No Country for Old Prodigals

The Parable of Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Jack.

Larry Parsley / 3.1.21

Jack Boughton, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s fourth Gilead novel, Jack, could teach the Prodigal Son a thing or two. He gets his start early in life, a preacher’s kid deeply embarrassing his Presbyterian father. His mastery of the art of disappointment accelerates through young adulthood, when Jack begins breaking commandments with a kind of perverse virtuosity.

Impregnating and then abandoning a hometown girlfriend? Check. Dishonoring his mother by not returning to visit her deathbed or to attend her funeral? Check. Throw in drunkenness and thievery, a prison stint, and a seeming inability to keep any kind of commitment, and Jack presents a pretty dead-on impression of the famous boy of Jesus’ parable who journeys to the “far country” and “wastes his substance with riotous living” (Lk 15:13 KJV).

Whether or not Jack can be born again is a subject upon which Jack spends no small amount of time ruminating. Jack says that his father “saw signs of reprobation in me, hard as he tried not to.” But the opening sentences of the novel make clear that something has been born anew in Jack — his love for “a young Black lady in a lavender coat” — a fellow preacher’s kid named Della Miles. Reading this novel in the wake of the summer of 2020, the blatant racial injustice that Della lives through in 1950s St. Louis feels especially oppressive to me, almost like a dystopian novel. That their love blossoms into what Jack and Della call “marriage,” even though the corrupt laws of the day (not to mention Della’s family) forbid it, seems at times inconceivable, at times miraculous.

Jack, then, is an aging prodigal in a star-crossed relationship. Yet as much as Jack tries to portray himself as beyond hope (in a cemetery, he tells Della that “we lost souls have to wander till the cock crows, nothing to be done”), Della’s love for Jack refuses to let him stay lost. She tells him, “Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you.”

Yes, you heard that right: Apparently, God predestined Della to love a reprobate. And when Jack leads a pregnant Della away from her enraged family to board a bus with him to start a new life together, Jack considers this “his grandest larceny by far.”

Still, in the closing sentences, Jack is not sure whether to see himself as a thief or a co-conspirator in a sweet and loyal marriage that “restored them both, just like grace.” It turns out that for Prodigal Jack, there is no country far enough to escape the surprise of grace.

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