When the curtain rises on Jack Boughton, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, he is penitent, abject. Jack and his abjection will be familiar to Robinson’s past readers; he featured prominently in two of her previous novels set in Gilead, Iowa, as the prodigal son of the town’s Presbyterian minister. These novels — “Gilead” and “Home” — take the perspectives of Jack’s godfather, Congregationalist preacher Reverend John Ames, and Jack’s sister Glory, respectively. But through them, Jack’s character has already been sketched: the Boughton family’s black sheep, a clever boy plagued by religious doubt and drawn to mischief, who left Gilead for decades after impregnating a teenage farm girl as a young man. 

Though he eventually returns to Gilead, the story told in those earlier novels, “Jack” takes place several years before, primarily in mid-century St. Louis, during his courtship with Della Miles, a Black high school teacher from a prominent Memphis family. The novel plunges readers into the frenetic mind of a principled but undisciplined skeptic, a man without faith who is wandering in search of something that can anchor him. In Della, it seems, Jack finds the gravity he needs. 

Like all of Robinson’s Gilead novels, “Jack” is a novel about goodness and godliness, and about how America’s great and small cruelties obstruct them; racial segregation, which dooms Jack and Della to a future either apart or jointly exiled from society, is the overwhelming structural cruelty that shapes the book. Through Jack, a character whose anxious psychology she delineates with exact, exhausting yet winning detail, Robinson stages an American morality play in which her characters sweat under the spotlight, struggling to hit their prescribed marks while also telling the story they’re destined to star in.

In recent works of criticism about goodness in contemporary fiction, Lauren Oyler and Katy Waldman have pointed to the moral showmanship evinced by the characters in the books of authors such as Sally Rooney. They are characters whose version of goodness is constituted entirely of adopting virtuous political positions and maintaining a private checklist of their own hypocrisies and sins, as if self-awareness alone could redeem them. Their goodness is an act — an outward-facing performance of right-thinking, directed at their social connections, and an inward-facing performance of self-castigation.

The Gilead novels are concerned with morality in a more old-fashioned way: they’re religious, for one, but perhaps more important, they are about characters who actually make enormous effort to be good. Jack wrestles with his own unbidden urges to steal, to break things, to cause trouble. But his efforts are complicated by his acute awareness of people’s judging eyes, and the need to advertise his good character as much as he actually enacts it. We watch him convince himself to leave Della alone forever, then slowly persuade himself, without even realizing what he’s begun to do, that it would be better for her if he visited her father to assure him that his relationship with her had been “entirely honorable.”

Marilynne Robinson's fifth novel, "Jack," was published Sept. 29.

In the opening scene, Jack is politely trailing after Della, whom he has embarrassed by leaving the restaurant abruptly during their date. She thinks it’s because some white men he knew saw him dining with a Black woman; in fact, the men often shake him down for money he owes their boss, and he was afraid of being humiliated in front of her. Now Jack has reappeared to walk her home, after leaving her to fumble for coins to cover the check. Remorseful, Jack tries to offer her a few dollars for the dinner, not realizing what passersby might read into it.

“Now, what is this!” she exclaims. “Giving me money here on my doorstep? What are people supposed to think about that? You want to ruin my life!” 

Later, they encounter each other by chance in a white cemetery. It’s after hours, and the gates have been locked, so they walk together quietly, passing the time and avoiding the night watchmen until morning. Without nosy neighbors around, their conversation floats more freely. They talk of their souls, of poetry, of their minister fathers, of the rules they’d put in place if they were the only people left on Earth.

These early conversations between Jack and Della read like scenes from a play, capturing the oddly intense intimacy of two people speaking alone but gazed upon by an audience: every step and gesture laden with significance, as if they were blocked out in advance, every silence a statement in itself. Robinson sketches their conversations in dialogue and sparing stage directions. Jack crosses the street to give Della space, then crosses it again; every now and then, one of them nods, gives a significant look, or steps back in surprise.

The genre should be romantic comedy, two lovers from different worlds falling in love through a series of fortuitous meetings and lively quarrels. They meet in a rainstorm, when he gathers up a sheaf of papers she’s dropped and ushers her to her doorstep under an umbrella. She mistakes him for a minister, thanks to his sober dark suit. Instead he’s recently released from prison and wearing an outfit purchased secondhand for his mother’s funeral, which he will not end up attending. As if to correct the record, Jack pockets two of Della’s books, including a copy of “Hamlet,” on the way out. Despite his transgressions, Della is as enraptured by him as he is by her. They keep intending to part forever, but instead their romance seems fated to triumph.

And yet “Jack” is more of a tragedy. They’re a couple continually wrenched apart by brutal societal forces, their purest feelings transfigured into a source of pain and shame. Her family catches wind of their relationship and begins to send emissaries to break them up. Jack, mistaken for a panhandler by the worshippers at a Black church, finds himself attending services there and seeking spiritual counsel from the kindly preacher. At first, the reverend offers gentle acceptance, but when he discovers that the shabby ne’er-do-well he’s advising is in love with the daughter of another respected Black minister, he also begins to push for a breakup.

Jack himself seems to be all fatal flaw, somehow constantly falling from grace. His father’s quest to save his skeptical soul extended through a rebellious youth, but he always managed to disappoint. He abandoned the local girl he got pregnant, and their daughter, who died at 3 of an illness. Now, recently released from prison, he simply wants to be harmless — but he finds that every act and non-act, no matter how small, becomes a sort of elaborate trap bound to lead him into causing harm of some sort.

Much of the novel takes place in Jack’s tortured psyche, where he wallows in self-loathing and games out the possible consequences of his actions ― which should be claustrophobic and exhausting, but is somehow, in Robinson’s hands, difficult to look away from. He tentatively tries to improve his life, either in service of deserving Della or being strong enough to stay away from her, depending on his plan of the moment. He avoids alcohol, since he’s prone to benders; he finds work as a shoe salesman; he buys a potted geranium and puts it on the windowsill of the dingy rented room he calls home, dreaming that police burst in to arrest him while he sleeps but are “distracted by the sight of the geranium, as if it refuted suspicion.”

Instead, he later stumbles upon the rooming house’s nasty clerk standing in his room, staring at the flower in disgust. He accuses Jack of trying to make the room inviting for an unsavory female guest. “Jack could feel the flush rising in his face that meant he would sweat. His whole miserable plan, given the worst possible interpretation just because he’d put a blasted flower on a windowsill.”

Jack and Della are both particularly surveilled, he as a visibly destitute and congenitally shifty-looking white man and she as a respectable, accomplished Black woman. The weight of others’ eyes always seems to intrude on them, even when they’re alone. When the couple, during their night in the cemetery, try to dream up rules for a world populated only by the two of them, they can’t quite eliminate the specter of an audience. “No,” she says, “we’d have to keep the Sabbath. My father couldn’t survive without it.” Jack points out that her father’s survival would presumably no longer be a possibility, given that only the two of them remain in this hypothetical world, but Della can’t quite conceive of a world in which her father’s opinion doesn’t matter. 

Della plays the foil to Jack’s forlorn chaos in their conversations: discerning and demure, quick to take offense at his flip comments and quicker to forgive. Despite their many conversations, she remains mostly opaque. And of course, this is Jack’s book, filled to bursting with his self-recriminations and agonized self-consciousness, with almost no room in his own brain for the actual human reality of the woman he loves.

As a Black woman, Della is accustomed to constant scrutiny and the strictures of her place in society. During their night in the cemetery, she frets about the optics of walking home at dawn, in shoes ruined by dew, and how this could jeopardize her teaching job. Jack, who is always broke and wearing a shabby hat or stained shirt, struggles to present himself as a respectable person but often unintentionally comes across as something he is not: a minister, a beggar, a pickpocket. Jack insists to Della that sin would exist without God, because sin is “doing harm,” but he knows it’s not enough to be harmless; he also must look harmless. Looking wrong, inhabiting the wrong role, can draw more severe consequences in mid-century America — and today’s America, for that matter — than causing actual harm. 

For some, it’s relatively straightforward to be good. In “Jack,” Robinson looks at what it means to try to be good when everything is set against you: not just your nature or your circumstances, but the roles you have been cast in, the audience you’re tasked with impressing. In an empty theater, you might stand a better chance.

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