The Fallen Woman
If the reasons for my interest in the image of the abandoned child, which I looked at in the previous blog, were somewhat difficult to describe, my interest in the fallen woman, connected powerfully through Ezekiel 16 to that of the abandoned child, is mainly intellectual. In reading Lila my mind kept returning to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s own rendering of the woman living on the fringes of Boston society in The Scarlet Letter. (Note: I have to emphasise here that these connections were made in my own mind, that is the mysterious beauty of intertextuality, I have yet to read anything which would indicate that Robinson herself was intentionally drawing out the comparison.)
Whereas Hawthorne’s feelings of guilt regarding his Puritan-Calvinist ancestry permeates his novel, in contrast, Robinson’s novel demonstrates the grace, love and mercy of a Christian community (one that is indebted, as John Ames is, to Calvin for his theology). Robinson’s Lila acts as a foil to the earlier novel: opening up a conversation through almost two centuries of American literature about what American society should look like. Northeast Boston stands in contrast to Midwest Gilead. The hypocrisy of the clergy in Boston is unfavourably compared to the authentic, if troubled lives, of the clergy in Gilead. The rejection of the fallen woman and her child by society is a foil to the ‘balm of Gilead’ which sees Reverend John Ames take as his wife the fallen woman, as the rest of the town welcomes her as his wife. But as Lila wrestles with her pride and her isolation we can see echoes of the life of Hester Prynne: they have lived on the fringes of society, connected to nature and to the movement of the seasons, and in their loneliness they represent the individual, who stands looking in at the society, allowing the reader to see it in a new light. However, there is more to the image than just this.
Lila, warned by Doll since childhood to not work in a ‘whorehouse’, goes to work in one, after she loses hope of finding Doll. This is the most complex part of the novel, where Robinson displays Lila’s descent into madness, as Lila becomes fixated on taking an abandoned child to love and look after, repeating what Doll had done for her.
As a reader it is worthwhile to pause over it to see the ways in which Robinson interweaves many of the different tropes of the novel. If we consider just the face, we can see how the scar on Doll’s face, Lila’s own disliking of her face, the painted face as a mask, the hidden and revealed face, and references back to Lila’s earlier reading of Ezekiel (“likeness of a woman, with hands but no face, since she never let herself see it”, p. 68), the reference to the picture of Dorian Gray, and the face of Mack, are all part of Lila’s perception of herself and her memory of her past. It is a miserable past and a miserable self-perception. But there is redemption and there is hope.
Towards the end of the novel Lila and John discuss the parable in Ezekiel 16, where God shows his love and mercy in taking up an abandoned child, and when God demonstrates His faithfulness to Israel, even as Israel worships idols. Lila reflects,
And her life was just written all over her, she knew it without looking, because that’s how it was with all the women she used to know. And somehow she found her way to the one man on earth who didn’t see it. Or maybe he saw it the way he did because he had read that parable, or poem, or whatever it was. Ezekiel. The Bible was truer than life for him, so it was natural enough that his thinking would be taken from it.
(…)It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth. (p. 226)