The BEST: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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The BEST: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Reviewed by Jeffrey Saks

Summary: Gilead, the 2005 Pulitzer-prize winning novel, is narrated by 76-year-old
pastor John Ames, and is set in 1956 in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. Believing he is
about to shuffle off the mortal coil, Ames composes a long letter to his 7-year-old only
son, born of a late marriage to a younger woman. It is part diary, part family history, part
ethical will. In contrast to convention, Robinson’s work is remarkable for having a truly
decent and good man as its protagonist. Not only that, it holds our rapt attention despite
its scanty plot! The beautiful simplicity of Ames’ “still, small voice” as a narrator gathers
in our attention. The father instructs his son: “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all
the attention you can give it.” The same could be said for Gilead.

The specter of Ames’ demise hovers over the book. We hope he will succeed in his task
of communicating something about himself, his larger truth, to the son who will never
really know him. “This is another thing you and I don’t know,” he writes, “– how this
ends.” We too never find out. The letter is entirely the work of his own consciousness. If
he expires in the end, we don’t learn of it. All he leaves behind is this testimony, and
those familiar with the Old Testament matrix of Ames’ speech will understand that the
title, Gilead, refers to the biblical “mound of testimony” (Gen. 31:47-48), a “last will and
testament.”

The dying preacher’s son has no name in the book, but our narrator is the third John
Ames, son and grandson of preachers who bore the name. There is a fourth-generation
John, in the person of John Ames Doughton, or Jack, a godson child of Ames’ oldest and
closest friend, another preacher in the town who seems to be racing him to life’s finish
line. The arrival of Jack introduces the only real element of suspense in the otherwise
placid plot. He is a prodigal son, returned but not fully redeemed – at least in the eyes of
his biological father. Here Robinson is building on solid New Testament intertextualities,
but the transference of the father-son relationship onto our narrator, whose complicated
feelings for, indeed fear of, his namesake are resolved through one of the most touching
denouements I have read in contemporary literature.

Why this is The BEST: Writing in the The New Yorker, a reviewer who self-identifies as
a “fully paid-up atheist” observed: “I have read and loved a lot of literature about religion
and religious experience—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, the Bible—but it’s
only with Robinson that I have actually felt what it must be like to live with a sense of the
divine.” What lovely testimony to the validity of recent research that reading literature
increases one’s capacity to feel empathy. The ability to walk in another’s boots is also a
necessary skill for the engaged religious life. Literature, in the felicitous formulation of
R. Aharon Lichtenstein
, “generally help[s] to develop our spiritual personality. Time and
again, [it intensifies] our insight into basic problems of moral and religious thought… The
humanities deepen our understanding of man: his nature, functions, and duties.” Gilead is
a wonderful exemplar of the type of literary exposure which enriches human
understanding. One thirsts for a novel, even a novella or short story, written from within
our own Jewish tradition, portraying a character as quietly compelling as old Reverend
Ames but in rabbinic garb. In the meantime, R. Lichtenstein suggests, reading about “a
broad range of social, historical, and personal experience helps us transcend the insular
bounds of our own niche in time and space. [Enabling us] to disengage the local and
accidental from the permanent and universal, to understand intellectually and
empathetically, situations we had not otherwise confronted or even possibly envisioned.
All the more so, when that experience has been communicated through culture at its
finest, by great souls capable of feeling deeply and expressing feeling powerfully.”

Contemporary Literature as “Parshanut”: Robinson, who teaches in the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, is herself a devout Protestant. It should not be surprising that in her book
about fathers and sons, and our Father in heaven and his children, she puts into the mouth
of Reverend Ames an extended homily on the Patriarch Abraham (pp. 146 ff.). One need
not be a great literary scholar to unpack the references and the application of his sermon
back onto himself and the situation of the novel. Knowing that in departing this world he
will be releasing his soon-to-be widowed wife and their young son into the “wilderness”
his mind turns to the story of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21). (As with all clergymen, the
insight into his psyche reveals the ever-present need to come up with sermon topics!)

The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning,
and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a
child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the
mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made. At
that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes—we send our children
into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the
help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto
themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that
wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in
mind.

But, while standing in his pulpit, he departs from his prepared text:

I began my remarks by pointing out the similarity between the stories of Hagar
and Ishmael sent off into the wilderness and Abraham going off with Isaac to
sacrifice him, as he believes. My point was that Abraham is in effect called upon
to sacrifice both his sons, and that the Lord in both instances sends angels to
intervene at the critical moment to save the child. Abraham’s extreme old age is
an important element in both stories, not only because he can hardly hope for
more children, not only because the children of old age are unspeakably precious,
but also, I think, because any father, particularly an old father, must finally give
his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost
a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for
their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is
required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by
assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.
I noted that Abraham himself had been sent into the wilderness, told to
leave his father’s house also, that this was the narrative of all generations, and that
it is only by the grace of God that we are made instruments of His providence and
participants in a fatherhood that is always ultimately His [. . .]. It had occurred to
me that these were the only two instances in Scripture where a father is even
apparently unkind to his child [. . .]. About the cruelty of those narratives I said
that they rendered the fact that children are often victims of rejection or violence,
and that in these cases, too, which the Bible does not otherwise countenance, the
child is within the providential care of God. And this is no less true, I said, if the
angel carries her home to her faithful and loving Father than if He opens the
spring or stops the knife and lets the child live out her sum of earthly years.
I don’t know how sufficient that is to the question. It is such a difficult
question that I hesitate to raise it at all. My only preparation for dealing with it has
been the many times people have asked me to explain it to them. Whatever they
may have thought, I have not succeeded to my own satisfaction even once.
I have always worried that when I say the insulted or the downtrodden are
within the providence of God, it will be taken by some people to mean that it is
not a grave thing, an evil thing, to insult or oppress. The whole teaching of the
Bible is explicitly contrary to that idea. [. . .] That is strong language, but there it
is.

Bonus: Be sure to read or listen to the 2015 conversation between Robinson and her
Reader-in-Chief, President Obama, about her writing (available at the New York Review
of Books).

Jeffrey Saks is the editor of TRADITION.

This is the fourteenth installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring
exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people – click here for the
series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

[Published on November 15, 2019]

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