Marilynne Robinson's Model Fathers
I’ve made a point of not crying in public. Perhaps my masculinity is too fragile. Maybe I’ve wrongly associated tears with weakness. Either way, this commitment recently made for an uncomfortable coffee date, as both a friend and I teared up in our local coffee shop. We were discussing fatherhood, and I told her that few people have taught me as much about it as Marilynne Robinson. In fact, I believe the perennial fathers in her Gilead series—John Ames and Robert Boughton—are model fathers. Now, let’s get back to that conversation with my friend.
In the past I’ve written on fatherhood using both Gilead and Home, with a smattering of quotations from Lila too. But speaking to my friend, I paraphrased a few lines from Jack. And it was at that point that both of us were fighting back the tears. Reflecting on that moment, what makes Robinson’s portrayal of fathers so moving is twofold: they are well aware of their own failures and almost unceasingly gracious towards their children in theirs. They are remarkably openhanded, both with their faults and in their readiness to forgive.
Two Fathers from Marilynne Robinson’s Jack
The passage that I brought to my friend’s attention comes fairly early on in Jack. As Della Miles and Jack Boughton compare notes about their childhood and families, a distinct contrast arises between their respective fathers.
Functioning as a “leader in the community” and the pastor of a large church, Della’s “father never had much time to spend at home.” As she remarks, “He always made us show him our homework and our report cards, but he says he has a thousand children to look after, and that’s true.” Though she understands the demands her father shouldered, there are undoubtable notes of rue in her recollections.
These are contrast with Jack, who responds with a brief and delightful story about his own childhood. He says, “One time my father was late to a funeral because Teddy and I had a game that went into extra innings. The widow dressed him down a little, I guess. He told her and anyone who ever reminded him of it that it was an exceptional game. We almost won.”
Of course, you could argue that the primary difference between these two fathers was in their circumstances, the size of their churches and respective roles in their communities. And I’d be partial to such a reading. Especially because Della’s father was also a prominent figure in the separatist movement, while Jack’s pastored a Presbyterian church in small town that time forgot. But we know that you could find a better and worse fathers in both situations. The pastor of a small church can fail his family, just as much as an influential politician or leader can faithfully love his.
However, Della and Jack’s conversation continues over the page. And it is here that I think the contrast between two kinds of fatherhood emerge.
“Thank God He’s Not Alone”
When Della rebukes Jack for calling himself “disreputable,” he responds with typical deference. “I’m looking at the situation the way your father would,” he says. “Loitering at night in a cemetery. Just that one would finish me off. Then there’s all the rest. Actual years of it, I’m afraid. Hardly a day goes by.” So Della asks, “Well, what would your father say if he saw you here in the middle of the night, arm in arm with a coloured gal?”
Jack tells her, confidently, reassured by a lifetime of his own father’s love, “He’d say, Thank God he’s not alone. He’d thank Jesus with his eyes closed. He’s not a man of the world, my father, and he might start fretting about particulars. But that would be his first thought.”
It was as I paraphrased this passage that my friend and I were fighting back the years. What would Jack’s father instinctively feel when seeing his son in this compromising, this “disreputable” situation? Grateful relief. Joy at the knowledge that his son found someone. That he isn’t alone.
“This is My Son, with Him I’m Well Pleased”
Comments like this one shine even brighter in the halo Robinson’s other novels. For example, in Home Jack’s sister Glory tells him that he always knows how to please his father. But Jack replies, “No. I could always count on him to be pleased with me.” A few pages later in the same novel, Jack and his father are discussing whether the old man asked too much of his son. Into this tension Jack’s father exhorts him, “Just take care of yourself. That’s the one thing I ask. Don’t do yourself harm. Don’t neglect the things God has given you for your comfort.”
These two passages from Home accent those in Jack, revealing the heart of a father who takes pleasure in his son, no matter how costly that love. Regardless of the hurt and disappointment. They show us a father who desperately hopes that his child know love. That one day he might enjoy the comfort of belonging, being himself without the fear of being rejected. His father would rejoice before fretting, because almost anything is better than the acute loneliness that seemed to pervade Jack’s entire existence.
“I’ve Prayed His Whole Life”
I think one last section from Home brings much of this post together. Further still, it demonstrates why Marilynne Robinson’s fictional fathers are also model fathers.
After Glory tells their father that Jack seems to have friends in his church back in St Louis. Old Boughton exclaims, “Friends! Well, I suppose he would. That just happens in a church, doesn’t it. He didn’t really have any friends as a boy, though. He never seemed to want them. I’ve prayed his whole life that he’d have a friend or two. It often came to mind, you know, that loneliness of his. And it didn’t really occur to me—it honestly never occurred to me—that off in St. Louis somewhere my prayers were being answered! Isn’t that something!…It would have been a weight off my heart, I’ll tell you that. I could have spared myself years of grief, just by having a little trust. There’s a lesson in that.”