Marilynne Robinson – Gilead

Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Houskeeping, a story of the lives of three women, was published to general acclaim in 1980.  It was twenty-four years before her next book, Gilead, was published. Houskeeping was a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize and was listed as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Gilead won the Pulitzer in 2005. What is it about the work of Marilynne Robinson that has seen her work described as having meditative calm, spiritual intensity, simplicity and mesmeric power?

The setting for the novel is Gilead, a small town in Iowa and the book takes the form of a journal and memoir which the Reverend John Ames is writing for his only son. Reverend Ames is elderly now, and his son is only seven years old, so this is a testament of his life and work and an attempt to reach back through time in the future to guide and inform his son. The Reverend is a Congregationalist pastor who has a heart condition and can feel his life ebbing away. His best friend and neighbour, Reverend Boughton is a Presbyterian minister. Also in the town is a Methodist church. They are thus all inspired by John Calvin but attended by different groups of people. One gets the impression the Reverend Ames’ church has the smallest congregation and is the most in need of repair. Once there was an African American church but that was set on fire and the people left town. This is mentioned in quite an understated way but is highly relevant to later events concerning John Ames Boughton, Ames’ godson and favourite child of his friend’s family.

The story moves between the present

I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy!

And the past. From his perspective in 1956 John Ames looks back at his life and the lives of his father and grandfather. His grandfather was a radical, an Abolitionist, who would give away all his worldly goods (and those of his family) to the poor. He served as a chaplain to Union forces in the Civil War and lost an eye. There was great disagreement between the generations about war and peace and the right way to live. His father becomes a Christian pacifist who is disgusted by the sight of his father’s gun and destroys it.

Ames is open about the things he has left undone. He is aware of his inadequacy when faced with questions about Predestination. But what he is quite sure about is his love for his wife and child and the blessings they bring to his life. And he accepts his own fallible humanity.

Once when Boughton and I had spent an evening going through our texts together and we were done talking them over, I walked him out to the porch, and there were more fireflies out there than I had ever seen in my life, thousands of them everywhere, just drifting up out of the grass, extinguishing themselves in midair. We sat on the steps a good while in the dark and silence, watching them. Finally Boughton said, ‘Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.’

This is a remarkable and subtle book that covers aspects of religious belief and human life. The author is a deeply religious person, and her protagonist never questions his belief in God or in the afterlife. I don’t share these beliefs myself, but the writing is so engaging and John Ames so honest in his self-scrutiny that I found this book deeply moving on a human level.

The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light….It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence.

25 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson – Gilead

  1. ‘Gilead’ is one of my all-time favourite books. It never ceases to amaze me, whenever I go back to it. I also admire ‘Lila’ very much, told from the point of view of John Ames’ wife.

  2. My father’s side of the family counts a number of Midwest Congregationalist pastors among their numbers. Sounds like a book that I would find appealing, and maybe informative about my background. Thanks, Gert!

    1. Oh yes Teri. Please read it Then you can explain the difference between the three denominations. But also read it because the writing is so good. And also an awareness of nature that will appeal to you.

      1. I will pick it up, and read it, although I don’t know that I can explain the differences. My father’s father was raised Congregationalist, but there was no church of that denomination in Buchanan, Michigan. So he became a Presbyterian, and sang in the choir until a few weeks before he died at the age of 92. On the other hand, Jim’s mother was raised Presbyterian in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and became Congregationalist when she married Jim’s dad and moved to a town with no Presbyterian church. In my experience, therefore, they seemed interchangeable. My mother’s father was Methodist, but converted to Roman Catholic so he could marry his dear Nell (good Irish Catholic), so I know nothing from personal experience of the Methodists. Only that, in Buchanan, they were the only ones among our (mostly Protestant) classmates who were not allowed to dance or play cards. I think that was just the local pastor; after he left, the congregation took more liberties.

          1. Such a wonderful book, Gert. I read the first half on the plane to Seattle yesterday (for Anthea’s birthday), and will read the rest on the way home in a few days. I haven’t maybe gotten to the places where the differences among the religions need to be sorted out? He seems himself to be somewhat skeptical about the usefulness or even the correctness of the doctrines, which I find very appropriate to his age and experience. Love Robinson’s humor, and her jumping about (although I do go back now and then to try to pick up bits of plot). Thank you — more when I’ve had time to read more.

            1. You are right — Oprah named the four novels together as a selection in March of this year. That might be why it’s at Target — doesn’t sound like typical Target fare otherwise.

  3. I read ‘Housekeeping’ soon after it was published. A much loved book. I couldn’t take to ‘Jack’, though, part of the ‘Gilead’ series. I think it’s because Jack always annoyed me as a character, and I had no patience with him as a main character.

  4. Would this be a good time to confess that I have something of a blind spot with MR? I feel rather ashamed to admit it, but there’s something about her style that I find difficult to engage with. So it goes…

  5. I loved this book too. I have a funny history with it in that I started it years and years ago, and was enjoying it, but then lost it in a tidy up for house guests. It took me years to find it, and by the time I did I’d lost momentum. Skip a few years, and my reading group suggested it. I jumped at the opportunity and dug out my now properly stored copy.

    Some in my group found the old time religion off-putting, but I found it easy to look past that to the man’s humanity and what he was saying from that point of view than the biblical one.

    1. I would normally be put off for that reason too, but it was lent to me by a writer friend whose opinion I really respect and Ames’ compassion and self questioning appealled to me.

  6. I read Housekeeping in college, as a professor recommended it. I had not realized it was 24 years between that and Gilead! The latter is always highly recommended, so I must get around to reading it someday. I do not get on with the idea of Predestination, though. It seems to me just purely harmful and inhumane, and un-divine too. But if there is a good way to get into the head of someone who does believe in it, maybe it will help me understand the appeal.

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