Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (again)


I read this book in 2007 and wrote only two sentences in my blog about it at the time. I have now gone back to it, partly because once I read Lila, I realized how little I retained.

The scope of the story is ambitious: John Ames is 76 in the mid 1950s. He brings to life his grandfather, a firebrand who was a founder of their aboliitionist town in Iowa. In the mid-1850s Iowans supported the anti-slavery position in Bleeding Kansas. The grandfather fought in the Civil War and lost an eye. By the time John’s father was the preacher in Gilead, the grandfather was pretty much just a firebrand who thought he should steal from anyone to give to the needy. John’s father was a pacifist, in contrast to his father.

John who spent his life as a preacher in Gilead and is near the end of his life, is writing to his 7-year-old son. He speaks of his lonely life (he lost his first wife and their baby in childbirth), as well as nostalgic memories of his youth. His older brother Edward was a trial for the father because of his turn toward the intellectual, non-religious life. He introduced Feuerbach to John without the desired effect. John remained loyal to his religion and the limited life of his little town.

The troubled son of John’s best friend Boughton ( a Presbyterian minister), showed up as Boughton is near death. The son, named John Ames Boughton is described as causing great misery for everyone, though always forgiven. Our John Ames berates himself endlessly at his lack of godliness toward the man (oh brother). He tells us in detail why his namesake is so unworthy, including having impregnated a very young girl of a poor family. Then his view changes when the namesake reveals that he has loved a black woman and has a beloved child with her. The namesake is now much more worthy of love and kindness though it was agreed he could not tell his father about having done such a troubling thing. Never mind that the father knew about the young girl’s baby and had visited that baby as long as she lived. 

Which brings me to the reason that I have so little patience for the nostalgic look the elderly man recounts. I don’t want to hear about the joy he and his childhood friend Boughton had with no apparent recognition of their privilege. I am in no mood for the 1950s and talk of the "colored people," however kindly that talk is. The crazy firebrand grandfather has much more appeal at the moment. 

His mix of folksy talk of his beloved young wife, the joy the son brings him, the appreciation of the beauty of the world in the moments he has left are juxtaposed with philosophical questions relating to religion. Robinson uses the characters of Edward, the son who was an honorable man with no religion and John Ames Boughton, the man who could be counted on to do the wrong thing and then twist the knife to explore difficult questions.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 247 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.



  • Spot on. I disliked this book intensely for much the same reason. I could not understand the adulation it received: the complacency of the world view irritated me, and the idea of an elder thinking that he has a right to expect that his ‘wisdom’ should control the lives of his offspring is repugnant. Say what you have to say face-to-face during a lifetime, is my view, don’t try to dignify uncontested ideas with emotional blackmail after death.

  • I like your phrase “complacency of the world view” and it is exactly that repugnant world view that seems in ascendance here in the US for about 47% of the population. I do like wallowing about in religious/philosophical issues to consider how we can live our lives as well as possible, but that was overwhelmed by the irritating John Ames.

  • That’s too bad that Gilead didn’t hold up on a second read! It was really interesting to read your thoughts, and I wonder what my reaction to the book would be if I reread it in the context of our new political world. I agree that the grandfather is the more appealing figure, and I think that’s how Robinson intended it to be. I thought the book presented the crazy grandfather as the most true Christian example. Yes, he was crazy by our American societal standards, and also perhaps in Boughton’s view, but to me, it seemed like he was intended to be the closest to a Christ-like figure of all of the characters in the books (sorry if that’s too heavy-handed!). The grandfather was a disruptive force in society fighting relentlessly for good, and I thought Robinson intended for the reader to see that as a parallel to Jesus’ life. For example, there was the pilgrimage to the grandfather’s grave that Boughton took as a young man. Boughton was much safer in his life choices than his grandfather had been, and I thought the reader was meant to notice and ponder the juxtaposition of those two lives. I agree that the decision not to tell Jack’s father about Jack’s wife and child rang false.

  • Your view that Robinson intended for us to see the grandfather’s life as a contrast to John Ames’ safe choices is compelling. The amount of “air time” she gives John Ames does argue against that. His relatively contemplative life does give him/the author the opportunity to explore ideas. She made him a creature of his time (as is reasonable), but his satisfaction with the status quo was as I said “irritating.” The disagreement between the grandfather and his son, the firebrand abolitionist vs. the pacifist, is a knotty one. I am pained at the thought of knowing what should happen in the face of our own frightening future and talking about that in contrast to being brave and taking uncomfortable steps to change it.

  • I guess I don’t see it as the grandfather versus John Ames — it seems more like Robinson upholds the grandfather as a saint while Ames is a pastor. The book is primarily an exploration of the inner life of a pastor, and through that exploration we encounter a saint. (I mixed up Ames and Boughton in my earlier comment — sorry!) If the narrator is irritating, that does seem like an insurmountable problem. I didn’t find him irritating, but given our new reality, I might feel differently reading now. I had forgotten that there was talk of “colored people.” What do you make of the fact that Ames was ready to welcome Jack, his wife, and their son to Gilead? I think that was the most unsatisfying part of the book — there should have been a way for them to move there. But I thought Ames’ readiness to stand up for them showed a spark of his grandfather’s character.


Recent Posts


Blogs I Like