Gilead Summary

Marilynne Robinson


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Gilead Summary

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Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is an epistolary novel, meaning that it is told in the form of letters. In the book’s first pages, we learn that John Ames, the author of the letters, is dying of heart disease. His letters to his young son grapple with doubt, faith, family, and all of the critical questions that arise as he contemplates his impending death.

Because it is a book of letters, Gilead is not concerned with plot as much as it is with guiding the reader through a series of Ames’s meditations. Ames is an ideal narrator for the subjects at hand, given that he has been the minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, for many years. In fact, the Ames family has produced three generations of preachers for the town. Family, like many of the other themes in Gilead, works in cycles.

The first John Ames fought in the Civil War and was a fierce abolitionist. He was a man who never wavered in his own moral code, and who saw caring for the poor and protecting the vulnerable to be his sacred duties. However, his son, the next preacher, is a pacifist. This conflict between father and son forces the elder John Ames to move away to Kansas, where he eventually dies alone.

A new iteration of the scenario takes place when the second John Ames learns that his son Edward is an atheist. This causes an understandable tension between them, although John is more willing to compromise than his father was. Edward eventually sways him towards some of his views and is able to convince his father to leave Gilead and move to Florida when he retires.

The third John Ames, the narrator, desires to have a relationship with his son that is less fraught with existential peril than the two fathers who preceded him. It is clear as he meanders through his thoughts that he is a man who has seen deep sorrows.

Loneliness is one of the primary causes of his sorrow, and one of the major themes of Gilead. John’s first wife and infant son died early in their relationship. The loss has followed him for decades. In some of the book’s most insightful passages, John ruminates on the consolation that religion has provided him, although it made the sorrow bearable without ever managing to take it away. To become a preacher is to take stewardship of other people’s souls and their spiritual well-being. To do so is to elevate oneself, however humbly, and the gap between his small, loyal congregation, and his own station causes some of the loneliness he feels. His position in the church requires him to keep his distance even as he craves a closeness that he only finds when he married Lila, the much younger woman to whom he is married during Gilead.

Lila acts as a sanctuary for John, providing him not only with a son, but also with an alleviation of suffering that his religion had never given him. This sanctuary is put to the test with the arrival of Jack, the exiled son of the Reverend Boughton. Jack left Gilead after an indiscretion with a young girl that resulted in a pregnancy he refused to be accountable for. When he returns, he immediately bonds with Lila, a fact that causes intense insecurity and suspicion in John. He assumes that Jack must have ulterior motives.

However, Jack becomes the anchor of all of Gilead’s philosophical and theological underpinnings. Far from being a miscreant who has returned to cause trouble, Jack is revealed as a truly broken person who is a perfect model of human fragility. John is forced to admit to himself, and to his son, that he was once as damaged and rudderless as Jack. In any case, death is the reality that awaits them all, saint and sinner alike. It is through Jack that John experiences true compassion for all human existence.

The critical response to Gilead is almost all superlative. In less assured hands it could have easily turned to melodrama or epistolary stuntsmanship. Few things have the potential to become as maudlin or saccharine as a dying man writing to his son. Robinson, however, chose the format because it provides a perfect vehicle for a mature exploration of the end of life. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the fact that Gilead never prompts the reader to feel pity for John. In this way, it is a performance of the very themes it discusses. What most people think of when they think of compassion is something closer to pity: a sense of gratitude over the fact that “I’m glad that’s not happening to me.”

In Gilead, the reader has the luxury of feeling compassion for John as he examines the truths and questions of his life, prompting the readers to do the same for themselves.