Presentation of the novel and the author:
Marilynne Robinson was born in 1947 and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho. She graduated from Brown University in 1966. Robinson started on her first novel, Housekeeping (1981), after she graduated. After she published Housekeeping, she began writing essays on book reviews for Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. Later on, Robinson started teaching in different Universities.
Her last novel is Gilead, written in 2005. About the context Gilead was written in, Robinson said “I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with”. The character was a minister who had written a little poem. He changed himself to become quite different, and became the narrator.
The action of the novel:
The 77 year old John Ames, writes a letter to his 7 year old son in 1956. Ames has got heart problems. (Angina pectoris) He believes that he is soon going to die. In the letter he writes to his son: “I try to tell things I might not have told you if I had brought you up in the usual way.” (p.116) Ames married first with Louisa who died during childbirth, the child died too. After that he spent many years in loneliness before he married the 37 years younger lady, which was the mother of his son. He tells him about his grandfather and his father. Ames was a pastor like his father and his grandfather. He tells about the history of the family, theological meditation and his life experiences.
The novel starts on the time scale when the father was 77 and the boy was 7. Through the whole letter he is shifting from the present time back to the grandfather’s participate in the Civil war, and his own father. He tells about his own childhood, his minister friend Boughton and his own ministry as a pastor. The novel is written as one long letter that is not divided into days or chapters.
The story is told by one person, John Ames (the father) who talks to his son. He describes all the other characters in the novel. Sometimes he refers to other people’s direct speaking, like the conversation between his father and his atheist brother, Edward. Father: “You have lived under this roof. You know the customs of your family. You might show some respect for them.” Edward replied: “When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.”
The characters are described by the narrator’s point of view. He describes himself spending a lot of time reading books and writing his sermons. Ames doesn’t write the way he speaks, but tries to write the way he thinks. He lives in Gilead a small town in Iowa, together with his wife and son. It is a happy marriage which has come after periods of loneliness and disappointments. When he thinks about his son, he feels sorrow because he has to grow up father less.
John Ames was once taken by his father to his grandfather’s grave in Kansas. The grandfather and his son had a disagreement last time they left each other. This trip was made to get forgiveness and to give forgiveness. It was a very special occasion for John Ames.
Another story was when he was cleaning up a burnt church together with his father and some other people. His father gave him a biscuit with his ashy fingers. The situation reminds him of the time with the Lord in Gethsemane. He wants to give his son what he his given.
His son is not given a specific name in the letter, just “my son”. He seems to be an ordinary boy that plays with his friend Tobias.
His ten years older brother, Edward, went to Germany for studying theology. The congregation took up collections to send him to college and then to Germany. He came back as an atheist.
The grandfather, who also was a preacher, but also militant, went to Kansas and lost one eye in the Civil War. He signalled the beginning of the church service by firing his pistol. The Bible was for him so literally that he gave away most of the things he got hold of to the poor people.
John Ames neighbour, Mr Boughton, is sickly and a little cross sometimes because of his discomfort. He was a good preacher and Ames didn’t want his son to remember him as an old sick man. During the years, they have had lots of spiritual conversations.
Mr Boughton’s son, who was named after Mr Ames, John Ames Boughton was a man that Ames couldn’t stand. He didn’t even like him when he was a boy.
John Ames’ wife, who is nameless in the letter, has got a characteristic of being a respectful and a good mother.
Description of social background
The story is mostly from Gilead, Iowa, where Ames has lived for 74 years of his life. He talks mostly of the church and the congregation, the family and some of the neighbours. All parts of human life are reflected on. What he describes, is also spiritual and philosophical considerations.