Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

From The Paris Review interview with Marilynn Robinson, No. 198, Fall 2008.

Several years ago I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and was simply bowled over. It was the best novel I had read in some time. The opening immediately drew me in as it begins with a train crash — a train hurling forward suddenly derails, disappearing into an isolated lake in the mountains. As I recall, the story picks up some years after this disaster, with two sisters being looked after by their homeless aunt as their mother has committed suicide. This is a novel about a family that has been devastated. Eventually one of the sisters leaves to live with a friend in a more “normal” household, one in which housekeeping is maintained. As Robinson suggests, housekeeping is a means of staving off inner collapse. Since its publication in 1981, Housekeeping has become a modern classic.

Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

As Robinson’s readers know, it was twenty-four years before her next novel appeared. I began reading Gilead somewhat warily, as I doubted it could be as good as her first novel. I was also put off by its religious aura. The novel did not speak to me, so I put it aside. Recently, however, I made another attempt and found it much improved. The writing is surprisingly plain in a kind of conversational way: the story is narrated by an aging pastor who is writing an extended letter to his young son, a son who will not get to know his father. I liked the old-fashioned rhythm of the pastor’s speech and the underlying humor.

The novel is set in the fictitious town of Gilead, Iowa, and the narrative spans a period of some one hundred years, from the 1850s to the 1950s. The early town is comprised of abolitionists who are digging tunnels to help runaway slaves escape to the north.

The first half of the novel reads like a meditation on the nature of grace. The ailing pastor considers himself blessed to have fathered a child so late in life. His first wife died in childbirth many years ago. Ann Hulbert, in her 6 December 2004 Slate review of the novel, writes:

In the Bible, the balm of Gilead is a rarity, yearned for in vain. In the gospel song, it flows copiously, making the wounded whole and healing sin-sick souls. Both properties are true of Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead. Long-awaited and altogether unlike any other work of fiction (even her own), it has sprung forth … with what I can only call amazing grace. It is as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered.

Fittingly the story reaches its most interesting point about halfway through. The narrator’s grandfather took the side of John Brown and hid him when he was wounded and being hunted down by the army. Of course, John Brown is a pivotal figure in American history: he believed slavery could not be ended without violent insurrection and is credited with having triggered the civil war. The grandfather’s acceptance of the necessity of an armed conflict created a divide with his pacifist son, the narrator’s father, and some of the town’s people.

The second half of the novel focuses on the history of the narrator’s namesake, who fulfills the role of the prodigal son. After a long absence, Jack (as he is sometimes called) returns to Gilead and the narrator fears that Jack will take up with his young wife when he dies.

The narrative draws to a close as the young John Ames prepares to leave town. We learn that he had returned to seek help from his father. John Ames had changed his ways but was not able to reintegrate into society because he took up with a black school teacher with whom he fathered a child. Although they wanted to marry, due to segregation and miscegenation laws, they could not. In fact, they could not even live in peace together under the same roof.

Despite his compassion, the narrator implies that John Ames’s sad plight may be retribution for his having earlier abandoned a poor young woman who had his child, a child that died. Perhaps the inclusion of this kind of thinking is realistic, but I find it detracts from the highlighting of racism at the very center of John Ames’s trouble.

While the narrative maintains a sober religious tone throughout, which is a dominant characteristic of American history, I find the novel’s structure brilliant in that Robinson makes race a central point of that history by beginning with early abolitionists that led to the civil war. No wonder the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. The ending speaks of the lasting consequences of slavery and the persistent legacy of racism. This is the wound that has not yet been healed.

The pastor John Ames dies at the end of Gilead, but in her two subsequent novels, Robinson continues the narrative. Home is apparently about the life of the younger John Ames and Lila takes up the life of the pastor’s widow.

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