Marilynne Robinson’s New Book Explores Love in Segregated America

On a rainy afternoon, when he is half intending to go home to his mother’s funeral, he encounters Della Miles, an English teacher at a Bl...

On a rainy afternoon, when he is half intending to go home to his mother’s funeral, he encounters Della Miles, an English teacher at a Black high school, the highly educated daughter of a distinguished Memphis bishop, and an aspiring poet. She and Jack bond through a mutual interest in poetry; Poe, Frost, Auden, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Shakespeare and especially Milton will come up in the course of their romance. In defiance of maidenly decorum and racial taboos, she asks Jack in for tea.

But their courtship has to be conducted in a Jim Crow city where an interracial couple is a highly visible target. In her Black neighborhood, he is That White Man; in his boardinghouse, she is a conspicuous “colored gal,” and their first date is a humiliating disaster for Jack. Della forgives him, and continues to see him despite his unreliability, drunkenness and poverty, not to mention the horrified opposition of her family. But where can they go? There’s no friendly friar to help these star-crossed lovers, and they first speak freely to each other in a strange dreamlike episode, composing about a fifth of the novel, when they are locked overnight in a cemetery.

It’s a scene out of Shakespearean romance. They wander barefoot among the monuments; she quotes a line from “Hamlet” and he comes right back with the next one. As their conversation grows more serious and intimate, they imagine that in the dark graveyard they have become “ghosts among the ghosts,” spirits free from racial regulations. Della confides that behind her facade as “a perfect Christian lady,” she too is tormented by a rage that “never goes away.” But she does not believe in self-pity, and calls on Jack to take control of his life.

Enamored and inspired, he vows to become a respectable suitor, stop drinking and get a job. In the more lighthearted second half of the novel, he sells shoes in a dusty Dickensian shop, teaches fox trot and mambo to St. Louis matrons like some threadbare Fred Astaire, plays piano for the choir of a Black Baptist church. Redeemed by Della’s love and loyalty, he goes to Memphis to meet her father, who tells him that “Della and any children can come here if they want to, or need to, so long as they come without you.” A follower of the Pan-African separatist Marcus Garvey, Bishop Miles believes that Black Americans must change their circumstances, but that they alone can decide “what form the change will take and how it will be achieved.” He doesn’t believe in interracial marriage, and Della says, “I probably don’t either.” But she also believes that her attraction to Jack’s soul is divinely ordained, “and if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away.”

Loneliness and love, race and grace; the romance of Jack and Della seems hopeful, courageous and moving. But “Jack” also presents a number of problems — to new readers who may not pick up the oblique references to Jack’s troubled youth, and to faithful readers who may find the scrambled time scheme of his relationship with Della frustratingly difficult to follow.

Jack’s redemption and development, his sensitivity and sardonic humor, are most winningly represented in his exchanges with other characters. But he doesn’t have much insight into his own motives, and his self-obsessed ruminations about his doomed “Jackness. Jackitude. Jackicity” also exclude interest in other people. Although he doesn’t have any conscious prejudices or beliefs about race, Jack also hasn’t noticed or thought about it much. Della warns him that if they marry, their children will “be Negroes and they’ll live Negro lives. And you won’t have any effect on that at all”; he says that doesn’t bother him. He has a lot to learn.

It’s easy to see why Jack wants Della, but hard to see why this intellectual, perceptive, charming and secretly angry woman wants him, and risks her family, career and security not only to join but also to save him. Her rapturous embrace of his soul seems premature and worrisome, especially because he has concealed the worst of his past from her. And we know from “Home” how their fairy-tale romance will turn out. What is her back story?

Asked whether she might write another Gilead novel, Robinson has been evasive, although the publisher will not say that “Jack” is the final book. In 1956, when Jack and Della are separated and their lives are seemingly destroyed by racism, they are still relatively young, the civil rights movement is beginning, and there is time for them to change. I am looking forward to a fifth volume that will fill in their saga, and I hope it will be called “Della.

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Newsrust: Marilynne Robinson’s New Book Explores Love in Segregated America
Marilynne Robinson’s New Book Explores Love in Segregated America
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