"An Interesting Planet": Quotidian Detail in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
In my Book Talk posts, I discuss a work of literature (old or new) through the lens of particular style choices.
Marilynne Robinson is a great observer of the ordinary. This was obvious in her first novel, Housekeeping, and it is even more evident in her second. Gilead is slow and quiet and calm, narrated by a man with a profound appreciation for quotidian life and an eye for finding the sacred within the secular—traits I imagine Robinson herself possesses in equal measure. Though Gilead lacks some of the more ornate language and metaphors found in Housekeeping, it is nonetheless poetic in its own mild way. Via her narrator, Robinson infuses mundane objects, places, and memories with meaning and sacredness merely through the gift of paying them attention.
One of the common realms to which the narrator turns his eye is the natural world. John Ames notices the willows “straggling their tresses in the water,” the overlooked grandeur of dust and grasshoppers, the way trees sound and smell differently in the dark. He is struck by the way light falls on a particular afternoon: “There was the feeling of a weight of light—pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little, as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap.” The angle and intensity of light is something most people would not pause to consider, if they noticed it at all. But John Ames is the kind of man with both the time and the patience to see the small things that evoke the mood of a place or moment. To him, beauty is important simply because it is beautiful. Calling attention to details such as these sets the pacing of the novel. They slow us down as readers, force us to ponder too the particular qualities of light or darkness or a child’s hair.
John Ames also finds reason for reflection in the small motions of humans, the quirks of personality, and the paradoxes of the soul. These observations clue us in to the kind of man John is and in turn influence the tone for the novel: one of optimism and grace. John Ames chooses to see the goodness in moments that could easily be painted differently. The following is just one such example:
I can’t really tell what’s beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They’re not church-going, either one of them, just decent, rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped up against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. . .They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me.
This is a different way of looking, of seeing, one that does not come naturally on most days for most people. There is a layer of interpretation added to this simple scene which helps the reader see as the narrator does. Of the million different things John Ames could have observed, it is telling that these are the ones he relates.
One of the ways Robinson creates feeling and meaning in these observations is through repetition. Certain moments in the life of the narrator are referred to again and again, until they take on the properties, as John Ames himself says, of a vision: “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time.”
I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing “The Old Rugged Cross” while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. . . It was so joyful and sad.
This memory is a recurring motif throughout the novel, and it seems to take on more weight each time it is mentioned. The moment itself is very simple—a father handing his son a biscuit in the rain—and seemingly inconsequential. But it is presented very viscerally, with attention to all five senses: the dripping water and rising steam, the humble singing, the taste of the ashy biscuit, the warm air. Great attention is given to this moment; it is described many times from slightly different angles. This is how it comes to symbolize something far more than a meal in the rain, as Robinson of course intends it to. We also see the repetition of certain objects and images in more of a passing reference. The son’s red shirt. Lila’s blue dress. The silence of the pre-dawn sanctuary. The narrator’s attention to these everyday things tells us that he views them with reverence, and encourages us to see them that way too.
The marvelous thing is that in order for John Ames the character to make the kind of profound, careful observations that he does, Marilynne Robinson the author had to make them first, and more so. Perhaps this is an obvious statement, but I find it remarkable nonetheless. Writers are first and foremost seers, observers. We must view everything with the precision of a microscope and the distance of a god. I admire Robinson’s ability to do both these things. After all, as John Ames says, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”