Home/Gracy Olmstead/Defending “Lila”

Defending “Lila”

"Lila" by Marilynne Robinson. (FSG/FSG)

Does Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel preach a gospel of “Eternal Glory for us all”? Linda McCullough Moore thinks so—she writes in a Books & Culture review that the God portrayed in Lila “just wants us all to be happy, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.” She continues,

When Lila is troubled by teachings in the Bible she’s begun to study, she is told, “If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine … then your Doll … is safe, and warm, and happy.” …This juxtaposed with the misguided notion of the final judgment, poor souls “having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place.” The sovereignty of God does not serve him well when met with Lila’s lament that those who saved her life are not God’s elect. Surely “there are stragglers, people somebody couldn’t bear to be without, no matter what they’d been up to in this life.” So, off to heaven then. “It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights.” …In the end we all will be seen to have done the best we could and welcomed into Glory—presumably whether we like it or not. After all, we’re all just good people, some dealt hands that make the living of a life a challenge, and if we sinned, well, death dispenses with all that. … Lila’s favorite book in the Bible is Ezekiel, written by the same prophet who says God will separate the sheep from the sheep, a far finer distinction even than the sheep from the goats. But Robinson is having none of it. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

It’s always difficult (if not impossible) to be certain where the author is asserting her own voice in a novel, or whether a character is speaking their own opinions. This is especially difficult, actually, when we’re working with a novelist as talented as Robinson, who knows that most fiction should show, not tell—slowly unfolding the story through the thoughts and actions of characters, without falling into a preachy narrative style.

But I’m fairly certain Moore is equating Lila’s statements with Robinson’s beliefs—which hardly seems right, since Lila lies, contradicts herself, and changes her mind constantly throughout the novel. Her views and opinions are being sculpted and transformed throughout the novel, as she changes and grows as a character. Because the novel is told in her voice, it’s easy to assume that her word is the author’s word, her opinions Robinson’s opinions. But I do not think this is correct.

Everything in Lila is integrally focused on a passage from Ezekiel 16—

“And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field.”

Lila believes this passage speaks to her relationship with Doll, who rescued her from a lonely and abusive childhood when she was very young. And this could be, at least to some extent. But really, on a deeper level, this passage speaks to her discovery by, and marriage to, John Ames. He’s the one who chooses her, rescues her, and makes her his bride. He’s the one who overlooks her scars and shames, and gives her a new life.

What about Doll? I think she best typifies our life under law: she teaches Lila a life of work and striving—it’s a good and noble life, but it’s a hard one, and ultimately, it cannot save Lila from despair. Galatians speaks of the law as our “guardian” until the coming of Christ and redemption. The law was never a bad thing, remember, but it carried a shadow of death with it—just as Doll carries that knife, and Lila carries it after her. Both are burdened by the guilt it inflicts, the irreversible shadow it casts.

Much of Lila focuses upon the symbolism of this knife—and the counter-symbol presented by the locket Lila receives from her husband, John Ames. The knife: a picture of death, of a life of work and striving that Lila previously had. The locket: a picture of new life, a picture of grace. The knife is something that Lila inherits, and carries about with her like a burden. It’s a symbol of death, yet notice that Lila feels inextricably bound to it. She tells her unborn son at one point, “That knife is all I have to give you.”

The locket is grace: a gift Lila receives, something she owns but doesn’t deserve. It’s given to her upon the moment of her baptism and promise to marry Ames, and it’s bestowed on her unconditionally—Ames tells Lila she can take it with her, even if she leaves him.

This, I think, is the primary story about God and redemption being told by Robinson. And it seems to align with her Calvinist theology.

What about the passages in which Lila struggles with the concept of hell, the parts where Ames struggles to describe to her the eternal punishment of the damned?

Two thoughts here. First, many of the quotes pulled from the Books & Culture review are Lila’s internal thought processes, as she grapples with the fear that many of those she once knew and loved will not be saved. Thus, these thoughts are not declarative truth statements being made by Robinson. They are all in the voice of Lila, who, as she reads Scripture, wrestles mightily with these questions. They aren’t meant as Robinson’s Gospel: they’re Lila’s still-being-formed-and-sanctified conceptions of the Gospel.

Second: Robinson here is writing to people from Lila’s world, and that is one of the reasons I appreciate this novel so deeply. Gilead was a lofty, lovely book, full of the wizened thoughts of a preacher. In it, Ames struggles with conceptions of grace and redemption, but he does so from a position of wisdom and maturity. Lila presents something different: a soul-grappling that is very raw, intimate, and personal. Moore, in her review, quotes a particular passage by Ames, in which he says, “If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine … then your Doll … is safe, and warm, and happy.” It may sound heretical or evil to some, but really, I think it’s a deeply important statement. Ames is noting that we are fallible humans, and God is mysterious. We do not know the heart of man, nor do we know the plan of God in its entirety. Salvation and redemption are not ours to give, nor are they ours to judge. And so Ames offers this truth to Lila—that God is good, more gracious and loving than the human mind can ever conceive or imagine. And he invites her to rest in that truth, using words that she will understand. Perhaps he goes too far in offering Lila comfort, by assuring her that Doll is surely “safe, warm, and happy.” But note, too, that this isn’t a passive, dreamy statement that Ames is making. He tells Lila that he prays for Doll, every day.

There are many people for whom “you’re going to hell” is a useless statement. As Lila notes herself, she’s heard the fire-and-brimstone sermons. Fire and brimstone do not negate the love that we feel toward our fellow creatures, the ache we feel at their potential loss. That is sorrow, deep and agonizing sorrow. Lila feels it, and John recognizes it. He wants her to know that her sorrow is not ignored or overlooked.

Many of us have also felt this sorrow—we grapple with it on a daily basis. This novel is a testament to that yearning and aching, that struggle with the existence of heaven and hell. Robinson doesn’t deliver trite phrases or black-and-white judgments here. She tells a story: the story of a woman who struggles between truth and falsehood, grace and striving, hope and despair. This story, with all its complexities and contradictions, can teach us much about grace.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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