John Ames wrestles with several internal struggles throughout Gilead . As he nears the end of his life, he wonders if he has left anything meaningful behind for his young son, and he also navigates a strained relationship with his best friend's son, John Ames Boughton. He grapples with these...
John Ames wrestles with several internal struggles throughout Gilead. As he nears the end of his life, he wonders if he has left anything meaningful behind for his young son, and he also navigates a strained relationship with his best friend's son, John Ames Boughton. He grapples with these struggles primarily through the letters he writes to his son and through deep spiritual reflection. By way of these reflections, the novel presents Ames as a wise, thoughtful, and resilient character, despite his flaws.
Ames does not entirely resolve any of his struggles before the end of the novel. However, as he writes, he is able to express his doubts and examine the tensions inherent in the issues he faces. Ames most fundamental struggle is his love for his wife and young son: he has deep affection for both of them, but he knows his declining health means he will soon leave them. He also knows that because of his age, he has not been able to provide for them to the extent that he would have liked. For example, he can't play with the son the way younger fathers can, nor can he provide much support financially or otherwise for his wife. However, in leaving behind this letter for his son, he feels that he is leaving behind something meaningful that can compensate, at least in part, for his shortcomings in other areas. He provides his son with reflections on family lineage, and he reflects on his own failures and experiences—particularly the loss of his wife and child earlier in life—in hopes of preventing his son from making the same mistakes. Writing the letter does not necessarily assuage all of his guilt, but it provides him with a sense of closure and finality as he approaches the end of his life.
Another struggle Ames faces is his relationship with John Ames (Jack) Boughton. Jack Boughton is essentially a foil for Ames; whereas Ames has led a relatively quiet life without much scandal, Jack is a boisterous, undisciplined young man whose unpredictability has caused his family great distress. Ames openly admits that he doesn't particularly care for nor trust Jack, and he is forced to confront his feelings when Jack suddenly returns to Gilead after a lengthy absence. Ames is reluctant to let Jack spend time with his wife and son, and he is very suspicious of his motives for returning to Gilead. Ames's relationship with Jack challenges the limits of his spiritual call to love others without condition. He writes in depth about this conflict, but he also addresses it by forcing himself to give Jack the benefit of the doubt. Ames and Jack regularly engage in theological discussions, and Ames offers Jack gentle spiritual guidance, despite his concerns about Jack's character. In extending this grace to Jack, he is able to appreciate the more reflective side of Jack's character and forgive himself for not being an adequate mentor earlier in Jack's life.
While neither of these conflicts are completely resolved, it is perhaps Ames's contentedness with these lingering uncertainties that demonstrate the strength of his character. He doesn't know if his son will really remember or appreciate him years down the road, yet he offers him the letter in good faith. He doesn't know if Jack Boughton can really change, but he chooses to love and support him regardless. Ames acknowledges that he isn't perfect—he is in fact keenly aware of his own shortcomings—but his dedication to his principles in the face of uncertainty makes him an admirable character.