Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

A Response to Addie Bundren: Restoring Generosity to the Language of Civil Discourse in Marilynne Robinson's Lila

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

A Response to Addie Bundren: Restoring Generosity to the Language of Civil Discourse in Marilynne Robinson's Lila

Article excerpt

One reviewer was blunt: "[Marilynne] Robinson's conversation partners are mostly dead" (Cep). Although she has published three novels in this century, critics and reviewers treat Robinson as though she were late to a nineteenth-century party. She occasionally draws twentieth-century comparisons, but those focus almost exclusively on religious resonances; Susan Petit links Robinson to Flannery O'Connor because of what Andrew Stout calls Robinson's "sacramental imagination," which, he notes, "is often viewed as the exclusive province of the Catholic mind" (572). But comparisons to nineteenth-century writers and Christian twentieth-century ones too easily remove Robinson from the contemporary culture, both religious and secular, that concerns her. She does not evoke older forms in order to name herself heir to the American literary tradition, or even to suggest literary influence. Instead, she does so to offer a model for the relationship between past and present literature, unearthing the former's potential to demand from the latter greater imaginative freedom.

In engaging her literary predecessors, Robinson performs the dialectic that she claims is missing in contemporary public discourse, an absence that has political ramifications. As she told Barack Obama, "the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people" (Obama), yet as she laments elsewhere, "the language of public life has lost the character of generosity" (When I Was a Child xiv). In her 2014 novel, Lila, Robinson gives form to generous character, setting Lila against the dominant mode of contemporary discourse, "cynicism that is supposed to be rigor" (When I Was a Child xv). If Lila is to speak to current discussions, however, Robinson cannot simply place her in a world of the author's own making. Public discourse grapples with precedent, and Robinson pleads no exception to that rule. She draws on literary, rather than legal, precedent in setting her novel in a context drawn from William Faulkner's 1930 novel, As I Lay Dying, since it is in modernism that she identifies the seeds of contemporary cynicism. The miserable conditions of Faulkner's setting and the selfish and despairing behavior of the characters in it provide a fruitful landscape for Robinson's project. Though Lila is not a mouthpiece for political propaganda, she is a test of Robinson's ability to create a generous character in brutal soil. Through a literary conversation with a modernist novel Robinson removes arguments over democracy from the current "media-saturated" culture ("A Conversation"), but Lila Dahl's rebuttal to Faulkner's Addie Bundren is framed for a modern readership.

Addie follows her father's lead in conducting her life as though "the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time" (As I Lay Dying 169). Lila shares Addie's inclination to seek meaning at the limits of life, but Lila lingers at gravesites and wonders about unborn children in order to better invest, imaginatively and sympathetically, in life. Her fledgling religious convictions enable her to conceive of an afterlife in which she could converse with the dead and the unborn; such imagined interactions foster a sympathetic impulse that is carried into her relationships with the living. Much as Lila cultivates generosity through her dealings with the dead, Robinson demonstrates the social and political benefits of literary conversation. She extends sympathy to one of Faulkner's most challenging characters while contesting the nihilism that Faulkner's character suggests is the consequence of an impoverished life. By building a novel on Faulkner's land, Robinson obliges herself to grapple with the concerns of an earlier era, but in shaping a character who fights for magnanimity, Robinson offers a gift to the contemporary world: a new legacy of the modernism she finds too dire.

Feeling the Effects of the Modernist Imagination

Critics have made much of the connection between Robinson and Emily Dickinson, following Robinson's lead as she repeatedly traces her literary inheritance back to Dickinson in interviews and essays. …

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