Once 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.
London: Virago, 2006