Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Lila, published in 2014, is the third in Marilynne’s Robinson’s series of novels set in Gilead, Iowa; the first two are Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Like the other novels of this trilogy, the narrative of Lila moves frequently between present and memory—in this case, Lila’s life both before and after moving to Gilead and meeting Reverend John Ames.
The novel begins by describing a sickly, scrawny, and malnourished little girl who is dressed in old rags with various cuts on her body. It is obvious that her parents don’t care about her; they might even abuse her. Fortunately, a tough woman by the name of Doll, who sometimes cleans around the house, decides to kidnap the child and thus rescues her from her neglectful family. Doll takes the child to the home of an old woman who provides food and shelter for both of them. The old woman suggests that the child be called Lila, after her sister, in the hopes that she will grow up to be as pretty.
After a month, Doll and Lila leave the old woman’s home and join a small group of drifters who are desperately trying to find work—a difficult task, as the Great Depression is gradually beginning to spread across the United States. Led by a man named Doane and his wife, Marcelle, the group struggles to survive, and Doll and Lila stick together. When Doll disappears for several days, the group decides to abandon Lila outside a church; though Doll finds Lila there on returning, Lila’s abandonment by both the group and Doll herself cements her lack of trust in people.
The group scatters, and Lila and Doll go to Tammany, Iowa. They stay in a boardinghouse owned by a woman called Mrs. Marker, who often yells at them when they do something she doesn’t approve of. Doll gets a job and sends Lila to school for one year; there, Lila learns to read and write. When they leave the boardinghouse, Doll realizes that someone from Lila’s family, most likely her father, is looking for them, and Doll kills him with her knife. She is arrested for her crime, but she manages to escape custody and presumably dies shortly after. Though Lila searches the fields, it soon begins to snow, and she never finds Doll’s body.
Doll’s disappearance and presumable death deeply affect Lila, and she tries to move on without the woman she had for so long depended on. She ends up in a brothel in St. Louis and rents a dress and high heels from Mrs., the brothel’s madam. Lila is unsuccessful as a prostitute and owes Mrs. more money each week. One morning, Lila wakes early to stoke the coal furnace and scrub the kitchen, figuring that “she liked that kind of work a lot better than what she’d been doing, or trying to do.”
After working there for a while as a maid, Lila escapes the brothel and manages to find a job as a cleaning woman at a hotel. She works there for several years and then decides to leave St. Louis. She hitchhikes to Iowa and finds an abandoned shack in the forest to live in; there, she chooses to lead a solitary life. She finds occasional work as a day laborer, helping with farming and cleaning tasks in the nearby town of Gilead.
One rainy Sunday, Lila takes shelter in a church and meets Reverend John Ames, an older widower who changes her life for the better. Both Lila and John feel an instant connection to one another; Lila relates...
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to John’s loneliness, and John feels as if he has known Lila his entire life. After John baptizes Lila and gives her the opportunity to start her life over, Lila finds herself saying,
You ought to marry me.
John agrees, and his dear friend Reverend Boughton marries the two.
As time passes, Lila tries to adapt to her new life, and John tries to better understand his wife. Both of them are haunted by their pasts, but they slowly learn to open up to and trust each other. When she becomes pregnant, Lila begins to wonder whether she is truly deserving of her husband’s love and affection, and the peace and happiness of their life together. She feels the urge to leave town and tries to unbaptize herself in the river:
The river was like the old life, just itself. Nothing more to it. She thought, It has washed the baptism off me. So that’s done with. That must be what I wanted.
Lila ultimately comes to realize that these impulses stem from her lifelong lack of trust in others and her need to leave before she is left. Fortunately, John’s patience and understanding allow Lila to believe that faith in others is possible for her.
When Lila listens to John’s sermons, she is intrigued by the split between the world she knows and the way organized religion explains it. In copying out passages from the Bible (especially Ezekiel and Job) to improve her penmanship, Lila ponders Christianity. She wonders often whether those who have not had the chance to be saved, such as Doll and those she traveled with when she was younger, are condemned, or if grace is extended to them as well. Lila and John often have interesting theological discussions, and John answers her complex questions as carefully and thoughtfully as he can. In many cases, he admits that the question is too complex, in fact, to have an answer—that accepting and dwelling in mystery is, in large part, his life’s work.
After Lila gives birth to their son, Robby, she tries to keep the boy safe and healthy and make him feel loved and happy. She sometimes thinks about the life she used to lead and wonders whether it is truly possible for someone to let go of their past and redeem themselves. Lila realizes that her experiences and suffering have shaped her character, which might not be so bad, as she can finally try to define herself within those constraints and find a sense of belonging. Moreover, she realizes that the most important and compassionate thing one can do is to forgive themselves and others. Lila commits herself to raising her son, to both loving and accepting love, and to belief in eternity (and, as a result, in the preciousness of the life before it):
So she decided that she should believe in it, or that she believed in it already.