The Duty of a Daughter

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

My mother hates baking as much as it is possible for a woman raised in the rural Midwest during the ‘60s to hate it, but I still remember the pumpkin pie she made my grandfather the Thanksgiving after my grandmother passed away. My grandfather had lugged a pumpkin from his garden in Ohio to our home states away in Maryland, not wanting to be alone in celebrating this first Thanksgiving without his wife. My mother cursed under her breath as she struggled to shred the sizeable pumpkin, sweated and swore again while making up the custard. In his grief, my grandfather could not have noticed my mother’s frustration-and it was something of a relief, having him sit down at our table and utter, as though nothing had changed, a curmudgeonly complaint about the texture of the pie.

Marilynne Robinson’s Home, a kind of sequel to 2004’s epistolary Gilead, is the first contemporary novel I have encountered that seeks in good faith to commemorate the generous spirit of the mother and her domestic work. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and perhaps even the works of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, highlight the pathos of her position, the haplessness of her husband, the thanklessness of her children, her own frustration. The housewives of these novels do not choose domestic work, but are subjected to it. In choosing to bake the pie, however, my mother elected to forgive my grandfather for ignoring her efforts, and to absolve my grandmother for tolerating his indifference.

Home takes place in Gilead, Iowa, a small rural town where ailing Congregationalist minister John Ames, the protagonist of 2004’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, wrote his young son’s begats. This time the narrative is in the third person, a new stylistic choice for Robinson, and from the point of view of Glory Boughton, the daughter of John Ames’s best friend and colleague Reverend Robert Boughton. She has returned home, shamed by a failed engagement, to take care of her dying father while Jack, the family’s wayward son, also returns home after years of causing trouble elsewhere.

Jack’s father has spent years praying for Jack’s return, both to the home where he was raised, and in a larger sense, to the faith. Jack’s privileged position in his father’s heart stems directly from his very prodigality. Glory’s attempts not to resent her father for his favoring of Jack exhibit precisely the kind of generosity that many contemporary novels fail to evoke in their portrayals of domestic life. Despite having “seemed always to have known that, to their father’s mind, the world’s great work was the business of men, of gentle, serious men well versed in Scripture and eloquent at prayer…,” Glory continues to steadfastly tend, feed, clothe, read to, and at times bathe her ailing father.

Even though many of Robinson’s readers who’ve read Gilead will already know much of what transpires in Home, the novel manages to convey a sense of spiritual and moral suspense. Jack’s search for redemption, presented in Gilead as perhaps a spurious one, here is urgent and devastating. Jack is to the rest of his family what God has been to him all of his life: elusive, inaccessible, and mysteriously absent. Jack cannot understand his inability to find solace in God when the rest of his family inhabits their faith as “easily as they breathe.” Boughton Sr. cannot comprehend why one of his children, raised in his own house and with his own hands, should not want the life he has been given.

This points to a theological dilemma also raised in Gilead: Jack wonders whether some people are just born “depraved.” Jack tells Glory at one point that the soul is whatever about ourselves we can never change. If the soul is whatever about ourselves we can never change, however, then “soul” might simply be another word for “inheritance”–and Glory comes into a world where, again, “great work was the business of men.” Home suggests that we might come to live with our inheritances by dwelling in them. Glory remains at home to honor her family’s life. And, only in honoring the acts of forgiveness granted by women like Glory, like Jack’s wife, like my mother and my grandmother, can we grasp the real sum of the offenses against them.

Gilead celebrates a nineteenth century American Protestant tradition; readers who have encountered, for example, Congregationalist minister Austin Phelps’ deathbed letters to his son will recognize Gilead‘s style–but Home reads in what seems a new key altogether. It pays homage to the domestic novels of nineteenth century American women writers, like Sarah Orne Jewett’s sentimental The Country of Pointed Firs, but at the same time exposes the reasons these novels weren’t better. In her preface to her father’s biography, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps writes, “The writer of this memorial has not thought it necessary to call attention to defects in the character which she has sought to portray. Whatever such existed, it has not seemed to her the duty of a daughter to seek for them….” Home gives Glory credit for doing exactly what Elizabeth Phelps did in compiling her father’s memoirs: she is aware of her father’s insufficiencies, but forgives them. The narrative also, however, does not hesitate to blame Glory for permitting her father and brothers to neglect her. Glory finds joy in soothing her ill father and drunken brother, joy in baking pies and cleaning her family’s home–but we also see her disappointment and dissatisfaction. If, as Jack says, the soul is whatever about ourselves we can never change, then to love another person’s soul is to acknowledge their faults. This is a radical conception of forgiveness, one that Glory, who sees through both her father and Jack, understands.

We come to excuse Jack for his carelessness, and we learn to pardon Boughton for his thanklessness and partiality, because the story leads us to forgive Glory for allowing them. Daughters like me come to understand life with their fathers and grandfathers when they perceive both the grace and grief in their mothers’ work. In “A Great Amnesia,” a recent essay published in Harper’s, Robinson writes, “Those who are ignorant of history deprive themselves of the hope that they might learn from what is best in it.” Perhaps, then, Home also tells us that our awareness of what hopeful things have transpired in the past can awaken us to the gravity of its sorrow and so motivate us to work to change it. Once we know all people to be the sum of their inherited pasts and their decisions, and once, as Glory says, we can accept our “great sorrow or guilt as absolute,” we might learn forgiveness ourselves, the closest thing to grace, as John Ames says, that we as humans can understand in this life.

Rachel Easterly studies literature and religion at New York University.