own image.

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