Culture At Large

Honoring complexity in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

Laura Konyndyk

In her New York Times review of Lila, Diane Johnson commends the book’s author, Marilynne Robinson, for writing about faith. It’s an act she describes as downright “courageous” given the violent and negative associations with religion today.

While Robinson has never been one to shrink from writing about matters of faith, she is hesitant to describe herself as “a religious writer.”

“I don’t like categories like religious and not religious,” said Robinson in a recent interview with The Paris Review. “As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”

Indeed, the narrative voice guiding Lila is both compassionate and perceptive. After reading the book, my understanding of Robinson as a “Christian writer” doesn’t hinge exclusively on what she writes about, but on the way she writes about Lila, the book’s leading lady.

We meet Lila when she is only a toddler, “cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping” on the front stoop of a violent home. The years that follow are not easy: She lives in dank work camps that smell of mice, witnesses Doll (the woman who rescued her from neglect) face the humiliation of prison and takes on some truly spirit-crushing jobs to survive - most notably during her stint in St. Louis, where she works in a brothel.

Indeed, Lila is a character wounded by difficult circumstances. By the time she meets John Ames, the man she eventually marries and the central figure of Robinson’s earlier novel, Gilead, she carries a “dowry” of “dread, loneliness and regret.” Yet Robinson doesn’t let us reduce Lila to a mere symbol of suffering or poverty. Although narrating from a third person point of view, Robinson empathetically invites readers to inhabit Lila’s conflicted consciousness - a space where her memories, musings and questions collide.

My understanding of Robinson as a “Christian writer” doesn’t hinge exclusively on what she writes about.

Lila is a woman who longs to feel loved, but who cannot stand the thought of feeling beholden. She is an outsider well acquainted with drifting and comforted, strangely, by her own loneliness. She is a wife who worries that her newfound life of security will make her forget “the wildness of things.”

Throughout the novel, we are privy to the unpredictable ebb and flow of Lila’s emotions. It’s precisely this experience that makes it impossible for us to regard her through a narrow lens. She is not just a woman with a hard past, “saved” by the security and comfort of more rooted, domestic existence. Lila is constantly struggling to make sense of the new context she finds herself in. The pain she has known since childhood does not disappear inside the warmth of a good, loving marriage. Receiving love is a painful process for Lila. “When you are scalded, touch hurts, even if it is kindly meant,” Robinson writes.

As an author committed to exploring the nuances of the human experience, Robinson is willing to lead us through the ever-changing terrain of Lila’s inner world. In honoring the conflicting thoughts that live there, she pays tribute to the depth and complexity of every human person. I read Lila and am inspired by the many hues of empathy that fill in Robinson’s prose. I’m also left wondering: how might Christians do a better job of honoring that complexity? What do we have to gain by paying closer attention to the nuances and subtleties of each personality we encounter? Might that kind of empathy be one essential way for us to follow Christ?

“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors,” writes Frederick Buechner. “With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”

What kind of complexity lives “behind and within” the faces of the people I meet? And, when layers of that complexity are revealed to me, how will I respond? Will it be with sensitivity, patience and empathy?

Perhaps it’s simply important for us to remember that each created being has a nuanced interior life and that there is more, much more, to the people around us than meets the eye. Maybe that truth will prompt us to extend more understanding and kindness to one another - shaping our interactions little by little, so that they echo the gracious and empathetic sprit of Robinson’s beautiful prose.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books