Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1246
Loneliness and Love
Loneliness defines the relationships of nearly all of the novel’s main characters. Lila has felt alone for the majority of her life; when Doll takes her from her parents’ neglectful home and the two begin to live their lives as migrant workers, Lila and Doll connect through their mutual struggle for survival. They understand that they are alone in the world, but they also know that they are alone together:
Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.
As someone who has experienced abandonment in her life, Lila feels that the world is a dangerous place and that people shouldn’t be trusted; she believes that she is someone who is undeserving of love and affection. She doesn’t allow herself to get close to people, because she is afraid that they’ll end up leaving her. Thus, she finds comfort and even solace in her loneliness, reasoning that
The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of.
When Doll disappears (and presumably dies), Lila realizes that loneliness can consume a person to the point where they start to question their existence. In fact, she feels that her solitude is the only notion that might actually define her reality. When she is alone, she is left with her memories and often ponders who we are and what awaits us all in the end.
Reverend Ames can relate to Lila’s loneliness. When his first wife and child died, decades before he meets Lila, he devoted himself to his church and spent his days preaching, reading theology and philosophy, and listening to the radio. He developed a routine and believed that his days would be the same until he died. When he first sees Lila, though, after she has ducked into his church during his sermon for protection from the rain, he is instantly enamored with her. He tells her,
I was getting along with the damn loneliness well enough. I expected to continue with it the rest of my life. Then I saw you that morning. I saw your face.
Despite their age difference, Lila and John connect and develop feelings for each other. The two share similar experiences of loneliness—both as a state and as an important part of their identities—and some of the struggle of their marriage is in reconciling these two solitudes. In particular, Lila must finally learn to accept care and love from another person.
The Meaning of Human Life
Before Lila meets John, she begins to copy out parts from the Bible in order to improve her reading and writing skills. In the process of working through Ezekiel and Job, and through theological discussions she eventually has with John, Lila works to understand questions of human existence and eternity. She often asks her husband about his opinions on faith, predestination, and redemption, as she wishes to understand “why things happen the way they do.” She wants to know why people suffer and who will be redeemed of their sins in the end.
At one point, Lila thinks of Doll and the others she grew up around and wonders if they could possibly go to heaven. While Lila thinks that Doll, for example, is as deserving of heaven as the rest of the kind souls of the world, she also knows that Doll was not a Christian and had not been “saved.” She and John talk about the idea of redemption, and John admits that he has...
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not had to think about hell as much as Lila has:
That night, lying against the warmth of him, she said, “Maybe you don’t have to think about hell because probably nobody you know is going to end up there.”After a moment, he said, “I suppose there’s an element of truth in that.”“Except me.”“Lila,” he said, “I have to preach tomorrow. If you put more thoughts like this in my head, how am I supposed to get any sleep?” He drew her closer to him, stroked her cheek. “I’m going to keep you safe. And you’re going to keep me honest.” Maybe he couldn’t think she would go to hell, because he loved her.
The love between John and Lila becomes wrapped up in their religious questions, and spirituality and love between people seem to intertwine, as if this kind of love is both an earthly thing and some element of God in itself. Toward the end of the novel, Lila notices that, while John preaches, he makes eye contact with her whenever he brings up a question they’ve discussed together; their theological discussions intensify, deepen, and remain open. Just before Lila gives birth to their son during an early spring blizzard, John says,
It’s all a prayer. . . . Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer.
Both Lila and John have become so implicated in each other’s questioning that their love together becomes part of the larger question—and, perhaps, part of its answer.
The Search for Identity
Both Lila and John are presented as lost souls who are haunted by their pasts; they often let their previous experiences influence their decision-making and, essentially, determine their present. Unlike John, who has managed to define his existence and gradually accept himself, Lila is ashamed—of her poverty, her struggles, her physical appearance, and her past. While John came into life with a clear sense of identity (his father and grandfather were both preachers, as he is, and he was born into a place and family), Lila has to create her own sense of self. Even her name, Lila Dahl, is created: “Lila” was suggested by the old woman who took care of Lila and Doll early in Lila’s life, and “Dahl” was assumed to be Lila’s last name by a teacher. Her entire life, Lila has been subjected to suffering, trauma, and abandonment; as a result, she is both fragile and resilient, both vulnerable and determined.
In this context, Robinson creates an interesting paradox. Readers can perfectly understand Lila’s existential and identity crisis, and despite her tragic past, they can relate to her sensitivity, curiosity, and desperate search for truth. However, Lila herself remains stuck in a constant loop of uncertainty; she can be perceived as a wayfaring stranger—a migrant who unknowingly begins her journey of self-discovery and attempts to understand her feelings and emotions.
Lila’s life does have one constant: Doll’s knife, which Doll used to kill a man and potentially harm others. The knife represents twin poles of safety and danger, trust and fear, comfort and anguish. Particularly after Lila’s marriage, the knife becomes totemic for her, a small symbol of her core identity and past:
That knife was the difference between her and anybody else in the world. . . . The knife was a potent thing. Other people had houses and towns and names and graveyards. They had church pews. All she had was that knife. And dread and loneliness and regret. That was her dowry. Other women brought quilts and china. Even a little money sometimes. She brought hard hands and a face she could barely bring herself to look at in a mirror because her life was just written all over it. And that knife.