Gilead: A Book About Love
Gilead is a book about love. It is about a preacher of Love, John Ames, who is writing very lovingly to his young son. The preacher is at the point of death sharing his wisdom with his young son. This wisdom includes the preacher’s human failings along with the antidotes for the failings that he has personally experienced.
There is no element of hatred in John Ames’ character. In this way, the book turns out to be about perfect love. John Ames feels jealousy like the jealous God. Moreover, he harshly criticizes an author who has rebuked the sense of religion among the majority of Americans. Nevertheless, these emotions and the expressions of them do also turn into expressions of love seeing that John Ames has incorporated two very important attributes of the Lord whom he continuously refers to, that is, love and honesty. The preacher defends the majority of Americans, and is therefore viewed by the reader as one of the most perfect of preachers for Americans today.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a book about love with continuous references to the Lord, who is Love according to the Holy Bible. Reverend John Ames, from a family of preachers, is writing a letter to his young son before the old preacher’s death. The man loves his son very much, and is also quite attached to his ancestry, seeing that he often refers to his own grandfather who had moved from Maine to Kansas in order to fight for abolition; and his father who had grown to be sickened by what he believed to be the preaching of men into war. John Ames’ grandfather and father were preachers as well. He does not disown them, just as he does not disown most of the people he discusses. On the contrary, John Ames happens to love almost everybody, and is therefore torn between the different conceptions of ministry and religion as taught by his grandfather and father. The two men should have been one, like Love itself. Seeing that they differed in their understanding of Christianity – particularly on the topic of war versus love – John Ames feels ambiguous about being absolutely straightforward in all situations and about his own negative emotions. As a result of this ambiguity, the man is experiencing a moral crisis with regards to his wayward godson, Jack Boughton, whom he believes might be able to seduce the wife of the preacher after his death. What is more, the man finds it disgraceful for himself not to be able to speak with Jack as a pastor. Of course, this moral crisis also has to do with Love. After all, the Lord is a jealous God, and so John Ames has a right to be jealous for his wife after his death. Hence, in the reader’s mind there is nothing absolutely that is unreasonable about John Ames’ negative emotions toward Jack. Rather, John Ames becomes a
character who invites only love. There is nothing whatsoever that the reader may hate about the man.
John Ames’ gentle and loving narrative starts out thus: “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” (3). The preacher makes uncounted other references to God (or Love) afterwards, including the fact that he does not understand everything that the Lord has said. All the same, the man believes that one “great benefit of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate.” Seeing that John Ames’ religion revolves around the Lord, who is Love, the reader is led to believe that the preacher must have concentrated upon God a lot of the time. Moreover, his mention of the great benefit of a religious vocation is a “fair part” of the wisdom the man has to offer his son, whom he believes to have been a blessing in the old preacher’s life (8).
The narrator uses very simple language in his letters to his son. He mentions the Ten Commandments before he goes on to describe the difficulty he experienced in loving his neighbor as he loved himself. He writes: “I have been candid with you about my suffering a good deal at the spectacle of all the marriages, all the households overflowing with children, especially Boughton’s – not because I wanted them, but because I wanted my own.” The preacher then explains how “covetise” must be checked. The novel is quite instructive in that it describes human failings with reference to the correct principles of religion. John Ames also writes that he found it “difficult too often” to “Rejoice with those who rejoice” (152-153). By describing his human failings thus, the preacher becomes even more loveable in the viewpoint of the reader, who knows that this is certainly not the kind of preacher who is not merely making a show of his truthfulness by saying that he has always been perfect. Instead, John Ames is a preacher who is not afraid to discuss his failings. His honesty is remarkable. God is Honest, and God is Love. Hence, these attributes of God that have been incorporated by the preacher are what the reader feels most comfortable about and attached to throughout the novel.
The preacher writes a passage about a writer who has authored an article called “God and the American People.” John Ames does not name the author of the article, seeing that he is about to criticize him before his son rather harshly. This is, indeed, a show of respect for the author whom John Ames disagrees with. The article in question claimed that 95 percent of the Americans say that they believe in God. “But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all,” explains John Ames. “To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does” (162). Yet, John Ames does not hate the writer enough to want to tear him apart by exposing his name!
John Ames is offended by the author of the article because the latter has rebuked the majority of Americans whose interpretation of Christianity is different from his. By harshly criticizing the author of the article, John Ames is, once again, showing love, this time toward the American people in general. It is difficult anyway for people to listen to preachers who rebuke them. Perhaps John Ames believes that it is God’s authority solely to rebuke those who may or may not be right in the matter of religion. By giving this authority back to Love, the preacher is inviting the Americans to become even firmer in their faith in Love – provided, of course, that the majority of Americans referred to above would read the man’s letters to his son. Furthermore, this passage from Gilead is a wonderful expression of the Bible’s decree, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” John Ames, through this passage, reveals the equality that he believes to exist between himself and the public at large – even those whom he preaches. After all, all humans are the offspring of Adam in his view.
As a matter of fact, John Ames reveals himself to be one of the most perfect of preachers for Americans today. He is not a perfect soul like Jesus who may never make mistakes, neither does he claim to be a prophet of God with extraordinary powers. What is more, he teaches the principles of religion with his personal failings in view of all the rest, that is, the readers of Gilead. As an example, the man writes while referring to his wife: “I felt a surge of sadness for her, and still, in my wretched heart, I thanked the Lord” (236). The reader can feel absolutely certain by this point in the book that the Lord loves John Ames very much as well. Besides, he is one of the good and wise people mentioned in the Bible, rather than the “wicked.” At no point does John Ames appear as one of the “wicked.” Indeed, his book about love turns him into the most loveable character in the book. It is the man’s own sense of universal love that embraces him in the mind of the reader.
Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. London: Virago Press, 2004.