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The Prodigal Son

Andy Boyd reviews Marilynne Robinson's latest novel, Jack.

Published onSep 16, 2020
The Prodigal Son

Book Reviewed:

Marilynne Robinson

Midway through the book that bears his name, Jack Boughton confesses his sins to a Black preacher, saying, “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. This has been true of me my whole life. I isolate myself as a way of limiting the harm I can do. And here I am with a wife!” This is too much even for the preacher, who exclaims “Good Lord.”

A reader of Jack might have a similar exasperated reaction to its central character, asking, why’s it so hard for Jack to act right? But Marilynne Robinson is asking a different question. Instead of investigating how Jack became the reprobate he is, she begins the novel from his rock bottom and asks whether it is possible for a confirmed sinner to truly repent. Jack concludes that repentance is possible, but not through sheer will. Change comes through love rooted in the very fact of the beloved’s humanity. In other words, through grace.

Jack is the fourth and likely last entry in a series of novels that began with Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 book Gilead. Gilead introduced us to Jack through the perceptions of its narrator, Rev. John Ames. Jack, whose full name is John Ames Boughton, appears seemingly out of nowhere as the lost-sheep son of Ames’ oldest friend and fellow pastor Robert Boughton. Ames is wary of Jack, especially after Jack begins spending time with Ames’ young son and wife, Lila. The source of his wariness is made clear late in the book when Ames tells Jack’s story, or what he knows of it. When Jack was still a young man, he impregnated and then abandoned a desperately poor girl. She gave birth, and the child lived for three years before dying of an infection from a cut foot. Jack left the town of Gilead, Iowa shortly after, and hasn’t been seen since. Now he’s back, to the delight of old Robert Boughton and the consternation of John.

But this turns out not to be Jack’s whole story. Jack is back in Gilead not to atone for his past but to plan for his future. He tells Ames that he has a wife and a child, and hands him a photograph. Ames is surprised to discover they are Black. Would Gilead, Jack asks, welcome his interracial family? Jack's story causes Ames to feel genuine compassion for him for the first time. Reconciled with his namesake, Ames prepares to die.

After Gilead Robinson published Home in 2008, telling the same story from the Boughtons’ point of view. Then, in 2014, she published Lila, which told the story of Lila’s life prior to the events of Gilead. Now, in 2020, we have Jack, the latest and probably last book in the series.

One central belief of Christianity is that no person can adequately judge another, both because we are all sinners and because our knowledge of someone else is always partial. The novels that followed Gilead broadened the reader’s understanding of the characters introduced in that book. Part of the pleasure of Gilead had been getting so close to Ames we felt his thoughts were our own. But part of the pleasure of the other books is getting to know him through the eyes of his family and friends, so that upon returning to Gilead we’re able to understand aspects of Ames’s personality that even he isn’t aware of. For example, when he says in Gilead that he had almost forgotten about Jack, we know he’s lying. With Lila, too, Robinson deepened our understanding of that character. Ames’s love of her is so clear in Gilead that he refuses to divulge any of the more unseemly aspects of her past. But Lila shows us how precarious her life had at one point been, how truly close to destitution she was before happening upon Ames’s church. We see her find a kind of family among the whores in a brothel, who allow her to earn her bread sweeping up and cooking once they realize she’s too depressed and needy to be any good at sex work. We understand that the same desire for a home that brought her to the brothel also brought her to the church. In Gilead we understood why John loved her, but in Lila we understand why she needed him just as much. These books are not merely additive, they are multiplicative.

In contrast to these earlier books, Jack does not significantly revise the reader’s understanding of its protagonist. Robinson makes no attempt to explain Jack’s behavior through reference to his past. If Jack can be taken to illustrate a theological principle it might be that of The Fall. Jack is bad simply because he is human, and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But the squalid condition of his life is in marked contrast to his intellect, his love of poetry, and his eye for beauty. Robinson has great respect for the human mind, and even at his worst we see that Jack’s inclination towards The Good is not totally extinguished. Robinson is less concerned with adding to the facts of Jack’s outer life than she is with adding to our sense of his inner life, of his soul.

She does this especially through his relationship with Della, Jack’s wife. After a few short scenes, Robinson gives us a sixty-some page conversation between Jack and Della that takes place in a locked cemetery at night. He has been sleeping there, and she wandered in looking for poetic inspiration and lost track of time. Filled with angels and the decaying bodies of the dead, this cemetery is a clear metaphor for heaven, a place where “every debt was to be forgiven.” Jack recalls a favorite Bible verse of his father: “Night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.” In that place, earthly distinctions, even between good and evil, would fall apart. This one-act play in the cemetery is a prefiguration of that heavenly kingdom with neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, Black nor white, and it’s important that it takes place at night, when sight is rendered useless and a mere visual distinction like skin color loses all meaning. “He and Della had been there, in that luminous absence of distinctions, in that radiant night.” It’s certainly true that two lives can change over the course of a night, and Robinson is persuasive in describing how this can happen.

From that night, their fate is sealed: they are to be together, even when apart. Jack tries to avoid her and fails, tries to scare her off and fails. He asks her why she is so loyal to him, and she tells him it’s because “once in a lifetime, maybe, 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.” Christianity at its best encourages these moments of vision, moments when we see someone as God sees them. And through God’s eyes everyone is lovable. After Della sees Jack in this way, Jack’s sins don’t seem to be essential. In a real way, they are not him. That luminous, numinous core of Being called the soul is all she sees. There is a similar moment described in Gilead, when John writes, “If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the extraordinary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?”

Robinson’s project in Jack isn’t to provide exculpatory evidence in the case of Jack v. World. It’s to put the reader inside his head. Robinson understands that it’s very difficult to judge someone once you’ve made this switch, once you’ve seen into their soul from the inside. She understands that the novel is the art form most able to provide access to another person’s interiority, and she uses that privileged access to widen our capacity for empathy, no matter the facts of the case. This is what’s quietly radical about Robinson’s fiction. What if we looked at every homeless person, every addict, every prostitute, every sinner, as a child of God? What if we saw their souls? What would we have to change about our society to properly honor them as the height of God’s creation? Everything. The first would be last and the last would be first. Of course this is just Christian dogma, in the Year of our Lord 2020 certainly a cliché. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Andy Boyd is a playwright based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of the playwriting MFA program at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Arizona School for the Arts. His plays have been produced, developed or presented at IRT, Pipeline Theatre Company, The Gingold Group, Dixon Place, Roundabout Theatre, Epic Theatre Company, Out Loud Theatre, Naked Theatre Company, Contemporary Theatre of Rhode Island and The Trunk Space. Andy is the primary host of the New Books in Performing Arts podcast, and his essays have been published in HowlRound, US History Scene and Canyon Voices. His website is

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