Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This novel was suggested by a couple of members who had either read it or wanted to read it. Marilynne Robinson had been on our reading list for a long time.

Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping was published in 1981. Gilead, her second novel, was published in  2004, and focuses in John Ames. There are 2 others in this series, Lila and Home, which tell the stories, respectively, of Ames' wife and of his friends the Boughtons. In 2005 Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. Robinson has won many awards for her novels and for her many non-fiction writings, and has been honoured by Oxford University as well as by many American Universities.

Gilead is a most unusual novel. It is set in a small town called Gilead in Iowa, USA in 1956. Its format is a long rambling letter by an elderly (late 70s) Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. There are no chapter divisions. He talks about the present, the recent past (how he met his child’s mother), and his friends, especially his near neighbour, Reverend Boughton and his son John (Jack) Ames Boughton. John Ames’ past is included, including stories about his father and grandfather who were also ministers. As the central character is religious by nature, ethical questions pervade the whole novel but there are also discussions of a more simple and domestic feel.  Questions are explored such as ‘what is a good man’ and ‘how can I forgive’.  It is all written in a very calm and introspective way.

Initial responses


  • Hard to get into – rambling and retrospective
  • Liked the rhythm of words – some beautiful prose
  • Family history and US potted history intertwined
  • John Brown in Virginia – still going in the 1950s (see the Wikipedia entry for those of you who know little of this history)
  • Quite enjoyed it
  • Layers of religious ideas – hard to work out what he (ie John Ames) is actually saying
  • Interesting how religion affects families and causes tensions
  • I heard it while driving and liked the voice – sounded very plausible
  • Really liked to hear that the pastor shared struggles and doubts with his religion
  • Two sides of restoring self – forgiving others and stop blaming oneself
  • The theology was too old-fashioned for modern Christian thought
  • Surprised that Ames is not fussed about heaven
  • Slow melancholic novel which I liked – got into the voice
  • Some funny scenes such as the town digging the tunnel for escaping slaves, and then giving the guy another horse when his horse fell into the tunnel
  • Theology went over my head – and an amazing number of religions are mentioned in this novel (why?)
  • Warm hearted novel

Reverend John Ames


We decided that Ames was a good man but flawed. He was deluded in some ways. He was also aware of his limitations. He was very fond of his friend Reverend Boughton.

He was a very generous guy. He gave his money away while he was single for many years after the tragic loss of his first wife and child. He often stated that he was sad he couldn’t give more earthly goods to his second wife and child.

He had a passion for his young wife and not for his first wife which we thought was interesting.  Why was that? Maybe too religious when he was young?

He brought up issues on how to live a good life. Had he been a good man in his seventy plus years. He also wants his son to live a good life and enjoy it. Ames didn’t have much fun.

He often talks about grace and forgiveness. There is also a lot of talk about father and sons and Ames feels lucky that he was able to have a young son at his advanced age. He talks about his own youth and that of his father. He particularly wants his son to know about the trek that Ames and his father went on to find the grave of his grandfather who had walked out of their lives when quite elderly and ended his days in Kansas.

It was fascinating to see that Ames placed very little value on his old sermons even though he had kept them. His wife, Lila, thought they were very special. Was he saying that his life’s work was not important. He was an old fashioned pastor. He accepted the help of the community but also helped them at times, such as fixing a tap. His life’s work was love. One member objected to our acceptance of the character so easily. She thought he was irritating.

The New York Times review of Gilead (28/11/2004) discusses clergymen as characters in novels, the reviewer stating that ‘Robinson’s pastor (is) that most difficult narrator from a novelist’s point of view, a truly good and virtuous man, and occasionally you may wish he possessed a bit more malice…" 

He felt that his son would be in good hands after his death as his wife was fabulous. She had had no education but learnt to live a good live with her elderly husband in the few years they lived together.

As Ames was an elderly dad he did not place restrictions on his son like other parents – such as allowing his son to watch a cartoon on television while Tobias (a friend) had to stay outside.

The book whimpers out at the end with Ames’ quiet death.

John Ames (Jack) Boughton


John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the profligate or prodigal son of his good friend, we decided was a foil for Reverend John Ames. His appearance was a test for the evangelist. He tested Ames’ beliefs and his ability to forgive the young man. When young, Jack had had sex with an underage girl who had become pregnant. He abandoned both the mother and the child and the child died. Ames was challenged to forgive the younger man’s dishonourable actions and stay true to his religion.

We also discussed how the Boughton family had got involved with this poor family abused by their son. Some felt they could have done more for the mother and child.

We admired Lila and were curious about her relationship with Jack. Had she known him when they both lived in St Louis ? If so, what was she doing there ?

Lila was very empathetic with this younger man. Why was she in that town? Many of us were interested to read Lila to find out. (I think she just liked having a young man around to talk to as she was still a young woman?)

Jack Boughton is the prodigal son, and Ames reflects on his brother Edward who also left the small town.  (As an aside, there seems to be a plethora of stories about prodigal sons at the moment, for instance the new film called, Sometimes, always, never.)

Ames forgave Jack but he didn’t really believe it. Jack was a good man and John Ames’ blessing meant something to him near the end of the novel.

The novel explores all these father and son relationships. But Jack also wanted to be forgiven by his father. This didn’t seem to happen.

We also decided that it was a good idea to read Gilead slowly and maybe absorb some of the thoughts or meditations.

We concluded with the idea that we might write a letter to our children? One family recorded their elderly grandmother and the grandchildren really like hearing her stories long after she had passed.

Attendance: 9 members

2 comments:

  1. Thanks Sylvia for this write-up of a complex novel and discussion.

    Interesting question about Lila's reaction to Jack. I think she is an empathetic person, and saw that he presented a challenge to her husband. Maybe she was wise enough to see that he needed this challenge (and to resolve it) but also that Jack needed something from him. Also, of course, he provided a young active role model for their son and his friend Tobias.

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  2. The above comment was by me but the system went awol when I tried to enter my name!

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