Grace and Reading

In considering the intertextual play between Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Robinson’s Lila in the trope of the fallen woman in the previous blog, I demonstrated something of the singular experience of reading. Whether Robinson was intentional, aware or not of the strong resonances with Hawthorne’s text is an unknown to me (given there are no explicit references to Hawthorne’s) as I read. And so I need to be careful in my reading, because on the other side of the page is another person, another human. Robinson herself has stated that, “comprehension has an ethical content” (New York Times Interview).

In Robinson’s character of Lila, we are given insight into the complex nature of reading. Much of the novel focuses on her reading of the Bible, her interaction with it. And the intersection of her current life, her reading of the Bible and the memories of her past, are all part of her attempting to make sense of her life. Specifically, of “why things happen the way they do” (p. 29) (I covered this idea of the “integrative mind” in detail in the first blog, Grace and Memory). For Lila, reading, and this is reading the Bible, is both comprehension and experience.

Lila reads the Bible, beginning with Ezekiel, going back to Genesis, and then on to Job, with unaffected, innocent questioning. We are drawn into her reading and into her memories, often simultaneously, Robinson demonstrating the ways in which we bring all of our selves to our reading. Lila reads passages, relating them to not only what she is hearing in Church and to what her husband, the Reverend John Ames discusses with her, but more often the passages are avenues for her into her past. Integrally, her reading the Bible is part of her self-discovery. Towards the end of the novel, Lila reflects, “She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book.” (p. 176). There is grace in reading.

In privileging the reader with this access to the mind of another reader, Robinson is encouraging us to reflect on our own reading experience (particularly, I think, our reading of the Old Testament). This is the brilliance of the novel form, as another soul is laid bare for us, whom we engage with over a period of time, allowing us to see the subtle fluctuations, the apparent contradictions, and endless diversions. In writing Lila, Robinson is bearing witness to this character she has written. Writing itself is a form of bearing witness, of testimony.


Lila’s own reading can serve as a good example of what Reinke meant when he talked about the use of our “primary imagination” in our reading in Lit!. That is, using our own experiences to make sense of what we are reading. The novel demonstrates how Lila grapples with this, often through her experience of reading the Bible, coming ever closer to an understanding of herself, of “why things happen the way they do” (p. 29), and leading her, and hopefully the reader, towards some understanding of the “very deep mystery” (p. 31) of God’s grace.
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