“The transient vigor of a man”: Home and Homelessness in Marilynne Robinson’s Home

By Dr Ben Screech

Give me a home where the Buffalo roam

Where the Deer and the Antelope play;

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,

And the sky is not cloudy all day.

Brewster Higley’s folk song “Home on the Range” (1876), celebrates the freedom of a “home” in an idyllically imagined version of the American west. A decade before Higley’s composition, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn expressed a similar attraction to a home in the west, (still undivided “territory” in this period), albeit for different reasons: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt me and civilise me, and I can’t stand it” (220). Huck’s proclamation in the conclusion of Huckleberry Finn of his intention to “light out”, escaping the “civilising” influences of the small town, can be compared to Marilynne Robinson’s handling of similar themes in her 2008 novel Home. The novel reflects, to cite Sally Bayley’s seminal Home on the Horizon, ‘the process of American self-imagining and geographical emergence’ (2010, p.5). The notion of home is, in many ways as troubling as that of homelessness in American fiction and, with this in mind, this article aims to show how such conceptions of “home” and “homelessness” are deeply entangled in the narrative and historical imagination of Robinson’s Home.

Home is the companion book to Robinson’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, the second book of the Boughton quartet. In Home, Jack, the son of an Iowa preacher, returns to his family home following a long absence. The novel traces Jack’s progress from a lengthy period of homelessness on the streets of St Louis to his “prodigal” return to the town of Gilead, Iowa, where he attempts to make amends with his family and confront his past, future and faith, following the disgrace from which he previously fled – his abandonment of an illegitimate child and subsequent alcoholism. In the novel Robinson interrogates the ideals upon which middle-America is founded; to what extent do family, home and community matter? Can those who abandon such principles still be considered fundamentally “good” people, or is middle-American virtue bound up with a form of domesticity that can only be achieved within the confines of the home? Moreover, is there something in the idea of “home” that is fundamentally un-American, that works in opposition to a culture which has traditionally advertised, as its primary aim, the idea of “manifest destiny”, suggesting that the destiny of Americans is inherently one of rootlessness or homelessness?

Photograph by Josh Lehman on Unsplash
[photograph depicts a winding road through the Idaho landscape]

Ever since the availability of land to the west of the Mississippi river was opened up by the Louisiana Purchase, the advice given to young Americans wishing to make their way in the world has been to “go west!”. There is a characteristic tension in American culture, in which domesticity and wilderness are essentially pitted against each other. For theorists of Mobility Studies, ‘geographical movement is always invested with social meaning’ (Elliot and Norum et al, 2017, p.6), and in the United States, such a ‘meaning’ has traditionally been expressed as a division between the sedentary “civilisation” of the east, (characterised by the “old” cities of New York and Boston), and the nomadic, untamed “wild”  west. We can also observe a trend in the literature of this period of the abandonment of women by men – women symbolising the domesticity of the home, and the west, a masculine world characterised by hard labour, gambling and liquor. For example, in Washington Irving’s story, Rip Van Winkle, the protagonist leaves his house each afternoon to hike into the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains, as respite from a “termagant wife” (52). In Huckleberry Finn, as previously mentioned, Huck flees the home of Aunt Sally, in part due to his anxiety that she will attempt to “civilise” him. We are presented with a similar situation in Home. Following his fall from grace, Jack leaves home for the “wilderness”, not of the open prairie, but instead the city of St Louis, replete with crime and corruption, and Jack’s movement functions in the novel as the antithesis of Boughton’s austere religious household in Gilead. Home is set almost entirely within the suffocating four walls of Boughton’s family house and opens with its description:

It managed to look both austere and pretentious…And now the gardens and the shrubbery were dishevelled, as he must have known, though he rarely ventured beyond the porch… Not that it had been especially presentable even while the house was in its prime. Hide-and-seek has seen to that, and croquet and badminton and baseball. ‘Such times you had!’ her father said, as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade…Why should this staunch and upright house seem to her so abandoned? (3-4).

In addition to the symbolic parallels with Boughton’s deterioration in his old age, this description also serves to situate the house within two separate time frames. The house in Boughton’s memory – in the past, which, given the narrative’s focus on the character of his son, Jack, offers a glimpse of the house as it existed when he left – a “glorious parade” of “hide-and-seek, croquet, badminton and baseball”. This is juxtaposed with the “abandonment” of the house in the present. It has become “overgrown”, as the language and imagery provide ominous echoes of the creeping “rhododendrons” from the opening of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Boughton’s house may be interpreted as a metaphor for the failure of his ability to adequately impose a sense of patriarchal control and order upon his household. Like his son, his house has grown wayward and exists in a state of flux and dishevelment.      

In her earlier novel Housekeeping, Robinson extols the virtue of “performing the rituals of the ordinary” (16) and this becomes a key preoccupation in Home as Jack’s desire to live an ordinary life, coupled with his innate inability to do so, creates the central tension of the narrative. At the end of the novel, Jack, having failed in his attempt to ingratiate himself into the daily life of Gilead, walks away once again, realising he is more suited to a life of transient homelessness than domesticity:

She went to the porch to watch him walk away down the road. He was too thin and his clothes were weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack. (318)

The writer Thomas Wolfe claimed: “Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America – that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement” (43). This is true of Jack, a character whose youthful mistakes propelled him into a life of searching for acceptance and respite from the religious expectations of the Boughton household. Attempts to settle anywhere herald the old demons that prompted his exile from Gilead in the first place. In this way, Robinson describes Jack at his most content when associating with objects representative of movement – he spends long periods of time fixing his father’s old DeSoto car, and rather than sleep in his bedroom with its troubling domestic associations, he fashions a temporary shelter in the family garage. In addition to the echoes of “hobo” or “beatnik” characters who have historically populated American fiction, (not least in the association between the character’s Christian name and Jack Kerouac, one of the primary figures of the Beat Generation), Robinson is also clearly alluding through Jack’s character to the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. However, his ultimate departure at the end of the text allows her to reconsider the implication of this parable in a culture founded on ideals of rootlessness. Her novel asks: Can one ever truly return home? Or is Thomas Wolfe’s proclamation that, having left, “you can’t go home again” (1) more accurate? Jack’s behaviour, I would argue, can ultimately be viewed as affirming the latter. 

Ultimately, Jack is unable to escape the weight of his past which haunts his every move in Gilead, forcing him, at the end of the novel, out of the town he has failed at reclaiming, and back into the “wilderness” of homelessness. Home, narrated omnisciently, but privileging Jack’s gaze, affords a bleaker perspective on Gilead than that presented in the eponymous opening novel of the quartet. This novel ultimately forms something of an indictment of this community, who, even though the Calvinist principles on which the townspeople pride themselves suggests otherwise, are finally unable (or unwilling) to accommodate Jack into their midst. 

Gilead functions as a site of renewal and regeneration in the Bible, as illustrated in the following verse:

There is balm in Gilead,

To make the wounded whole;

There’s power enough in heaven,

To cure a sin-sick soul. (qtd. in Evans 23)

This early twentieth-century, African-American Baptist hymn alludes both to the “balm” – the healing properties that exist in Gilead, (referred to in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament) – as well as to the New Testament concept of salvation through Christ. Both elements discussed in the verse (“balm” and “power in heaven”) are sought by Jack in his return home to Gilead. He is certainly “wounded” by his years of homelessness, just as in the eyes of his sister Glory, he is “sin-sick”; but, at the start of the novel at least, he places his belief in the restorative power of the small-town community, coupled with the inherent goodness of home, to aid his transcendence of this. However, his attempts to integrate into this world soon prove to be in vain: “He is writing to the ‘beloved,’ the church. I do not enjoy the honor of membership in that body” (225). In this way, Jack is unable to reconcile his present self with what he perceives as the fundamental expectations of a community like Gilead. Indeed, Robinson routinely utilises the term “oppressive” in her description of both the town and Boughton’s house. For various reasons (perhaps, Robinson suggests, because it reminds him of when he “was happy”, [131]) Jack wishes to complete the transition of returning home. However, through Robinson’s depiction of the unshakeable presence of his past, coupled with Gilead’s stifling lack of freedom, the reader is given various portents of Jack’s ultimate destination – the road out of town, once again.

Photograph by Danny Grizzle on Unsplash
Photograph by Danny Grizzle on Unsplash
[photograph depicts a flock of birds flying from a field]

One of the reasons for Jack’s ultimate departure relates to his perception of Gilead’s intolerant stance in relation to the developing civil rights movement. The novel’s 1956 setting allows Robinson to examine this movement, as one of the key cultural shifts of this period. 1956 is still an early date in the movement, before the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and prior to the sit-ins, marches and demonstrations that would ultimately seal legislation awarding civil rights to African Americans. Jack has a vested interest in the movement because, in a period in which relationships between black and white Americans were rare, he is aware of the likely intolerance that would be shown towards his mixed-race child, Robert, in Gilead. As Jack tests the water regarding his father’s views on this in an effort to try and gauge the suitability of Gilead as a home for his family, the town’s austerity and stifling nature is exposed; its roots are too firmly embedded in the past to be able to adapt to the future, or to challenge and shake off societal prejudice.

However, Jack’s innate need to reconcile the home of his past in Gilead, with the people central to his present life is suggested by his sister Glory, as she reminisces on the impromptu visit of Jack’s estranged wife and son. A few days after his eventual departure: “she knew it would have answered a longing of Jack’s if he could even imagine that their spirits had passed through that strange old house” (323). Ultimately then, Jack’s journey home has been an attempt to make amends and atone for his past, in order to bring about a renewed sense of wholeness  (“I used to live here, I wasn’t always gone”, [323] he tells himself in an attempt to reconnect with the roots he has severed), in order to progress into the future, ushering his new life into his old. The tragedy of this novel lies in Jack’s inability to fulfil this longing. This is particularly evident in the novel’s conclusion in which we meet Jack’s son Robert and imagine his suitability to a life in this town, growing up ostensibly as an American everyman, when the child declares his longing to “play ball and become a preacher” (322). Jack’s version of Gilead, as Glory notes, exists simultaneously as “worn, modest and countrified, Gilead of the sunflowers”, but home also manifests itself as a “foreign and hostile country” (324).

The idea of homelessness is no less of a problematic construct in the American experience than home itself. The transient or wayfarer, whilst embodying American characteristics of freedom through rootlessness, also becomes marginalized, an outsider in the communities through which they pass. In the city, Jack interacts with other outsiders, who, during this pre-integration era, Robinson imagines as being predominantly African American. Home is also an exploration of the contradictory relationship that exists in the United States between individual and community. This is a concern expressed as early as 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville, who asserts in Democracy In America: “As the conditions of men become equal amongst a people, individuals seem of less, and society of greater importance; or rather, every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd” (291). How, Tocqueville asks, can a society, founded to privilege independence and individuality exist whilst simultaneously realising that unity and equality are at the basis of democracy? Robinson certainly provides little resolution to this dichotomy, when, at the end of the text, Jack is once again depicted as being displaced – “lost in the crowd”.

This article has shown how the conception of “home” and by proxy, “homelessness” are inextricably linked in the narrative and associated cultural-historical contexts underpinning Marilynne Robinson’s Home. Through an exploration of the enigmatic character of Jack, whose presence in Boughton’s house and subsequent self-imposed exile provokes various questions regarding the individual’s relationship to “home” in the United States, I have considered the extent to which a character’s experience of transience or homelessness affects their ability to return to the domestic space and reconcile oneself with the sense of the past it invariably contains. Ultimately, this novel suggests that having “lighted out”, you cannot, as Thomas Wolfe observed, “go home again”. Like so much of Robinson’s fiction, the theme of “home” in this novel provides a means by which to interrogate the ideals of small American communities, whilst commenting on the uneven relationship between the individual and society that exists at the heart of the American experience.


Ben Screech, “‘The transient vigor of a man’: Home and Homelessness in Marilynne Robinson’s Home,” Alluvium, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2020): n.pag. Web 7 December 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.3.04

About the Author

Dr Ben Screech is a Lecturer in English & Education at the University of Gloucestershire. His primary research interests are children’s & YA literature, although he has also published and presented on contemporary fiction more generally.

Works Cited

Bayley, Sally. Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010. https://doi.org/10.3726/978-3-0353-0054-3

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Penguin, 1977.

Elliot, Alice and Roger Norum et al. Methodologies of Mobility: Ethnography and Experiment. New York: Berghahn, 2017.

Evans, Abigail Rian. Healing Liturgies For The Season Of Life. Louisville, KY: Westminster. John Knox Press, 2004.

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow. Mineola NY: Dover, 1995.

Robinson, Marilynne. Home. London: Virago, 2008.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy In America. New York: New American Library, 1956.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. Mineola NY: Dover, 1994.

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. London: Harper, 1998.

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