The Quiet Simplicity of Gilead

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 pending death due to a heart condition, and he hopes to leave lasting memories behind for his seven year-old son.

It takes place in 1956, though his reflections wander 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.

If a plot is to be found, it occurs between Boughton and Ames, both friendly pastors. However Boughton’s son, young Jack Boughton, earlier abandoned the town and had a child out of wedlock who died in poverty. When he finally returns to Gilead, Ames is skeptical of young Boughton’s 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 novel was published in 2004 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. Her prior books were: Housekeeping in 1981 and The Death of Adam in 1998. 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.

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