Marilynne Robinson


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Gilead Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 41-page guide for “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Continuation and Family Legacy and Writing as the Construction of Identity and Memory.

Published in 2004, Gilead is Marilynne Robinson’s second novel and the first in the Gilead trilogy, which includes Home (2008) and Lila (2014). The story is written as a letter from dying Congregationalist minister John Ames to his young son. The letter is a bittersweet account of John’s life. With a slow, thoughtful pace and intimate tone, John shares past family memories and resolves an old personal grievance with his best friend’s son. As John explores the bonds and breakdowns in relationships between fathers and sons, he moves back and forth between his memories and the present. John’s heartfelt, joyous love of life and his profound religious faith suffuse the narrative. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Plot Summary

The novel takes place in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, where Reverend John Ames has lived for 74 of his 76 years. Gilead is a small town that has endured hardships and tragedies, and looks like it has seen better days, but John loves it. He still preaches at the same church and has over 50 years’ worth of his written sermons saved in boxes. John’s first wife, Louisa, died in childbirth along with the baby, and John spent a long time alone. Now John lives with his much younger wife, Lila, a serious woman who bears a hidden sorrow. John met and fell in love with her one rainy Sunday when she first walked into his church. They have a six-year-old son. Finally having a family of his own fills John with joy.

John suffers from heart trouble and doesn’t have much longer to live. John deeply regrets that he will not see his son grow to manhood. This letter is a chance to communicate all the things he will not have a chance to tell his boy in person.

John’s best friend, Robert Boughton, is also a minister. Now Boughton is old and dying, and his daughter Glory is home helping care for him. Both are excited that Boughton’s son Jack is returning home after many years away. Jack is the black sheep of the family, and John is not thrilled that he is returning. John knows that Jack has caused his family a lot of heartache: Jack got a young girl pregnant and then disavowed her and his infant daughter. Boughton loves Jack most of all his children and forgives him everything. John, however, is unable to forgive Jack.

John’s father and grandfather were both ministers, although very different kinds. John’s grandfather saw a vision of the Lord that inspired him to move to Kansas in the 1830s and become a militant abolitionist. He supported John Brown’s skirmishes in Kansas before the Civil War, then served in the war himself as a Union Army chaplain, where he lost his right eye. John’s father and grandfather disagreed over the use of religion to justify war, and the grandfather left Iowa and returned to Kansas, where he died.

One of John’s formative memories comes at age 12, when he and his father spent a month or so searching for the grandfather’s grave. They traveled through drought-stricken Kansas with little water and food. During this time, John’s father told him more about his grandfather’s life. Another vital memory for John was a rainy day when he and his father helped pull down a church that was struck by lightning. John’s father gave him some ash-covered biscuit, and John likens it to communion.

John is named after his father and grandfather: all three have the name John Ames, as does ne’er-do-well Jack Boughton. John does not like sharing a name with Jack or having him as a godson. Jack arrives in Gilead and throws John into a state of irritation and frustration. John distrusts Jack based on his previous behavior and thinks he is a threat to his family. Jack befriends Lila and John’s son. John is jealous and worries that Jack will take over his family when John is dead. John prays for guidance but continues to be suspicious and critical of Jack, even though John notices that Jack looks tired and lonely.

Jack confides to John that he is married. His common-law wife Della is an African American schoolteacher, and together they have one son named Robert Boughton Miles. Della’s father is a minster, and her family disapproves of Jack. Jack and his family face racial discrimination, and Jack often has a hard time providing for them. Jack is in danger of losing Della and Robert and hopes that Gilead will be a safe place they can all live in peace, but that is something John can’t promise.

John’s attitude toward Jack changes. He gives Jack some money and a copy of a cherished book. John forgives Jack and blesses him. Jack leaves Gilead, even though Boughton’s death is imminent, without telling his father about his family. John realizes he loves his namesake as Boughton meant him to. John concludes his letter with hopes that his own son will grow up to be a brave, useful man.

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