Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Picador, 2004. 247 pp)
Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, Marilynne Robinson earned her B.A. at Pembroke College and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received numerous awards, notably the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Pulitzer Prize, and a National Humanities Medal.
I often struggle to explain the kind of literature I enjoy. On one hand, my tastes vary. I want this variety because it’s some sort of cliché resembling the spice of life. But even more, I believe variety helps me to be a well-rounded thinker.
On the other hand, if pressed to pick a genre, I’d say literary fiction. This genre becomes difficult to define because it manifests itself in a variety of ways. But the easiest way to describe it involves a rooted exploration of the human condition and a playful look at the “rules” of reading. Literary works blend the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. It intentionally withholds plot to make a bigger point. Literary fiction requires savoring—you probably shouldn’t finish one of these in a sitting or two.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead offers an excellent example of literary fiction.
An intense character study, Gilead explores the inner life of John Ames, an old Congregationalist minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa circa 1956.
Stylized through short, journal-style entries, John Ames explores many aspects of his life, all framed through the intention of sharing this journal with his young son.
“My point is that the great kindness and providence of the Lord has given most of us someone to honor—the child his parent, the parent his child. I have great respect for the uprightness of your character and the goodness of your heart, and your mother could not love you more or take greater pride in you. She has watched every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones. So that is the honoring of the child. You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us. I hope you never have to long for a child as I did, but oh, what a splendid thing it has been that you came finally, and what a blessing to enjoy you now for almost seven years” (136).
The entries explore John’s relationship with his father and grandfather, both ministers albeit radically different in their faith-based philosophy with Ames’ father embodying pacifism and his grandfather a guerilla abolitionist before the Civil War.
Ames’ explorations on family and the human condition lead to beautiful passages such as this one:
“Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us” (197).
The Challenge and Redemption of Others
During Ames’ writing, the son of his best friend, Reverend Boughton, the local Presbyterian minister arrives. His namesake, John Ames Boughton left 20 years earlier amid disgrace and his presence in Gilead unnerves Ames.
“Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me” (190).
The beauty of Gilead, however, occurs in the unlocking of the complicated relationships of one man. His loneliness, his theological explorations, his desire to be something for this small town—it all coalesces in a heart rendering pulp of a story.
Go read Gilead now.
Overall: 5 out of 5