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Gilead (Robinson)

Gilead
Marilynne Robinson, 2004
Macmillan Picador
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312424404


Summary
Winner, 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award
Winner, 2005 Pulitizer Prize

In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle.

Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father—an ardent pacifist—and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision—not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead is the long-hoped-for second novel by one of our finest writers, a hymn of praise and lamentation to the God-haunted existence that Reverend Ames loves passionately, and from which he will sooon part. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—November 26, 1943
Where—Sandpoint, Idaho, USA
Education—B.A., Brown University
 Awards—PEN/Hemingway Award;National Book Critics Circle Award; Pulitzer Prize; Orange Prize 
Currently—Iowa City, Iowa


Marilynne Robinson was born and raised in Idaho, where her family has lived for several generations. She recieved a B.A. from Brown University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington in 1977.

Housekeeping, her first novel, was published in 1981 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the American Academy and Institute's Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. Mother Country, an examination of Great Britain's role in radioactive environmental pollution, was published in 1989. Robinson published Gilead in 2004 and Home in 2008. Home won the 2009 Orange Prize. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her family. (From the publisher.)

More
For someone who has labored long in the literary vineyard, Marilynne Robinson has produced a remarkably slim oeuvre. However, in this case, quality clearly trumps quantity. Her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, snagged the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Twenty-four years later, her follow-up novel, Gilead, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. And in between, her controversial extended essay Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989) was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Robinson is far from indolent. She teaches at several colleges and has written several articles for Harper's, Paris Review, the New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Still, one wonders—especially in the face of her great critical acclaim—why she hasn't produced more full-length works. When asked about these extended periods of literary dormancy, Robinson told Barnes & Noble.com, "I feel as if I have to locate my own thinking landscape... I have to do that by reading—basically trying to get outside the set of assumptions that sometimes seems so small or inappropriate to me." What that entails is working through various ideas that often don't develop because, as she says, "I couldn't love them."

Still, occasionally Robinson is able to salvage something important from the detritus—for example, Gilead's central character, Reverend John Ames. "I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with," Robinson explains. "There was a character whom I intended as a minor character... he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different—he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place."

This tendency of Robinson's to regard her characters as living, thinking beings may help to explain why her fictional output is so small. While some authors feel a deep compulsion to write daily, approaching writing as a job, Robinson depends on inspiration which often comes from the characters themselves. She explains, "I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do—whose voice tells me how to write the novel."

As if to prove her point, in 2008, Robinson crafted the luminous novel Home around secondary characters from Gilead: John Ames's closest friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his reprobate son Jack. Paying Robinson the ultimate compliment, Kirkus Reviews declared that the novel "[c]omes astonishingly close to matching its amazing predecessor in beauty and power."

However, the deeply spiritual Robinson is motivated by a more personal directive than the desire for critical praise or bestsellerdom. Like the writing of Willa Cather—or, more contemporaneously, Annie Dillard—her novels are suffused with themes of faith, atonement, and redemption. She equates writing to prayer because "it's exploratory and you engage in it in the hope of having another perspective or seeing beyond what is initially obvious or apparent to you." To this sentiment, Robinson's many devoted fans can only add: Amen.

Extras
• Robinson doesn't just address religion in her writing. She serves as a deacon at the Congregational Church to which she belongs.

• One might think that winning a Pulitzer Prize could easily go to a writer's head, but Robinson continues to approach her work with surprising humility. In fact, her advice to aspiring writers is to always "assume your readers are smarter than you are."

• Robinson is no stranger to controversy. Mother Country, her indictment of the destruction of the environment and those who feign to protect it, has raised the ire of Greenpeace, which attempted to sue her British publisher for libel. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
A treasure of a book. While based upon Biblical scripture, it's illuminating for every faith or non-faith. It is about the requirement of living up to the best parts of ourselves—and about the blessing and awe and mystery of all existence. It's a lot packed into a fairly small book. Robinson shows us Christianity writ large, an expansive but difficult faith, which calls upon us to put aside petty anger and accept a divine requirement to love our enemy. Read More...
A LitLovers LitPick (Oct. '08)


Gilead is a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid — and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson's book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness that sometimes recalls George Herbert (who is alluded to several times, along with John Donne) and sometimes the American religious spirit that produced Congregationalism and 19th-century Transcendentalism and those bareback religious riders Emerson, Thoreau and Melville.
James Wood - The New York Times


Marilynne Robinson draws on all of these associations in her new novel, which — let's say this right now — is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. Gilead possesses the quiet ineluctable perfection of Flaubert's A Simple Heart as well as the moral and emotional complexity of Robert Frost's deepest poetry. There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth: "Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts."
Michael Dirda - The Washington Post


Fans of Robinson's acclaimed debut Housekeeping (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life-and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, "[t]rying to say what was true." But it is in this mesmerizing account-in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown-that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self-as well as the worth of his life's reflections. Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness-but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic.
Publishers Weekly


As his life winds down, Rev. John Ames relates the story of his own father and grandfather, both preachers but one a pacifist and one a gun-toting abolitionist. Amazingly, just Robinson's second novel.
Library Journal


The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart. A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames's first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames's sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel's present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he's grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father's church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was. Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. What was your perception of the narrator in the opening paragraphs? In what ways did your understanding of him change throughout the novel? Did John's own perception of his life seem to evolve as well?

2. Biblical references to Gilead (a region near the Jordan River) describe its plants as having healing properties. The African American spiritual, "There Is a Balm in Gilead" equates Jesus with this balm. According to some sources, the Hebrew origin of the word simply means "rocky area." Do these facts make Gilead an ironic or symbolically accurate title for the novel?

3. The vision experienced by John's grandfather is a reminder that the Christ he loves identifies utterly with the oppressed and afflicted, whom he must therefore help to free. He is given his mission, like a biblical prophet. This kind of vision was reported by many abolitionists, and they acted upon it as he did. What guides John in discerning his own mission?

4. How does John seem to feel about his brother's atheism in retrospect? What accounts for Edward's departure from the church? What enabled John to retain his faith?

5. The rituals of communion and baptism provide many significant images throughout the novel. What varied meanings do John and his parishioners ascribe to them? What makes him courageous enough to see the sacred in every aspect of life?

6. One of the most complex questions for John to address is the notion of salvation — how it is defined, and how (or whether) God determines who receives it. How do the novel's characters convey assorted possibilities about this topic? What answers would you have given to the questions John faces regarding the fate of souls and the nature of pain in the world?

7. Marilynne Robinson included several quotations from Scripture and hymns; John expresses particular admiration for Isaac Watts, an eighteenth-century English minister whose hymns were widely adopted by various Protestant denominations. Do you believe that certain texts are divinely inspired? What is the role of metaphor in communicating about spiritual matters?

8. Discuss the literary devices used in this novel, such as its epistolary format, John's finely honed voice, and the absence of conventional chapter breaks (save for a long pause before Jack's marriage is revealed). How would you characterize Gilead's narrative structure?

9. What commentary does John offer about the differences between his two wives? Do you agree with Jack when he calls John's marriage unconventional?

10. John describes numerous denominations in his community, including Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, and Congregationalists. What can you infer from the presence of such variety? Or does the prevalence of Protestants mean that there is little religious variety in Gilead?

11. What might John think of current religious controversies in America? In what ways are his worries and joys relevant to twenty-first-century life?

12. John grapples mightily with his distrust of Jack. Do you believe John writes honestly about the nature of that distrust? What issues contribute to these struggles with his namesake?

13. Discuss the author's choice of setting for Gilead. Is there a difference between the way religion manifests itself in small towns versus urban locales? What did you discover about the history of Iowa's rural communities and about the strain of radicalism in Midwestern history? Did it surprise you?

14. Abolition drew John's grandfather to the Midwest, and the novel concludes at the dawn of the civil rights movement. In what ways does this evolution of race relations mirror the changes John has witnessed in society as a whole?

15. Is Gilead a microcosm for American society in general?

16. In his closing lines, John offers a sort of benediction to his son, praying that he will "grow up a brave man in a brave country" and "find a way to be useful." Do you predict a future in which his hope came true? What do you imagine John experiences in his final sleep?

17. Robinson's beloved debut novel, Housekeeping, features a narrator with a voice just as distinctive as John's. Do the longings conveyed in Housekeeping and Gilead bear any resemblance to one another? How might John have counseled Ruth?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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