playing off “Jackson’s Dilemma”

This embedded link entry’s title, “Jackman’s Dilemma” plays off the title Jackson’s Dilemma, a mid-1990s novel by Englishwoman Iris Murdoch.

The novel is set in both London and the rural estate surroundings of the Village of Lipcott. The nearby River Lip runs through these estates near the eponymous village. Lipcott is shown interested in family doings, much like any rural community — invested in the interest and entertainment of its attentive gossip and surmise. Much like the Upper Midwestern American town, Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie, and other rural communities like Jackman Maine, and my town-fiction, Gottheim.


We’re almost 50 pages into the story before Jackson even shows up on the page, a mere mentioned, perhaps a servant? Later we see that Jackson seems to have been homeless, living under a bridge, even almost before his “dilemma” begins, before one of the estate “set” on the River Lip took him on as man-of-all-work: a definitive servant, mysterious, gentle, quiet, attentive hard-working, discreet and capable of being lent to his employer’s friends. Being the title character, his presence in the story is doubly mysterious to the reader because his is such a low profile, more of a scattered reference but gradually coming into focus. Readers become aware of his close infiltration in all lives in this novel. This is never sinister, but, at least one of the characters, his employer Benet, is conflicted about him. Is he really to be trusted? Is he not taking advantage in order to be part of the others’ lives? Is he really thoughtful, wise, and kind, or full of ulterior motive?

In this novel the villagers are a sort of chorus to the action, which is one funeral and (eventually) three weddings. The village is not to be transformed in any way as in the villages mentioned above. No one thinks of this, least of all Jackson. His thoughts are seldom known to readers, while this helper’s activities are shown in all their light and dark, their goodwill and chaos, their love, failure (or is there failure?), and even remorse. Remorse is one of the novel’s great themes. Even this Jackson person knows chaotic remorse—has he done right in sharing the letter as instructed, is he right to surprise Marian with a visit to her lover—what will become of the two lovers? And there are other questions he mulls as he goes about his quiet and skilled substantive servant’s work.

You see, he is a sort of meddler, a would be transformer — not of the town but of a few people’s pitiable and squalid individual lives. By squalid I don’t mean coarse or low because these people are educated, seem almost independently wealthy, some of them; some seem poor, including Jackson who does his own uncertain-feeling level best to help all. And it is this spirit, almost a moral, mental, spiritually sacredly deep concern of Jackson’s, setting him apart from the town transformers mentioned above.

Is it that a hamlet, village, or rural town is just too great for a would-be transformer to work with—as in this case Jackson? Say of Lipcott? Or—even—London? London, where Benet first encountered and wanted nothing whatever to do with Jackson. He handed Jackson some money to make him go away, but unaccountably Jackson wanted no money. “May I be of some help to you? Some use?” Jackson also exhibits the nonprofit innocence mentioned in town would-be transformers here in the essay. Yet, paradoxically, his quiet grandiosity exceeds that of the town manager, the librarian, the sociologist — with their magnificent town visions. Jackson in this novel is everywhere a puzzle. A couple characters, where relevant, likening him to Hindu gods in their settings and mutations — dying living dying living. Elsewhere a character thinks of Caliban and Prospero. And when things get hard for the servant Jackson: it becomes Christ on the cross. Mentioned—in italics. In this masterful Jackson’s Dilemma Jackson is both elusive and allusive — like God.

We recognize the undergirding, upholding of God in this character. The extra added burden on this God is the inner confusion and concern, even worry, of his own chaotic approach to the charges he clearly but disinterestedly loves.

This is a far far greater mission than small-town visionary transformation. Jackson wants to transform the very lives of those he serves. Not their persons, personalities, morals, wills, spirits, but a sort of intuitive what-goes-on. What oh what kind of vision is this? Does he have any idea? Any?

That Jackson is an innocent is plain to all who read this novel. Jackson is innocent! He is an innocent to all characters but Owen (who knows he is innocent, but sometimes hopes not) — and employer Benet sees him not as an innocent. Benet is by turns angry, distrusting, dismissive. Benet who is the truly impotent meddler, who not unkindly wants desperately to arrange lives so he might be somewhat comforted in the loss of Uncle Tim, by a congregant of happy friends and intimates close by.

But on a bridge in London — perhaps the bridge under which he first spied Jackson — halfway between opposite banks of the river, suffering Benet is able at last, and with much hesitation and contrition, suffering and uncertainty, to extend humble apologies, virtually without hope to the one who has been his friend, suffering friend, all along.

Benet has been a student of philosophy, a generous man, constantly helped back from the emotional chaos inherent in human life, human condition. The mysterious Jackson actually shared in that human chaos with him. But with this difference. Jackson is not impotent, while sharing all the pain of impotence.

senator collins supports jackman maine in its decision

Near the end of the book he sits down at the table with other guests, sharing in their talk, with Benet and the others (his talk has not been given but one character’s speculative vision of him has). Jackson is seen by her in the midst of transfigurations innumerable and as seen in literature, myth. But also in addition to narrative reality, a meta reality is expressed in the living-dying-living he experiences at the end. The first time I read this book, I thought he was perhaps a purposefully confused creative rendition of God. The writer was never confused, but masterful in her expressions of him and all situations in this book, passing back-and-forth through time, cogently. With this my second (and perhaps last) reading, the last of Jackson in the book seems an admirable, honorable, masterful expression of the onset of suffering that we must suppose our Lord and Savior also bore with him upon the cross. It, I do believe, is transformative of Everything.


we plan on closing  the green and blue house in may

4 responses

  1. Oh, lovely. Thank you for this review. Sometimes those “older” novels get it right, but force you to think deeply before you get there. Which is not entirely a bad thing.

    Closing down the blog? Oh, I’m sad to hear that….


    • so thoroughly taken with Jackson’s Dilemma first time i read it. i loved her The Green Knight and read this afterward for that reason.

      thanks for this kind response. don’t know if it’ll actually happen but that is the plan now.


  2. Pingback: Jackman’s Dilemma « The Green and Blue House

  3. adding here: there are lots of engaging ways to read this book. my reading, and writing about, works here with the analogy on the would-be transformer. the town of Jackman’s name kept suggesting this many faceted novel, read several years ago. on rereading, and with a bit of tinkering, i found it fit. one can find branches throwing themselves out if one looks long enough. live connections can be made with disparate scions. (or would that be desperate?)


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