Lila: A Meditation on Imagination, Empathy, Community,and Grace

The back cover synopsis of an ignited romance between a homeless woman and a preacher in a small Iowa town set my expectation for Marilynne Robinson’s Lila on a different path than what my experience of reading the book actually was. What I had guessed to be a story about star-crossed lovers something more akin to a Nicholas Sparks novel turned out to be a deep meditation on imaginative identification, pity, and compassion. No sooner did I read the first page than I was placed right next to a cold frightened little girl on a stoop in the dark of night who is stolen away by an equally lonely vagrant girl named Doll. And from that cold doorstep, me and the child who becomes Lila, were swept away into a life of a wandering nomad and unexpectedly becoming a preacher’s wife. The magic of imagination was at work as I somehow identified strongly with Lila– a fictional character. And this is precisely what I hope to tackle in this paper. Lila has lived a hard life, and as the novel progresses, she continually reflects on her past– it’s always disturbing her. And by proxy, I the reader, am always reflected and being disturbed by it in the same way she is. This kind of shared experience can only be had in fiction and sometimes, as it was with me, the proximity can almost feel a little uncomfortable simply because there is no equivalent for the experience outside of the written word.

Imagination and Community, a chapter from an insightful book by Marilynne Robinson, is a look at how people can be knit together into a community through this imaginative identification. In it she marvels at the “extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said”(When I Was a Child, 20).  A work of fiction, like Lila, can be uncomfortable because it’s prodding at things that cannot be said, only experienced. And in the real world, a shared experience of one person literally experiencing another’s experience is an impossibility(until maybe science catches up to science fiction). To experience in fiction something that can’t be had in the real world is a little jarring. But with the same stroke that Lila afflicts upon the reader the burden of imaginative identification, it also provides the means to heal that affliction. At the end of the novel, Lila is finally able to find solace with her past through an imaginative identification with the lives and burdens of others. In the same way, the reader finds solace with Lila’s past as well as the otherness of people in the real world through the act of imaginative identification. I argue that metatextually Robinson not only teaches us how to read Lila but also teaches the reader pity and compassion through imaginative identification.


Imaginative Empathy

The first thing that needs to be unpacked a little is the idea of how fiction can teach us sympathetic compassion through empathy. Empathy is defined as understanding and sharing in feelings with others which ties it closely with imaginative identification. Thanks to the magic of mirror neurons, our brains have empathy wired in. These special neurons in the brain fire when we actually do something or when we watch others do something as though we, the observer, were doing it(Keysers, 191-93). A simple example of this is watching someone experience happiness– or a more colloquial term, we get the warm fuzzies. There have been many studies performed on mirror neurons and observing real people, but there have been very few studies done on whether or not this same experience can be had observing imagined or fictional people. It’s mostly been assumed the effect remains the same because it’s hard to read any story without feeling some empathy.

However, recently a handful of professors at Washington and Lee University conducted a study about how reading fiction can induce prosocial behavior, or, compassionate acts from the reader. Their hypothesis was that increased empathic imagery in fiction increases empathy and prosocial behavior. The participants in the study were given three randomly assigned versions of the same story. Each version was primed with different levels of empathic imagery, like a character whose family can’t afford to buy a bike, to assist the reader’s immersive experience. After the participants read the story they were asked if they would participate in a voluntary survey from some other struggling scientists with a reimbursement of only $0.05. There was no coercion or social pressure by the surveyors who were not in the room. There were three options for the participant, accept the the $0.05 survey, decline the $0.05 survey, or take other surveys which reimbursed time spent with more money. The professor’s hypothesis was supported heavily by the results which showed that participants with the empathic imagery laden story were 3x as likely to take the $0.05 survey than the participants that read the control(with little to no imagery).

The study goes on to state that “readers imagine what the characters must be feeling, rather than how she/he, the reader, would feel in the same situation. For instance, instead of feeling sadness with a character, the reader feels compassion for the character”(Johnson, 306). In the case of Lila, almost every character in the novel has lived a life full of sadness and loneliness. If it weren’t for this strange effect of fictional imaginative identification to drive towards compassion rather than raw sadness, the novel would be suffocating. They also found that those warm fuzzy feelings we get when observing someone engage in a compassionate act, fictional or not, “induce feelings of elevation and prosocial behavior”(307). So when we read about how Doll, Lila’s rescuer, saved her from rainy stoop in the middle of the night, the elevation we feel is the story inducing us to be equally compassionate to pitiable souls.

Ultimately, the results of this study overwhelmingly showed that reading stories about fictional people and imaginatively identifying with the characters has a positive effect on our behavior. As I touched on above and more below, Lila is an emotionally heavy book. Each page is practically dripping in feelings of one sort or another– it’s tangible. However, sadness of the character’s lives in the novel stands as a background to contrast the shining moments of prosocial behavior, or compassionate acts made by the characters.


Old and New

Lila had a hard life to say the least. Rather than summarize large swaths of the novel, I’ll briefly show how Lila is a very damaged soul. She was abandoned as a child, saved by someone she didn’t know and initially fought against, lived the life a vagrant wanderer traveling to and fro looking any job she could do, has intense feelings of shame and guilt for not being raised like others and potentially being ignorant. She has a thirst for learning but this is stifled as school is hard to do when you’re wandering the countryside in search for your next meal. And on top of everything Lila is extremely reflective of herself and is always trying to guess what other people are thinking (imaginative identification). But the lowlight of all this is how painfully obvious it is that she is very damaged by her past. How could you not be with a life like that. She was heavily influenced by the lives of those around her.

Many of the figures in Lila’s old life were not what you’d call overly good people. Doll being the clearest example. She is a very broken human being who is absolutely a product of her environment. Bitter, ungrateful, and overly suspicious, always watching her back– Doll would not be considered a role model for Lila. One of the last actions of Doll’s life is getting into a knife fight and killing a man that could potentially have been Lila’s father. And on top of all that, she isn’t baptized, something that presses on Lila’s mind as she consider the Christian Judgement.. Lila can reason with and at the very least accept Doll’s actions, but it becomes a problem for her that God’s Judgement would exclude Doll from Heaven and even condemn her to Hell because of her actions. And it isn’t just Doll Lila is worried about. It’s all those other people, too, that she had known in her old life: Doane, Marcelle, Mellie, Mrs., and many more characters who go unnamed who act as surrogate family. She’s even worried about the girls from a whorehouse in St. Louis Lila worked at for a time. All these people have ever known is a hard life and no one’s helped them with any of it like Ames has for Lila by sharing his life with her. According to Lila, most the vagrants had been kind to her; afterall it was Doll’s extremely compassionate act of pity that set the rest of the novel in motion. She saved a starving and abandoned child when she herself barely had the means to survive. It makes her feel incredibly lonely thinking about all those kind people who never had a chance for heaven; lost and forever kept out because no one had helped them as she had been helped. This train of thought leads her to hating the doctrine of resurrection because it would mean that Doll would be scarcely alive again before she had to answer for all her poor actions. Better Doll stay dead, Lila thinks, safe from any judgment.

This theme of happening upon an equally pathetic creature such as yourself and yet offering subsistence is perhaps the underlying current, or driver of action in the novel. Lila encounters a verse in The Bible quite fortuitously as she lets the book fall open, Ezekiel 16:4-6. It reads,

“And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the loathing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.”

She turns down the page and copies the words into her notebook and she begins thinking about the verses. Who had pitied her? She thinks of Doll and how she had stolen her off that porch. Doll had pitied Lila. It is this act of grace set the events of the novel in motion. And it’s something Lila continually thinks about and on some level influences her to take pity on others.


The Grace of Imaginative Identification

It is with the imaginative empathy of narrative that Lila has an incredible strength. With her writing, Robinson puts the reader in close proximity to Lila and her thoughts as she encounters new people and ideas. She writes the novel with a very tight third person perspective. However, this is not omniscient third person where the narrator of the book has a god’s eye view into every character’s thoughts and motives. Rather, this is a very subjective third person where nothing is known by the reader except what Lila knows or thinks, and what can be inferred from the text. It almost feels like you’re intruding in Lila’s life– like a form of eavesdropping. Not eavesdropping as in hearing the juicy details of someone’s life, but in the sense that the flow of the narrative is woven tightly with Lila’s own personal thoughts. And being privy to those thoughts is at times saddening as I described above in my experience with the book. My heart broke many times as Robinson’s writing placed me close enough to the action to feel as Lila felt and to think as she thought. Lila is an absolute pathetic creature in the truest sense of the word. This proximity to Lila that the narrative builds makes the reader feel as though they know Lila in almost a divine way. Especially in light of the discussions between Ames and Lila, God is a very real presence in the novel. I think Robinson has crafted the narrative to make the reader feel as though they know Lila better and more intimately than any other character in the story. And that’s part of the oddness of it– it’s uncomfortable to know someone as fully as that. The presence of God in the book mixed with a very personal empathy and compassion engaging perspective-taking certainly begs the question of grace. John Ames says at one point “the Grace of God is very mysterious” after he and Lila discuss its effect on the lives of those who might be damned simply because they never were baptized(Robinson, Lila, 31). In order to understand empathetic grace in Lila, it might first be helpful to turn to a parallel.

In that same Imagination and Community essay, Robinson writes that “community… consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly”(When I Was a Child, 21) The theme of imaginative love has already been unpacked but the idea of community and perhaps even Divine Communion is next. A communion is the exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on spiritual level. Not coincidentally a Sacramental Christian worship ceremony bears the same name. When Communion is offered and taken an imaginative interplay takes place. A wafer or bread and some wine or water stand in as an imaginative substitute for the body and blood of Christ. If it weren’t symbolically imaginative and it was actually the piece of flesh and a swig of blood, the ceremony would be borderline ludicrous. However, it is through the participant’s imagination that Communion becomes real and saving. Also, the God of Christianity is very hard to conceptually hold in the mind. It is a current impossibility for humans to wrap their minds around something infinite in every way. So understanding God mostly outside our reach. However, as Robinson said, a Communion “consists of imaginative love for people (God )whom we do not know or know slightly.” If God’s Grace is what saves a Christian, then it is quite literally through the imagination that they are saved. There is a dual imaginative identification going on as they identify as Christ and He identifies as them through the Communion. Truly imagination is a remarkable doctrine.

While Robinson doesn’t explicitly deal with Christian Communion in Lila, Baptism is a central theme as Lila gets baptized and wonders about the non-baptisms of the people in her past. But the Bible portrays Baptism as an imaginative act in Romans 6:4, “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Thus we can safely compare Baptism and Communion as accomplishing the same end but with different symbolic and imaginative vehicles.

As Lila becomes Ames’ wife, mother of a child, and baptized Christian she struggles to reconcile her new life with her old one. Her encounters with The Bible and the general religious nature of the town and her husband constantly pit the figures of her past against her ever growing spiritual knowledge. The two worlds seem incompatible with each other as far as she can tell. And it is through her empathic imagination that she is able to find any solace. But armed with the Communion and imaginative identification definition of grace, we can hope to understand Lila’s reconciliation with her past.


Truth and Reconciliation

At the end of the novel, Lila has an epiphany reconciling her to her old life and it comes from her empathic imagination. The two lives are in such dissonance because of Lila’s growing belief in Christianity and by extension, Judgement. She is thinking again about those she knew who had showed some kindness or compassion to her or others. Doane tying a ribbon around Marcelle’s ankle, Mellie singing to a baby, and Doll saving a child from a terrible family. In a conversation with Lila about his very thing, Ames says “thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin.” He goes on to say that “thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should”(101). Through the character of Ames, Robinson reinforces the idea that imagination is powerful, and even potentially dangerous if used in the wrong way. So rather than imaging hell Lila imagines that for those who had to muster “all the courage they had just to be good”(259), eternity can fit them; it is big enough for them exactly as they are. Lila portrays Heaven as Community is the truest sense with real imagined love knitting them together. But perhaps by then we will have transcended imaginative identification and have a more divine experiential identification, the ability to see others as God sees them. Robinson almost portrays it as if there were a delicate interplay between her imagination and the actual saving Grace offered by God. It is Lila who feels reconciling and saving empathy towards those who were likewise moved by some sort of empathic imagination to be gracious in her past. And that is the point of the novel, to quote Ezekiel again, “when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” Through the Baptismal Communion with God, He says unto us in our blood, and especially after we’ve consumed his imaginary blood, Live. This Grace God extends to us through Communion and the compassion Lila feels for those ghosts of her past bleeds through the written page to the reader. When we as readers imaginatively identify with Lila, our mirror neurons are triggered. We feel compassion for her and those she cares so deeply about. Our empathic imaginations are activated and we are induced to prosocial and compassionate action to say unto those in their blood, Live.



Anderst, Leah. “Feeling With Real Others: Narrative Empathy In the Autobiographies of Doris Lessing and Alison Bechdel.” Narrative 23.3 (2015): 271–290. Web.

Banks, R., Robinson, M., Stone, R., Rieff, D., & Boyers, R. “Talking About American Fiction”. Salmagundi 93 (1992): 61–77. Web.

“Bible Hub: Search, Read, Study the Bible in Many Languages.” Bible Hub: Search, Read, Study the Bible in Many Languages. Web. 17 Dec. 2015.

Johnson, Dan R. et al. “Potentiating Empathic Growth: Generating Imagery While Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Prosocial Behavior.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 7.3 (2013): 306–312. Web.

Katsafanas, Paul. “Nietzsche On Agency and Self-Ignorance.” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 43.1 (2012): 5–17. Web.

Keysers, Christian. “Mirror Neurons.” Current Biology 19.21 (2009). Web.

Robinson, Marilynne. Lila. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014. Print.

Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.

Painter, R. M. “Loyalty Meets Prodigality: The Reality Of Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction.” Christianity & Literature 59.2 (2010): 321–340. Web.


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