Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Gilead #1


Rate this book
Nearly 25 years after Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations, from the Civil War to the 20th century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. In the words of Kirkus, it is a novel "as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering." GILEAD tells the story of America and will break your heart.

247 pages, Paperback

First published October 28, 2004

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Marilynne Robinson

45 books4,925 followers
American novelist and essayist. Across her writing career, Robinson has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, National Humanities Medal in 2012, and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In 2016, Robinson was named in Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people. Robinson began teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1991 and retired in the spring of 2016.

Robinson is best known for her novels Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). Her novels are noted for their thematic depiction of both rural life and faith. The subjects of her essays have spanned numerous topics, including the relationship between religion and science, US history, nuclear pollution, John Calvin, and contemporary American politics.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
37,274 (34%)
4 stars
33,579 (31%)
3 stars
22,851 (21%)
2 stars
9,143 (8%)
1 star
4,154 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 13,674 reviews
Profile Image for Greg.
28 reviews160 followers
May 9, 2007
It often feels as if the contemporary literary scene has internalized Anna Karenina’s dictum on the nature of happiness—that it is not idiosyncratic, with the implication that it is not worth the kind of careful attention that literature applies to its subjects. We need look no further than our own lives to recognize the problem we’ll encounter if we preoccupy ourselves with the Tolstoyan “unhappy family” at the expense of the happy ones. Asked about our defining or most enlightening moments, most of us are as likely to recount happy memories as we are moments of despair. Yet too often, contemporary literature ignores this. Authors able to give the lie to Tolstoy by rendering joy as a complex substance are few and far between: think Ron Carlson, Laurie Colwin, Ellen Gilchrist, Richard Russo.

In this context, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead comes not just as a breath of fresh air, but as a ray of light, quietly penetrating to the heart of mysteries regarding joy and love, life and death. Because it’s written as a series of missives from the aged narrator to his young son, meant not to be read until long after the narrator’s death, Gilead is largely plotless—a conflict of sorts between the narrator and a friend’s child does eventually develop, but it is a quiet conflict, and one that doesn’t become clear until nearly halfway through the novel. The narrative is never as important as the meditations that surround it.

This is a novel that celebrates life, that variegated communion between inner and outer worlds, between ego and experience. But Robinson is also concerned with death, not only as the inevitable end of that communion but also as its thematic counterpoint. If Robinson’s territory here is the spiritual life of one man in particular, her thematic concern is how we in general can face the ends of our lives without despair or resort to existential reframings of the problem—how we can face the prospect of death, in fact, with quiet gratitude and even joy. Robinson’s portrayal of religion is especially deft; instead of opiate or panacea, her narrator’s Christianity serves as a lens, providing a stasis and a vocabulary through which the novel can wrestle with its concerns.

Ultimately, the quiet conclusions that Gilead seems to favor—that the experience of existence is one that we should treasure as a gift, that we too often lose sight of the immense beauty of the world amidst our quotidian bustle, that love and charity have the power to remake lives—are neither religious nor secular. Rather, they are humanist; they all concern a belief in the fundamental dignity of human lives. Is it melodramatic to say that these are the kind of quiet encouragements that we could usefully carry in our minds into the shadows of our own personal Gethsemanes? Regardless, Gilead offers us, in its portrait of a long life reflected upon with some degree of contentment, a reminder of just how deep, enthralling, and abidingly strange happiness can be.

Perhaps the problem is not that happiness is not idiosyncratic enough to be worth investigating. The problem may be instead that happiness is simply too big for most writers to write convincingly about, that perhaps joy, like God, is too capacious to fully describe. Yet here is the rare novel that suggests insights into the natures of both.
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,364 followers
October 13, 2007
This book is amazing. I can't believe those frikkin twits didn't give Marilynne Robinson the Pulitzer for this..... oh wait, they did. Well, I can't believe they didn't give her two!

Seriously, you are probably thinking, "I've heard this book takes the form of an elderly, angina-stricken preacher in Iowa's long, Lord-laden letter to his young son about how beautiful the world is. I'm sure it's all very nice for some people, but I am way too big of a jerk to enjoy something like that."

Well, let me tell you something, friend: I am a pretty big jerk myself, and I loved it. This is one of the better books I have read. If this novel doesn't make you weep at some point, there is probably something seriously wrong with you.

I'll admit that, like *Valley of the Dolls*, this book is probably not for everyone. But I really do recommend it to people who (like me) are not religious, and find others' faith difficult to understand. If you're able to respond empathically to characters in extremely well-written literature, this might be the best chance you get at entering this kind of experience. That was the way I felt about it, anyway. You only need to suspend some judgment you hold about religion, and take the protagonist's faith the way you would another belief or experience a fictional character might have that's diffferent from your own. I don't want to get carried away characterizing what the result of that was like for me, but I do recommend giving this book a try.
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,077 followers
October 10, 2020
This novel reminds me—with its beautifully spare prose and the bleak stoicism of its characters—of three books: Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, Willa Cather's My Ántonia and Martin Amis's House of Meetings. This is not meant as a statement of influence, but simply one of kinship. The writing in all of these novels is conversational in tone and beautifully compressed, which is enormously hard to do, though it appears easy.

Gilead is the story of a Protestant pastor, the Reverend John Ames, who, in the midwestern town of Gilead of about 1950 or so, writes to his then seven-year-old son. The pastor is dying and the letter is intended to be read when his son has reached adulthood.

In it the pastor speaks of his grandfather and his father, and the long tradition of Christian ministry in the family, that, the writer assumes, will not continue with the recipient of the document which we, a little guiltily perhaps, hold in our hands. For the sense is very strong here of the reader as interloper, gazing at personal documents not meant for his eyes.

And just as we surely know that what we read can only resolve itself in death and dissolution, and we brace ourselves for that end--we've been given fair warning--yet despite this we find that there is no way to steel ourselves for the conclusion. We know vaguely the shape it may take, and yet it still moves us indescribably. This to my mind is great writing and no merely clever metafictional trickery can ever supplant it.

Christianity is not entirely the point of the story. Though the pastor has been driven by it the whole of his life and it's integral to his concern for family and flock, and the natural world, which he sees as pervaded by spirit at every level. Faith here is the means by which Marilynne Robinson shows us her characters' humanity, the tenuousness of their existence, their lives of suffering and loss, impermanence and fleetingness.

It has been wonderful for this agnostic to see how the old school, middle-American Christianity used to work in a good man. That is to say, how it drives him to ecstasis, to open-heartedness and love and an almost unbearable joy. It's pretty heady stuff. No doubt those so inclined will find the novel a powerful affirmation of faith, which is a fine thing. My point is that it would be a mistake to read it solely as a Christian novel. Masters like Naguib Mahfouz and Isaac Bashevis Singer have produced similarly powerful fictions using far different religious contexts. And Ms. Robinson's excellent work, like theirs, transcends its religiosity to bring us something deeply universal.

V.S Naipaul wrote in one of his books on Islam that the great gift of religious people is their confidence. How lovely, I've always felt, to be able to take solace in such belief. The Reverend Ames never wavers in his faith, but it is only by constant self-questioning that he's able to sustain it. Life is suffering. I have been wrong when I've thought of faith as an opiate. For the thinking person it is as challenging as any other form of mindful living.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews609 followers
August 2, 2017
Utterly absorbing...just finished it!!!
Unbearably moving!
At the beginning- I fantasized such a letter from my own father.
As a child I use to look up at the sky and wonder where he was - and yes-- talk to him
- and imagine him talking to me.
There are sentences that I read several times - the ones I thought about when walking - between reading sessions.
"I saw a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palatable currents of light passing back-and-forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them".

"For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel as if you are with someone. I feel I am with you now".

LUMINOUS BEAUTY... and a darn good story to the very last page!!!!

Profile Image for Chaybyrd.
10 reviews16 followers
March 20, 2012
I am devastated by how much I despised this novel. It was one of the most uninspired stories about Christianity, forgiveness and familial bonds I have ever read.

I can't help but wonder if this is the first plotless novel to win a Pulitzer. I'll be on the look out. The framework of the "story" is a dying minister writing in his diary presumably for his now 7 year old son to read after his death. The first person father writing to his son narrative was horrid. I felt like the entire book was one run-on sentence - not because the sentences were lengthy - but rather because it was written as rambling musings of an old man I neither cared about nor related to.

Plus, the sentences were a clunky patchwork of memories and present day reflections that did not connect smoothly. If the story was more linear, the "journal" style mechanism that Marilynne Robinson used could possibly make the novel enjoyable. Or readable.

Unlike the majority, I did not find the old man's reflections insightful - at all. The stories, memories, regrets, doctrine, in essence every single subject broached was so flippin, tear my hair out, boring. Call me ageist, but the stream of consciousness of a 77 year old comes across as senility not sentimentality. I can only assume Robinson was going for the latter. Don't be fooled.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews35 followers
November 1, 2021
Gilead (Gilead #1), Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is a novel written by Marilynne Robinson that was published in 2004. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is her second novel, following Housekeeping, which was published in 1980.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: هشتم ماه ژانویه سال 2014میلادی

عنوان: گیلیاد؛ نویسنده: مریلین رابینسون؛ مترجم: مرجان محمدی؛ تهران، آموت، سال1392؛ در312ص؛ شابک9786005941586؛ چاپ دیگر تهران، چلچله، سال1396؛ شابک9786008625629؛ موضوع: داستانهای نویسندگان ایالات متحده آمریکا - سده 20م

گفتگو با مرجان محمدی، مترجم رمان‌های مریلین رابینسون
روزنامه جام جم: مریلین رابینسون، از نویسندگان معاصر «آمریکایی» است؛ این نویسنده، که از اعضای فرهنگستان هنر و دانش آمریکاست، در سال2011میلادی از سوی «دانشگاه آکسفورد»، کرسی سالانه «ازموند هارمزورت» در هنر و ادبیات آمریکایی در «دانشگاه بنیاد آمریکایی راترمر» را، دریافت کردند؛ «رابینسون» که آثارش در ایران کمی گمنام است، نخستین رمان خود با عنوان «خانه داری» را سال1980میلادی منتشر، و جایزه «بنیاد همینگوی» را، از آن خود کردند؛ ایشان دومین اثر خویش « گیلیاد» را، در سال2004میلادی منتشر کردند، و جایزه ی «کانون منتقدان کتاب ملی، امبسادور»، و «جایزه پولیتزر سال2005میلادی» را، بردند؛ در ضمن رمان «گیلیاد»، علاوه بر جوایزی که تاکنون کسب کرده، کتاب مورد علاقه ی پریزیذنت «باراک اوباما» نیز بوده است، و ایشان در سال2012میلادی، به «مریلین رابینسون» و چند تن دیگر، «نشان ملی علوم انسانی» را، به دلیل قلم گیرا و پرقدرت ایشان، اهدا کرده اند؛ رمان «خانه»، سومین رمان «مریلین رابینسون»، در سال2008میلادی منتشر شد، و «جایزه ملی اورنج انگلستان» را گرفت؛ این کتاب از میان یکصد و پنجاه و شش عنوان، و از سوی یکصد و بیست و سه کتابخانه از سراسر دنیا، نامزد «جایزه ایمپک دوبلین سال2010میلادی» شد، که به عنوان گرانترین جایزه ی ادبی شناخته میشود؛ آثار این نویسنده جهانی را، در ایران با ترجمه بسیار خوب بانو «مرجان محمدی»، و به وسیله «نشر آموت» میشناسیم؛ به مناسبت انتشار رمان «گیلیاد» گفتگویی با «مرجان محمدی»، مترجم آثار این نویسنده در ایران انجام گرفته که میخوانید

چطور به ترجمه آثار مریلین رابینسون علاقه مند شدید؟
من همیشه کتابهایم، را خودم انتخاب میکنم، چون اگر از کتاب و داستانش خوشم نیاید، ترجمه کردن آن بسیار سخت میشود؛ چند سال پیش که مشغول بررسی چند کتاب بودم، به طور اتفاقی با نام خانم «رابینسون» آشنا شدم؛ در اینترنت و در «مجله گلستانه»، مطالبی درباره ایشان خواندم، و پیگیر آثارشان شدم؛ کتابهای ایشان را سفارش دادم.؛ «خانه» نخستین کتابی بود که به دستم رسید؛ آن را خواندم، و تحت تأثیر عشق و گرمایی که در داستان وجود داشت، قرار گرفتم، و با مطالعه بیشتر، درباره خانم «رابینسون» متوجه شدم در دنیا ایشان را به عنوان نویسنده ای میشناسند که قلمی وزین و پرقدرت دارد؛ ایشان جایزه های بسیاری را هم از آن خود کرده اند؛ ولی در ایران هیچ اثری از ایشان چاپ نشده بود، و چندان این نویسنده را نمیشناختند؛ به همین دلیل تصمیم گرفتم آن را ترجمه کنم

تاکنون چند رمان از این نویسنده ترجمه کرده اید؟
خانم «رابینسون» سه رمان دارند، که هر سه را ترجمه کرده ام؛ ولی اینطور که خودشان میگفتند، رمان چهارم هم در راه است

رمان «خانه» را این نویسنده بعد از «گیلیاد» نوشته، و گویا طبق آنچه شنیده ایم، این رمان ادامه داستان رمان «گیلیاد» است، اما شما «خانه» را زودتر ترجمه کردید؟
خانم «رابینسون» بعد از پایان رمان «گیلیاد» احساس میکنند هنوز نمیتوانند شخصیتهای داستان را به حال خود رها کنند؛ ایشان میگویند صدای «جان ایمز (راوی داستان گیلیاد)» هنوز در گوشم بود؛ به همین سبب تصمیم میگیرند در «خانه» زندگی یکی دیگر از شخصیتهای کتاب «جک بوتون» و رابطه او با خانواده اش را روایت کنند؛ از آنجا که این دو داستان هر یک خوانشی مستقل دارند، پس و پیش خواندن ��نها هیچ گونه خللی در فهم داستان به وجود نمیآورد؛ اگر نظر شخصی من را بخواهید، باید بگویم همچنان ترجیح میدهم «خانه» را پیش از «گیلیاد» بخوانم

به عنوان یک مترجم مسلما با آثار نویسندگان متفاوت و متنوعی در دنیا آشنا هستید؛ چه ویژگی ای آثار «رابینسون» دارد که ترغیب میشوید آثار این نویسنده را ترجمه کنید؟
در آثار خانم «رابینسون» روایتی از عشق میبینیم، که میان خانواده های امروزی، بویژه در جوامع آمریکایی، شاید کمتر به چشم میخورد؛ این گرما و وابستگی میان افراد، چنان خواننده را تحت تاثیر قرار می​دهد که گویی این داستان، در زندگی واقعی خود ما اتفاق افتاده است؛ آثار خانم «رابینسون» گذشته از هیجانات، مبالغه و گزافه گویی هایی است، که در برخی رمانها وجود دارد، تا خواننده را میخکوب کند؛ روایت داستانهای ایشان، بسیار آرام و در عین حال عمیق است، انگار در انتخاب تک تک واژه ها قصد و نیت خاصی وجود داشته است

گویا با خود این نویسنده هم در ارتباط هستید و ایشان اطلاع دارند که آثارشان را در ایران ترجمه میکنید؟
بله، داستانهای ایشان گاه و بیگاه اشاراتی به روایات مذهبی دارد؛ گاهی برای درک بعضی قسمتها مجبور بودم بارها به انجیل مراجعه کنم؛ همچنین برای این که مطمئن شوم مفهوم را درست فهمیده ام، با خواننده های آثار ایشان، مکاتبه میکردم، اما بعد به این نتیجه رسیدم، که باید هر طور شده با خودشان حرف بزنم؛ به دو دلیل: هم این که مطمئن شوم متن را درست فهمیده ام، و دیگر این که برای ترجمه آثارشان از ایشان اجازه بگیرم؛ درست است که در ایران قانون کپی رایت وجود ندارد و این خیلی بد است، ولی خود ما که میتوانیم دست کم نویسنده را از این امر آگاه کنیم، و از ایشان اجازه بگیریم؛ خانم «رابینسون» از این بابت خیلی به من لطف داشتند و نه تنها، اجازه ترجمه و چاپ آثارشان را به من دادند، بلکه بسیار خوشحال شدند، که کتابهایشان به زبان فارسی هم ترجمه میشود، و در ایران به چاپ میرسد

ارتباط با نویسنده باعث میشود شما نسبت به اثر اشراف بیشتری پیدا کنید و احیانا اگر جایی در ترجمه دچار تردید نسبت به معادل واژه ها شوید با نویسنده مشورت کنید
دقیقا همین طور است؛ خانم «رابینسون» در قسمتهایی از کتاب به طور غیرمستقیم به مواردی اشاره میکنند که خواننده اگر نداند منظورشان چیست، دچار سر درگمی میشود؛ در متن اصلی هیچ زیرنویسی وجود ندارد، ولی من هنگام ترجمه، بهتر دیدم مواردی را در پاورقی بیاورم تا مفهوم روشنتر شود

آیا تاکنون مترجمی بجز شما آثار رابینسون را به فارسی ترجمه کرده است؟
تا آنجا که میدانم، و در این باره در سایت «کتابخانه ملی» جستجو کرده ام، یک نفر، چند سال پیش «گیلیاد» را ترجمه کرده، اما نمیدانم به چه دلیل کتاب چاپ نشده، و ناشر انصراف داده است

ژانر آثار این نویسنده خاص است و رمانهایش، معمولا کامل کننده آثار قبلی او هستند؛ این موضوع به شما در ترجمه کمک میکند؟
البته این فقط درباره کتاب «خانه» و «گیلیاد» درست است. رمان «خانه داری» که نخستین کتاب ایشانست، و بیست سال پیش از «گیلیاد» چاپ شده، داستانی کاملا متفاوت دارد، اما ترجمه کتاب «گیلیاد» از این بابت آسانتر بود، چون شخصیتها را کاملا میشناختم، و در میان ترجمه کتاب «خانه» به نوعی با شخصیتهای داستان زندگی کرده بودم، و گویی زندگی شان را مثل فیلم جلوی چشمم میدیدم، احساسشان را کاملا درک میکردم، با آنها عشق میورزیدم، گریه میکردم و منتظر میماندم
سمیرامیس محمدی / جام​ جم

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 17/09/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 09/08/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,633 followers
March 1, 2017
A beautiful book of great wisdom and tenderness. Melancholy, but hopeful. It well-deserved the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2005, and surprisingly Marilynne's second book written 24 years after her first, Housekeeping (which I have also reviewed here on GR).
In Gilead, Iowa, Rev John Ames is a 76yo preacher married to a much younger woman with whom he has a 7yo son. The time is the 50s and Rev writes this book to his son regretting that he will soon be dead while his son is still a child, so he wanted to leave something concrete about himself for his son to read when he is older. So, the book talks about Rev Ames relationships to his own father and grandfather (both also parsons) who are both long since passed away, as well as other anecdotes about how he met his wife and some of the philosophical and spiritual questions with which he struggles.
In these musings, he speaks of his grandfather who lost an eye in the Civil War and fled Iowa at one point across the border into Kansas. When Ames is a boy, he and his father seek out the tomb of the grandfather and this adventure marks the boy forever. They find the grave and tidy it up and and as they finish they "saw a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them." (P. 16) Ames memories of his grandfather are "like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn't actually sleeping." (P. 57) This symbol of ash also appears when the original church of Ames' father burns down and the folks of the village are rummaging through the remains as rain breaks out. Times being quite poor due to the Depression, his father shelters himself with Ames under a wagon and they share an ash-flavored biscuit that the father had in his jacket pocket, "it was truly the bread of affliction, because everyone wad poor then." (P. 117)
Ames loves his son and dotes on him but feels an immense gulf of age between them. His descriptions of the boy and his mother playing are priceless like this one: "There's a shimmer on a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes." (P. 60) Or, "You appear to be altogether happy. I remember those first experiments with fundamental things, gravity and light, and what an absolute pleasure they were. And there is your mother. 'Don't go so high,' she says. You'll mind. You're a good fellow." (P.127)
On of the themes that the latter part of the book focuses on increasingly towards the end is the rather ambiguous character, John Ames "Jack" Boughton, the son of Ames' best friend, Rev Boughton, who Ames had baptized as a baby. Jack spends a lot of time with Ames's wife and son and has some theological arguments with Ames. For a while, he is portrayed kind of like Ivan Karamazov, the eternal doubter and manipulator, and I even thought he might have aims on the Rev's family should he pass away. Without giving away any spoilers, let us just say that Robison masterfully portrays this character as astonishingly human.
In summary, it is an extraordinary book and deserves to be read again and again. I'll close with this beautiful passage from towards the end of the book which, I think, sums up what Ames really is saying throughout:
"Though I must say all this has given me a new glimpse of the ongoingness of the world. We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable." (P. 218)
Profile Image for Julie G.
897 reviews2,931 followers
July 20, 2020
Reading Road Trip 2020

Current location: Iowa

My reread of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead had me squirming the past two weeks like a child in church, enduring a boring sermon.

Boring? No, not boring. Deep, profound, and, at the time, very unwanted.

I've been feeling edgy and petulant these last two weeks. I actually pulled my mask off in a grocery store the other day, panting with claustrophobia. I've been agitated; and I certainly haven't been in the mood to listen to some dying man drone on and on about the good and bad old days.

I wanted to be shipwrecked on an island where the only residents are Viggo Mortensen clones. I've wanted sweaty cave sex, I've wanted Tarzan, Treasure Island, The Blue Lagoon.

But instead I got a dying old man, the Reverend Ames, and his painfully slow story.

My reading experience of these past two weeks has reminded me that sometimes a good book lands in the right hands, at the wrong time.

I tripped all over this read, and I could only chew forlornly at it for 10 pages at a time. I wanted to shout at the Reverend Ames: THIS JACK BOUGHTON GUY WANTS TO BONE YOUR WOMAN, OLD MAN!! STOP TALKING ABOUT FUCKING FORGIVENESS AND MAKE A TESTOSTERONE SMOOTHIE!!

I wanted to corner his much younger wife in the hallways of their little home and whisper: you know you want to fuck this Jack Boughton guy. . . so just take the shitty old Buick and drive out of town to the cemetery and ride him like it's your last will and testament. It won't be long before you can't drive stick anymore.

It was almost like the more the old minister talked about purification through fire and water, the darker my thoughts became. I wanted to burn all of our face masks in a bonfire, skinny-dip in the frigid waters of our white trash, pandemic plastic pool and savagely swat every damned devilish mosquito to death in our yard.

I was so relieved when I arrived at this particular passage of the minister's incessant rant:

If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?

Whew! Okay, he's saying God understands that this pandemic is making me lose my mind.

The truth is, Marilynne Robinson's writing is so damned inspired, my entire copy is filled with post-it notes now, in addition to all of the original pages I dog-eared back in 2004, when I read it the first time.

It's a five star novel that deserved the Pulitzer, but. . .
I don't recommend reading it during a pandemic.
Profile Image for Kj.
154 reviews21 followers
March 6, 2008
Dear Son:
The Too-Little-Too-Late Dilemma of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

It’s deceptively tempting to approach a book like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and see only the main character’s theological musings. After all, in a novel about an old man reminiscing about faith and family, there’s a plethora of weighty spiritual content; everything from careful exegesis of Genesis 22 to references to Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. Needless to say, this is no simple “I remember when…” fable of love and loss. Issues are being grappled with, weighed and eschewed. However, to review the novel from a theological stance cannot merely mean discussing old John Ames’ opinions on war, forgiveness or predestination. That job belongs primarily to his congregants and family within the narrative. The question I, the reader, encountered was of the theology of a book wherein the entire premise is of a man wishing to leave a testament of his “better self” (p. 202) for his seven year old, but spends his final days journaling, instead of spending time with his son. This is the battle I fought with John Ames and Marilynne Robinson throughout my reading.
It began when I realized that about every four pages I found myelf drowsing off to sleep, or thinking of topics far beyond the narrator’s journal entries. As I had approached the novel with great enthusiasm (fiction at last!) I wondered what could be sending my mind off into orbit. Why the dissociation? From the frustration with not being able to stay focused from page to page, paragraph to paragraph, soon emerged actual anger. I found myself choosing to put the book down and find other activities, almost as if to spite the narrator. Something was wrong. I was refusing to sit passively and listen.
With a little reflection, this is what I discovered. I was incredibly angry that John Ames was writing on and on about how much he loved his son and his wife and how he wished he wasn't about to die, and there he was, “reflecting” instead of living! Enter the transference. I realized how little tolerance I had for the “nobility” of a strong, silent-type preacher man finally unloading the deepest parts of his heart and soul onto paper, instead of through interaction. The drowsiness coming over me was of not wanting to listen to this man write. I wanted to see him take action. I didn’t want to honor him by reading his last testament, because I do not respect the idea that somehow, as long as you say what you feel before you die, it doesn’t matter how little you expressed to those around you until that point. The book brought up anger with my father, his father, and the generations of quiet, long-suffering, missionary-type men I am descended from. Though I am not a man, nor very quiet, I know about long-suffering, and I could not suffer the boredom or veiled anger that lay between the lines of John Ames’ memoirs. I wanted to rip the journal from his hands, and essentially, tell Marilynne Robinson that I refuse to applaud her character’s poetry, theology or self-reflection, when he is in essence, taking the easy way out of sharing himself.
I’ll admit, there are plenty of passages in the novel that show Ames’ growth and interaction with others. Even the fact that he married late in life reveals that he was unsatisfied persisting in the loneliness of listening to baseball games on the radio, writing sermons and hiding from neighbors when they knocked on his door. However, all his loving descriptions of sunsets, children’s laughter and the smell of raindrops, appear hollow the moment he starts describing his son playing outside as he writes. In that the entire purpose of the novel is for this aging father to express his heart to his son, for all the descriptions of moments of communion, (p. 103), I gained no sense whatsoever of how this father related to his son. Every human interaction Ames (Robinson) writes is marked by constraint, weariness and shy civility. The aching lack of intimacy in this novel made every page a grueling ordeal to wade through. “Take action!” I shouted. “Stop writing!”
I’m left to wonder what Robinson feels about her main character. I sense that she adores his humble (though never naïve) faith, and the grace he tries to offer others. But the portrait she paints, or at least the format she has chosen to use, counteracts any message I might derive from the old preacher’s wisdom and experience. By writing the story as a last testament in-progress, Robinson has created an utterly passive character, a true bystander of the life he is narrating. I don’t believe this was her goal. We are clearly supposed to revel in the homely and kindly spiritual reflections of a faithful old coot that is continually surprised by beauty. But for this passive bystander, I felt mostly pity, and quite a bit of anger.
Another perspective, however, is that Robinson has rightly captured the unfortunate experience of so many pastors, especially of Ames’ (and my grandfather’s) generation: that of distance and objectivity. My grandfather once spoke of a minister he served under who believed it was un-Christian for a minister to befriend his congregants because it would cloud his ability to pastor. Can we even imagine a pastor who would not eat supper at a parishioner’s home? Does Ames’ loner quality, his reticence to become entangled, simply reflect the expectations put on a country preacher? This was the time (and the concept persists in some realms) where the pastor was expected to run every aspect of the church. Ames’ statement that everyday felt essentially like Sunday because once one sermon was over, it was already time to work on the next (p. 232-233), reflects the overburdened lifestyle of one who is expected to shepherd whole congregations by sheer determination and will power- with no rest or support system other than other local pastors (Boughton). This symptomatic lone wolf quality made it difficult for me to believe Ames’ speculations on relationships, because I could hear his strained resentment trying to come out. (It finally emerges somewhat in regards to being given a godson without his consent, and over Jack Boughton’s flagrant disrespect for others).
I have not written much of Ames and Jack Boughton, mostly because the character was introduced far too late in the novel to bear the climactic significance it was clearly supposed to have. The real story should have been how Ames chooses to reveal himself and be present with his young son, not his struggle to give grace to his black sheep of a godson. That is indeed significant, but is again, un-served by the journal format of the book. The developing story of Jack Boughton’s struggles have no place in Ames’ letters to his son. Confined by Robinson’s poorly chosen device, the last fourth of the book (despite being the most readable) breaks the rules set in the beginning of Ames writing to his son. Instead, the reader encounters Robinson’s clunky exposition about the life of a character we have not been effectively convinced to care about. Overall, this is my greatest criticism for the novel, both artistically and theologically: it’s nearly impossible to care for these characters when they are introduced as part of an avoidant old man’s journal entry. The richer story to be told here is that of an old man opening his heart through action and engagement with his community, after a long life of loneliness. In order to experience this part of the story, Robinson needed to give us voices other than Ames to listen to. Ames’ emotional distance in interpersonal relationships makes his spiritual and poetic ruminations fall short of the impact Robinson so clearly intended. This novel made my heart ache; wanting the silent men in my life to get up from their journals, and actually say what they’re thinking. And this, perhaps, is too much to require of a novel. Is it too much to require of these old men as well? Isn’t the real point of a last testament the admittance that too much has gone unsaid? Should we celebrate a theology that waits too long to speak?

Profile Image for Guille.
785 reviews1,748 followers
October 13, 2022

“Escribo esto, en parte, para decirte que si alguna vez te preguntas qué has hecho en tu vida, y todo el mundo se lo pregunta en un momento u otro, sepas que has sido para mí la gracia de Dios, un milagro, algo más que un milagro. Tal vez no me recuerdes muy bien y quizá no te parezca gran cosa haber sido el hijo querido de un viejo en un pueblecito de mala muerte que, sin duda, habrás dejado atrás"
Así se expresa John Ames, un pastor de una modesta iglesia en un pequeño pueblo de Iowa, que, estando cercana su muerte, reflexiona sobre su vida en unas cartas en forma de diario que quiere dejar como herencia a su pequeño hijo, al que no podrá dejar mucho más. En estos textos relata su vida, la de su abuelo, la de su padre, pastores como él, la felicidad de sus últimos años al conocer a su mujer y tener con ella el hijo al que tanto anheló durante toda su vida, los problemas morales y religiosos a los que se enfrentó y sigue enfrentándose, sobre la vida en general y el sentido de la suya en particular (“Me parece que lo que debes ver aquí es sólo a un viejo que lucha con la dificultad de entender con qué está luchando”). Esta novela, tan corta como maravillosa, es la historia de un hombre, como dijo el poeta, "en el buen sentido de la palabra, bueno". Será por eso, y por la elegancia de su prosa, de su sobriedad, de su profundidad, que el libro me ha recordado tanto a otra gran novela, «Stoner», de John Williams.
“Debajo de la superficie de la vida hay muchas cosas. Mucha malicia y temor y culpa y mucha soledad, también, donde en realidad no esperarías encontrarla.”
John Ames es alguien para el que vida y religión están tan íntimamente relacionadas que prácticamente son la misma cosa (“He intentado llevar los Evangelios como estandarte de mi vida”). Cualquier desviación de los santos valores es vivida con una alarma que, para aquellos que somos mucho más pecadores que él, nos puede parecer algo exagerada: su lamento por los celos que durante muchos años sintió por la paternidad de su gran amigo Robert Boughton cuando él se encontraba lejos de tal ansiada posibilidad (“Verlos a los dos juntos ha sido una de las grandes irritaciones de mi vida”), o su pesadumbre por los malos sentimientos que alberga hacia ese hijo de su amigo, Jack, en el que ve una innoble potencial pareja para su joven mujer y, por tanto, padre de su querido hijo, cuando él ya no esté.
“No busques pruebas. No te molestes en ello. Las pruebas nunca bastan para aclarar la cuestión y siempre resultan un poco impertinentes, creo, porque reclaman para Dios un lugar a nuestro alcance conceptual.”
Hay muchos aspectos que resultan envidiables en la vida de este pastor protestante, incluso para mí que me encuentro en las antípodas de su pensamiento: la felicidad con la que a sus setenta y siete años vive los momentos más cotidianos (“Cada mañana, soy como Adán despertándose en el Paraíso, asombrado de la habilidad de mis manos y del brillo que entra en mi mente a través de los ojos”), la serenidad con la que se enfrenta a la muerte a pesar de su apego a la vida terrenal, ahora tan feliz (“Soy uno de esos justos por quienes el regocijo en el Cielo será relativamente contenido”), su inclinación al servicio de los demás, su voluntad de perdonar, de comprender al otro, de afrontar la vida con la fortaleza que le proporciona la firme creencia de que todo lo que ocurre “está al servicio de la voluntad del Señor”.
“¿Y cuál es el propósito de un profeta, sino encontrar sentido en la dificultad?”
Y aunque no puedo compartir su resignada humildad ante el misterio de Dios (“Pienso que Calvino lleva razón al desalentar la curiosa especulación sobre cosas que el Señor no ha considerado conveniente revelarnos”), comparto esa idea, que tanto mortifica a Jack, de que entre las personas existen “espacios inviolables, infranqueables y absolutamente inmensos” derivados de nuestro diferente temperamento que nos impiden compartir ciertas experiencias.
“¿He de aceptar su planteamiento? ¿Qué entre usted y yo existe un abismo insalvable? ¿Cómo puede la Verdad con mayúscula no ser comunicable? Para mí no tiene ningún sentido.”
Leeré todo lo que encuentre de esta señora.
“En el amor no hay justicia, ni proporción, y no es necesario que las haya porque cualquier ejemplo concreto es sólo un vislumbre, una parábola de una realidad inabarcable, impenetrable. No tiene ningún sentido porque es la irrupción de lo eterno en lo temporal.”
85 reviews30 followers
November 6, 2008
Ponderous. That's "Gilead" in a word. It's supposed to be the slow, insightful reflections of an old preacher writing a letter about his life to his son. Because, you see, the preacher is going to die soon. Actually, most of the book is so slow you feel like he's dying right then and there. Or at least, you wish he would drop dead, because then the book would be over. Keeling over might even be an improvement, since then something would happen.

My guess is that after twenty years of not writing, Robinson sat down with the idea of writing a book that would sum up everything she's learned while living on this big blue planet. And indeed, all the big-name reviewers would have you believe that the text slows you down so you can savor each sentence and philosophical musing. Well I'm here to tell you that the Emperor has no clothes and that the text slows you down because it is BORING. I knew it was time to stop reading around page 50 when I took a break, picked it up again, and thought, "Dear God, we're back at the henhouse again?"

I can't even get all that worked up about how dull this book was. It wasn't terrible. It was just blah. Take that, Pulitzer Prize committee.
Profile Image for J.
80 reviews152 followers
February 5, 2009
This is not a review. I wrote something that aspired to be a review but fell short. In the end all you really need to know is that I loved it. I finished it standing in line at the grocery with tears running down my face because it was that beautiful. It’s the ruminations of a man at the end of his life, it’s confession, it’s revelation, it’s a parable in a parable. It’s hopeful. Read it.

I found this quote written on a scrap of something in my purse. "I know more than I know and must learn it from myself."
Profile Image for Jason.
114 reviews629 followers
December 4, 2013
My 4 year old son is going to die...sometime in the future, like me--wishfully long after me--and we'll have no more time to talk. We should hopefully grow old together, but we'll grow old together as men. Yes, we'll always be father and son, but for the most part when we talk and share, he will be a man. What should I tell him now, as a boy? He's too young to remember, but I have so many things I want to say, to teach, to protect... There are things I want to tell him that are important now, that are things he will need to know when he becomes a man.

What if I die unexpectedly, and soon. What will I tell my son then? Nothing. He'll only have short, gauzy, incomplete memories of me doing something random with him. Teaching him to brush his teeth, buckling his car seat, throwing him into the air, comforting him when the thunder cracks; a dreamlike sequence of me passing through his thoughts, being present during an action, laughing at something he's done, somewhere. That's not enough. If that had happened with my father, I would have the slimmest perception of who he was and from what human stock I was beget. I wouldn't know my father.

It's like this with my maternal grandfather. He and I were never men together. I was a boy, he was a man, and then he died. My memories of him are far too narrow--Christmas vacation in out-county Kentucky, a family reunion in a church basement, him sitting with unknown relatives under a tree drinking lemonade during a summer so humid I remember perspiration under his arms and old man breasts and him calling black people 'the colored.' Whenever he left the house he wore a wool hat, respectable, perfunctory, polished, like men in the 1950s, and a cane was hooked over his knee when he sat under that shade tree calling people 'the colored.' I so desperately want to know that man, my grandfather.

I still have my father. I knew him when I was young; I knew him as my superhero father; I know him as a man. Thank God. I hope it pans out this way with my son. But, again, if it doesn't, then what do I tell him, now, that will guide and foster him into adulthood?

The answer is a journal. Capture my thoughts now, so that he can read them as a man, whenever he's ready. Pass my wisdom to him now, my thoughts, my lessons, my umbrage. Exactly that is the story of Gilead.

The father is in his mid-70s in poor health, nearing the end. His son is 7. The father is a minister like his father and grandfather before. The time is 1956 Kansas. The entire book is a journal entry for his son, not to be read until he grows up and becomes a man, and maybe not even then if the son decides against reading it. That's his prerogative. But, at least the father makes it available to the son. The entire book is a beautiful confessional of short thoughts on life, entries almost like one of his thousands of hand-written sermons bundled up with twine in the attic. He uses the written space to reveal family history, personal passions, his philosophy, his love, the guiding influences of his life. The book starts:

"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. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life...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."(p. 3)

What a beautiful idea. Thoughtful, responsible, loving, timeless. My son will be a man longer than he will be a child. Childhood and adolescence are critical for human development and building basic personality traits, but reason, judgment, and wisdom wait to arrive until adulthood. That's when I need to talk to my son. So, unless I can promise my son I'll always be there, I need to sit down, collect my thoughts, and start writing a long letter to him. It will tell him how I grew up and learned about myself; it will tell him my joys and my strengths and my fears; it will tell him how I would do it all over again exactly the same way, and not to be so hard on himself; I'll tell him how I met his mother, and how our lives turned out so differently from the plans we made, but still so wonderfully; I'll tell him how I watched him grow up and rolled his ghostly thin and white belly skin between my fingers; I'll tell him how carefully he tottered over uneven ground; tell him how he always woke up with the same crazy bed hair, no matter the season or the length of hair or where he slept--always splayed out in the back and ruffled on the left; I'll tell him how I loved him in so many ways and know he'll be a great man and brother and father; I'll tell him people are mean, but not always; I'll tell him I loved rain to any other kind of weather; tell him to read more often; tell him to write to his kids. And when I write my journal, I'll have moments like this, I'm sure:

"I have been looking through these pages, and I realize that for some time I have mainly been worrying to myself, when my intention from the beginning was to speak to you. I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with." (p. 202)

Gilead is unique because of the subtle power of its narrative. It's a short book with simple writing, yet the father wrestles with the complexities of his faith, the enormity of life, and the profundity of culture and social values. Hidden beneath the plangent chords of his testimonial are approaches to deep chambers of religious philosophy and human nature. Marilynne Robinson achieves an awkward--but successful--balance in the book between, on one hand, a laser-focus on spirituality and, on the other, a broad, comprehensive account of one family's history and nature. It works, and it won the Pulitzer.

However, for me, the book would have been better if the father wasn't a minister, and instead something more general like a farmer, entrepreneur, or laborer. Why? Because a minister lives his profession, always, unable to filter his thoughts and experiences through any other than a spiritual sieve. Everything a minister does is guided by religious precedent, biblical law and morality, and Godly intent. This minister--the father--was a good Christian, so there was only minor human infraction to reveal, and never scandal or salaciousness to confess. Instead, that kind of debauch was revealed in the confessions of a few members of his congregation. The minister led a life that was both very human but also very sterile. Compassionate but not very intriguing. Every man sins, yet there was very little confession from the minister. When I write to my son, I will reveal from my life the embarrassments, the pejoratives, the vice, and the shortcomings that make me whole. I think that's more realistic.

Another great comment:

"Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed my your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing--only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction." (p. 210)

And so, 4 year old son of mine, if this review happens to be one of the written items you use to piece together a picture of your father, let me tell you this: I love you. I love your smell when you cry, the color on your cheeks in the summer, your early sense of humor, the spitting laugh you hold back when I tickle you, and the lines on the bottoms of your soft, pink feet. You don't necessarily have to be religious, but I think the secret to the world is to is to love one another. Be nice. Always take care of your siblings--even if they take a wrong turn here or there. That happens. Take your time, find the right spouse, and please have kids. Your dad gave Gilead 4 stars; give it a try. Maybe therein you'll see something of me.

New words: susurrus, lour, fungo, mutatis mutandis, irrefragable, swain, miscegenation,

Profile Image for brian   .
248 reviews3,120 followers
January 6, 2009
paul schrader called his book on the films of bresson, ozu, and dreyer transcendental style in film. sorry, mr. schrader, for reducing your book and theory to a one-liner, but the transcendental style goes something like this: the intentional evenness and flatness (both visually and dramatically) of these films work to create a ‘lifting’ or revelation at the end, such as one may receive after hours of intense prayer, study, or meditation.

as much as a book can fit within this category, i think Gilead does. traditional narrative is replaced by the writings of one John Ames, a dying 77 yr old congregationalist minister – future readings intended for his young son in the form of warnings, anecdotes, memories, lessons, and personal thoughts mostly on god, existence, belief, morality, and family. (not nearly as heavy as it sounds. the tone's actually mellow and melancholy and conversational)

i have the same problems that other atheists/agnostics/skeptics have with religion and its adherents, but, unlike many of them, i see no inherent problem in belief without proof. in fact, i see something beautiful, almost, in deeply held religious belief. a confession: remember when that tom cruise scientology video was leaked a while back? the one in which he was universally ridiculed and parodied by all non-scientologists? well, a part of me was envious of him. envious of the focus and intensity and aggression and passion he felt for this thing that seems so wildly ridiculous to me. belief is something we all crave. we crave it so bad it hurts. and it makes us crazy. it turns us into self-righteous assholes or hateful fundamentalist evangelicals or bitter fundamental atheists or suicide bombers or pacifists etc…

but i can’t believe. not in that sense anyway. i’m just not built that way. i’m scared shitless of an indifferent universe and a lack of absolute morality and the certainty that i will die and that every single person i know and love will die and that all of us, me and you and martin luther king and hitler, every one of us are just slabs of meat in a casket after we’re gone. but even that can’t make me believe without proof. and i waver between priding myself on adhering to the sad noble truth rather than the feel-good lie and between desperately wishing i could lighten the horrible burden of existence with the belief that we're all part of something larger than any of us can even fathom.

and Gilead offers the best understanding i’ve ever read concerning all of this stuff from the POV of one who holds a deep, unwavering belief in god and prescribed morality. totally unexpected from a contemporary author in the days of falwell, robertson, warren vs. hitchens, dennet, dawkins. Gilead is a gift for the lover of literature and for the religious person and perhaps, more than anyone, for the open minded skeptic.

John Ames writes:

I have always wondered what relationship this present reality bears to an ultimate reality… Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.

if that last line doesn't do something to you, you ain't human.
Profile Image for Fabian.
957 reviews1,623 followers
February 4, 2020
Minister John Ames' insistence on leading a virtuous life becomes a pain in the neck. His personal and circular logic goes nowhere, and his daily ministrations, well, you really couldn't give less a care about. And this is truly awful folks. These are very deep thoughts from father to son, directly from the death bed. & our main thought through this all becomes: Wow, the dude's taking his awful sweet-ass time to die!
Profile Image for Dolors.
541 reviews2,282 followers
January 1, 2018
Old reverend John Ames writes a long farewell letter to his seven-year old son after he is informed of a cardiovascular problem that will eventually take his life.
What starts as a chronicle of his childhood memories and the life stories of his father and grandfather, also pastors, and the ongoing tensions between them about the use of religion to serve their ideals, progressively becomes an introspective, fragmented confession where the old man reveals his soul to the reader, but mostly, to himself.
A person from his past, his namesake, and somehow alter-ego, reappears in this transcendental moment of the minister’s life; right when he is about to lose what he loves most: his much younger wife Lila and his son. The miracles that were sent to him in his golden years are now threatened by a man who seems evil by nature. Ames will have to pass the final test he has preached about in his countless sermons and assimilate the real meaning of love, grace and forgiveness.

With luminous, patient voice, John Ames reveals the nooks and crannies of past griefs, fears and weaknesses, exposed through the filter of his unfaltering faith. Prolonged loneliness, jealousy, covetousness, envy and other corroding emotions nag at the essential goodness of a man confronted with his last days in this world. As his nemesis approaches, Ames will gradually rise up to the son he aspired to be and the father he could have been.

This slowly paced novel, almost philosophical in nature and devoid of plot, told in the first person narrator using the stream of consciousness technique, might be the ultimate parable of the Prodigal Son, revisited by a humble but highly literate reverend in a forsaken village in the bare plains of Iowa, the town of Gilead. Places that cast no allure are likely to be the scenarios for miracles, if the observer notices a certain slant of light, or the moonbeams washing clean the dusty paths in silver streams, or the soft, velvety caress of a voice speaking kindly to us.
Ames’ unremarkable life story is also the testimony of the history of a country that witnessed three wars in three generations and the violent genesis between them, between families, between fathers and sons, and the wounds that never healed properly because permanent estrangement settled in for good. At the end, Ames is faced with a very simple question, which, according to the reader’s understanding of a blessing, he might answer fully, or he might elude.

Marilynne Robinson’s prose reads like a prayer. It exudes profound religiosity, but it’s not necessary to be a participant in the Christian doctrines to feel comfortable in its magnanimous embrace. She includes the reader, appeals to every cell of his humanity and leaves several doors open for him to walk out, un-judged and free, but above all, totally and wholly recognized, and therefore, always forgiven.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews658 followers
April 12, 2022
You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.
John Ames is a minister, as was his father and his father’s father before him. In 1956, at the age of 76, John’s heart is failing, and he decides to write a letter to his 7-year-old son in order to pass along his life lessons and wisdom.

Gilead is that letter, that one unbroken, time-jumping letter full of stories: of John’s first wife and daughter; of his second wife and son; of his brother who went to college and returned an atheist; of his pacifist father; of his abolitionist grandfather, preaching its a gun and a blood-stained shirt; of his best friend, the Reverend John Boughton; and most of all, of his namesake John Ames “Jack” Boughton.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around John’s conflicted feelings about Jack, who has sinned by any metric but, ultimately, is trying to put his life right. But Gilead is not really about plot. It’s about ideas, and lofty ones at that: spirituality, friendship, love, forgiveness. Although often framed in the language of Christianity, the ideas are universal to the human experience. It’s literally a man at the end of his journey grappling with the meaning of his life, with his belief and his faith and his belief in faith. And the writing here is beautiful, but still sturdy enough to carry the weight of the ideas being explored.

I don’t know that I got as much out of Gilead as others have, but it was certainly worth reading. And it’s one of the more accessible Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve read. Recommended.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
August 30, 2021
A Balm in Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

Some times I feel discouraged,

And think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit

Revives my soul again--Traditional African American spiritual.

Gilead is a novel in the form of a letter from a small town (Gilead, Iowa) Congregationalist minister John Ames, 77, to his 7 year old son, written in 1956 as he assumes he is near death from heart troubles so his son can, later, as an adult, understand him a little through an account of his life. The text is challenging in a number of respects; first, it deals with--if not spans--three generations Of Ames's family, beginning in the days his Abolitionist grandfather was a young man harboring fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, so it’s a century of, among other things, race relations. Ames’s grandfather and father were preachers, and he and his best friend Boughton is also a preacher.

So it’s obviously a father-son story, and just as obviously a story of faith, which is a challenge in itself for an agnostic like myself, though I “grew up in the church,” as they used to say, so I understand the theological wrestling that Ames does in his tale, coming to terms with issues of grace and forgiveness, with the very existence of God, and the leap of faith against (sometimes? usually?) reason. I did some of that wrestling myself and it led me away from the church; Ames and I went different ways, but I understand the guy and like and admire him a lot. But to read of this religion now for me, was a bit of work initially, and I bet for others it would be challenging. At least it is religion that has texture and richness to it, and not just conservative Tea Party meanness we have seen so much lately.

Another challenge is that the tale is told by a 77 year old man, who is as a preacher reflective, but also as an older man wandering, somewhat repetitive, perfectly rendering an older (and erudite, and spiritual) religious man’s speech and thought. Do you like to talk with older people? I do. But you have been warned, if you don't like to. Though I would go so far as to say that the repetition actually becomes one of the marvels of the book, as Ames only gives only so much information at a time, and then digresses; you think it is one kind of book, a family history, for almost 100 pages, told by a guy who is psychologically predictable and sometimes bordering on a bit boring, an old religious guy talking, and then bam, it surprises, it becomes a somewhat different kind of book, one tangling with mystery, and powerfully moving, and you can see how it may have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in spite of its being unfashionably spiritual in a postmodern age. The language! The artistry of it!

In the generational tale of three preachers we get a perspective on faith, from the crazy grandfather who literally steals from the comfortable (never quite rich in this town) to give to the poor, who gives away most of his own family’s possessions and money and food. His faith is one filled with visions of the Lord coming to him, a fiery faith that leads him to enlist young men to die in the Civil War, and then, having served himself in that war as a Union chaplain, to leave his town and family, having been the cause of decimating his own congregation. The narrator and his father are more conventional Congregationalist preachers, our storyteller staying his whole life in Gilead. But we can see there are varieties of belief that are respected here.

Since it is a preacher’s tale of preachers, you know it will be more than just epistolary, but also hortatory, if not didactic. Preachers gotta preach, after all, yet this is a gentle kind of preaching as Ames has the wisdom of not being so sure of himself, not so quick to judgment. His sermonizing calls attention to its preaching when it happens, and he invites us to question it, leaves it open sometimes. Ames’s story sermons includes familiar sermon imagery/themes though, such as water, sunlight, vision, pertaining to war, slavery/racism, love, and faith itself. Two of the characters, one of them central, are atheists, and these views, while by the Reverend mourned (as Robinson does through her non-fiction, too) are also respected, complicating the story. Images and family stories, we are told, have important meaning, but that meaning can shift over time, sometimes as new information is revealed. Transgressions happen, but grace does, too. Blessing, that key religious experience, happens, and happens convincingly.

Apropos of the shift in meaning in town and family stories, the main thrust of the present “plot” is to tell of the return of his friend Boughton’s prodigal son Jack’s return to Gilead for a visit with a purpose I won’t reveal, except to say that most of the surprising and moving aspects of the story are tied up in this aspect of the tale, that and Ames's telling of the basis for the love of his young wife, Lila, and their son, and all of these he sees are great gifts that he is grateful that come to him before the end of his life. One twist I can reveal is that wayward Jack not only comes home to Rev. Boughton, but to his second father (figure), our teller the Rev. John Ames, his namesake. So there's a twist in that prodigal son story that is interesting. Sometimes your father is not technically your father. Yet another layer of this father-son story. To an aging but hopeful cynic like myself the wonder and amazement and hope in Reverend Ame’s tale was enough, to paraphrase another reviewer, to convince even the faithless of the possibility of transcendence in this world. The fourth book in the tetralogy is titled jack, so all the four books are interconnected.

Another aspect of connection for me to this book: like Ames, I am an older father of young ones. Sometimes I imagine they in later years might read these very words as a kind of message to them, as Ames writes his story--a kind of letter--for his son. [Hi, guys! Love you!]

Moving, lyrical, with simple yet powerful language, Gilead is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I liked her Housekeeping even a little better for the greater edge-of-madness in it, though this one is also amazing, at times breathtaking, and has its own touch of madness in the crazy grandfather Abolitionist and some surprising turns with respect to the prodigal son Jack I am going to remain cagey about, though in some way this is one of the central attractions to the plot. Jack is a non-believer. He challenges his believing fathers in ways that test their faith. But in the end we get to see our seemingly stable Reverend Ames, too, in a different light we didn’t quite anticipate as the story began. It’s a quiet tale, an emotional one, finally. And there IS a balm in Gilead here, for any reader, sinner or saint or one--like Jack's, and mine--whose belief is that there are neither of those.

In the rest of the tetralogy Jack gets a parallel version of this story, titled Home, which is such a wonderful idea, also amazingly wrought, where we learn yet more about him and his life, but from more of his perspective, and in the final book of the trilogy there is Lila, Ames's young wife, an outsider from the town who had just one day wandered in to preacher Ames's doorstep. And stayed. And then the fourth book, Jack, where even more is revealed. Such wonderful writing. One of the best writers living, without question.
Profile Image for Meredith Holley.
Author 2 books2,274 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
January 19, 2013
I believe the audio of this book is read by Santa Claus, so that is nice. Not nice enough for me to finish it, though. I tried the printed copy and the audio, and while I made it slightly farther in the audio, I just can’t do it. I think listening to this in the car creates a severe hazard because of the imminent danger of me falling asleep.

Having read Olive Kitteridge and this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Pulitzer committee is looking for books about bumbling old people whose kids may or may not like them. It’s probably a somewhat universal theme, except for someone like me who knows how I feel about my parents and does not have children, but is it a compelling theme? After a while, I don’t really care whether the kids like them or not. I just want them to stop talking about how bread was cheaper in their day, uphill both ways in the snow barefoot.

It seems like there are two completely valid reasons this book would be a compelling read for a person. First, I can hypothetically see how the nature of an older father writing to a young son before the father dies might hit some kind of nostalgia button for people concerned about their own or their parents’ death. That seems understandable. I don’t really have anything to say about that or feel that way, but maybe the rambling nature of this book would hold some kind of charm if you felt like that. Maybe if this old gentleman were my grandfather, I would feel more interested. But, then again, maybe not. Maybe I am just hardened to this type of thing.

Second, I think there might be something about the religious and spiritual ideas in here that might seem charming and identifiable to either someone who hates religion altogether or someone who is surrounded by unreasonable religion. Again, that seems fair, and I don’t really have much to say about it.

I don’t think I am in any of those spaces, so this book to me was more like someone approaching me on the street, when I’m late to an appointment, and trying to tell me about how he recently bought gum, and what the clerk who sold it said to him, and his various thoughts about sprinkling versus emersion baptism. I am happy to say I have no opinion about those things, nor do I think they are interesting. Luckily, I have the option of walking away from this rambling stranger and moving on to other strangers who might be talking about things that are more actively interesting to me.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,173 reviews8,389 followers
January 31, 2021
Updated Review
It’s hard for me to rate this on my second reading. I still enjoyed this book a lot but it wasn’t quite a 5 star read this time. That’s not to say it’s not a good book because I think it is. But it’s definitely a book where you have to be in a specific headspace to fully enjoy and immerse yourself in. My first time reading it was a 5 star experience, and the book hasn’t changed since that time, but I have. And oddly enough, I’d still read this book again—maybe in another 5 or 10 years when I’ve lived more life and have a slightly (or wildly) different perspective than I have now.

Original Review
It's not often that I find a book that can hold my attention enough to read it in one day. Gilead is a book that I'm conflicted over having read so speedily, as I couldn't stop reading, while at the same time wanted to savor and absorb more slowly every thought and prayer and beautiful moment it held.

I understand the praise for this book. And I understand when people say that in fifty or one hundred years people will still be reading this book and finding something deeply human in it.

Gilead is a book about love and hope. It's one long letter of an old midwestern reverend to his son. And it is brimming with everything there is in life that is beautiful. It reminded me a lot of watching Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life which I love. And I love this book.

It is a religious book, but it does not require the reader to be religious. It reflects things that are innately human and that people struggle with everyday. It is befitting the young and the old. It resonated with me, as a twenty-something, but I can see it being even more relevant for parents, grandparents, the elderly.

I can see myself reading this again in my life, and if I ever become a father, something I would need to read again. And though I read it so quickly, I'm thankful for the time I had to completely immerse myself in this man's mind, in his relationship to his wife and son, and his sage reflection on life, love, spirituality, forgiveness, and hope.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,223 followers
April 13, 2016
John Ames is a pastor in the forsaken town of Gilead. Ames, after losing his first wife and child to a difficult labour, has remarried late in life to a much younger woman and so at the ripe old age of seventy six has a very young son who he realises he will not see grow to manhood. So at the end of his life he is writing what he believes to be a kind of epistle to the beauty of God’s world for his young son. He is attempting to bestow grace on his son. He gives him advice – “I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst.” The father-son (and Holy Ghost) relationship is very much at the heart of this novel’s traction. The first half of the novel has a languid old world pace, brimming with tenderness and somewhat idealised musings on the beauty of life (the world appears glorious in the light of Ames’ imminent departure from it) and on family and the town of Gilead’s history. “Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.” You can feel the silent and invisible life.” Reading the languorous gentle lilt of Robinson’s prose is like being up in a tree house with the huge night sky spiralling its stars overhead, and like the stars the text raises both wonder and elementary doubts. Ames creates a tapestry of all the things that have formed him. Except there’s a sense of selective memory playing a big part. Ames, understandably, wants to paint a flattering portrait of himself. About half way through I was almost beginning to run out of patience with his benevolent tender self-serving musings, wondering where the novel was going. Then Jack Boughton arrives on the scene and the novel acquires all the contrast and tension it was beginning to lack. Jack is the wayward son of his best friend. As a teenager he stole from Ames, deliberately seeking to antagonise him. Ames doesn’t like him. He especially doesn’t like him when he begins playing with his boy and talking to his wife. All of a sudden Ames begins to appear less than Christian, shadowed and soured by envy and resentment. Jack is a kind of shadow self, an alter-ego with whom Ames has to reconcile and the second half of this novel is a moving account of his struggle to find the necessary forgiveness within himself to bring about this reconciliation.

What Gilead lacks in momentum and dramatic tension is more than compensated for by the life affirming wisdom it contains in such generous measure.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book564 followers
August 5, 2019
John Ames is old and he is dying. His wife is much younger than he is and he has a six year old son that he has no chance of seeing grown. In response, he begins a journal that reads like a long letter to be read someday in the future by his son. Ames is a preacher, and much of what he discusses is couched in terms of his religion and his beliefs, but what he is facing and has faced in life is so universal that even an atheist might relate.

As Ames details the closing days of his life, we see the way his faith supports and comforts him, but we also see the edges at which things blur and become beyond his understanding. We see his flaws and we catch reflections of how he was shaped by his father and grandfather, who were preachers as well. This is a complex book that delves very deeply into humanity and the intricacies of human relationships and how our views of one another can be skewed even when we come from a place in a good heart.

I loved the soft, loving voice of this character and his desire to be open-minded and kind, even when he felt threatened and disconnected. The first-person voice took me right inside his mind and heart and I felt I knew him in all his glories and faults. Near the end of the book, he offers a blessing to another character, which felt like a personal blessing for me as well.

This book is the first in a series and I am anxious to get the next installment and see if there are questions answered for some of the loose threads. Robinson is a marvelous writer. I am confident that she will not disappoint me.
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,320 followers
February 10, 2017
The only positive thing I can say about this book is that it is well-written, from a formal standpoint. I hated the main character, an old whiny preacher who is writing down the story of his life for his young son.

This man incarnates everything I despise about religious blindness and righteousness. Even when the preacher tries to be honest, he always assumes that his absolute truth and morality can't be touched. He ultimately knows everything best, even though he might have made mistakes - sometimes, and for GOOD reasons, which he explains VERY carefully.

If you accept Christian morality as a fact, then you may find comfort in this old man's rambling, otherwise it will just make you mad.
Profile Image for Lynne King.
494 reviews676 followers
November 14, 2015
I am so disappointed with this book. Having said that, I agree with all the reviews written about this highly acclaimed work stating, for example, that Gilead is a beautiful work – demanding, grave and lucid… Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction - The New York Times Book Review.

So serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it…A triumph of tone and imagination [and a] spiritual journey no reader will want to miss - The Washington Post Book World.

But my issue is that it is only beautiful in parts. On the whole it is a tedious story, and there are indeed the longueurs. In fact I actually found the style somewhat pedestrian. The upshot of this was that I skim-read many pages.

I have no problems with epistolary novels. John Williams succeeded brilliantly with “Augustus”. However, the writing style didn’t seem to quite work here.

What is interesting though is how this novel came into being. I can actually see Marilynne Robinson as she says:

I was in the desert in east Oregon and I saw a full moon rising as the sun was setting... it was absolutely brilliant, lovely and amazing. Then I had this picture of an old man sitting at a desk writing while a child was playing beside him on the floor.
(3 April 2005)

Gilead is about the reminiscences of the Rev. John Ames, a seventy-seven year-old minister, who on finding out that he is terminally ill, decides to write to Robert, his seven-year-old son who he knows he will never see grow up.

But this novel is …much more than a letter and closer to a testament to a lost America of slaves, preachers and self-improving republicans.

This fusion of a majestic natural world with the everyday drama of family life is quintessential Robinson. …Which brings us to the Civil War. Gilead is narrated in 1956 and has a post-war consciousness which reflects its author's childhood. The narrative is modern but permeated by the war. Ames's grandfather is a man who, having seen a vision of Christ in Maine, came west to Kansas to fight for the abolition of slavery, and is said to have “preached” men into the Civil War.

The text did become slightly more enjoyable with the reunion after twenty years of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames’ lifelong friend, and his prodigal son, Jack. But nevertheless…

When I think how much I loved reading Laila (Gilead #3) and I still think about it. I was so looking forward to reading Gilead (Gilead #1). I could cry actually that this book has had this negative effect on me. Still if something is negative in life, either mentally or physically, then the best thing, such as being tossed from a horse, is to get straight back on again. And I will do this by reading Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel and highly acclaimed in 1980. It won a Pulitzer prize and the PEN/Faulkner prize and was adapted for the cinema. I’m still awaiting Homes (Gilead #2) in the post and will then read that.
Profile Image for Emilio Berra.
240 reviews196 followers
February 11, 2019
Tenerezza di padre
Chi teme americanate, resterà felicemente sorpreso da questo bellissimo libro che ci giunge come un dono dalla letteratura americana contemporanea.
Marilynne Robinson , scrittrice eccellente, ha saputo emanciparsi dagli stereotipi linguistici e mentali diffusi. E' giunta a quella libertà di non essere né conformista né anticonformista, ma di essere semplicemente se stessa al livello più alto.

"Gilead", titolo che allude al luogo d'ambientazione del romanzo, presenta la struttura di una lunga lettera-testamento che un Pastore d'anime scrive al proprio bambino per quando sarà grande, perché lui ha ormai 76 anni ed è malato ; il figlio, appena sei.
La scrittura, bellissima, ha una delicatezza e una dolcezza, i cui riflessi possono richiamare alla mente la prosa di "Stoner" (di Williams).

E' un testo che trabocca d'amore, senza enfasi alcuna, in cui pensieri, ricordi, riferimenti a storie si compenetrano in un fluire sereno e rasserenante. Vi compaiono vicende del padre e del nonno ; grande rilievo hanno la figura della giovane moglie e una famiglia amica, personaggi che sono protagonisti degli altri due romanzi che compongono la trilogia (rispettivamente di "Lila" e del magnifico "Casa").
L'amore paterno è una presenza costante che permea l'intero testo : una forza e una tenerezza che confortano : "sono certo che diventerai e spero tu sia un uomo eccellente, e se non lo sarai ti amerò senza riserve" ; "se mai ti chiederai che cosa hai fatto nella vita (...), ebbene, sei stato la grazia di Dio per me, un miracolo (...). Se solo riuscissi a trovare le parole per dirtelo".
Profile Image for Valeriu Gherghel.
Author 6 books1,447 followers
August 16, 2022
Povestea destul de banală a unui pastor metodist, John Ames, care nu și-a propus să ducă o viață de sfînt și care constată, cînd își face bilanțul (într-o scrisoare-testament interminabilă către fiul său de numai 7 ani), că a dus o viață de sfînt fără să fi voit asta cu orice chip: a acceptat pasiv tot ce i-a dat hazardul (sau divinitatea), inclusiv o soție tînără, Lila, inclusiv o iubire tîrzie (iubirea e „un har”, spune la p.233), dar asta nu i-a folosit la nimic. N-a înțeles mai mult decît omul de rînd, n-a devenit un înțelept, n-a căpătat toate răspunsurile. John Ames a fost și a rămas un om bun, dar bunătatea lui necruțătoare și mecanică nu-l face interesant ca personaj de roman.

Așadar, Galaad, romanul redactat de Marilynne Robinson a primit toate premiile posibile și e considerat una dintre cărțile cele mai influente ale secolului XXI (top propus de The Guardian). Mi-a luat mult pînă să înțeleg de ce a fost și mai este atît de influent. A stîrnit discuții despre credință și îndoială, despre harul capricios al lui Dumnezeu, despre neputința de a-i dovedi existența, despre noile forme de scepticism agnostic, despre discriminările din Statele Unite etc.

O să mă întrebați de ce i-am dat, totuși, două steluțe și nu una singură... Simplu: mi-am recompensat răbdarea de a duce cartea pînă la sfîrșit (nu e ușor). Dacă doriți să vă testați calitățile de sfînt și îndeosebi răbdarea, deschideți romanul lui Marilynne Robinson. Nu are acțiune și nici cine știe ce discuții teologice savante. Orice expert în credință vă va spune (precum John Ames) că ființa lui Dumnezeu rămîne mai presus de mintea omului.

Ofer cîteva pasaje „teologice”: „Tinerii mei enoriaşi veneau acasă la mine cu cărţi precum La Nausée ori L'Immoraliste, buimăciţi de posibilitatea necredinţei, şi trebuia să le spun de o mie de ori că necredinţa este posibilă. Iar ei sînt atraşi spre ea chiar prin cărţile care le spun ce suferinţă înseamnă. Şi vor ca eu să apăr religia, vor să le ofer „dovezi“. Pur şi simplu nu o fac. Nu ar face decît să le întărească scepticismul. Deoarece nimic adevărat nu se poate spune despre Dumnezeu dintr-o poziţie defensivă” (p.198).

„În privinţa credinţei, întotdeauna am observat că apărarea ei este la fel de irelevantă ca şi critica la care trebuie să răspundă. Cred că încercarea de a apăra credinţa poate să o tulbure, de fapt, pentru că întotdeauna există ceva inadecvat în discuţiile despre lucrurile ultime... Aşa că sfatul meu este: nu umblaţi după dovezi. Nu vă mai bateţi capul cu ele. Nu sînt suficiente pentru a răspunde întrebării şi întotdeauna sînt puţin impertinente, cred, pentru că afirmă că Dumnezeu are un loc în cadrul capacităţii noastre de cuprindere conceptuală” (pp.199-200).

Așa este. Nu poate avea nici un loc. Dumnezeu e mai presus de cunoaștere și rostire. Dar concluzia pastorului nu este o noutate. Toți teologii au repetat asta...

P. S. Gabriel Marcel (1889- 1973): „Sigur, despre Dumnezeu nu se poate vorbi, dar Îi putem vorbi”.
Profile Image for Sandi.
510 reviews279 followers
June 4, 2009
Forget your theology books and forget your "Christian Fiction". If you really want to get inside the head of someone with a deep, abiding faith in God, you must read "Gilead". Through the story of Rev. John Ames, Marilynne Robinson eloquently expresses so many of the ideas I have had about Christianity and state some difficult theological concepts in easy to understand words. And, she does it without ever getting cheesy or preachy. Reading this book is like floating in a pool on a warm summer day. It's dreamy and it's beautiful. It's sad, but not depressing. It's about life and death and everything in between. It captures a bit of history and mid-century Middle American attitude expertly. I truly love this book. There a couple of people I want to pass my copy on to, but I'm afraid I'll never see it again. I think this is one of the rare books I will be reading again and again.
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books2,156 followers
January 25, 2023

A lovely story essentially about honor.

"It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents' love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness."

"AT that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes--we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves."

"But good fortune is not only good fortune, and over the years things happened in that family that caused some terrible regret. Still, for years it all seemed to me to be blindingly beautiful. And it was."

"A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension."

"Irritation is a form of anger, I recognize that."
Profile Image for Tom LA.
604 reviews234 followers
August 24, 2021
Although a work of literary fiction, this is one of the best books about God and the Christian Faith that I've ever read. Conceptually, it achieves what some theology books like "The experience of God" by David Bentley Hart do, and then it actually surpasses it, by acknowledging the presumptuousness of anyone who tries to judge anyone else's faith. Let me try to explain.

Gilead (winner of 2005 Pulitzer for fiction) is written as a letter from a 76-year-old Congregationalist Preacher to his seven-year-old son. The pastor has been given only a few weeks to live by his doctor, and he writes down his thoughts in the hope that his son will read them in the future. This is really a fictional vehicle for the author to offer a splendid meditation on life and death and faith.

This rare thing happened to me while reading Gilead: at first, I couldn't stand it. Once I was about half way through, I started to flat out love it, and I loved it even more by the end, as it's really a book that resonates with me in an almost perfect way. Initially I couldn't stand the main character, his attitude being: "I'm so happy for myself that I had you, son, but I'm so sorry I'm not leaving you any money at all, because I am actually 77 and broke", as if they were both accidents that just happened to him (instead of things that he could fully control) and his idolizing his grandpa, who used to bully (almost abuse) his wife into giving away their money and possessions to anyone who asked. Too often, in my experience, I've seen a kind of exaggerated generosity, which for some people is another way of putting themselves upon a pedestal, feeling superior, and even dominate others, and I thought that was the case with this fictional family, too. But what I couldn't understand at the beginning was that Robinson uses this rather unremarkable human situation simply as a platform to take off from, and she elevates her novel to a much higher level in the second part.

Gilead is a book so full of depth, wisdom and poetry that by the end I was floored. It also contains a lot of Christian theology and explicit and implicit references to the Bible - in particular, to the parable of the prodigal son - but none of that is presented in a preachy or academic tone. And certainly this is not a "book for Christians", as the tone is very open to a universal spirituality (for example: it never mentions Jesus and his miracles).

In his balanced, slow-paced letter-style monologue, the main character also brings up atheism, Feuerbach, Hegel, Calvin and other fine minds. His thoughts really feel genuine, coming from the heart, as I'm sure they are the same thoughts of the author. And you can tell that not only Robinson means what her main character is saying, she also has clearly given these matters a lot of thought and study, and yes, I admit that, selfishly, the fact that her thoughts on religion align perfectly well with mine helped a lot (I am catholic and the author comes from a Congregational church, but that makes zero difference to me).

Above all, it's so rare to find great depth and great positivity mixed together in the same book (or in the same artist / writer / person). It's much more common to find either depth and desperation, or a happy superficiality. That's what makes Gilead such a treasure.

Some reviewers found Gilead boring because there is "no plot". That's not exactly the case, but I can understand that if you are looking for a plot-driven book, this is not for you.

Gilead is much larger than its characters and much larger than the events that are being narrated. As I mentioned above, Robinson used the vehicle of fiction to express some very deep and heartfelt points about faith and religion. In my opinion, her greatest achievement in Gilead is that she succeeds in painting Christianity at its best. Christianity as a living, real thing, as opposed to a bunch of mindless dogmas. Christianity as a way of living, with all its messiness, contradictions, failures and struggles. But also, Christianity as seen from a very wise, positive and self-aware point of view. In fact, I found many thoughts and ideas in this book that seemed to come straight from St Augustin (whom I consider "Christianity at its best", when it comes to thinking).

Here is John Ames, the old pastor, writing about religious self-righteousness:

"People of any degree of religious sensitivity are always vulnerable to the accusation that their consciousness or their understanding does not attain to the highest standards of the faith, because that is always true of everyone. St Paul is eloquent on this subject. But if the awkwardness and falseness and failure of religion are interpreted to mean there is no core of truth in it, then people are disabled from trusting their thoughts, their expression of belief, and their understanding, and even from believing in the essential dignity of their and their neighbors' endlessly flawed experience of belief. It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism [than in religious self-righteousness], by a good measure."

And here's an excerpt from an interview with the author:

Interviewer: "Is GILEAD on some level a novel about “being Christian,” about what it might mean to live a Christian life?"

"A: I think I can guardedly say yes. The fact is, being who I am, my definition of human life is perhaps not readily universalized. But I hope that it is not a narrow view of human life itself. I don’t have the feeling that people need to be Christian in order to understand what the novel is and what it means and so on, to recognize it’s about father-son relations, or parent-child relations. In the New Testament, of course, that’s the major metaphor for the situation of a human being in the world relative to God. I think that, in using that metaphor, the New Testament is appealing to something that people profoundly and universally know: what it is to love a child and what it is to love a parent. So that’s a big subject in the book."

You can find the rest of the interview, and a video of the author reading the last pages of the book, here:

Profile Image for Pedro.
198 reviews434 followers
January 11, 2021
Oh my god, I don’t know what to write about this novel. Or should I say I have so much to write I don’t even know where to start from.

Ok, so maybe the most important thing you need to know about it is the fact that Marilynne Robinson’s writing is the epitome of exquisiteness and elegance. Then, after you’ve got that in your head, the next thing you need to know is that you can’t plan on reading this quickly (based on the number of pages) because the writing is as outstanding as the story is slow. And by “slow” I mean really really slow!

It meandered! It made me stop, and think! It moved me and above all it made me raise my hands to the sky in despair. Halfway through it I actually found myself begging the Lord to show me the way out of its narrator’s preaching head.

God, what a conflicting and conflicted piece of writing Gilead is! Right now, I feel like I could stay here for all eternity trying to express my feelings about it without ever getting anywhere.

For Heaven’s sake, I swear to you that (with the exception of Toni Morrison’s Beloved) I’ve never, in my whole life, felt this torn between my love for the writing and an uncertainty about the way the story was told.

At this point, the only thing I can probably say for sure is that Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry are like twin writers separated at birth.

Also I’d like to mention the fact that I highlighted the hell out of this book but can’t now see what good it would bring to share some of those excerpts in such an ambiguous review.

I guess you’ll have to find all those beautiful passages by yourself.
That’s going to be part of your own journey.

For me, its waters parted and I crossed over holy ground to the other side.

I’ll be Home soon.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 13,674 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.