Book Review: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead has caused a stir in both Christian and secular literary circles. Acclaimed as “a masterpiece” by the Sunday Times, Gilead earned both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2005 National Book Critic Circle Award. The New York Times chose Gilead as one of the top six novels of the year. The Daily Telegraph heralded it as “stunning,” and the Times Literary Supplement called it “one of the best American novels in recent memory.” Religion and Ethics News Weekly calls it “a passionate meditation” and “an exquisite and wonderfully realized story… one of fiction’s finest reflections on the sacramental divisions of the Christian life” (Anderson). Christianity Today writers explore the doctrine set out in the novel (Stone). Its acclaim places Gilead on the “to read” list, but it is not only the acclaim that continues to captivate both Christian and non-Christian readers. A novel written as a letter to a son from a seventy-six-year-old Christian minister, Gilead transcends religious preference to, as Flannery O’Connor writes, “penetrate the natural human world as it is” (164-165).

Through the format of the letter to John Ames’s young son, we enter Ames’s thoughts in a not unrealistic manner. Ames’s relaxed, conversational tone invites us to imagine that we sit as his feet, leaning on his knees as he tells us stories and advises us how to live well in a beautiful yet sinful world while a beautiful yet sinful human being; he tells us that “There are a thousand reasons to live this life, and every one of them sufficient” (277). His metacommentary – like “How”s that for advice” (139) – and the rambling nature of his paragraphs endears the old minister to us and compels us to listen to Ames’s wisdom as we would to the wisdom of our own, beloved father or grandfather. His stories of times when horses and wagons were the only transportation makes real the time in which Ames lives as a boy, and the larger story of Ames when his faith is real makes those situations real to us as well. The concrete and realistic manner of the storytelling authenticates the reality of faith in a believable character’s life.

Ames’s struggles and thoughts touch us with their honesty. As he confronts his death and “the inevitability of it all” (Robinson 105), the practical concerns of clearing out and burning all of his old sermons, not being able to climb the stairs to his study, his wife’s concern about Ames dying alone after wandering off, and other such struggles connect us to reality and its emotion. Ames’s struggles with jealousy and unforgiveness toward Jack, his best friend’s son, also touch us. Ames shares with us his private thoughts, the thoughts that confess a feeling of superiority and a supreme dislike for the prodigal Jack as well as jealousy when Ames sees his much-younger wife befriending Jack. Ames confesses, “I have never been able to warm to him, never” (215). These thoughts show us an un-idealized man, and that realness makes his faith, prayer, and willingness to change admirable.

As he approaches death, Ames thinks on the fact that we exist in the physical world yet also are spirit. Beautiful descriptions of the scent of earth in the evenings, the springy strength of boys, and the lovely moments of drinking lemonade with friends on the porch cascade down the pages, but, more than that, glinting on every page of the novel are jewels of measured reflection and wisdom such as this: “My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands. ‘Nevermind,’ he said, ‘There’s nothing cleaner than ash.’ But it affected the taste of the biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it’s rather forgotten now” (108). Ames shows us, through the consistent images of communion, resurrection, and family, the incandescence of the soul and the sacredness that comes from the intertwining of the physical and the spiritual, that, being bound up together and also separate, exist in every part of our lives. Ames sees the connections, and we as readers and as people that live in a physical world have our attention focused on that connection as well. The Holy Mysteries must be taken in hand, hands are laid on in blessing, the world has a cycle of the dead helping the living to grow, and we worship and pray and minister through the body to others in bodies, so profundity must exist in the physical; the physical must add something to the experience of life that we would miss if we were only spirit.

Marilynne Robinson, through the musings her character old minister Ames, prompts us to such thoughts on every page of Gilead. Her ability to “penetrate the natural human world,” as O’Connor writes, makes intelligible and understandable the faith of narrator; the realness of struggles like unforgiveness and jealousy authenticate Ames’s faith when it helps him to overcome them. Above all, it focuses our attention on the details of the beauty of life as well as the struggles of life, showing us things unlooked for and so unseen. Gilead shows us one way to live life, and Robinson shows us that it is indeed sufficient.


Works Cited

Anderson, David E. “Book Review: GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson.” Religion & Ethics News Weekly. Education Broadcasting Corporation. 18 Mar. 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Novelist and Believer.” The Christian Imagination: the Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing. Revised and expanded ed. Ed. Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002. 151-167. Print. 

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. London: Virago, 2005. Print.

Stone, Rachel. “Why Marilynne Robinson, Narrative Calvinist, Doesn’t Fear Fox News.” her-menuetics. Christianity Today. May 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.