In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, a middle-aged woman named Glory returns to her father’s house after a disappointing teaching career and a failed engagement. To be back in her childhood home is not easy for her. Her father is old and dying, and she desires to hide all trace of her failures from him. His illness is not the only reason her return presents peculiar difficulties, however: every object in it is also too charged with the memory of her childhood for her to bear easily the weight of living there.
Early on in the novel, however, she seeks out some particular objects from her past—her books—and cannot find them:
She knew there had to be Shakespeare and Dickens around the house, Mark Twain had to be somewhere. Kipling was on the dresser in Luke and Teddy’s room, as he always was, but she hated Kipling. Finally she asked her father what had become of the books she liked to read; he made a phone call, and within two weeks six boxes arrived from six addresses, full of the good old books . . . .
Initially, in these books Glory seeks to forget her present, which is why the book she initially takes up and reads is not one of the good old books, but a modern-day tearjerker. If she reads it, she reasons, she will able to weep without looking at her own life. As the novel continues, however, she discards the tearjerker. What she really needs is to look at her present and her past without flinching, something the tearjerker cannot help her to do. She needs different books.
The books she misses and summons back to herself are not distinguished merely by their erstwhile presence in her childhood home. If that were all, the Kipling would be enough to produce the necessary nostalgia. They are instead also part of a greater past, a shared childhood if you will, something wider and deeper than her own particular childhood. Like the Bible, which Glory reads every day, the books stand for a past that is both peculiarly her own and yet also held in common. To become free, she must center herself in that past, instead of fearing it.
The return to the old books has a strange complement in what she cannot return to—her broken engagement—because she destroyed all of her old love letters. Now no longer angry, the destruction of those letters fills her with regret; not because she is still in love (she is not), but because she has made her past being-in-love unintelligible to herself. That past self has now become another person.
Glory’s ability to return to her past—having left, she has returned—distinguishes her from her brother, Jack, another adult failure who has returned home. He is haunted by his past, having committed one deed both terrible and—in a sense—unforgivable, and then many smaller deeds terrible in their own way. Jack constantly disowns himself, spending his whole life trying to escape his past. When he finally desires to confront it, his task is made harder by the fragmentation of his self; there is no place he can return to, because there is no place he really ever was. Continue reading