The quiet simplicity of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is charming. For what the novel lacks in plot, it makes up for in the power of its somber reflections. In essence, it is the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames of the small town of Gilead, Iowa -a fictional town named for the Biblical place meaning “hill of testimony” (Genesis 31:21) and based on Tabor, Iowa, according to Robinson. Reverend Ames is the local Congregationalist pastor, like his father before him. In his seventies, he is aware of his impending death due to a heart condition, and he hopes to leave lasting memories behind for his seven year-old son.
The novel takes place in 1956, though Ames’s reflections wander much earlier to the rumors of his eccentric grandfather, images of the civil war, and the small changes that have come to the town of Gilead. The novel rolls along like the endless Midwest fields. In many ways the silence plays a significant part in the story. Robinson invites the reader to consider stillness: the sun through a window, flowers in bloom in a garden, the dust that falls off a bible in church. John Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion both play an important role in the novel, as Gilead has been called a defense of American Calvinism which has lately been perverted by political factions. The novel was listed as one of President Obama’s favorite books.
“While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.”
If a plot is to be found, it occurs between Reverend Boughton and Ames, both friendly pastors. However Boughton’s son, young John “Jack” Boughton, returns after once abandoning the town and having a child out of wedlock who died in poverty. When Boughton finally returns to Gilead, Ames is skeptical of his intentions and friendship with Ames’s young wife (Lila, his second wife) and daughter. The novel ends in Ames’s forgiveness of and apology to Boughton. Ames writes: “I’ll pray and then I’ll sleep”. The conclusion completes the picture of a pious preacher living in the slow pace of Midwestern life, unglamorized and susceptible to the same struggles of the nation and its citizens.
The Pulitzer Prize describes the novel as follows:
“This is also the tale of another remarkable vision–not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames’s soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.”
The novel was published in 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. Her prior books were: Housekeeping in 1980 and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought in 1998 (her theological and cultural reflections). Currently, her other books that are part of the “Gilead trilogy” include: Home and Lila. Some have suggested the Pulitzer was awarded more for Robinson’s earlier work, Housekeeping.
Who Is Marilynne Robinson?
Marilynne Robinson was born in Idaho in 1943. She attended Pembroke College, a former women’s college of Brown University. She was raised as a Presbyterian but later she converted to Congregationalism after reading the works of John Calvin. Many of her novels have a subtle polemical nature to them, pushing back against Max Weber’s interpretation of Calvinism. She was a teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop program from 1991-2016. In 1967, she married a writer and professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, they had two children together and then divorced in 1989. She wrote her great novel Housekeeping while a young mother and the boys slept. After it achieved early success thanks to a review in the New York Times, she spent twenty years writing literary reviews and other nonfiction before returning in 2004 with Gilead.
Today, she lives a solitary life. She is divorced with two grown sons. She lives in Iowa where she remains disciplined with her personal and intellectual curiosities, though her public career and former students often keep her away from writing literature. Marilynne Robinson remains for most of the year in Iowa City but occasionally she returns to upstate New York to tend to her grandmotherly duties.
She has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 for 2004’s Gilead. The two accompanying novels to Gilead are Home (2008) and Lila (2014). Her significant novels include: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014).
Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead: A Novel. Picador: Reprint edition, January 10, 2006.