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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray


In my exploration of Gilead, the first book of four by Marilynne Robinson, I have attempted to look more at its writerly aspects vs. the ideas expressed. A lot has been written about the ideas, in fact, without fear of cliché, one might confidently call this work “a novel of ideas.” Ms. Robinson herself has written more than one fine book of essays that concern the ideas expressed in Gilead and others.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to note that the four books, Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack, all concern the same events and time-period, as introduced in Gilead. Each one is told from a different character’s perspective.

Anyway, today I want to wrap up my discussion of Gilead by looking even more closely at some structural, writerly, issues.

Yay! (Sound of microphone being knocked over. Feedback).

Please settle down so we can get started.

I have written about two mise en abymes in Gilead, one involving the relations between Ames’ father and grandfather, one his father and his brother. Both, as proxies for the larger story, imply an ending for Gilead that does not occur. Ames’ father and grandfather are at odds and remain so. Ames’ grandfather finally disappears and dies, his grave is found by his son, Ames’ father. There is no forgiveness nor blessing as occurs between Ames and Jack. Ames’ brother clashes with Ames’ father and again, there is no reconciliation. They agree to disagree. Based on these cues, the astute reader might expect that Ames, who has been in conflict with Jack Boughton throughout the story, would never make peace with him. But, as we have seen, this is not the case. Ames forgives Jack after realizing he has mis-judged him, and this is a surprise. There is no foreshadowing.

Wait! There is foreshadowing, best B. Midway through the book, Jack and Ames are again hanging out on Jack’s dad’s porch, and Jack asks Ames what his view of predestination is (predestination, one of the central beliefs of Calvinism, is the idea that God decides a person’s fate before their birth). Ames says it’s “a complicated issue.” He equivocates, feeling put on the spot—possible because he grasps the subtext: he believes, and Jack believes, that Jack is predestined to be damned. Jack, that rascal, persists: “…But are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?”

Ames persists: “’On that point Scripture is not so clear…Generally a person’s behavior is consistent with his nature. Which is only to say that his behavior is consistent. The consistency is what I mean when I speak of his nature.’ I recognized a redundancy there, a circularity.”

Jack says, “People don’t change, then.”

After further discussion, Ames’ wife, Lila appears, and she says, basically, no fellas, people can always change through grace. “A person can change. Everything can change.”

This scene, occurring about half-way through, could cue the reader that Ames is mistaken about Jack. Sure enough, at the end, there is a chapter break—unusual in Gilead—and the new chapter begins, “Jack Boughton has a wife and a child.” Rev. Ames describes how he was in the study of his church “yesterday morning” when Jack came by and recounted a lengthy confession of how he had a common-law wife and son. I believe this passage has a different quality than what has come before and represents the implied author wishing to show Rev. Ames being surprised and shaken. Instead of the usual structure of Ames telling a story which includes considerable personal reflection, we have several pages of Jack taking over this function—not from a first-person voice, but via much quoted speech, as if it is his voice that is struggling to become the narrator.

At the end, the implied author returns to the fiction of Ames writing to his son, (and to we the readers). “You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing this all out. Well, on one hand, it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there that is in him.”

So, Ames, who has written nearly the whole book in a different style, states that the only way he can properly convey Jack is to present his actual speech at length.

A surprise, perhaps foreshadowed, but still a surprise.

Well, the clock on the clubhouse wall says it’s time to go.

What! That’s kind of abrupt, buddy.

Perhaps so. I strongly recommend all four of these books. I do not think one has to be a Calvinist or even a Christian to appreciate them. The ideas expressed share much with humanist theories of people. One could even take religion pretty much out and appreciate the books on a psychological level, that is, as a story about people. (if you're more into the whole humanist thing).

Next time, something a little different. I’m not saying what, just to build the anticipation. Heh, heh, heh. I will say I think I’ll return to posting something in one week. The two-week format has given me some time to do other stuff, like catch up on mowing the lawn, but it’s time to return to once a week.

Till then.


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