Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and the Difficult Gift of Human Exchange (Critical Essay)
Christianity and Literature 2010, Wntr, 59, 2
Michael Vander Weele
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To be sure, there's plenty of irony in Marilynne Robinson's second novel. The narrator, an aging minister, needs his prodigal godson to help him come to peace with his impending death. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach contributes an important platform for the minister's understanding of blessing. The blessed confer blessing upon those who bless them. And so forth. So it's not a lack of irony, exactly, that surprises Robinson's reader. Still, the reader recognizes at once Robinson's difference from fellow Christian authors Flannery O'Connor and Muriel Spark, whose ironic stance toward their characters communicates, as O'Connor put it, how abnormal our normal state of affairs really is. (This stance and this goal are more clearly evident in Robinson's essays, as beautifully wrought as her fiction, but regularly revisionist and sometimes caustic.) Where O'Connor and Spark trigger our recognition of what is lacking in our so-called normal lives, Robinson's fiction shows us the other side of such recognition: effort. Robinson shows her characters' committed, fallible efforts to sustain the difficult gift of human exchange. The seriousness of Robinson's commitment to showing this effort is what's so surprising in Gilead, page after page after page. Language and Form of Life