"We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege." — Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review
Reverend John Ames is a Midwestern minister nearing the end of his life in 1956. In his mid-70s and ill, he takes to writing an extended meditation in the form of a letter to his seven-year-old son while being cared for by his much-younger, devoted wife whom he met at church and married late in life. He writes of a life shaped by love for his faith, his vocation and his church, for prayer, for his town (Gilead, Iowa), for his father and grandfather, for his books, for baseball, for his lifelong friend, for his physical life and the splendors of the physical world, for his memories, and for his first wife and infant child whom he lost a long time ago. Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) "is a lyrical evocation of existential solitude" (The New York Times Magazine). Robinson "tracks the movements of grace as if it were a wild animal, appearing for fleeting intervals and then disappearing past the range of vision, emerging again where we least expect to find it" (The Atlantic).
Ames's family legacy is steeped in abolition, economic hardship, and conflicting views on religion and war as each generation comes of age. Ames reflects on the escapades of his grandfather, a fiery Civil War chaplain who would steal items from his family's home to give to the less fortunate, and led antislavery raids with John Brown before the war. He preached to his congregation to take up arms and join the fight. He lost an eye in the war and claimed it gave him the ability to speak to God. Ames's father, on the other hand, was a devout, gentle pacifist who preached about peace and didn't get along with Ames's grandfather. Ames is gentle like his father, and a solitary, sorrowful figure for most of his life following the tragic death in childbirth of his young wife, Louisa, and their daughter, Rebecca. Decades later, Lila, a quiet woman with a troubled past and many questions about life and religion walks into Ames's church and they develop a nurturing relationship. Their son is born a year after they marry. The letter Ames writes to his son is in part a wistful elegy to the family he always wanted and finally has—to their happy memories and to a future he won't be able to share.
A central conflict in the novel involves the son of Ames's lifelong friend and Presbyterian minister, Reverend Boughton. John "Jack" Ames Boughton is his parents' pride and joy until he seduces, impregnates, and then abandons an impoverished girl near his university. Despite the family's best efforts to help the girl and her child, the child dies at the age of three, poorly cared for and without her father. In the novel, it is 20 years later and Jack has returned to Gilead. He bonds with Lila over an understanding of mutually troubled histories, much to Ames's dissatisfaction.
Infused with philosophical references and Biblical quotations, the novel contemplates theology, but never with a heavy hand. "Robinson is a Calvinist, but her spiritual sensibility is richly inclusive and non-dogmatic" (The New Yorker). The novel also celebrates the beauty of our physical world and everyday life. "You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as 'beauty,'" Robinson told The Paris Review. "Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it's not Versailles. It's a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it." Robinson's novel "teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details" (The New York Times). Referring to a passage of the novel in which Ames stops on his way to church one morning to watch a young couple walking ahead of him, The New Yorker says "[it] feels like an instinctual insight into a way of experiencing the world."
"Robinson approaches her characters with uncompromising curiosity, but that curiosity is at the same time so patient it is almost chivalrous," writes The New York Review of Books. "Their lives are full of disappointment, and they disappoint others; they are an imperfect lot. But Robinson is not in the business of judging them or lifting them up from sin or meting out narrative justice. Instead, she attempts, insistently and with good humor and respect, to understand them as they attempt to understand themselves."