Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (#BookReview)

Marilynne Robinson, GileadOnce again I have reason to start a book post with a discussion of the title, this time Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. Gilead, in the context of this novel, has a literal and metaphorical meaning, literal because it takes place in the fictional Iowan town of Gilead, and metaphorical because “gilead” may also connote “hill of testimony”. This novel is, in fact, dying minister John Ames’ testimony of his life and values, something he is writing for his 7-year-old son to read when he is older.

Given Gilead was published in 2004,  many of you may already have read it, as well as her next two books, Home and Lila, which form a trilogy and which, I understand, cover the same people but from different perspectives. I read Gilead with my reading group. Responses were mixed, but many of us were interested enough to want to read Lila, at least, to see her perspective.

I was, though, one of those who liked the book unconditionally. I agree that it’s slow to get into, which is not helped by the fact that it has no chapters, excepting one “break” heralding a slight change of pace towards the end. This break occurs when a certain piece of information comes out about John Ames’ namesake, Jack (John Ames Boughton). It is around here that the book picks up in interest significantly because there’s a suggestion that there might even be a plot! However, given I’m a reader who doesn’t seek a strong plot and that I rather like spare writing in a melancholic tone, I was engaged from the beginning. It is melancholic, naturally, because the narrator knows his life is running out, but it’s more resigned than sad.

So, what is this essentially plot-less book about? That depends a bit, I’d say, on each reader’s perspective. For some the book is very much about theology and religion. John Ames speaks a lot about the Bible, about biblical characters and stories, and about death and heaven. Some in my group found his religion old-fashioned. And it is to some extent – partly because of its era. Ames was born in 1880 and the book is set in 1956 when he is 76 years old. John Ames also talks a lot about his family – his father and grandfather, in particular, who were both ministers. Now, Ames’ being born in 1880 means his father, and grandfather, were alive during the Civil War. We learn quite a bit about the history of the abolitionists in Iowa and Kansas. Ames’ grandfather was a John Brown follower, which meant that he was not above using violence to achieve the goal. His father on the other hand, having seen what his father did and thought, was a pacifist. Most of my reading group enjoyed this historical-cultural aspect of the novel.

But, what interested me most about the book was what I saw as one of its main themes, which concerns how to live a good life. In the opening paragraph Ames refers to a conversation with his young son. He writes

I told you that you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are may ways to live a good life.

Late in the novel, he says something much simpler than this, though. He says

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

Is he departing from the idea of living a good life, to just living your life? I’m not sure. Pretty much at the novel’s central point he refers a statement by theologian John Calvin that we are actors on a stage with God being the audience. Ames interprets this as suggesting that we are “the artists of our own behaviour”, and, further, that God as audience implies an aesthetic rather than (as well as?) a moral aspect to God’s reaction to us. He explores the implications of this role of God’s a little further but, while it was interesting, it’s not where I want to take this post. I have other ideas to share!

One of the main threads – or themes – in the novel concerns fathers and sons. This is pretty obvious, really, given the whole book is framed as a letter from a father to a son in which Ames discusses his wishes for his son, but it is amplified through his discussion of the relationship between his grandfather and father, and between his father and himself. The relationships are complex, as I’ve already suggested. But, his thoughts on these relationships are intensified by his relationship with and attitudes to his namesake, the aforementioned Jack, to whom he is a “second father”. It is Jack who forces Ames to reassess his values and attitudes, not to mention his understanding of his worth as a Christian minister.

The problem is that Jack has been a bad boy. He became involved with a young girl, and a child ensued – after which he scarpered, leaving his family to work out what to do. Ames struggles with his attitude to Jack – particularly when Jack reappears 20 or more years later, as Ames is writing this letter. He says of Jack’s behaviour:

It was something no honourable man would have done … And here is a prejudice of mine, confirmed by my lights through many years of observation. Sinners are not all dishonourable people. But those who are dishonourable never really repent and never really reform … in my experience, dishonour is recalcitrant.

This is his own view, he admits, because “no such distinction occurs in Scripture”. Again, we are turned to formal theology, but again, I am going to turn away. The point for me is, regardless of what is “scriptural” or not, that Ames struggles with the idea of forgiveness, of acting with grace towards Jack. This forms his inner conflict as he considers father-son relationships, his preaching to his flock, and his relationship with his old friend and Jack’s father, Boughton. It is through this conflict, through finally opening himself to really listen to Jack, that he comes to a deeper more all-encompassing idea of what “grace” and, within that, forgiveness, really mean.

And that’s why I liked this book. It’s quiet but it deals with the essence of what confronts each of us every day in our relationships with each other. It deals with the disquietude that we all confront when people don’t behave in the ways we think they ought. Ames describes it as “that old weight in the chest, telling me there is something I must dwell on, because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.” You don’t have to be a minister or a Christian to have the same hope that John Ames does, which is “to die with a quiet heart”. Gilead is, to me, a lovely book about what it means to be human and to live with humanity.

Marilynne Robinson
London: Virago, 2006
ISBN: 9781844081486

23 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (#BookReview)

      • Do you leave a gap in between reading books by the same author? I’ve spoiled a few books for myself by reading them too soon but suspect that Home and Lila will be good enough to stand up to being read together.

        • That’s a good question, Rose. These days I just don’t have the opportunity to go on a same author reading binge because so many other things drive my reading. In the past though, it depended mostly on whether the books were available. There were times when I read several books by one author all at once, or very close together. I can’t recollect that spoiling my reading, though I can imagine it could happen with some books/authors. Too much of a good thing isn’t always good is it? However, without having read those two, I with you and suspect they probably would benefit from being read near each other.

        • I’ll look forward to your reviews of Home and Lila when you get to them. We are blessed living now, aren’t we, with books so readily available to us (all we need now is more time in the day, but that’s a different topic). I waited for years to read some books because they just weren’t around and can remember the joy I felt when they finally turned up (some of the Anne of Green Gables books spring to mind).

        • Oh don’t hold your breath Rose … my desire is ahead of my ability to achieve.

          BTW My daughter recently ordered herself a whole set of the Anne of Green Gables books and has read them all pretty much sequentially.

  1. Interesting. I liked Home a lot, and Lila okay, but never could like this one. There was way too much of that old-time religion for my taste.

    • Yes, Jeanne, that was a stumbling block for some in my group. Somehow, I just went right through that aspect to what I decided was the core for me. Also, I guess I don’t feel I need to like or believe in the content to be interested in it? However, a question I could (should) have asked in my post was why she chose that period given she wrote it in the 2000s. That’s a question usually worth asking of books set in the past.

  2. Great commentary on this book. I have heard much about it. Based on your post it sounds kind there are a lot of interesting themes running through this book. The interactions and morality between fathers and sons is such an old and enduring literary theme. It does relate to the Bible. I am currently reading Madeline Miller’s Circe so I am also thinking of The Odyssey.

  3. I’m glad you liked this so much! The other two books are also great (and, hurrah, there will be a fourth!) but this might be my favourite because it’s so rare to find faith written about so well, and so sympathetically. Ames is one of my all-time favourite characters.

    • Thanks Simon. I’d love to read the others. I really liked the style and character. There’ll be a fourth? Whose perspective?

      What do you think about the “old fashioned” nature of his faith?

  4. I loved Gilead too, Sue, and love being reminded of it so eloquently. I’d almost completely forgotten the plot, which was possibly an advantage when I read Hone and Lila. It was the portrayal of Calvinism as deeply human, warm, and ethically rigorous that I took from it.

    • Thanks Jonathan. I really would love to read the others.

      And thanks for your comment re Calvinism. I gathered she was arguing a case about Calvinism, but I’m not enough up on it to appreciate why this was important to her, so focused more on his values which of course were “deeply human, warm, and ethically rigorous”. Ethically rigorous is a good way of describing his thinking.

  5. Hi Sue, I love Marilynne Robinson’s writing. Gilead is one of my favourite reads. Robinson is such a thoughtful and an understanding writer of life.

  6. This post reminds me of a couple of things. I always thought if challenges were my thing, which they aren’t, I would read all the Pulitzer prize books. They interest me much more than the Booker prize books. I have followed this author and wanted to read these but as usual time and life get in the way. I feel much of American religion is still old fashioned in many parts of the USA, more so than religion in Australia so this may not be so different. There have been times I wish I was a believer but I cannot make myself do it. I just don’t. I don’t think the religious overtones in the book would bother me. I really must read more than I have been. I enjoyed this post very much.

    • Thanks very much Pam for these thoughts.

      Some in my reading group who don’t believe found the religious overtones too much, while at least one believer found them too old-fashioned. I take your point about religion in America possibly being different to here. Now, I’m like you – not a believer but sometimes wish I could be. I think that’s why I call myself an agnostic. Logically I’m an atheist, in that I really can’t believe, no much how hard I try, but sometimes I think it would be nice to. However, I didn’t find MY lack of believe an obstruction to my enjoyment of Ames’ analysis of his faith.

      BTW I like some Pulitzer prize books but I wouldn’t prefer it to the Booker.

      • I must read this because it sounds so fascinating. My preconceived prejudices about what Calvinism implies are clearly very inadequate. Aren’t novels often so effective in making religious belief come alive to an agnostic reader?

        • They really are Ian … I really enjoyed Ames’ thoughtfulness about his beliefs and particularly about the challenges he confronted in practising them.

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