The Non-existence in Silence: Marilynne Robinson’s jack

            Background: the novel jack by Marilynne Robinson is the fourth installment alongside her novels, Gilead, Home, and Lila, and accounts for the existential listlessness of the titular character, Jack. The emphasis here will be on how the experience of sound, and the further differentiation between quietness and silence, can account for one aspect of Jack’s relentless unease in the world. Jack’s attuned awareness to his own situation is what makes him preternaturally alert to his own suffering, and rather than providing a potential salvation, his knowledge is a precondition to his misery. Although it will not be discussed in length, a Heideggerian understanding of “dwelling” and its relationship to “being” is recommended, but not necessary (the concepts are discussed in his work Poetry, Language, Thought). For further reading on the philosophy of sound and ethos, the following books are recommended: Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line; Lawrence Kramer’s The Hum of the World; and Nancie Erhard’s Moral Habitat.

            The excavation of ethos through sound is inherent in Marilynne Robinson’s novel jack. Ethos is generally understood as a characteristic spirit of a time and place; derived from the Greek, ēthos, it means “a habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place”[i]. The more ordinary concept of “sound” is variously conceived as a sensation, or a general experiential quality that relates the world and one’s perception of it. Intrinsic to sound, in its definition, is a bridge between the physical dwelling places, and one’s experience of being within them. Erhard, in Moral Habitat, makes a similar case for understanding ethos through the analogy of an environmental ecosystem (emphasizing the physical reality that necessitates the subjectively held norms). In context, Jack finds himself spiritually and physically homeless, but the scrutiny will rest on his dwelling (or lack of dwelling) within sound. Sound, as a partial imposition onto the world, simultaneously confines and delineates Jack’s ability to construct that world. The inability to find a home, within sound, underwrites an aspect of Jack’s spiritual and physical wandering, and heightens his consequent disharmony of being.

            Jack often exists in the spaces between sound and silence, between thought and quietness, and between homelessness and his potential home. Jack drifts in the audiable, defined by Lawrence Kramer, as “the perceptible potentiality of sound. It discloses itself when the condition of being about to hear assumes sensory form” (31). It is an abstract definition, but imagine the general perception of potentiality: a state that has not occurred, but is in a condition that it might occur very soon. A precariously built house of cards, for example, may not have fallen, but the anticipation of its fall might be perceptible. So too with sound, it has a potential that can be strained towards, as an anticipation prior to its occurrence. Often punctuating the dialogue between the characters Jack and Della (the potential romantic partner) are the instances of silence, or of quiet. The two descriptors (silence and quiet) are differentiated and noticeable for their different connotations, something that Jack is at times confused by, “Quiet. Or was it silence. Usually he knew” (jack 50). Kramer helps gloss the potential difference between quiet and silence;

            We have no experience of the true, absolute cessation of all sound. We always encounter silence as the absence of specific sounds and acoustic textures, and when we imagine an absolute silence and fear (or desire) it, what we are imagining is the condition of our nonexistence (31).

            It may be too much to consider the punctuated silences as motivated by fear or desire, but they are nevertheless observed – stated – and show the precarious peering over the edge, the look into non-existence that Jack feels. Quiet, on the other hand, confers a more deliberate reluctance to sound: it is a chosen state, perhaps while one is considering the next words to speak, but not the absolute cessation of sound. Take two examples: first, when Della is groping for the right words to communicate her thought, and makes the analogy, “Have you ever noticed that if you strike a match in a dark room, it seems to spread quite a lot of light. But if you strike one in a room that is already light, it seems to make no difference?” (24). Dismissively, Jack back-pedals from the sanctimonious implications that creep behind such an analogy, and reacts, “Uh-oh. A sermon illustration,” and after this flippant response, he is met with an unequivocal paragraph break, and “Silence.” The impulse to dismissively wave a hand at thick metaphors might be understandable enough, but it is Jack’s own perception of silence that is notable. It is unclear from the context how much time exactly passes, or how much “silence” is truly there (a natural break in conversation can be readily expected to go unperceived, or be unexceptional in nature), but Jack is aware of it here. As far as Kramer’s glossing of silence holds, Jack’s condition of nonexistence is snapping at the heels, and in the cracks of every conversation, it looms around him. The trepidation Jack feels from silence, and the fault lines exposed by conversation – the silence exposed in the pauses – explain his insistence on not being talkative; “I hardly say a word for weeks on end. Months” (40). By his logic, better to avoid conversation entirely than risk the existential dangers. But in contrast, Jack also experiences not silence but quietness.

            In The Hum of the World, Kramer further investigates the concept of the audiable with the analogy of sound through a harp. He notes a point from Timothy Morton, “we don’t hear the sound of the harp in some abstract sense. We hear the wind’s ‘translation’ of the strings. We hear the hollow sound box’s translation of the string’s vibration into amplified pressure waves” (36). His point is to de-emphasize the abstract, a point worth making when the weight of hyper-abstraction is bearing in the other direction, where everything is an abstraction of some other abstraction, all the way down. The example hints how sound “comes alive in the production of a space of apprehension, above all, of a space in which the audiable may make itself heard. In this context the audiable emerges as the guarantee or (perhaps better) as the evincing, the evidencing of the affirmative difference between things and our apprehension of them” (36). Recalling the definition of the audiable as perceptible potentiality, the image of a harp helps concretize the idea: the potential stored in seeing the physicality of the harp and anticipating the possible sound it can make (compared to seeing any unmusical object). This background provides some context to the second example from the novel, where quietness is contrasted to silence. When asked if his father is strong, Jack replies, “Not at all. But he is exceptionally determined… He’s waiting for me,” (47) and in response to this, Jack is met with another full stop, but this time with: “Quiet.” It is presumably unclear, from observation alone, what precisely marks this quietness from the earlier instance of silence – except the audiable. Picking back up from Kramer, the audiable “is the remainder left behind by every utterance, every symbolic act” (36). In the wake of certain pronouncements, this leftover remainder approximates the “quiet” that Jack feels in contrast to non-existent silence. It approximates the “promise of voice,” (38), where far from negating the feeling of existence, it creates the anticipatory state that works in exact opposite: it is not the void, but the necessary prior state that preconditions what is to come. The audiable is the harp prior to its sound.

            There are many possible readings of Jack’s homelessness, whether physical, spiritual, or familial, but the contention here is sonic. Jack is unable, in the Heideggerian sense, to feel like he belongs in the space that one is “home” within, or to find the equilibrium one might reach within a habitat. This particular homelessness is emphasized (or confined) by sound. The cracks of silence that punctuate his every conversation, and his risk of falling into non-existence, are but one step away from the contemplative security of quietness. In self-preservation, Jack remains a vagabond in sound.


Erhard, Nancie. Moral Habitat, Ethos and Agency for the Sake of Earth. State University of New York Press, 2007.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Harper Perennial, 1971.

Kramer, Lawrence. The Hum of the World. University of California Press, 2018.

Robinson, Marilynne. Jack. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

Stoever, Jennifer Lynn. The Sonic Color Line, Rach & Cultural Politics of Listening. New York University Press, 2016.

[i] The roots taken from the entry on “ethos” from etymonline.