Gilead (novel)

infobox Book |
name = Gilead
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = Cover of the first edition
author = Marilynne Robinson
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Novel
publisher = Farrar, Straus and Giroux
release_date = November 4, 2004
english_release_date =
media_type = Hardcover, Paperback, Audio book
pages = 256 pp
isbn = ISBN 0374153892
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Gilead" is a novel written by Marilynne Robinson and published in 2004. It won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel is the fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa who knows that he is dying of a heart condition. At the beginning of the book, the date is established as 1956, and Ames explains that he is writing an account of his life for his 7-year-old son, who will have few memories of him as an adult.


The book is an account of the memories and legacy of John Ames as he remembers his experiences of his father and grandfather to share with his son. All three men share a vocational lifestyle and profession of Congregationalists ministers in Gilead, Iowa. His father was a Christian pacifist, but his grandfather was a radical abolitionist who carried out guerilla actions with John Brown before the American Civil War, served as a chaplain with the Union forces in that war, and incited his congregation to join up and serve in it; as Ames remarks, "He preached this town into the war." The grandfather returned from the war maimed with the loss of his right eye. Here after he was given the distinction that his right side was holy or sacred in someway, that it was his link to commune with God and he was notorious for a piercing stare with the one eye he had left. The grandfather's other eccentricities are recalled in his youth; the practice of giving all and any of the family's possessions to others and preaching with a gun in a bloodied shirt. The true character and intimate details of the father are revealed in context with anecdotes regarding the grandfather, and mainly in the search for the grave of the grandfather. One event that is prevalent in the narrators orations is the memory of receiving communion of sorts from his father at the remains of a baptist church, burned by lightning. Ames recalls this as an invented memory adapted from his father breaking an ashy biscuit for lunch. In the course of the story, it quickly emerges that Ames's first wife, Louisa, died while giving birth to their daughter, Rebecca (a.k.a. Angeline) who also died soon after. Ames reflects on the death of his family as the source of great sorrow for many years with special reference to the growing family of his dear and lifelong friend, Boughton. Many years later Ames meets his second wife, Lila, a less-educated woman who appears in church. Eventually Ames baptizes Lila and their relationship develops culminating in her proposal to him. As Ames writes, John Ames Boughton (whose father is the local Presbyterian minister and Ames' lifelong friend) reappears in the town after leaving it in great disgrace following his seduction and abandonment of a girl from a poverty-stricken family near his university. The daughter of this relationship died when she was three years old despite the efforts of the Boughton family to look after her. Young Boughton, the apple of his parents' eye but deeply disliked by Ames, seeks Ames out; much of the tension in the story results from Ames's mistrust of young Boughton and particularly of his relationship with Lila and their son. In the dénouement, however, it turns out that Boughton is himself suffering from his forced separation from his own common-law wife, an African American from Tennessee, and their son; the family are not allowed to live together because of segregationist laws, and her family utterly rejects Boughton. It is implied that Boughton's understanding with Lila lies in their common sense of tragedy as she prepares for the death of Ames, who has given her a security and stability she has never known before. Although there is action in the story, its mainspring lies in Ames' theological struggles on a whole series of fronts: with his grandfather's engagement in the Civil War, with his own loneliness through much of his life, with his brother's clear and his father's apparent loss of belief, with his father's desertion of the town, with the hardships of people's lives, and above all with his feelings of hostility and jealousy towards Boughton, whom he knows at some level he has to forgive. Ames's struggles are illustrated by numerous quotations from the Bible, from theologians (especially Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion"), and from philosophers, especially the atheist Feuerbach, whom Ames greatly respects. It is unusual that a book with so much of this kind of content should be so widely recognized as a successful novel, and should achieve such acclaim from a secular audience. However the abstract and theological content is made meaningful because it is seen through the eyes of Ames, who is presented in a deeply sympathetic manner, and writes his memoir from a position of serenity despite suffering while always remaining conscious of his limitations and failings. In the closing pages of the book, Ames learns of Boughton's true situation, and is able to offer him the genuine affection and forgiveness he has never before been able to feel for him. Although it is not stated, there is an implication that he dies in his sleep, or at his prayers, after reaching this resolution.


According to Robinson, the fictional town of Gilead is based on the real town of Tabor, Iowa, located in the southwest corner of the state and well-known for its importance in the abolition movement, although Iowa has never had any segregationist policy since statehood. Likewise, the character of the narrator's grandfather is loosely based on the real life story of the Rev. John Todd, a congregationalist minister from Tabor who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and who stored weapons, supplies and ammunition used by abolitionist John Brown in his "invasion" of Missouri in 1857 to free a group of slaves, and later—without Todd’s knowledge or involvement—in his 1859 raid on the U.S. military arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

External links

* [ Novel description at publisher's site]
* [ "Now, a Masterpiece", a review of "Gilead", by Jeffrey Hart] , from "National Review", March 28, 2005
* [ "New York Times Book Review" of "Gilead"]
* [ Review of Gilead] by Ted Gioia ( [ The New Canon] )
* [ Photos of the first edition of Gilead]

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