Please Read The Letter That I Wrote
What is the style of Gilead?
I find it harder to analyze Gilead as a piece of fiction because it reads like a convincing memoir and/or letter from ageing father to son. Yet, the main character, John Ames, is not real, nor is his wife nor son. Gilead is a fictional tale, albeit one that conveys significant philosophical ideas. How does Marilynne Robinson accomplish this sleight-of-hand?
Gilead is written in first person, which imparts an immediacy. The present tense is used to indicate the present time of Rev. Ames as he is composing the letters, and the past tense is used as he recounts the stories that make up the content. That is, he is writing from the past and about the past. Are we the readers in the position of identifying with Ames in his time, or with his son in the future, as we read the purported letters? Both, I think. The book encourages us to imagine ourselves both as the writer and the reader.
The physical structure of the book is comprised of one-to-three-page sections set off by paragraph breaks, and predictably, the sections concern different subjects. Thus, as mentioned, the story begins with Ames describing an interaction with his son and a particular look his son gave him.
“I will miss them (those looks).
“It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this—it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then—I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.”
This first passage sets out the concept of the novel—an older man writing a series of letters to his son, intending he will read them in the future. It shows Ames’ awareness of his mortality. And the tone is ironic, almost comic.
After a paragraph break, the next section continues some meditations about death, albeit in a folksy manner. “And now they say my heart is failing. The doctor used the term ‘angina pectoris’ which has a theological sound, like misericordia. Well, you expect these things at my age.” Then he describes seeing two young men joking with each other, perhaps even joking about him. But Ames finds the encounter beautiful; he doesn’t want them to stop on his account.
“I felt like telling them I appreciate a joke as much as anybody.”
There is considerable quotation of other writers, particularly from the Christian Bible, John Calvin (more on this in a later post), and the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. However, this device of quotation does not occur in a pretentious way but seems well-integrated and meaningful to the larger text.
In a formal sense, Ames is a character narrator, a character in the stories he tells, arguably the main character, and of course this raises the question of unreliability. Is he an objective reporter of what happens? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think he pretends to be. Perhaps part of the illusion is that, as a religious leader, he has some special insight and accuracy into people. However, he makes no claim to any special powers and is, in fact, rather unassuming, going out of his way to show his concern that he has not always been right. He is, as we noted last time, offering up an account of his life for judgement. We the readers have access to his private thoughts, and there’s a sense in which the character of Ames is judging himself, despite his wish for his son to do so in the future. The fact is, as Ames acknowledges, his son may not read these letters. They could be destroyed, his son might be uninterested or even dead himself. Gilead reads more like the intensely personal and subjective thoughts of a human trying to make sense of his life, perhaps to justify it to himself. Whatever possibility there is in his son reading what he has written, Ames is explaining himself to himself.
“If you remember me at all, you may find me explained a little by what I am telling you. If you could see me not as a child but as a grown man, it is surely true that you would observe a certain crepuscular quality in me. As you read this, I hope you will understand that when I speak of the long night that preceded these days of happiness, 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. Almost never.”
Here he recounts an ordinary event in his current life, wondering if his son will recall it and, at the same time, presenting a significant memory to himself. “You and the cat have joined me in my study. Soapy is on my lap and you are on your belly on the floor in a square of sunlight…” It should be said that although this passage is written in present tense, it is a memory recovered at the time Ames writes it. That is, it has already occurred when he writes it down.
At other times, after a paragraph break, the narrative consists of Ames telling a story from the past, a story which may be from the character’s own experience or may be one that had been told to him by others. Thus, we have the story of Ames encountering the influenza epidemic in WW1, and how he tried to console his parishioners who’d lost young men.
Then later, there is the comic story allegedly told to Ames by his grandfather, of a mid-western town digging a tunnel with disastrous results. Although this is framed as a story Ames has heard, the telling of it suggests a nearly invisible narrator at work, knowing things Ames could not.
Here’s another reflection/judgment about himself, couched in the form of a communication to his son: “I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way.”
As the Dude might say, what’s the point, Walter?
The point is that Gilead makes use stylistically of a sophisticated array of narrational devices, different viewpoints that add richness to the text.
In classic storytelling fashion, there are several mise en abymes, my dears, smaller stories that reflect larger ones. Ames’ older brother Edward, who returns from Europe and university a changed and agnostic person, offends their father. This is very evocative of the main story concerning Jack Boughton and his father. A sort of prodigal son, although it is Ames whom Jack offends. Ames feels torn between his brother and father.
A major theme in the story is the conflict between father and son. Ames’ father and grandfather, Edward and his father, Jack Boughton and Ames, who is a surrogate father. And it’s expressed in the desire Ames has that he can somehow explain everything to his son far off in the future. He fears his son’s anger over Ames not providing well financially for a wife and son he didn’t plan on. He fears he has failed his son.
There is the curious passage wherein Ames recounts the story of a man accused of murder who was exonerated because of both the lack of motive and the disappearance of the murder weapon, a knife. Ames says, “Then nobody knew whom to be scared of, which was terrible.” This then leads into the story of his grandfather’s gun, and how Ames’ father, a pacifist, tried to get rid of it by throwing it in the river.
This too plays with the larger theme of guilt and judgment and of the way humans fail each other. The accused man, legally acquitted, is an object of fear by the community and is shunned. An outcast, just as Jack Boughton is unjustly blamed by Ames. Just as Ames father blames his father.
There is the “rhyming” between Jack having a lost wife and child, and Ames himself having been married young and losing both wife and their infant daughter. And of course, Ames’ death will separate him again from his own wife and child.
In the same way that the different narrative styles enrich the text, these mise en abymes provide a more complex texture and structure, as well as deepening the novel’s themes.
Perhaps the best way to see Gilead’s style would be to imagine the book written in a different style. Maybe a novel about an ageing man examining his life told in third person, simple past tense.
“Today, John Ames Boughton paid a call. Ames was sitting on the porch with the newspaper and his wife was tending the flowers and he just came walking through the gate and up the steps with his hand held out and a smile on his face. He said, ‘How are you doing, Papa?’—a name he had called Ames in his childhood, because his parents encouraged it, Ames believed.”
Scenes like these could be adapted fairly easily. The scenes which are more reflective would need more work. Here’s one where Ames is thinking about Jack’s behavior toward Ames’ wife and son:
“I have to decide what to tell your mother. I know she is wondering. He’s very nice to her and to you. And to me. No ‘Papa’ this evening, thank goodness. He’s so respectful I feel like telling him I’m not the oldest man in the world yet. Well, I know I’m touchy about some things. I have to try to be fair with him.”
Another writer might utilize more of a narrator entity to express these feelings.
“Ames struggled with what to tell Lila about Jack as he was certain she wondered why he was so nice to her and to their son. To Ames, Jack was sensitive and polite, so much so that Ames was made uncomfortable because he didn’t really like Jack even though he felt he should.”
Well, a somewhat futile exercise because I think Gilead’s structure and tone are just right. Another writer would struggle to include the ironic, self-deprecating tone and the depth created by the device of the letter writing.
Till next time.