Language of Consequence: Adverbs and Marilynne Robinson

Finding Significance in the Insignificant

This post comes to us from Christine Havens:

Where do you think adverbs might place themselves in a hierarchy of words? Is there even a such a thing? Given the brawls about the value of the Oxford comma, it’s not a stretch to imagine such a construct within language.

However, I am not certain about what would top the pyramid. Nouns? Adam’s first recorded action in the book of Genesis is to give names to “all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field.” To label a thing is to exercise power over it.

Or is it verbs that should get top spot? Scientist Buckminster Fuller’s 1940 assertion that “God is a verb, the most active,” in combination with the fact that it is God’s actions that begin the book of Genesis, makes a good case for their position as lords of language.

Whether you feel nouns or verbs sit in the seat of power, I imagine few would place adverbs there, perhaps due to Stephen King’s well-known admonition: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” He compares them to dandelions — weeds, of no consequence for storytelling. In the past, I agreed; thinking only of the overabundance of “-ly” words in my English Comp students’ papers. They can be crutches. I avoid them assiduously.

The real questions is: Why am I wondering about adverbs and hierarchies?

Of late, I’ve been suffering from what I like to call the “Sons of Thunder Syndrome.” Boanerges, Greek for “Sons of Thunder,” is the epithet that Jesus gives to James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mk 3:17). They are certain that the twelve are a hierarchy and are certain of their desired status within it. They interrupt Jesus even as he’s relating to the group the events to come: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). What is Jesus’ response but to remind his disciples that they are not to be glory-hounds?

This syndrome ensnares me when my desire to do God’s work in the world becomes wrapped up in a desire for my own glory. Accolades and opportunities are given to those who are deemed influencers, so who doesn’t want to be near the top, to be seen, adored, in demand, visibly effecting change in the world? Current culture almost demands it.

This is where Marilynne Robinson’s adept use of adverbs, especially in her latest novel, Jack, redeem me, recall me to myself, I hope. Because the shadow side of the Sons of Thunder Syndrome is to feel that one does not matter, has no impact, no meaning to the beloved or within a family or a community. Is merely ordinary.

Jack is the fourth in Robinson’s Gilead quartet. Jack Boughton is the axis around which the each of the other novels, Gilead, Home, Lila, revolve. Jack is well aware that he is the prodigal son, and in this part of the saga, long untold, he feels himself of no consequence. He wishes to serve Della, the woman he loves, and his family, by being as harmless as possible.

While I won’t claim that adverbs are the best words (that hyperbole belongs to advocates of adjectives), in the hands of someone like Robinson, who uses them in Jack and the rest of the Gilead quartet to great effect, they’ve become more beloved to me. Not so much the “-ly” ones, but the often unobtrusive ones — “just,” “so,” “why,” “next.” Adverbs so very rooted in the already/not yet, doing their work in quiet ways by invoking the relational — time, cause, place, circumstance, manner, degree. In essence, they give depth and breadth to action. They nuance a character’s journey, helping readers to see beyond themselves. They allow us to ask questions: why, how, when, who?

In a striking example from Jack, Jack is contemplating the import of Della’s actions in leaving a book for him as he dozed on a bench in a park. Della is a young black woman and Jack is an older, destitute white man, and they live in post-WWII St. Louis. No relationship should be possible, and yet: “What should happen next? Next. This was the language of consequence, lovely to him in this particular moment, because it meant there was an actual thread of connection between them” (122).

Never doubt that Robinson’s word choices are deliberate, even down to adverbs. In her essay “The Brain is Larger than the Sea,” found in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process (Penguin, 2017), she is contemplating Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky —.” In it, Robinson discerns a theology of language and creativity, observing that “In the beginning was the word” suggests that “our language is somehow akin to God’s own creative power.” She then applies that connection to her own experience as a writer, deepening her relationship to words, and thus to other humans made in the image of God.

Robinson shows how adverbs have value despite their widespread derision. Their smallness is perhaps the source of their profundity.

“In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people,” Robinson says. Jack is one of those works for me because I can recognize myself “on the order of a single word,” such as “next.” Mostly for the better, I am like an adverb. Relational in my own right, hoping to support the incarnational and transcendent in the world, trying to not worry about being thunderous. Jack and Robinson, theologian of the ordinary, remind me that there is no hierarchy when it comes to God’s love — noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc. — all are part of God’s language of consequence.


Image via the Atlantic.