“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where? And I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why? and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”
So begins Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
This opening is an interesting commentary, not only on mortality, but also on the process of reading a book and spending time with a character/story, no? We are with fictional characters who may move us intensely, but then we reach an end. We can only return to the written word, as Ms. Robinson has her character the Reverend Ames, envision for his son.
Gilead is a novel written as a series of letters from the Reverend John Ames to his then seven-year-old son. The year is 1956, and Ames, who is 76, knows he will soon die from a heart condition. After an adult lifetime spent writing and delivering sermons (he estimates he’s completed over two thousand of them) Ames seeks to write his son a book-length letter which he intends the boy will read many years in the future when Ames is gone, and his son is an adult. The title Gilead, refers to the town in Iowa where Rev. Ames lives with his family, and that’s plausible enough, but of course the word Gilead also refers strongly to the Christian Bible. Gilead was and is a region in Israel, and perhaps more significantly the expression “a balm in Gilead” refers to the idea of a universal cure, which the book could be!
Rev. Ames jokes that his wife Lila, the mother of his son, calls these letters his “begats”, which refers to considerable portions of the Old Testament that are genealogical lists—“Shem son of Noah begat Stuart son of Jack.” Well, you get the idea.
So Ames states who he is in terms of his parents’ names and his age. Then, he writes, “And what else should I tell you?”
Indeed. Gilead is much more than these “begats.”
It is a history of the Rev. Ames life, which includes tales of his parents and grandparents that he either witnessed or that were, on the face of it, told to him. There’s no reason to think initially that Ames is an unreliable narrator. He is writing these tales himself; they are clearly subjective accounts, but there is no other source, no other character who might dispute them. After all, his parents and first wife are deceased, we have no word from them except through Ames. Later, we will see how another character reveals to Ames not so much that the Reverend is unreliable but mistaken in his judgement of other people. His wife Lila, is also a separate voice whose quoted speech can dispute the perceptions and opinions Ames writes.
Indeed, it’s unlikely some of the stories about his family could be events he himself witnessed or was told, in that a child probably wouldn’t understand adult dealings. (an isomorph of Ames writing a letter into the future). It’s more likely they are tales told by the hidden narrator of the book.
Yet, all of this begs the question of what is the Rev. Ames purpose? I suppose we might say the character himself is shown doing a fairly common thing wherein he wants to, in a sense, go beyond his own death to communicate with his young son. To explain adult things to a child who is now too young to understand them.
But, as long as we’re begging questions, what purpose does the implied author have in writing this book, or even, best beloved, the real flesh and blood author, Marilynne Robinson?
The stories the Rev. Ames writes about his family and himself are largely tales of wonder at the beauty of existence and the physical world. Ames wants his son to know this, and Ms. Robinson (Mrs. Robinson?) wants the reader to know.
“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down in the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity…You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her red dress and you are wearing your blue shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy (the cat) between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.”
The word “mindfulness” comes to mind here. It’s a lovely description, not just of a mother and child and cat, but of the mental state of the observer, Rev. Ames, and by extension, the implied author, and finally the reader, if she/he enters into the universe of the book.
Another set of stories concerns Rev. Ames’ paternal grandfather and his mother. It was his grandfather’s habit to give away money and possessions to anyone that asked for help, a habit which his daughter-in-law sometimes supported, sometimes blocked.
“He really would give anything away. My father would go looking for a saw or a box of nails and it would be gone…Times were hard, and she had the old man to deal with and 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…he’d walk off with a jar of her pickled beets without so much as a by your leave. That day though, he stood there with those three coins in his drastic old mummified hand and watched her with that terrible eye, and she crossed her arms right over the handkerchief with the hidden money in it, and as he clearly knew, and she watched him right back, until he said, ‘Well, the Lord bless you and keep you,’ and went out the door.”
There is a running commentary, a self-consciousness about what Ames is doing.
“This habit of writing is so deep in me, as you will know well enough if this endless letter is in your hands, if it has not been lost or burned also.” This is embedded in Ames’ ruminations about his sermons, a written chronicle not unlike the letter he is writing his son. “ I suppose it’s natural to think about those old boxes of sermons upstairs. They are a record of my life, after all, a sort of foretaste of the Last Judgement, really so how can I not be curious?” (Does he imagine his son-in-the future will judge him?)
So Ms. Robinson writes to us a story about Rev. Ames writing to his son, presenting an account of his life. There are messages and meanings in this account about the beauty of the world, about love for family, about someone assessing the value of a life, what was done right and what was done wrong.
Let’s stop there and continue next time.