Lloyd C. Douglas has written that The Robe resulted from a question asked by Hazel McCann, an Ohio department-store clerk; McCann asked what had become of Jesus’ robe. Douglas expanded the Gospel narratives to offer a possible answer and to create a Christian novel with human interest and romance. Douglas did not tie the events with a particular Christian sect.
Central to The Robe is the Jewish carpenter Jesus, the owner of the titular garment. A main fictional character is Marcellus Gallio, the Roman soldier who crucifies Jesus, wins Jesus’ robe, and retraces Jesus’ journeys. The Robe follows Marcellus’s travels in the first century c.e. and depicts what Marcellus hears and sees as he explores the life of Jesus. Diverse people who encountered Jesus tell of their experiences throughout the novel; the story thus emerges from many different viewpoints, demonstrating the stylistic device of limited omniscience.
Douglas accurately depicts the historical sequence of Roman rulers during the first century. He portrays many of the events in the life of Jesus, the miracles, and the places Jesus visited in nonsequential order as Marcellus discovers them through his travels. Douglas provides neither a contents page nor an index to enable readers to locate a character, a place, or an event in the volume. The diction and the dialect of the characters are not suggestive of first century Rome. The sentence structure and Douglas’s choice of words seem more evocative of 1942 than of 32 c.e.
Although many reviewers criticized the novel as merely escapist fiction, the sales of the book indicate its popularity. The novel was adapted into a 1953 epic film, the first film ever to be released in CinemaScope (an anamorphic lens technology used to create wide-screen films). The epic renewed public interest in the book.
Douglas uses open denouement in The Robe. Diana and Marcellus pass through a door and presumably move toward their deaths; Diana passes the robe to Marcipor with the instruction that it is for Peter. This open ending allowed Douglas to write a 1948 sequel, The Big Fisherman, Douglas’s last novel. The motion picture industry also took advantage of the open ending of The Robe and produced two sequels: Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and The Big Fisherman (1959). Although some critics referred to these movies as “sword and sandal” pictures, the box office successes of the films indicated their popularity with the public.