Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The theology of John Calvin permeates this novel, especially the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which is introduced in the context of whether Jack Boughton can repent and reform. Boughton’s story also references the New Testament’s parable of the prodigal son; it is possible that he will be like that scapegrace son who returned to his father and was forgiven. Marilynne Robinson gives her town the biblically based name of Gilead to pursue this theme of forgiveness. The town’s name makes reference to the prophet Jeremiah’s quest for a balm in Gilead that would heal the wounds of battle. Jack, in returning to his hometown, is looking for a similar healing and reconciliation, one that will also represent a racial reconciliation for America as a whole.
The Christian convictions of John Ames III require a fearless soul-searching, especially with regard to giving his blessing to Jack Boughton. Despite the challenges represented by Boughton and by a secular modernity, Ames retains a Christian faith that informs all his actions, including his forgiveness of Jack. He continues to affirm his father’s pacifist sentiments when he foregrounds the Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) as the one most important to him. Even more, Ames’s invocation of this commandment affirms the Christian value in which he believes most strongly: the sacredness of the human creature. Related to this is his gratitude for the gift of life, including everyday...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
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Father and Son Relationships
The most important theme in Gilead pertains to the difficulty in making connection across the generations, particularly between fathers and sons. In some places in the novel, this difficulty is explored in terms of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Indeed, in several cases in the novel, the son's decision to leave (leave the family home town, leave the faith) is understood by the father as a "defection," (the military term suggests both cowardice and disloyalty). The father and son feel rejection, and anger simmers between the two.
The grandfather left Maine to fight for abolition in Kansas, to join the Union Army in the Civil War; as he aged and perhaps even more so after he was wounded in battle (losing his eye, losing his depth perception), he became all the more radical and eccentric. He gave sermons with a gun in his belt, urging people to fight for what is right, and continued doing so, even when he was mostly addressing widows and mothers whose husbands and sons had died in the war. This stance enraged his son, the narrator's father, also a minister in the same Protestant sect, causing him to walk out on the grandfather's sermon and worship with the Quakers. This defection by the father angered the grandfather so much he decided to leave Gilead and return to Kansas, where he remained until his death. The irony is that the breach between generations is a snag that holds the two connected, even...
(The entire section is 1660 words.)