The world of Gilead is full of virtue and kindness; but it survives by denying something. When Lila, newly baptized, hears Ames and Boughton having a mild theological dispute about the fate of unbelievers, she suddenly grasps that all the people who have kept her alive up to this point are “outsiders” to faith and grace, strangers to the kindly old pastors; and she is filled with revulsion at her own “insider” status. She goes to the river and rubs water over her body to “cleanse” herself from baptism, from the pollution of her betrayal of Doll and her graceless friends and traveling companions.
What Lila discovers and slowly formulates for herself is what finally emerges in the last pages of the book, where, almost for the first time, a strong, lyrical passion infuses her reflections: if there is heaven, it has to be filled with those who are there because others could not bear to be without them, whatever they have done or been. There cannot be anyone who is not needed somewhere, in some way. The longing for safe goodness is trumped by the hunger of and for solidarity.
And this is what the merely good do not know. The Lilas of the world are those who challenge the ways in which the good refuse to know what they do not know. This is why Lila in the earlier, but chronologically later, novels can function as a point of (near-silent) reference by which the rhetoric of others is to be judged; why she is an absolving as well as a disturbing presence, aware of the irony of being who she is where she is, but neither rebelling nor colluding, simply stating by her presence that things might be different.
Anne Helen Petersen, who was raised Protestant, calls the novelist’s writing “the closest thing I have to return to those rhythms of early belief, the best at translating their palpability and comfort and challenge”:
There’s been a lot of writing about Robinson in the weeks leading up to the release of Lila, the third in what could be called her “Iowa trilogy,” which traces life in the small town of Gilead from the perspective of a dying Congregationalist pastor (Gilead), his Presbyterian best friend (Home), and his young wife (Lila). They’re deceptively simple novels, offering voice to a small cast of characters in a tiny town, as they wrestle, without pomposity, with what can only be described as the most important questions of life. What does it mean to be good? To forgive? To die? And what might a life of striving toward those answers look like?
If that sounds like a slog through the worst of self-help or the most impenetrable of philosophy, that’s because there’s no suitable language for a text that manages to simultaneously function as a novel and a piece of profound meditation. The trilogy has been called one of the “unlikeliest” in American literary history, but it’s also one of the most indescribable: an unapologetically religious, profoundly lyrical text that is the opposite of “preachy.” Still, the way I’ve always gushed about the books has been a variation on “she makes me miss church.” Church, but not religion. My pastors, not men issuing commandments on how I should live my life. The rhythms and imagination of theology, not the constraints thereof.