Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

I have put off reading Gilead (2004) for years. It’s not that it didn’t interest me. On the contrary, I’ve pulled it off the shelf many times. But I always put it back, knowing I would get to it someday. Well, after reading and loving Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and now that her third novel Home was a finalist for the National Book Award and now the National Book Critics Circle Award, the time has arrived.

gilead

If you’re a grown man when you read this — it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then — I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

Those are the words of Robinson’s exquisite narrator, John Ames, to his almost seven-year-old (nameless) son, his only living offspring (more than half a life ago he had a wife who died giving birth to his daughter who also died). Thus begins one of the most complex and well-crafted narrative structures I’ve ever seen, a structure where the various segments interact with one another.

Born in 1880, John Ames lived his whole life in Gilead, Iowa, which looks “like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more.” Ames is now dying of old age — he’s nearly 77 years old. As you can see, he’s come to his family very late in life and, feeling blessed, regrets all the same that he will never live to see a child of his grow old. So he’s taking the time to write this journal as a sort of letter across the decades for his son when he’s grown.

Ames is a Congregationalist minister, as were his father and grandfather before him. As he writes for his son, Ames uses the journal to teach but also to reflect and sort out his own life, at times frustrated by his own inability to express what he wants:

I have tried to keep the Gospel before me as a standard for my life and my preaching. And yet there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman’s face.

Knowing he can’t have much longer, he begins the book preoccupied with death. But even while Ames expresses a subdued anxiety about his death, he wants to teach his son a few lessons that might be important to learn from a father were he able to live long enough to teach them. Of particular importance to Ames is teaching his son of the value of the individual. As he’s interacted with his flock through the decades, Ames has come to realize the vast depth in each being:

That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of live, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.

[. . . .]

When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescences in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.

While speaking to and of his young son, Ames finds it easy to express pure love for his son’s existence (“You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.”). He has no need to question his young son’s goodness. Though he tells his son he will love him absolutely, no matter what he does in his later life, Ames fully expects his son to turn out to be an upstanding individual.

However, as the book progresses we learn of Ames’s best friend, Old Boughton, a Presbyterian minister. They grew up together and now both are suffering the last years of their lives (“Jesus never had to be old,” says Boughton). Boughton’s family has grown old around him. His wife is dead, and his children have all grown up and have all moved away except for Glory, who has come home to watch after her dying father.

Every once in a while in the letter/journal, Ames brings up one of his and Boughton’s supreme disappointments: John Ames “Jack” Boughton, Boughton’s son and Ames’s godson. Jack was an awful child who, for all we know, grew into an awful adult. He’s a drunk, and he hasn’t been around for years. But, about halfway through the narrative, Jack returns home (incidentally, this is also the topic of Robinson’s new book Home).

Smoothly, Ames’s journal shifts from being a predominantly an epistle to his son to his own reflections on this failed “son.” At first Ames’s doesn’t want to tell too much because, after all, his young son does not need to know everything. However, the letter becomes for Ames a way of understanding his own self even as he attempts to convey that self to his child.

Ames’s detests Jack. He can’t stand the fact that though he’s been such a disappointment, Jack remains Boughton’s favorite child, a son who brings so much pain but whom Boughton forgives again and again. Ames struggles to find a way out of his resentment, out of his jealousy, out of his basic hatred. Worse, Ames’s wife and son have taken to Jack and Ames doesn’t know how to warn them off.

The truth is, as I stood there in the pulpit, looking down on the three of you, you looked to me like a handsome young family, and my evil old heart rose within me, the old covetise I have mentioned elsewhere came over me, and I felt the way I used to feel when the beauty of other lives was a misery and and offense to me. And I felt as if I were looking back from the grave.

This novel is fantastically complex in the way Robinson layers one father/son relationship on top of another, all to explore the vast landscape of those relationships: the love, the disappointment from father and from son, the need to be close and the need to be separated.

Further, it’s brilliant how well Robinson juxtaposes Ames’s preaching about how to have godly love by recognizing merely the miracle of someone’s existence with Ames’s own hatred of this one individual who still calls him Papa.

After reading Housekeeping and now Gilead, I place Robinson in the forefront of American authors. Her collection of novels may be sparse, but in them lies more material than in a lifetime of work from many of the most prolific authors. Her writing skill is matched by her insights into the human condition, both from a spiritual perspective and from a purely humanistic perspective. This is not a polemic. Robinson is not preaching here through the voice of her preacher. While the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son is an obvious subtext, belief in divinity of any sort is not necessary to enjoy what this book has to offer. It’s a brilliant character study, and John Ames and Jack Boughton are incredibly well drawn. Furthermore, the aesthetics of Robinson’s limpid prose: it’s a rare treat to have form and substance and the weight of a cultural past all packed together in diction.

I’ll leave you with one more thought from Ames (I couldn’t resist):

Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

28 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

  1. Steph says:

    Much like you, I have been influenced by President Obama with respect to some of my literary choices (I picked up a copy of “Song of Solomon” while at the used bookstore a few weeks ago), and also like you, I have had “Gilead” sitting on my shelf unread for quite some time. Your provocative review reinforces that I really do need to pick it up and give it a go!

  2. Trevor says:

    I’m anxious to see what you think of Song of Solomon, Steph. I haven’t read anything by Toni Morrison except for Beloved which I didn’t like at the time (but feel a strong urge to revisit).

    And I don’t think you’ll go wrong picking up Gilead. I know a few trusted commenters on my post on Housekeeping said they quickly forgot about Gilead, but I don’t think that will be the case for me.

  3. Isabel says:

    I like your last quotation. I hope that the US doesn’t become another “preceeding civilization” anytime soon.

    I am happy to know that the President likes to read. I hope that he finds the time to continue to do so. He has lots of problems to solve!

  4. Nathan says:

    Great comments on Robinson, especially about her diction and form. She’s as strong a writer about faith as we have–much different in tone and style than Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy. Some of her broken characters (like Jack Boughton) remind me of the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Here’s a quote from Gilead I love:
    “I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. And yet no one can say what Being is.”

  5. Stewart says:

    I read this a few years back because of its Pulitzer win and remember very little of it, other than that I really had to push my way through it and something about carrots. While the language was nice in places, the overall feeling was one of complete boredom. Ames, as a character, did nothing for me whatsoever. Actually, I remember that after finishing it, I was so tired, that it was weeks before I was able to sit down and enjoy the experience of reading again.

  6. Trevor says:

    Hey Stewart, I think it is interesting how two thoughtful readers (I consider you and me to be thoughtful here) can come up with such different opinions on a book – not just on the topic but on the writing itself. Your comments made me reflect a bit on why it was so powerful to me. I think it might be because of my sons. Even when John Ames is rambling a bit, attempting to express his feelings, I was completely enthralled. It felt so precise, despite the circumlocution. So perhaps parenthood is an important element when reading this book (not to make parenthood a precondition to enjoyment or a guarantee that the book will mean more). I’m sure it affected my reading because I supplemented the text with my own deep feelings.

    Do you remember why carrots stood out to you? Very interesting that carrots stood out to you, Stewart, since the word carrot is in the book only once (if Amazon Reader is truly reliable) when John Ames is writing about when he and his father went to search for the grandpa’s grave in Kansas. The father was picking a carrot in someone’s yard when that someone arrived with a gun.

    Isabel and Nathan, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your bringing up Flannery O’Connor, Nathan. Another author with religious themes that don’t require a religious background. Now, I’ve had my eye on Walker Percy but haven’t read him yet. He’s in my Amazon cart, but he’s been there for about a year now.

  7. Trevor says:

    Here’s another thought: I wonder how much being brought up under the historical and cultural weight of the United States affects a reading of this book. Again, not to suggest that those who didn’t are deficient and cannot understand this book, but I think having the reconstructive period, the Great Depression, and the spiritual Mid-West enmeshed in your mind might bring this book to life. I’d love to hear what people think here.

  8. I haven’t read this book but I have read Home, which is about the same events and, quite frankly, this review could well be about Home. I didn’t like it very much (my reaction was very similar to Stewart’s above) but put that down to my own distaste and disinterest in religion and the fact that faith and belief lay at the core of the book — which seems to be the same case here.

    I think your last two comments have validity. I’m not a parent and my own family does not have strong ties — I could sense there was an element of family in Robinson, but it did not mean much to me. Regarding your last comment, I do think understanding the Depression and the Mid-West in North America (you can move Robinson north to the Canadian Prairies pretty easily) does make the book more accessible, in one way — in others (for a reader like myself) even more remote because the “faith-based” response to that is so far from the reality approach that I would prefer.

    Where I do think there is a particular “American” strain to Robinson’s writing is the way that she links organized religion to broader societal themes. Faith — or at least showing up at church on Sunday is very much a part of the American body politic (we have a religious prime minister in Canada, but he goes out of his way to keep his faith private — the contrast with the Obama’s very publicly starting inauguration day at church was intriguing). I do think Robinson explores that in a way that is difficult (but possible) for Canadians to appreciate and soars right past the point for many modern Europeans.

  9. Trevor says:

    That is a great point, Kevin. Perhaps in my review I should have said that one doesn’t have to be a religious American because, as you say, religion is part of the culture. But otherwise, it might be helpful to be religious to enjoy this book.

  10. _lethe_ says:

    Oh dear, that doesn’t bode well for me then, being European, childless and not religious!

    But Housekeeping is one of my favourite books ever, so here’s hoping I’ll like Gilead and Home too, if only for Robinson’s beautiful style.

  11. Trevor says:

    _lethe_, then you’re the perfect reader to see if there’s anything to what I’ve said above! I hpoe you’ll read it soon and let us know what you think.

  12. Teresa says:

    Good review, with a lot to think about. Gilead is one of my all-time favorites. The writing and the characterization are so rich.

    And I absolutely agree with the comment that readers’ reactions will depend largely on their background. For example, I have a hard time characterizing Ames’s feelings toward Jack as hatred, as you do. Rather, I see it as profound disappointment, which is rooted in love. But I know that my reading comes from my own understanding of Ames’s Calvinist spirituality. And reading Home further complicates the situation because you learn there how the Boughton family feels about Ames. I think Robinson leaves room for ambiguity here by not preaching at her readers.

  13. Trevor says:

    Great point, Teresa. I know very little about Calvinist spirituality. In fact, all I know of it comes from classes where it comes up as a reference point to some other piece of literature, so thanks! I think you’re right about Ames’s feeling disappointment rather than hatred, and that the disappointment is rooted in love.

    But that does bring up the point of Ames’s first reaction to learning the baby would be named John Ames Boughton. And his reaction to Jack’s presence with his family. I do think that the feelings began as disappointment, but maybe they travelled a bit and became bitter, ambiguous even to John Ames.

    Lots to think about!

    By the way, you’re the first person I have heard from who has read both Gilead and Home. It sounds like it is not mere repetition, which is very encouraging!

  14. Oh dear, that doesn’t bode well for me then, being European, childless and not religious!
    I am European, childless and very not-religious and I still loved this book. I connected with something universally human in it, I suppose. I am certainly looking forward to reading Home.

  15. I know I won’t have benefited fully from reading Gilead until I’ve read it several times, once was certainly not enough for me to pick up on all the nuances in there. Being lapsed CofE (like so many of us here in the UK!)and with a bit of an aversion to anything that might even hint at preachy evangelical writing, I amazed myself by loving this book and knowing that after a gap I will certainly read it again and even again.It does reference both humanity’s qualities and its flaws through the medium of Christianity but I found I could easily read it, reducing that medium to suit my own thinking,and still gain so much from this book…if that makes sense.

  16. Trevor says:

    That’s great to hear, Anna! I’m glad to hear it is a book that appeals on many levels and doesn’t require a certain past for enjoyment.

    I’m hoping to read Home before the NBCC winner is announced. That would mean I’ll have read three of the five finalists. I don’t think I’ll be reading Trenchmouth or Olive.

  17. Trevor says:

    It does reference both humanity’s qualities and its flaws through the medium of Christianity but I found I could easily read it, reducing that medium to suit my own thinking,and still gain so much from this book…if that makes sense.

    I think that makes perfect sense, DGR. I felt while reading it that the characters’ religion was a part of their make-up, a way for them to deal with things that everyone deals with. I don’t think that Robinson made religion the answer to their problems. Rather, they struggled to cope and change perspectives about others much like anyone does. (And by the way, DGR, your recent post on Gilead also encouraged me to pick it up sooner than I might would have otherwise!)

  18. Jonathan says:

    I thought Gilead was wonderful (I was less impressed by Home). But I enjoyed Gilead partly because I don’t have any immersion in (or knowledge of) the Midwestern culture it describes. The book took me to a place that is remote from my own in space, time and culture, yet completely authentic and convincing. That’s something only great novels achieve.

  19. Trevor says:

    I agree completely, Jonathan! Thanks for your comments and the link to your review!

  20. Colette Jones says:

    Hi Trevor,

    I’m reading Gilead now, proposed (in a way) by KevinfromCanada because I disclosed that I am originally from Iowa. One of the quotes on the back says “Full of suspense and storytelling…” Hm, I’m on page 98 and haven’t felt a moment of suspense. I do like the storytelling by the narrator, but so far there’s not a lot of it. I will persevere though.

  21. estelle says:

    Just followed a link from claire at kiss a cloud :) That second-last quote you’ve pulled out is a killer, and reminds me of how well Robinson writes family relationships. Her Housekeeping rendered a sister-sister relationship so fully and intensely.

    The fact that Obama likes this book makes me like him even more!

  22. Trevor says:

    Colette, I hope it gets better for you. I think by page 98 I was already pretty engaged, though much is yet to happen. I am confused about the “suspense” on the back cover of your edition. I wouldn’t say Gilead is full of suspense, at least not in the way that word is commonly understood. I hope you let us know how it turns out for you.

    Estelle, glad you stopped by, and I hope you return often! I too loved Housekeeping and feel that Robinson’s ability to render the relationships there and here is astonishing. I have not yet read Home, and I’m a bit afraid it will be anticlimactic after enjoying her first two so much. We’ll see!

  23. Colette Jones says:

    My edition is a US one, even though I live in the UK. I picked it up in a charity shop a few years ago. The quote in question is from “The Globe and Mail” (I’m not aware of that publication).

    The quote doesn’t really matter, because I didn’t choose to read it because some quote said it has suspense. I don’t need a book to be suspenseful to consider it good. I do think this one is developing too slowly though. Hopefully the last half will be more eventful.

  24. _lethe_ says:

    At last, my thoughts on Gilead. With only 50 pages to go I had to put it aside for a while (life happened), but I could finally finish it yesterday. I loved it.

    As I am not religious and anyway am more familiar with Roman Catholicism, the differences between Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Calvinists (I’ve probably forgotten a few) were completely lost on me, and also several, if not most, of the theological questions went right over my head, but it didn’t matter at all. I thought the story was beautiful. This conscientious old man who loves his wife and son, who strives to be a good and honest person and see the good in others, even the ones he dislikes (which he tends to regard as a personal shortcoming rather than the others’ fault) I found very moving. Nothing much happens, but it is so beautifully written that it kept my attention to the end. Attesting to that is the fact that when I picked it up again I didn’t have to reread the last few pages, I was immediately back into the story.

    I am looking forward to reading Home.

  25. _lethe_ says:

    (Argh, I hate it when there is no ‘preview’ button. Sorry about the html error!)

  26. Trevor says:

    I got your little HTML glitch fixed, _lethe_; no problem!

    Thanks for returning with your thoughts on Gilead, and I’m especially glad you enjoyed it so much! I agree that nothing much happens, at least on the exterior, but I loved watching the preacher’s inner struggle.

    I still haven’t picked up Home. I enjoyed Gilead so much I’m afraid of diluting the experience by reading another version of the same events, though I’ve heard good things about the book. I suspect I’ll enjoy it when I get there, having enjoyed Robinson’s first two books so much. She knows what she’s doing, and I don’t think she’d have written Home if she didn’t have a clear artistic reason for doing so. I don’t think it was self indulgence.

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