29 October 2014
… or what it’s like to be poor? I’ve been thinking about this after reading Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Lila, which is her fourth and the third in the Gilead series. Like the preceding novels, Lila is heavy on Robinson’s theology and her characters deal with questions of existence, prayer, the will of God and community. I found this too protracted at times but the central character of Lila, a homeless woman who ends up, somewhat implausibly, married to Congregationalist minister John Ames, made me think about what it is like to be really poor.
Poverty and wealth are relative terms. I have always thought of myself as well-off, not so much because of money and possessions, but because of the opportunities I have had throughout my life. A good example of this is literacy – because I am able to read and have access to reading material, my world is an expanded one. My reading life has given me access to ideas and opinions that broaden my view of the world. Lila is aware of the things she doesn’t know. She spent very little time at school and her literacy skills are, therefore, diminished. When she gets the chance, she reads and practices her handwriting. In Robinson’s imagined town of Gilead in Iowa, the book Lila reads is the Bible. She writes out verses from the Old Testament to improve her writing but she also thinks deeply about what those verses mean. The way that they relate to Lila’s own life is the device Robinson uses to tell us about that life and it is skilfully done. It also allows us to see that Lila, homeless and impoverished as she is, is far from lacking in opinions and she has spent many hours of her lonely, wandering life pondering the meaning of her existence.
Lila feels that she does not belong in Gilead and resents the charity given her by the townspeople. She also feels that, if these worthy people knew the truth about her past, they wouldn’t be so charitable. It is in her relationship with the preacher that we gradually find out more about her past, which includes being abandoned as a child and various incidents of violence and degradation. It’s as if she will only settle into her new life with him if he still accepts her knowing all there is to know. And, of course, he does. I once heard an older woman, who had experienced some poverty, though nothing as desperate as Lila’s, recall the shame of being poor and the resentment she felt at others’ pity. Reading this novel reminded me of that heartfelt conversation.
The aspect of extreme poverty that Robinson captures well is the loneliness of Lila’s life before she comes to Gilead – the long days of having no-one to talk to, nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to. As we learn more about Lila’s life, we realise that she has managed to come this far because of Doll, the woman who rescued her and took care of her as best she could. The people who are overwhelmed by poverty are those who have never had a Doll. It made this reader reflect that true wealth is in one’s relationships not one’s possessions, which is not a particularly deep observation but is one that bears repeating.