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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Prodigal Son


I think it’s fair to say that the central conflict/story in Gilead is within the relationship between Rev. Ames and Jack Boughton. Certainly there are others—Ames’ father and grandfather, Ames and his wife, Lila—but as I said last time, these are subordinate to the main event which is a sort of prodigal son story which includes the book’s central themes of blame and forgiveness.

The first mention of Jack Boughton occurs some sixteen pages in. Ames mentions going to “Boughton’s for supper,” although this Boughton is Jack’s father, Robert, Ames best friend. Ames continues “…Jack might be coming home too (to his father’s house). It actually took me a minute to think who that was.”

Here is an example of the Rev. Ames as narrator possibly being unreliable. In the context of the book, I think it’s unlikely that he would go to Boughton’s house and forget who Jack was. I believe he’s trying to deny his true feelings. As if Jack didn’t matter to him, and he clearly does.

Then some ten pages later, we have: “I walked over to Boughton’s to see what he was up to.” His daughter Glory, Jack’s sister, tells Ames that “we” haven’t heard from Jack for a little while. The elder Boughton acknowledges worry over this, and Ames leaves, lamenting how his dear friend “isn’t himself.”

And this represents a foreshadowing of Ames’ anger at Jack for causing his father great worry and distress.

Jack, full name, John Ames Boughton, is one of the sons of the Rev. Ames best friend and fellow minster, Rev. Robert Boughton. Jack, now a man of forty, is described as having been the favored child of the family, a son who in his father’s eyes could do no wrong. Ames is Jack’s godfather and namesake.

“I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment without ever giving anyone any grounds for hope…this was the one whom he truly set his heart. The lost sheep. The lost coin. The prodigal son, not to put too fine a point on it.”

For the first hundred pages, Ames refers vaguely to something Jack did that caused his parents much embarrassment and grief, an act that Ames himself has not forgiven. He is angry at Jack for troubling his father, the Rev. Boughton.

In his purported letters to his son, Ames struggles over whether he should describe Jack’s crimes and Ames’ own true feelings. Ames believes that only the Lord can condemn and forgive transgressions, that it is not up to him to do so. But he does blame and condemn.

“It is not for me to forgive Jack…I do not forgive him.”

When Jack was twenty and in college, he had an affair with a young woman who is described as being poor and vulnerable. Jack took advantage of her, Ames believes, and the woman became pregnant with a daughter. Jack would not acknowledge the child as his and offered no support. Before leaving town, he did confess to his father what had occurred, and the Rev. Boughton immediately contacted the child’s family and offered money and food. Jack left, and after three years, the daughter died of an infection.

Jack was so aware of the pain he’d caused that he stayed away from home, even when his mother died.

There are strong parallels here between this story of Jack and his father and the story of the conflict between Ames’ father and grandfather.

A strong subtext that emerges (because it is not explicitly stated) is that as Jack returns to town and visits his (Ames) house, Ames begins to imagine that after his death, Jack might take over as his wife’s husband and his son’s father. There is a quality of envy here, as Ames wishes he were younger and not approaching death. He is threatened by the idea.

“I fear leaving my wife and child unknowingly in the sway of a man of extremely questionable character.”

Ames struggles with whether he should warn his wife and son about Jack, and finally does, although it appears to be via the letters which might not be seen for years. In a powerful scene, Ames is preaching in church and Jack and Lila are in attendance. Ames preaches on the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s second wife and son (a son who is portrayed as dark-skinned in the Bible), and how they are driven into the wilderness by Abraham. Ames sermonizes about how fathers can harm children. Jack, listening to this, is pale and stricken, another bit of foreshadowing.

Another key scene involves Jack asking Ames about the doctrine of predestination that is a central tenet of Calvinism, the faith of the real author, Marilynne Robinson. I think we will focus the next post on this, as it is so important. At this time, let’s just say that Ames struggles with the idea that Jack is predestined to be evil, and that he is unable to choose to be good.

The climax of the book is, I believe, a fascinating narrative shift. Ames has written much of the story looking back on things that have occurred, almost as if they are a predestined series that Ames is showing himself and his son. But then, the present intrudes in an unpredictable manner. Jack confesses to Ames that he has another wife and child, a son who is ten. His common-law wife, Della, is African American. Jack states he does not wish to abandon them. He chooses to reveal this to Ames in the context of pastoral confidentiality—Jack does not want his father or sister to know. Within the circle of characters in Gilead, Ames is the only one who knows.

The news is world-changing to Ames who takes it as evidence that Jack has chosen good over evil, that he has been filled with grace. Ames forgives him his earlier transgressions, and in a tender scene, offers him his blessing as Jack prepares to return to his family.

Again, there are strong parallels here between Jack and Ames, and between Jack and Ames’ son.

So Ames, who thought he understood his life well enough to write a judgement of it—as if it had been planned out—is confronted with something new and unexpected. Life has not gone the way he assumed it would. This revelation has strong implications for the issue of predestination—are our lives entirely planned out before our births, or can we make choices that allow us to change our fates?

More on this, I promise you.

Near the end, Ames comments on his work and its impact: “I think I’ll put an end to all this writing. I’ve read it over, more or less, and I’ve found some things of interest in it mainly the way I have been drawn back into this world in the course of it. The expectation of death I began with reads like a kind of youthfulness, it seems to me now. The novelty of it interested me a good deal, clearly.”

The story ends with Ames’ wish for his son and perhaps himself: “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.”

“I’ll pray and then I’ll sleep.”

Till next time.

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