by Marilynne Robinson
ISBN 978 1 84408 148 6 • Virago 2008
Gilead is an epistolary novel, an extended letter from John Ames, ageing Congregationalist minister of the town of Gilead in Iowa, to his seven-year-old son.
Ames is writing in order to instruct his young son. “to tell you the things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you.”
Ames is well read and highly educated. His reading includes, Feuerbach and Karl Barth. However, he is blinded by his own religious prejudice and limitations. By teaching his son he also learns his own truths. Gilead is as much about the redemption of John Ames as it is about the redemption of Jack Boughton.
Written entirely from Ames’s perspective, he looks back through his family and through their part in American abolitionist history. Ames recalls a journey undertaken in his childhood in the company of his passivist father through the “wilderness” of the American countryside as they looked for the grave of his grandfather “who preached men into the Civil War”. Tracing Ames’s family from the Civil War to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement it’s significant that at no point in his life has this John Ames taken part in any civil rights action, particularly as “General Grant once called Iowa the shining star of radicalism.”
As well as looking back, contemporary life intrudes into the letter, which he writes in his journal. Tension within the novel comes in the form of John Ames Boughton, or Jack, the wayward son of Robert Boughton, Presbyterian minister and good friend to Ames. Ames’s only child died in childbirth along with his wife and Boughton, with an extended family of eight, appoints him as surrogate father to his namesake. As he writes, Ames also wrestles with jealousy and concern for the moral safety of his young family when he is gone and they are left with the rakish Jack Boughton. Importantly, he also struggles with his feelings for Jack as reprobate and admits late on that “I was so long in the habit of seeing meanness at the root of everything he did”.
In Gilead, Robinson pokes a hole in religious orthodoxy to answer questions about predestination and grace. A self-confessed “good son”, Ames is also self-deluded: “the one who never left his father’s house – even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond challenge.” Throughout the novel he is constantly reassessing and reappraising his beliefs, actions and emotions and constantly coming up short. Towards the end of the book Ames has an epiphany.
I woke up this morning thinking this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it, and the fault is mine as much as anyone’s. I was thinking about the things that happened here just in my lifetime – the droughts and influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars. It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand.
At this significant moment of clarity he does not “look up” but goes off at a tangent to speak of his hurt at being abandoned by his father and brother and left to minister to Gilead. Along with Jeremiah, Ames asks ‘Is there is no balm in Gilead’ (8:2). The book is full of moments such as this, when Ames is given the opportunity of being a channel of God’s grace but fails to act. Robinson’s restrained writing increases the tension, so that we will Ames to understand that he is the balm. It is a very affecting book.
Since Gilead was first published in 2004 it has won a Pulitzer Prize (2005) and yet critics are divided over its literary qualities. For some, the religious tone is over-bearing, it lacks tension and the protagonist is just too good to be true. For others, the lyrical quality and intelligent theological debates instantly put it into the ‘classic’ category. I came late to the novel and read its companion novel, Home, immediately afterwards, so that I’m conscious that my reading experience is completely different from earlier musings. Looking back to early reviews, Tessa Hadley in LRB probably sums up the paradox for readers who felt let down by Robinson’s style and tone:
If Robinson’s purpose in Gilead is to represent the value of a religious apprehension of life which modernity, at its peril, has relegated to the parochial margin, she seems to undercut it at every turn. And yet it remains an interesting equivocation, this constraining of herself inside a voice that is less complex than her own best thought. It leaves readers in an uneasy relationship to the authority of the novel; but it keeps alive the doubt which otherwise would be missing inside Ames’s too ringing confidence in the goodness intrinsic in things.
After reading Home it’s easier to recognise Ames’s ponderous prose as self-justifying hypocrisy. He even says as much in the opening pages:
… see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can’t claim to understand that saying, as many times as I’ve heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might be still nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.
Right until the very last pages of the book Ames is a “good man” only because he thinks he is. When he acts with courage he finally understands what it is “to acknowledge that […] precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honour them is to do great harm”, only then, does he become good.