Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The love relationship that grows between Jack and Della is like a love between outcasts.  Jack is already an outcast because of his mis-spent youth and his alcoholism.  Yet he is heroically trying to live a “harmless” life as a poor white man scraping a living at the bottom of his society.  Della on the other hand is a dynamic English teacher who loves her job and family.

This is the fourth novel in a series which includes Gilead, Home and Lila each going back in time to follow the story of a faith-filled community in rural America.  Once again, Robinson creates a lyrical and poignant portrait of a host of characters in her last novel “Jack”.  The crucial difference in this last novel is that the heroine, Della Miles, is black while Jack Boughton is white but not innocent. 

The love relationship that grows between Jack and Della is like a love between outcasts.  Jack is already an outcast because of his mis-spent youth and his alcoholism.  Yet he is heroically trying to live a “harmless” life as a poor white man scraping a living at the bottom of his society.  Della on the other hand is a dynamic English teacher who loves her job and family.  Yet she chooses to let all her comfortable life and position go, in order to love and live with Jack.  At that time in the States, it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry so they have “to marry” themselves and live as outcasts both from the white and black communities. 

This novel can only be read slowly as each section needs pondering.  We can feel the stresses and strains on both Jack and Della.  We are afraid that Jack will crack again.  But he doesn’t.  The family of Della send her aunt Delia to speak with Jack in order to break-up the relationship.  It seems to work for a while, but the pair continue to find their way back to each other no matter what obstacles are put in their way.

It is interesting to note that the anguished conscience of John Boughton, Jack’s father, about the fate of his son’s soul finds it’s counterpoint here.  His father’s faithful but distant love is like a thread linking Jack to all that is good in the world.  The novel recounts the love story of Della and Jack, as two flawed souls escaping from the confines of their similar religious background of black and white. Yet by embracing each other, they incarnate the essential religious teaching of that common background.  God’s provident care does not depend on belief or unbelief, God is always and everywhere benevolent to all both black and white.   In loving Della, Jack may find redemption and escape predestination.  This may have happened long before the family’s anguished consideration of the question in the novel “Home”. 

The love affair proceeds by polite conversations in unusual places and at unusual times.  In this sense the novel is properly “old-style” while managing to speak love and religion in a modern idiom.