The setting of Marilynne Robinson's second novel is Iowa in 1956, specifically the small town of Gilead, a place that, even in the old-fashioned environs of the 1950s midwest, has slipped behind the times. "It's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now." John Ames is its Congregationalist preacher, 77 years old, the third generation of his family to fulfil the role. Ames has been diagnosed with angina pectoris and is convinced of, if not resigned to, his imminent death. The novel takes the form of an extended letter to his six-year-old son, a child who, if Ames’s medical prognosis is correct, is destined to grow up largely without his father. The letter, then, is Ames’s attempt to form a connection with his boy, a connection that will only be consummated in a future he cannot share, a connection through which he will describe the man he is to the man his boy will become. Fathers and sons, then, connectedness, the human family through generations, this is what Gilead is about.
The letter begins as a record of “begats”, the family history, the chronicle of generations of fathers and sons (women do not feature prominently in Gilead; for the distaff narrative one must turn to Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping). Thus, we are introduced to his larger-than-life grandfather, a one-eyed Civil War firebrand who ran with John Brown and was active (violently so) in the abolitionist cause on the dangerous Iowa-Kansas border. Ames’s own father grows up in the shadow of this man, his father, and reacts against him in the way children do, by taking an opposite, equally strident point of view and becomes an avowed pacifist. He abhors the idea of men of God entreating people to fight and kill and be killed, however valid the cause. When he discovers the old man’s pistol he buries it, digs it up and buries it again, then digs it up again and destroys it before throwing it in the river. Nothing is strong enough to wash away the taint that pistol represents on his moral vision, no gesture will suffice. And yet he takes his own son, John Ames, on a pilgrimage to discover the grave of the old man, a complex inter-relationship of generations and beliefs and loyalties. Or, as Ames says in his epistle to his own son, the fourth generation, “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” Elsewhere, he despairs, “We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations.” When, finally, they find the old man’s grave, overgrown and abandoned, Ames is not surprised to see that it looks “like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire."
So this is a novel about fathers and sons, but it is more than that and, accordingly, Ames’s letter to his son becomes more than just a litany of begats: in its pages, history and present, disappointment and hope, nature and faith, death and life begin to meld as Ames reaches out to the man he will never know. Facing mortality, he is much given to thoughts of what is to come, but he cannot take leave of the beautiful world he inhabits, is reluctant to leave behind his wife and son, is protective, jealous, proud of them. He does not want to leave. He does not want to be left. It is the most basic equation and the most basic human emotion there is, and it boils down to the simple but unfathomably complex concept of love. Ames, though he would probably be embarrassed to admit it, is a man in love.
And so he ponders questions of life and death, metaphysics, theology. This is a deeply spiritual book but its religion is a human thing or – if that may be a theological non-sequiteur – perhaps that is to say that while its religion is focused on the Creator it does not overlook the Created. Where, for example, Flannery O’Connor’s obsessive quest for grace tends to flatten human aspiration into something plain and painful, John Ames comes to see human life as beautiful, a thing to be treasured. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” he writes near the novel’s conclusion, “every one of them sufficient.” And of death, that unknowable passage which exercised such a hold over O’Connor, Ames writes:
Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.
It strikes me that O’Connor would recognise and empathise with those words, and yet they are materially different from the sentiments displayed in her own works. It is the notion of “humanly speaking” that does it. If sorrow is, indeed, the greater part of the substance of human life, for O’Connor that sorrow would define it; for Ames, and for Robinson, perhaps, it encloses it. There is a difference.
That difference is reflected in the central relationship of the novel, which at once is and is not a father and son relationship: it is between Ames and Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong friend, Robert Boughton. Jack was christened (by Ames himself) John Ames Boughton, in honour of the two men’s friendship, and recognising the fact (as it seemed then, Ames’s first wife and his daughter having already died) that Ames would not have offspring of his own. Although he could not articulate why, his great friend’s gesture of friendship in naming his child thus was as troubling as it was complimentary. And that unease did indeed portend their future relationship because Jack, a difficult boy, a troublemaker, a free spirit seemingly troubled in life, began to exert a baleful influence on Ames’s existence. He would steal items from the preacher’s house, only to return them later. He would break in to the house frequently. He would never apologise. A crisis was reached when the boy Jack fathered a child by a local girl and neglected his parental responsibilities: for Ames, who had lost his only child, such dereliction of paternal duty was sinful. Early in the novel we understand that Jack left home many years before and had subsequently been out of contact. He did not even attend his mother’s funeral. Suddenly he returns, and Ames is suspicious, protective of old man Boughton, whom he does not wish to see hurt, and wary of the young man’s potentially malign influence on his own wife and son. They endure a tortuous new relationship. They edge around one another, frequently upsetting each other without knowing why or how, failing to understand each other’s motivations and aspirations.
Thus, while Ames’s journal began ostensibly as a series of begats, a record for his son of his own history and that of his family, it is Jack who comes to dominate it. In this way, Robinson reflects on the nature of human community, human communication, human frailty, the capacity and absolute requirement for love. If there is to be sorrow, it is enfolded in love.
John Ames is a remarkable creation. Despite his protestations that he “appreciate[s] a joke as much as anybody” he is not possessed of a sense of humour. When he relates a childhood prank in which girls put boiled eggs under a neighbour’s setting hen he notes, “What the point was I never knew.” (For all that, though, his characteristically deadpan narration of an incident in which a horse falls into a tunnel dug by locals from the dry good store to the livery stables is one of the funniest things I’ve read all year: it is funny precisely because its narrator is not.)
Ames is, moreover, a man of great piety and a stoic defender of faith, a dry, equanimous fellow who tries to see the best in everything. None of this – humourlessness, devotedness, placidness – would ordinarily make for good fiction: where is the conflict, where is the tension? This even-handedness does, of course, reveal a flaw. In a perfect counterpoint to the violent approach of his one-eyed grandfather towards emancipation of slaves, Ames’s seems largely oblivious of the racism attendant in the burning down of Gilead’s only Negro church and the subsequent eradication of black people from the town. This man with a full complement of eyes, this man of sensitive disposition, a man of placid even-handedness, seems not to see what is happening or realise the sociological import of the church burning or recognise the nascent Civil Rights movement it prefigures. Every good man, Robinson suggests, is imperfect in his own way.
And this is the strength of John Ames as a fictional character: he is real, he is mortal, he is flawed. He wants and hopes. He is not wholly an innocent: “We humans do real harm,” he writes at one point. “History could make a stone weep.” But this will not make him bitter: through it all, he wants to appreciate life in its glory. Reflecting on his seventy-six years, he writes, “I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace." While relating his family’s past, he insists on looking forward. “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief,” he tells his son. “You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”
This positive approach is severely tested by the re-emergence of Jack. Ames’s life has been carefully moulded: he has spent his entire existence in Gilead; the fruits of that existence are in the attic, in the 2500 sermons he has written and presented over his career, each one (except one, a pacifist sermon during the war which, to his regret, he did not deliver) preserved as a record, or a monument, or an explanation. He has his new family, and the hope for the future, even if it is a future from which he will be excluded. But Jack, with his insistent probing on the existence of God and predestination and perdition, threatens to shatter the calm he has created. Gradually, however, a reconciliation is reached, and a beautiful one it is. In an emotional climax, Jack and Ames come together, achieve a degree of understanding. For the religious minded, one might say they each reach a state of grace. For the non-religious, it might be characterised as love. The two ideals may not be so far apart. As Ames says, "Love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters." In this sense, perhaps, the novel isn’t about grace, it is about forgivenness; the former is situated in the beyond, the latter in the present. In Robinson’s view, of course, the one will lead to the other, but its simple beauty strikes, too, a strongly secular note of human beauty. An absolutely stunning passage brings this out:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely.
The first sentence is a secular paean, at once beautiful and sad. It broadens into a Christian evocation of God as being beyond everything, but immediately reasserts the beauty of the earthly present. And then that final, glorious sentence is as powerful an evocation of humanity as I’ve ever read. Love and grace, so inextricably linked, form the absolute bedrock of this novel. There is a purity in Robinson’s vision. For me, a non-believer, it seems to reside in her notion that while, for a Christian, the transcendent beyond is the perfect state to which we all aspire, the notion of grace is nonetheless very much an earthly gift, and a gift of great beauty. For Flannery O’Connor, grace seems only attainable as a matter of transcendence and the present is therefore fit only to be discarded. This seems to miss much that is human, and that muchness, as Ames demonstrates, is love.