book by Marilynne Robinson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Gilead is a novel about fathers and sons on many levels: God and Jesus, God and Ames, and Ames and the nearly seven year old son for whom he pens these ‘begats.’  Robinson echoes the clerical tradition of epistolary narration to complement Ames position as a minister.  Biblically, Gilead means ‘witness’ or ‘mound of testimony’ and was a place of healing, birthplace of the prophet Elijah, and in the New Testament, the source of large crowds who followed Jesus.  This Gilead is Ames’ testimony of his life and the name of the town where he grew up and had his ministry.

Robinson begins with the recounting of a conversation between Ames and his son, the end of which states his intention for this long letter to his son. (3)  Ames then delineates who he is, “I grew up in parsonages,” (4) and his medical condition, “angina pectoris” (4) which provides both the context and tension for the rest of his letter to his son.  This section concludes with foreshadowing “There’s a lot under the surface of life…. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.” (6) Ames maintains a confessional mode throughout most of the narration, initially confessing that what he has not learned “was to control his temper.” (6)

His first person meanderings turn poignant as it becomes clear that he is jealous of the son of his best friend, a far closer match in age to Ames’ young wife.  In this case, the first person narrative is more distant than intimate.  As a reader, I felt too removed from the others in his life, even though it was an intimate look inside his thoughts and opinions of not only those around him, but also his relationship to God and the larger questions of life.  Robinson uses this first person diary point of view to good effect in that Ames concern about his namesake reveals as much about himself as the younger man whom he finds by turns threatening and irritating.

There were a few points when the narrator seems inauthentic, his voice more the modern author than the characters (42), particularly for a character well versed in Greek and Hebrew, but these lapses were brief and rare.  Gilead is a meditative and beautifully written novel and gave me something to consider as far as a subtler revelation of the protagonist’s thoughts using the first person point of view.

The narrator states he has a ‘reputation for piety and probity’ (65), but the reader sees the darker thoughts and struggles throughout the letter of envy for his best friend who has not lost a wife and child (65) and his jealousy of his best friend, Boughton’s son (119) who is named for the narrator.  The quiet tragedy of Gilead is the his best friend’s son comes to him for counsel even as his writes a long letter of counsel to his own son, he is loathe to do it for Jack Boughton.  He finds the younger Boughton difficult and repeatedly admonishes himself for his attitude toward the younger man, “I am trying to be a little more cordial to him than I have been.” (123)  He keeps returning to the point, “I found that extremely irritating” (184)  The narrator makes the big assumption that the younger Boughton is hanging around because he fancies the narrator’s life and works himself up into a state where he can imagine the younger man stepping into his place or do his wife and child harm “How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?” (190)

Toward the end of the book, the narrator doles out advice more freely, having recounted most of what he knew about their family history.  He advises his son, “…don’t look for proofs.  Don’t bother with them at all” (179) because, paraphrasing Coleridge, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” (179).  Despite this, the narrator still struggles with his negative feelings toward Jack until the revelation that Jack has a wife and child (217).

There is some lovely writing, nice construction with uncomfortable family secrets mirroring the narrator’s discomfort with Jack Boughton, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying for a myriad of small things that added up over the course of the book (and perhaps that is my primary takeaway for my own work). For example, it seemed odd that a preacher would conclude a letter that “hope deferred is still hope” (247) when the biblical passage he would know well is Proverbs 13:12: hope deferred makes the heart sick. At that point, perhaps it is supposed to tell us something of his character that he would still characterize heartsick as hope, but I was no longer engaged. The tone of the book is slow and prayerful and Ames concludes with a series of prayers for his son and the last act he chronicles is “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” (247)


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