The quiet simplicity of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is charming. For what the novel lacks in plot, it makes up for in style. The form of Gilead is a series of somber reflections. In essence, it is the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames of small town Iowa (the fictional town is called “Gilead” named for the Biblical place meaning “hill of testimony” taken from Genesis 31:21). The town of Gilead is based on Tabor, Iowa – a small community located at the southwestern edge of the state of Iowa. Reverend Ames is the local Congregationalist pastor like his father before him. Now in his seventies, Ames is aware of his impending death due to a heart condition, and he hopes to leave behind lasting memories 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 small changes that have come to the town of Gilead. The novel rolls along like the expansive fields surrounding Gilead. In many ways the openness in the novel plays a significant role in the story. Marilynne Robinson invites the reader to consider stillness: the sun through a window, flowers in bloom, a patiently growing garden, the dust that falls off a bible in church. John Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion looms large throughout the novel. Indeed Gilead has sometimes been called a defense of American Calvinism which has been lately perverted by political discord. 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 in Gilead, it occurs between Reverend Boughton and Reverend Ames, both friendly pastors. Boughton’s son, young John “Jack” Boughton, returns to Giilead after abandoning the town years ago only to sire a child out of wedlock who died in poverty. When Jack Boughton finally returns to Gilead, Ames is skeptical of his true intention and friendship with Ames’s young wife (Lila – Ames’s second wife) and also his daughter. The novel ends in Ames’s forgiveness of and apology to Boughton. Ames closes his final letter: “I’ll pray and then I’ll sleep.” The conclusion completes the picture of a pious preacher living a slow-paced 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 2005 Pulitzer Jury was composed of: Rebecca Pepper Sinkler (Chair), writer and formers editor of the The New York Times book review in the 1980s and 1990s; Marie Arana, a Peruvian-American writer and distinguished scholar who wrote for The Washington Post and served in various capacities for numerous cultural institutions, including The Library of Congress, The National Book Award, The Pulitzer Prize, and many others; and Alan Lightman, a humanities professor at MIT whose best known book is Einstein’s Dreams.
Gilead was published in 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. Her prior books before Gilead were: Housekeeping (1980) and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998) -her theological and cultural reflections. Currently, Robinson’s other books that are part of the “Gilead trilogy” include: Home (2008) and Lila (2014). 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.