Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, was a very big hit. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; it won the PEN/ Faulkner Award. The reviewers loved it and, seemingly, were also grateful to it, for while Housekeeping had all of modernism’s painful knowledge, it showed none of the renunciations of clarity and unity that the modernists—not to speak of the postmodern types, who were already around—felt that such knowledge required. In Housekeeping life was dark, life was crazy. Yet these facts were rendered in a prose that, even at its most subjective, was clean and plain and beautiful.
Many readers were glad of that, and waited to see what Robinson would do next. Then they waited some more. After nine years, she published a nonfiction book, Mother Country (1989), on environmental pollution. After another nine years she brought out a collection of her magazine essays, under the title The Death of Adam (1998). But for twenty-four years this acclaimed novelist produced no fiction. Many people must have forgotten about her. I did. Then, one day last year, according to an article by Meghan O’Rourke in The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, appeared in the office of Roger Straus, the firm’s chairman, and said, “Do you know what I have in my hands? A new novel by Marilynne Robinson.” I don’t entirely believe this story—FSG must have had some warning—but I want to believe it, because it has a note of the miraculous, as does that new novel, Gilead.
Housekeeping was a frightening book, and its beauty only made it more so. It is the story of a young girl, Ruth, living in a little town beside a vast, cold lake in Idaho (Robinson’s home state). At the bottom of the lake lie her grandfather, the victim of a train wreck, and her mother, who one day dropped Ruth and her sister off on their grandmother’s screen porch with a box of Graham crackers and then drove off a cliff into the water. Those deaths are reported right at the start. The rest of the novel describes the dissolution of the family. In Housekeeping, nature abides—the lake is always, loomingly, there—but people pass on, and then they haunt the others until they too pass on. Ruth, in a way, passes before she dies. At the end she becomes a drifter, a freight car rider. The book is thus about transience, and though it is full of rapturous, neo-Transcendentalist passages—Idaho never got better press—its message is cruel. Ruth values remembrance, but the traces of the dead torture her. She longs for darkness, obliteration.
Gilead is the same coin, flipped. The period, as in Housekeeping, is the 1950s. The place, once again, is a no-account little town in the West. This time, however, we are not in the dire landscape of Idaho but on the kinder, flatter plains of Iowa (to which Robinson moved in 1989, to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), and the narrator is not a young girl but an old man, one John Ames, seventy-six years old, who is a Congregationalist minister, like his father and grandfather before him. Ames has just been told that he has angina and will not live much longer. He absolutely believes that in dying he will go to God. But he has a young son who, he knows, will not remember him well. He wants to leave an account of himself that the boy can read when he grows up. Hence this book, a letter to his son.
John Ames was the good child, the second-rank child, in his family. The favorite child was his older brother, Edward, a boy so brilliant that the congregation took up a collection to send him to college and then to Germany, to Göttingen, to do postgraduate study. He came back even more brilliant, and an atheist. On his first night home, his father asks him to say grace at dinner, and he answers that he cannot. He has put away the things of a child, he says. That is the end of the dinner. While their father is “in the attic or the woodshed,…down on his knees, wondering to the Lord what it was that was being asked of him,” John walks Edward back to his hotel. Edward tells him to get out of Gilead: “Leaving here is like waking from a trance.” But John stays and eventually succeeds to his father’s pulpit. “My thought was always to defend my father,” he says.
John marries a local girl whom everyone expects him to marry. She dies giving birth to her first child, and the baby, a girl, dies too. Thus begins what he calls “the time of my loneliness, [which] was most of my life.” By day he reads—he is determined to know about Edward’s great world—and slowly, privately, with no one to talk to about these books, he becomes a learned man. By night, he eats fried-egg sandwiches and listens to the ball game on the radio. He also writes. He writes out all his sermons. Writing, he says, makes him feel he is “with someone.” At the same time, it keeps him from being bothered by his neighbors:
If someone came to the house and found me writing, generally he or she would go away…. I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days.
He estimates that over the forty-five years he has spent as a preacher, he has written 67,500 pages, which, he figures, is the equivalent of 225 books. That “puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.” But unlike those men’s books, his writings will not survive. The sermons are packed in boxes in the attic, just above his study. They weigh on him—he knows they will be thrown out when he dies—and they weigh on the book, as another image of mortality, of the passing of things.
In his solitude Ames thinks about his family. Like Ruth in Housekeeping, he is haunted by the dead, above all by his father and grandfather. The grandfather was born in Maine, but when he was fifteen, Jesus came to him in a vision, bound in chains. This, he knew, meant that he must go serve in the cause of those who were in chains, so, like many other New Englanders, he moved to the Midwest in the 1830s to fight against slavery. He took up a ministry in Kansas, but his church was as much an abolitionist outpost as a place of worship. One night John Brown and his men and their horses hid out in the church. The next day, when the grandfather found a soldier following them, he—a minister of God—shot him and left him to die in the road. This experience changed him. The following Sunday he delivered his sermon in a bloodied shirt, with a gun in his belt. He preached the young men of his congregation into the war, and followed them into it. He lost an eye; they lost their lives.
Few passages in the book are more cruel than the quiet, factual description of the town to which the grandfather returned after the Civil War. Ames’s father told him what it was like:
He said his father’s church was half empty, and most of the people there were widows and orphans and mothers who had lost their sons. Some of the men brought sickness home from the camps—“camp fever,” they called it—and their families went down with it. Some of the men had been in Andersonville and came back almost beyond saving. He said half the graves in the churchyard were new.
The grandfather’s parishioners could no longer support him, so he hired himself out to do odd jobs. Even then, the people couldn’t pay him more than a stewing chicken or a few potatoes. His choring meant that he was away from home a lot, which was hard on his six children, because their mother was dying. One of the children “ran off, or so they hoped. At least he disappeared, and in the confusion of the times they never found him.”
Every Sunday, to his desolated congregation, the grandfather defended the “divine righteousness” of the war. “I don’t know what else he could have said,” Ames reflects, “what else he could have taken to be true.” But Ames’s father did not take it to be true. He too fought in the war, and it turned him into a pacifist, which created a bitter division between him and his father. To the old man the cause of racial justice had not yet been won. It still needed to be fought, with all the zeal—and, if necessary, violence—that he had brought to it. Yet here, in his own pulpit, was his own son (who by now had taken over the ministry) preaching love-thine-enemy. It filled him with rage, which filled his son with a counterrage. Ames witnessed their last quarrel:
My father’s lips were white. He said, “Well, Reverend, I know you placed great hope in that war. My hopes are in peace….”
My grandfather said, “And that’s just what kills my heart, Reverend. That the seraphim never touched a coal to your lips—“
My father stood up from his chair. He said, “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing. And I was, and I am, as certain of that as anyone could ever be of any so-called vision.”
Throughout the period of his solitude these two voices go back and forth in Ames’s mind. He tries to be loyal to both, which at times makes him feel fair-minded and at other times makes him feel second-rate. He is a kind of Greek chorus, a suffering witness. This goes on for forty years.
Then a miracle happens. One rainy Sunday—it is Pentecost—while Ames is preaching, an unknown woman walks into his church. She has sad eyes; she seems to have been through hard times. Ames falls in love with her on the spot. She returns on the following Sundays and finally tells him that she is seeking baptism. Ames buys a new shirt, he experiments with hair tonic (“what humiliation”), but he cannot bring himself to speak to her about his feelings. He is sixty-six, and she is in her thirties; she could not possibly be interested in him. Like other women in the congregation, she begins doing little chores around the church and the parish house. She fixes up Ames’s garden. “And one evening, when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, ‘How can I repay you for all this?’ And she said, ‘You ought to marry me.’ And I did.”
In time, they have a child, a boy. Ames cannot believe that all this has been given to him. As he writes his book in his second-floor study, he looks out the window at his family. His wife is wearing her blue dress, the one he likes best. His son is wearing his red shirt, again his favorite. They are blowing soap bubbles, or playing with the cat, or whatever. Watching them from above, he seems already halfway to heaven. He can bear to leave them, because he is sure they will join him in paradise. He is not the only thing that is perishing, however. His beloved old church is falling down. Gilead too is dying. Like the grandfather’s town in Kansas, it was founded as an abolitionist settlement, and was never meant to last. Today it is just a shabby little town, which the young people leave as soon as they can.
“Dust and ashes”: that’s what the grandfather said the cause of racial justice had become. It is also what Ames’s whole world is becoming. In his letter to his son, he constantly reiterates that the boy may seek a different life, in a different town. (A point he never makes, but which hovers darkly in the background, is that after his death there will be no place for his wife and child in Gilead. Where will they go? On what money?) At one painful moment he even imagines that this letter he is writing to his son may never reach him. A modest man, he wants to place no obligations on the boy. Still, he wants remembrance, for his father and his grandfather—their history, their cause.
Ames is a semi-reliable narrator, a point-of-view narrator. The leading edge of his voice is perhaps its priestliness. He is often discovering silver linings, but the homilies are few and touching. What comes across more strongly is just that Ames is an old-time Protestant—stoical, abstemious. In those lethal sentences, above, where he tells us that his father’s little brother disappeared in the postwar confusion, he lets drop that the boy’s name was Edwards, after Jonathan Edwards. He adds that his own brother was named after this boy; he too was Edwards, but he dropped the s when he went to college. Another thumbscrew, quietly, is added to the father’s anguish. He thought to have a new Edwards, and he lost the second one as well.
Ames is old, and therefore his story meanders. He repeats himself, or he gets tired of talking about something and breaks off, saying he’s going to go take a nap. This is a huge novelistic boon, because it allows Robinson to leak information to us at her own pace. When Ames speaks about something serious—for example, the quarrel between his father and grandfather—he tells us first what he can bear to say. Then, maybe forty pages later, he returns to the subject and tells us more. Then, perhaps forty pages after that, we get the whole story. This creates delay, suspense, surprise. It also speaks to us, tactfully, of Ames’s pride.
For much of the book, he lets us believe, and he himself seems to believe, that he stayed in Gilead as an act of piety to his father and grandfather. But eventually—very eventually: ten pages from the end of the book—he tells us something extremely painful. In time, his father made it up with Edward, who bought his parents a house on the Gulf Coast. They moved there, his mother’s rheumatism improved, and Ames’s father came to him and said that he too should leave Gilead. “When I mentioned to him the history we had here, he laughed and said, ‘Old, unhappy far-off things,’” and he told Ames, “I want you to understand that you do not have to be loyal to them.” In other words, the father, for whose presumed sake Ames was staying and preaching and remembering, was leaving and forgetting and taking the sun on the Gulf Coast—and thinking that a word from him, however late, could induce his son to do the same. Relating this story, Ames becomes truly angry for what I believe is the only time in the book, and it is a thrill:
He thought he could excuse me from my loyalty, as if it were loyalty to him, as if it were just some well-intended mistake he could correct for me, as if it were not loyalty to myself at the very least, putting the Lord to one side…. How ignorant did he think I was? I had read Owen and James and Huxley and Swedenborg and, for heaven’s sake, Blavatsky…. I subscribed to The Nation. I was never Edward, but I was no fool either, and I almost said as much.
That’s not the only regard in which he is no fool. In his forty years of solitude, he has learned a lot about himself, and he reports to us the sins he uncovered in his soul: anger, covetousness. He has a best friend, Boughton, who is Gilead’s Presbyterian minister. The two have been companions since boyhood. But as a young widower Ames found that he could not bear to enter Boughton’s house, because unlike his own, it was full of children. When the two men had to work together, Boughton would come to Ames’s house instead, and bring a dinner, packed by his wife, for the two of them. Boughton also, for love of his friend, named his first son John Ames Boughton, and asked Ames to perform the baptism, and be the boy’s godfather. This should have been a blessing to Ames: father to none, he would at least be godfather to a child who bore his name. But it did not feel like a blessing; it felt like a judgment—he was bereft. And he baptized the boy with a divided heart, with resentment as well as love. It hurts him to tell us this, but finally he does.
He tells us other things that are strange and threatening to him. That boy whom he christened—Jack, as he came to be called—left Gilead as a young man. About midway through the book, he returns, now in his forties. As a child, Jack was basically a sociopath, a sly, mean boy who would walk into people’s houses and steal things. Ames suspects that adulthood has not changed him. Jack makes friends with Ames’s wife and child. Ames is utterly alarmed. Could Jack, after Ames’s death, steal them too? Jack is about the same age as Ames’s wife.
One evening, after supper, Ames and his wife are sitting on their porch when Jack comes by to visit. Ames, half asleep, pretends to be fully asleep, but he later tells us, word for word, what transpired between his wife and Jack. It is a conversation utterly different from any other in the book. It is confiding, intimate. It is also a little sinister, and a little sexy. Jack tries to get Ames’s wife to complain about her situation in Gilead. She demurs. Nevertheless, she tells him some of the troubles of her past—matters that she may not have shared with Ames (or he hasn’t shared them with us). Unlike Ames, she has been homeless; so has Jack. She says she used to walk past people’s houses and look in their windows. Jack says he has done the same. We feel a fellowship developing between them. At the same time, Ames’s wife senses that her husband is awake, and she presses his hand. “Well, Jack,” she says finally, “Bless your heart.” “Why, I thank you for that, Lila,” he replies, and he goes away. This is the first time, two hundred pages into the book, that we find out the wife’s name. It comes like a revelation, like a blouse being unbuttoned. At the same time, Lila is telling Jack that there will be nothing between them. The scene is like a blow—a confession, a threat, and a consolation all in one.
Another gift of Ames’s limited voice is comedy. The grandfather lived with Ames’s family until Ames was twelve, and as he aged he became a figure simultaneously frightening and funny. He was, Ames says, “like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm.” In other words, he was the neighborhood kook. The local children made fun of him. Ames, on the other hand, was afraid of him. Sometimes, when he came home from school, his mother would meet him on the porch and say that Jesus was in the parlor with his grandfather:
Then I’d come creeping in in my socks and I’d just glance in through the parlor door and there my grandfather would be, sitting on the left end of the sofa, looking attentive and sociable and gravely pleased. I would hear a remark from time to time, “I see your point,” or “I have often felt that way myself.”
The grandfather also steals. If he can’t end racial injustice, he can at least succor the poor, and though his own family has next to nothing, he manages to give it away. Ames’s father would go looking for his saw or his box of nails, and they were nowhere to be found. His mother would go out to take in the wash off the line, and half of it would be missing:
He would actually give away the blankets off his bed. He did that several times, and my mother was at a good deal of trouble to replace them. For a while she made me wear my church clothes all the time so he couldn’t get at them.
Normally the grandfather confined his larcenies to his own congregation. (Ames’s mother said you could always tell which families in town were Congregationalists. They were the ones with padlocks on their barns.) Once, however, he decided that the Presbyterians were hoarding, so he went to their service one Sunday, and when the collection plate came to him, he emptied it into his hat and walked out.
Such comedy is needed, as a balance for the great waves of blessedness that break over the book elsewhere. Like Housekeeping, Gilead is a very extreme document. As much as Ruth goes down into the darkness, Ames goes up into the light. One morning, before dawn, he passes a row of oaks that are dropping their acorns, “thick as hail almost”:
There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was very clear night, or morning, very still, and there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like a travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me.
But that is a minor epiphany. Soon after the final argument between the grandfather and the father, the grandfather leaves home in the night and is never heard from again. The father, racked with guilt, puts notices in the papers and finally finds out that his father went back to Kansas, his old home, and died there. So the father, together with his twelve-year-old son, our John Ames, rides—and when the roads fail, walks—to Kansas, to find his father’s grave. The journey is related with complete realism (the food they eat, the tools they bring), yet it contains episodes so pure, so absolute, that they might have come from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Twice the father and the boy pass the overgrown patch of land where the grandfather lies before they realize that it is a graveyard. A woman in a nearby farmhouse directs them to the spot, and gives them dinner. It is nighttime by then, so they sleep in the woman’s barn. In the morning, they return to the graveyard:
My father…broke up the ground on the grave a little with a jackknife. But then he decided we should go back to the farmhouse again to borrow a couple of hoes and make a better job of it. He said, “We might as well look after these other folks while we’re here.” This time the lady had a dinner of navy beans waiting for us. I don’t remember her name, which seems a pity. She had an index finger that was off at the first knuckle, and she spoke with a lisp. She seemed old to me at the time, but I think she was just a country women, trying to keep her manners and her sanity, trying to keep alive, weary as could be and all by herself out there. [What is not said here is that this was during a period of severe drought, in which Kansas lost much of its population.] She cried when we said goodbye to her, and wiped her face with her apron. My father asked if…she would like to come along, and she thanked us and shook her head and said, “There’s the cow.” She said, “We’ll be just fine when the rain comes.”
Ames and his father go back to the grave and fix it up. Then, as the father is saying a final prayer, Ames looks up and sees something amazing:
A full moon [was] rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.
A similar scene—two people caught, in a critical moment, between the setting sun and the rising moon—occurs in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. Here, as there, it takes your breath away. Later, the father, distrustful of “visions,” tells his son, “Everyone in Kansas saw what we saw,” but against his anti-mystical will he too seems to feel that what they have been through—the terrible trek across Kansas, the discovery of the forgotten, weedy grave, the woman who will not leave her cow, and perhaps even the meeting of the sun and the moon—represents some journey of the soul. As Ruth says in Housekeeping, “Everything that falls upon the eye is an apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.”
Gilead is a tightly unified book. The themes are few (family, abolition, death, forgetfulness), as are the central images—water (there are many baptisms) and light—as are the crucial scenes, such as the sun-and-moon conjunction, to which Ames returns in his mind. The characters too are few, and almost every one of them has a double. First of all, there are Ames and his father and grandfather. (To weld the chain more tightly, all three are named John Ames.) There are two Edwardses, both lost boys. There are two prodigal sons: Edward and Jack Boughton. There are two little girls who die: Ames’s first baby and a child whom Jack fathers on a poor country girl. There are two young women who have seen hard times: that country girl and Lila. There are two men who steal: the grandfather and Jack; and on and on.
Because of these parallelisms, time in the book sometimes seems to fold inward. An episode will invoke a parallel episode, and suddenly Ames’s father is not a man but a nine-year-old; Ames is not seventy-six but twelve. These suspensions of chronology push the book further toward revelation: all time is one time. Ames says it flat out: history “has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it.” But the greatest parallelism, the crucial enfolding of time, occurs when Jack Boughton returns to Gilead. Ames had thought that his letter to his son would be a serene document, the words of a man peacefully going to the Lord. But when Jack arrives and, in Ames’s mind, threatens to walk off with his wife and child, this instantly revives the old quarrel in his mind between his grandfather (anger, violence) and his father (forgiveness, peace). And far from being the placid reminiscence he had planned, his book becomes a frantic, day-to-day diary, indeed a suspense novel, in which the Old Testament and the New fight it out in his soul one more time.
The book’s leaning toward revelation is no accident. Robinson is a believer. Raised as a Presbyterian, she eventually became a Congregationalist. She is a deacon of her church in Iowa City, and I would guess that many of Ames’s religious reflections are hers also. Her collection of essays, The Death of Adam, bears looking at. There she complains bitterly of the capture of religion in America by people who, while calling themselves Christians and traditionalists, advance social policies directly contrary to central Christian traditions, notably concern for the poor. She explores those traditions and in the process gives a history of the Protestant groups who moved from New England to the West to fight for abolitionism and other progressive causes. All of this goes straight into Gilead.
I have read at least one review, that of Lee Siegel in New York magazine, claiming that the book’s religious concerns constitute a problem for the general reader. “Unless you are a believing Christian with strong fundamentalist leanings,” Siegel writes, “you cannot truly understand Gilead. Lacking such faith, you’re probably not going to like it much, either.” As is clear in The Death of Adam, Robinson is not a fundamentalist, and if Siegel thinks you have to be a believing Christian to understand a book about Christian matters, should the Jews give up trying to read The Divine Comedy? To my knowledge, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle committees are not stacked with evangelicals; both gave their 2004 fiction awards to Gilead.
Nonetheless, the book does have one stumbling block—an outgrowth, I believe, not of Robinson’s religion but of her politics. Poverty and race lie heavily on her mind. In Gilead’s denouement we find out what Jack Boughton has been doing since he has been gone from Gilead: he has contracted a common-law marriage with a black woman—they have a son—but between the disapproval of her family, who distrust him as a white man, and the hostility of their neighbors in St. Louis, who do not like miscegenation, the union is now on the rocks. This, of course, is another parallelism. Robinson is tying Jack to the grandfather, and the old abolitionist movement to the new civil rights movement, on the eve of which Gilead takes place.
The episode doesn’t work very well, though. All along, in the book, Jack Boughton has been presented to us as a scoundrel—suffering, maudit, but dangerous all the same. To have to accept him, in the end, as a victim of racial politics is a stretch—a Dickensian rabbit-out-of-the-hat rather than a credible development. Yet many great novels, including a few that are direct ancestors of Gilead (My Ántonia, Huckleberry Finn), have far less satisfactory conclusions, and at least Jack’s sad situation gets him out of Gilead, so that the book can end on a note of calm. By the final pages, all that matters to Ames is his book, and his wife, and above all his son. “You have been God’s grace to me,” he writes to the boy. “You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.” That statement comes early in the book. By the end he finds the words:
Your mother seems to want every supper to be my favorite supper. There is often meat loaf, and always dessert. She puts candles on the table, since dark is coming early now. I suspect she has brought them from the church, and that’s all right. Often she wears her blue dress. You have outgrown your red shirt. Old Boughton’s family…invite us for dinner, but these days we three love to be at home. You come in reeking of the evening air, with your eyes bright and your cheeks and fingers pink and cold, too beautiful in the candlelight for my old eyes. The cold has silenced all the insects. The dark seems to make us speak softly, like gentle conspirators. Your mother says the grace and butters your bread.