Does Jane Smiley’s Bob Miller live a real life?

Needles, California

by cheri block

When Scotty McLennan assigned Jane Smiley’s novella Good Will as part of the curricula for his class The Meaning of Life: A Spiritual and Moral Inquiry Through Literature, I had never heard of the book.

I began reading it one afternoon after balancing my checkbook, an enjoyable exercise that satisfies  my need for order (and balance..)  And I thought I needed order to stave off anxiety!

Few characters have gotten under my skin as Smiley’s Bob Miller did. I read the text twice to make sure I hadn’t misjudged the guy.

Did he live a real life? Here’s my hit. I’ve removed page references for smoother reading.

What About Bob? *

               In his famous treatise to life among the Cypripedium, Walden, Henry Thoreau echoed the mantras of many New World explorers when he wrote “ I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  Perhaps the protagonist/antagonist in Jane Smiley’s Good Will, Bob Miller, had taken a dog-eared copy of Walden to Vietnam as a sort of holy book carried close to his heart, reminding him of a peaceful, isolated life when he returned. Or perhaps it was his self-help book—the remedy to that “…frustrated yearning” which filled him at all stages of his life—all until he went to the woods with his wife Liz. While there, like Mr. Thoreau, Bob Miller itemizes how he spends his money down to the penny, catalogues when seeds sprout from one year to the next, and we can assume, would return tools in better condition than when they were borrowed. The difference between Henry Thoreau and Bob Miller is that Thoreau lived a real life. We all know HDT  lived simply, reflected, set millions of 60’s high school students free from the obscenity of materialism, became intimate with the flora and the fauna, and one could make the case that he was a mensch. What about Bob? Was he living a real life?

It would seem logical that most people like the Millers, who choose to live in nature outside the community, do so because they value simplicity and a shared familial intimacy away from modern distraction. Are they living a simple life? Are they intimate with each other? From the onset, Smiley contrasts appearance with reality, perception with truth. The interview with journalist Tina Morrissey, who is writing a book that features innovative gardeners, exposes the way Bob Miller’s mind operates. In a few pages, we learn that he rejects all things modern—money and schools for example—in favor of barter system and home schooling. It sounds good, especially when we consider the price of goods and the weak public school systems today.  But we must see the Miller farm for the complex organism that it is, led by what today’s psychologists might label an obsessive-compulsive and narcissistic father. Bob’s life is anything but simple, a point Smiley makes with Bob’s over-analysis and perfectionism. And what about shared familial intimacy?  When only a damaged chapter of the book arrives at the Miller postal box, Morrissey’s characterization of the Miller family may be Smiley’s own polemic against controlling parents who do not understand that to live a real life and raise healthy children, they must allow for some freedom in the grey area and let go of their rigid control. The grey area does not exist in Bob’s black and white world of right and wrong. Ironically, it is his neighbor Dr. Lydia Harris, a black woman whose rich life of work, color, modern conveniences, and laughter, undoes Bob’s hermetically sealed weird world with its widgets and homemade cane chairs. In the end, the Miller’s pony Sparkle—symbolic of the joy of letting go, intimacy, the natural world, and their son Tommy’s hopes, drowns in an icy lake and Tommy then burns the Harris home to the ground to get even with his Dad.

Unlike Ivan Ilych, Bob Miller did spend an inordinate amount of time evaluating and reflecting upon his life experience, but when all is said and done, what type of life is it?

In placing him next to my criteria for living a real life, he seems to display a number of admirable traits, but in the end, his shortcomings override his strengths. Smiley does this by opening with a well-engineered sleight of hand, introducing us to a man whom we observe to be an insightful and creative, albeit quirky, individual. Very quickly, perhaps within a short span of five pages, his stream of conscientiousness narration reveals the mind of an oddball—a selfish, smug, insecure survivalist who will sacrifice his son’s well being for individually nicked carrot seeds. We realize at the end that unlike Thoreau, Bob’s life in the woods has failed and though they both end up as “…sojourners [back] in civilized life…”  after their grand experiments in “fronting only the essentials …”  Bob Miller is one of those “mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Should he be faulted for his efforts to design the best life he can literally make for his family? He values hard work, education, simplicity, and family time. Or does he?  He loves his wife and his son, but as the story unfolds, he doesn’t listen to wife Liz or son Tommy, rejecting her need for organized religion and Tommy’s desire for satellite television. And yet, his willingness to share his fears and machinations with the reader contributes to our hopes that the life he is creating will be realized in a healthy marriage and well-adjusted child.

The rest of the story has not been written, but at the conclusion of the novella—with his son a recovering arsonist, his farm sold, and his life in denial “…loitering at the bottom of the ladder…”  Bob shows almost no personal growth or meaningful reflection other than his recalcitrant compartmentalization of the shattered pieces of his life. Bob fails miserably to live a real life. It is no accident that in his new urban life, Smiley sets him down in a biotechnology center—the hub of progress and change—and has him setting “…concrete forms…”  for minimum wage, a perfect complement to his resistance to change, his comfort with the concrete, and his thrifty way of life.

  • With appreciation to Touchstone Pictures and Bill Murray.
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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Does Jane Smiley’s Bob Miller live a real life?

  1. Christopher says:

    Because of the so far overwhelming response to your most thought-provoking posting, I’m adding my own response in the hope that it won’t be swamped by the others.

    An important difference between Thoreau and Bob Miller is that Thoreau lived in the woods by himself, whereas Bob lived in them with his family. But for his family (in particular his son) Bob may have continued to live in the woods for as long as he wanted.

    As for Thoreau, would he have been the same domestic tyrant as Bob, had he had a family with him in the woods?

    Bob seems an intellectual dogmatist. Whether his dogma is religious, political, economic or any other, the intellectual dogmatist prescribes a particular way of living. For him (and it’s almost always a him) the dogma or idea is more important than the people he has power over, whose lives must conform with, or be distorted within, the boundaries of his philosophical or dogmatic box.

    You say of Bob (or is it Jane Smiley who says of Bob?) that “……he loves his wife and his son……”. But, does he really? He may well rationalise that his rejection of Liz’s need of organised religion, and of Tommy’s need of satellite TV, are for their own good. But, isn’t it truer that these needs would threaten Bob’s whole “living in the woods” project, or philosophy?

    Did Bob tell Liz and Tommy that he loved them, or tell them that the hardships and sacrifices of their pristine “lifestyle” were for their own good? If so, Liz and Tommy may have felt guilt in having needs for organised religion and satellite TV. Not necessarily a bad thing, though, for do not love and guilt go together?

    • Cheri says:

      Wonderful comments. Thank you Christopher. You would be a real contribution around our table.
      You make a salient point about the comparison I make between Thoreau and Miller. I hadn’t considered the “family” piece. I think Thoreau wouldn’t have become a tyrant. He tried his hand at teaching (as you can imagine, his students loved him!) but the Board of Education fired him for refusal to spank a child.

      And your idea about the dogmatic box is spot on. In fact, your entire 4th paragraph offers analysis that I wish I had used in the paper…

      I don’t know if he ever told them he loved them but I believe he did.

      Thank you for your comments! I knew when I posted this bit, most people wouldn’t read it…

  2. Cyberquill says:

    This post asks two questions: Explicitly, it asks whether Bob Miller lived a real life. Implicitly, it asks whether—and to what degree—humongous chunks of texts (i.e., not separated into smaller paragraphs) scare off potential readers.

    • dafna says:

      true, when i saw this block of text in my email, i was daunted 😉

      but not for the same reason… jacob has been in and out of hospital (through a series of unfortunate events) and i was afraid i lacked the concentration.

      i will read the comments before i comment on the post, but great essay!! would this book be appropriate for a seventh grader?

      jacob has read and seemed to comprehend “1984”, “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” – Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night Dream” is on this years list.

      • Cheri says:

        Jacob has a keen intellect and please tell him I am impressed with his reading list!
        I’d recommend several book for 7th graders.

        One is entitled Out of the Dust.
        I love teaching Shane to junior high students, boys in particular.

        I received my essay from my professor. He appreciated the work I put into it, especially this section on Bob Miller. Perhaps you can show Jacob. This is a tiny slice of literary analysis. It is my practice not to read any other literary criticism until my work is done.

  3. Cheri says:

    Well, Peter. It takes one to know one…
    😉
    You, however, do divide your polemics into smaller paragraphs which is exactly what I taught in journalism.

    I’m sorry but after living with a lawyer for 40 years, I am not interested in discussion about amendments…shame on me.

    • Cyberquill says:

      My previous “polemic” dealt with God and the afterlife, so according to that defense, you must have been living with a theologian for 40 years as well. So be honest: how many people do you live with? And do they all know about each other?

  4. Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen says:

    Interesting analysis of Smiley’s book, Cheri. I also liked Cyberquill’s question regarding “do families really know each other?” I sincerely doubt it. No one can really “know” another person. We all have the usual psychologist’s “six personas” in a conversation. Who I think I am, who you think I am, and who I really am. As to whether Bob lived a “real” life; as far as his definition went–he did.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Kayti,
      The question remains: are there some universals that we might all agree are part of living a real life?

      Or is every life “real” as defined by the individual living the life?

  5. My way or the highway seems to have been his conception of family life, if I read you well, regardless of the lenght of your paragraphs. I have not read the book and have to rely on your, and Christopher’s analysis.
    Bob ended setting concrete forms, almost a freudian situation.

  6. Cheri says:

    Yes, Paul, good observation! Quite Freudian.

  7. dafna says:

    Well Cheri,

    I have not read the book… but any essay which includes one of my favorite quotes by Thoreau is a hit with me. Another blogger recently shared a personal story from their past to which someone replied something like “that made me cringe with empathy”.

    Your description of “Bob” and supporting details made my skin crawl. If your interpretation of the author’s intention for the character is accurate (which I would presume it is) – I can’t imagine a prototype for a more “wasted life”.

    Well Done!

    I am behind in my blog reading, but I love that you are creating a series of posts which wrestle with a theme.

    • Cheri says:

      I’ve missed you dafna and hope Jacob is OK. Nothing worries us more than our children (and for me, now grandchildren).

      I loved analyzing Bob Miller and since I, myself, have been wrestling with this theme, it seems natural to apply my criteria to literary characters too.

  8. dafna says:

    …there is an expression, i wonder if you have heard it? it would seem that “Bob” either did not or could not get it.

    “we often behave in a manner that achieves the exact opposite of the results we are seeking”

    i don’t know the source of the expression, but it rings true and for some people it’s just a trait of human nature.

  9. Man of Roma says:

    By Thoreau I just remember his ‘renew thyself!’. Did he jump into a lake after having said that? I forgot.

  10. Cheri says:

    Hi Giovanni,
    The quotation you are remembering is from Emerson, I believe.

    “Trust thyself!”

    I’m not sure if HDT jumped into a lake. Emerson definitely did NOT. He liked his tea and toast inside the house and was a bit of a fuddy-duddy.

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