In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's second novel, the Reverend John Ames writes to his young son to give him a sense of his deep family history and the father he will never really know. Gilead's letters reveal John's lifelong pursuit of personal integrity in his religious life and personal relationships, and they are filled with exclamations of love for his wife and son. The book has no formal chapter breaks, and the “letters” are separated only by spaces inserted in the text when the subject being covered comes to closure or Ames decides to ponder something else. For some readers this may seem like one long rambling narrative, but the text suggests otherwise.
John sometimes tells his son it is afternoon, or that he can see him playing outside with a friend on a summer morning as he writes. He may mention that dinner is about ready or that he will write more on a subject the next time he sits down at his desk. In this way, the narrative's organization lends the rambling quality of a long conversation with a friend one knows well. John does change subjects from one section to another, but he often doubles back on his thoughts, returning to themes to reiterate advice or justify his behavior to the grown son he will never know. The only dramatic break in the text comes after page 214; there, nearly two blank pages precede the book's final thirty pages. In those thirty pages the reader finds answers to questions that have lurked under the novel's surface almost from the beginning.
Robinson's meditative novel is not plot-driven but instead follows the progression of John's thoughts on theology, philosophy, relationships, and small-town life that he has formulated in his nearly eight decades of existence. The stories related are the focused musings of a man who wants to pass on to his son his life-knowledge and some sense of his character, as well as his vulnerabilities in so far as they may be expressed through words. There is a rough chronology, dictated partly by subjects he includes. John writes of three eras in his life: his childhood, his life and loneliness as a young minister, and his surprising life as a married man and father. Robinson also makes chronology serve the intellect of her main character, a man whose pondering of theology, philosophy, and human behavior knits his existence into a type of exegetical cross-referencing that includes personal memory as well as learned texts and Scripture.
In addition, John pays particular attention to his life's Midwestern setting. He tells of accompanying his father to Kansas at a young age, in search of his grandfather's grave. Near the grave, the pair stand in prayer one evening, and the sun and moon are both luminous and visible. For a “boy who hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon,” the young Ames feels the particular wonder of that moment. His father remarks that he “would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.” Readers understand that the negative assessment of the landscape was colored by a sharp disagreement between Ames's progenitors.
Early on, the weight of the personal influences the sense of place. John's older brother, Edward, tells him, “this [Gilead] is a backwater—you must be aware of that already. Leaving here is like waking from a trance.” Edward takes his own advice and lives and studies in Europe for some time. The younger Ames never does leave Gilead. In his seventy-sixth year he is writing, “I have lived my life on the prairie, and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.”
These instances and remarks frame several of the novel's central themes: the quest for understanding and reconciliation between fathers and sons; considerations of death, both one's own and that of others in the intimate circle; the savoring of shining moments; and the essential loneliness of people on the prairie or in small towns. The drought-ridden territories between Iowa and Kansas form a perfect metaphorical backdrop for the withering anger that kept John's father at odds with his own father. Having held a long grudge about his father's warlike, abolitionist activities, he needs to pray over the grave to settle his own demons. Another father-son pair in the book is the writer of the letters and his own small son, a boy mentioned quite often in the text but one who remains unnamed and rarely speaks or takes an active role. Their affectionate attachment to each other stands as a foil for the failed relationship John observed between his father and grandfather. Then there is Jack Boughton, the son of John's oldest friend, referred to throughout the novel as Old Boughton.
Jack is actually named after John, and his arrival in Gilead after a long absence makes his restrained father, a Presbyterian minister, weep with joy. However, Jack brings considerable unrest with...
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Sources for Further Study
Acocella, Joan. “A Note of the Miraculous.” The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2005. Appreciative and insightful analysis of Gilead, especially with regard to its religious and political themes.
The Atlantic Monthly 294, no. 5 (December, 2004): 135.
Bendis, Debra. “A Pastoral Voice.” The Christian Century, April 4, 2006. An interview with Robinson in which she discusses her inspiration for Gilead and her views on the ministry, the soul, and the Protestant tradition of social activism.
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