Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Listening to Robinson's Home

I've been listening to Marilynne Robinson's Home in the car recently. (I generally have two audio books going at a time, a CD in the car and a casette for bedtime. The other right now is Sandra Cisneros reading her own Caramelo which is just great so far. I love the way Cisneros uses language.)

I'm about two thirds of the way through Home and I'm of two minds about it. It's really well written in a lot of ways. It's interesting, and I want to keep listening, mostly. But the reader is a little irritating in the way she does the father's voice. Or maybe I'm just irritated with the father.

The NPR site has a bit on an interview with Robinson from way back in 2008, in which she talks about the novel as a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable from Luke.
Robinson says she chose the parable of the prodigal son as the central theme of the novel because it is so powerful. She sees it as story about love.

"It's about the fact that love is not earned," she says. "[It] is one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life." [Source at NPR]
I think there's a lot in that quotation that piques my irritation.

In the novel, Robert Boughton, an ailing, aging, retired preacher, awaits his son Jack's return, and then deals with their interactions; the story is told through a third person narrator with the eyes of Glory, one of Boughton's daughters who has returned home to care for her aging father. From Glory's point of view, Jack has always been a much admired big brother who was also always a trouble-maker. He's been gone from home, where he never felt he fit in, for 20 years, and now has returned for a visit of some length, while he tries to figure out his relationship with a woman in St. Louis.

I think I find Boughton irritating because he seems to think his kids, specifically Jack (but let's not ignore Glory's contribution) owe him a whole lot of subordinate obedience, specifically with respect for Christianity. There's a really interesting scene where Jack and his younger (and much approved) brother Ted talk about Jack's desire to tell their father something that will please him, that he has faith in a Christian God. But he doesn't really, so Jack feels he'd be lying on a deep level.

There's also a really fine undercurrent in the text about race issues in the late 50s or 60s. Jack's been in St. Louis; there are hints (so far, I haven't finished) that lead me to think that the relationship Jack's trying to figure out is with an African American woman. At any rate, he consistently thinks about race issues and tries to reconcile his father's and Ames's (his father's old friend) racism with their Christianity. He clearly has read and thought about religious issues more deeply than his father.

I think those two aspects of Jack's character are what make me find him appealing; he's thought deeply about whether he believes in Christianity and he's thought about how wrong racism is. So while he's an alcoholic and detached from his family, I find myself thinking I'd much rather meet and chat with him than with Boughton (even when he was younger and less self-centered.)

So, with the Prodigal Son story from Luke, the son is basically a wastrel and takes a chunk of his father's wealth and wastes it, then comes home to be welcomed with a party. Robinson says she sees the important thing as love not being earned.

Here's the problem. Children shouldn't HAVE to earn their parents' love. Parents have no right to expect their children to be permanently subordinate and obedient, especially about matters of ethics. That's not an equal relationship; ONE side of the relationship made a choice and the other had no choice. (I'm not trying to say that children should be horrible to their parents, of course, but trying to make the point that parents don't own their children the way Boughton seems to think he has a right to Jack.)

Boughton's self-righteous, selfish, self-centered attitude is really irritating me.

I can't decide if that means this is a really great novel or not.


  1. My fundamentalist students do seem to think they owe everything to their parents, who (in return) owe nothing to them. It's the God-subject relationship writ small. As creations, humans owe everything to God, who owes nothing to humans. See Job for what has always to me seemed a non-explanation.

    Anyway, returning to the parent/child relationship question, it's a huge problem whenever we try to discuss parents & children in literature classes, since we don't start from the same zero world. In theirs, parents do own children; and children have no right at all to question parents, or ever disobey any request or demand made by a parent. (Try teaching Kafka with students with that worldview.)

  2. Hmmm. I haven't read Home yet -- it's on my shelf -- but loved Gilead, in which this story was a minor piece. It's so interesting about the complexities of place and generation and connection.