Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Loyalty Meets Prodigality: The Reality of Grace in Marilynne Robinson's Fiction

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Loyalty Meets Prodigality: The Reality of Grace in Marilynne Robinson's Fiction

Article excerpt

There is something about certainty that makes Christianity un-Christian.... I have cultivated uncertainty, which I consider a form of reverence.

--Marilynne Robinson, "Credo"

Marilynne Robinson's novels offer seasoned contemporary explorations of the mysteries of scripture, by means of characters who embody nuanced variations on biblical roles. Such characters deepen our appreciation of the mystery of grace as they exhibit striking dimensions of loyalty as well as prodigality. Robinson's fiction uncovers the inner workings of mind and spirit with convincing displays of religious thinking and struggle, veiled hypocrisy, individual dignity, courtesy, sympathy, and grace.

The essay "Family" from Robinson's The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998) equates love with loyalty, declaring loyalty to be not only "the antidote to fear, distrust, [and] self-interest" but also "[t]he balm for failure or weakness" (89). In the absence of loyalty, "all attempts to prop the family economically or morally or through education or otherwise will fail. The real issue is, will people shelter and nourish and humanize one another? This is creative work, requiring discipline and imagination" (89). Robinson's novelistic endeavors take up this challenge. Here we focus on her creation of modern versions of Ruth and the Prodigal Son, whose stories compel readers to contemplate the realities of loyalty, prodigality, and grace through a lens of reverent uncertainty.

Robinson's now-classic Housekeeping (1980) eludes categorization, though a typical literary source claims that the novel "represents a feminist revision of patriarchal traditions ... that suggests that freedom can be found through nonconformity and transience" (Witalec). The first line, "My name is Ruth" (3), invites comparison to the Bible's Book of Ruth, about a non-Hebrew widow who, rather than returning to her own people after the death of her husband, chooses to remain with Naomi, her Hebrew mother-in-law. The story has key uncertainties: whether Ruth had a caring family to return to, a rationale for her loyalty to Naomi, whether she had any attraction to the propertied older man she marries at Naomi's behest, bearing a son to carry on her deceased husband's name. Robinson's narrative is far more detailed, exploring depths of female loyalty in response to loss by death as well as abandonment. Ruth Foster, who narrates Housekeeping, is unmarried with a multi-layered history of traumatic family deaths and separations, bonds broken and unbroken. She chooses to follow a wandering aunt who belongs to a nameless tribe of transients who stand for all descendants of Cain. The loneliness and isolation this novel depicts has a prodigality of its own.

Ruth and her sister Lucille were orphaned when their mother, Helen, drove off a cliff into the deep waters of Lake Fingerbone in the American Northwest (1) that had earlier claimed their grandfather. They were raised by their widowed grandmother, Sylvia, until her death, then briefly by Sylvia's two elderly sisters-in-law, who advertised to locate the girls' married aunt, Sylvie Fisher. When Sylvie returns, husbandless, to take care of her nieces, she has spent years as a transient and seems drawn back from her vagabond life not by preference but by family loyalty. Keeping house does not come easily to Sylvie, but she assures Ruth and Lucille that she will not abandon them.

Uncertainty reigns nevertheless. Sylvie occasionally disappears into the uninhabited woods across the lake, where she feels the spirits of lost children; she keeps time solely by train schedules and serves the girls haphazard dinners in the dark. Exasperated with Sylvie's erratic care, Lucille moves in with her home economics teacher, determined to fit in at school and make new friends. The bereft Ruth, who dislikes school and lacks a strong sense of self, stays with Sylvie and adopts her habits--evidently not out of enjoyment or a desire for freedom but out of fealty and compassion. …

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