Study Guide

Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Marilynne Robinson’s novels have achieved critical acclaim: Housekeeping (1980) won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and an Ambassador Book Award. Her third novel, Home (2008), was a finalist for the National Book Award. Robinson also is known for her articles, book reviews, interviews, and outstanding nonfiction, including Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989) and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998).

Epistolary novels, such as Gilead, tend to be static. Action can lose its immediacy because that action must be conveyed in the form of a letter from one character to another. Additionally, virtuous protagonists, especially clergymen, often appear flat and uninteresting. It is a great credit, then, to Robinson that she masterfully turns these liabilities to her advantage. By employing the second-person narrator, inherent in letter form, Robinson creates not distance but an intimacy with her reader just as her character John Ames attempts to do with his son. As Ames sets on paper his memories, delights, worries, and experience, the reader takes in, as Ames’s son presumably will one day, the complex and thoughtful inner life of a man struggling to live so that his actions are consistent with his understanding of Christian spirituality.

Because Robinson is able to expose the full humanity of Ames without sentimentality, readers are given not a wearisome stereotype but a rich and compelling...

(The entire section is 679 words.)