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Literature / Gilead

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Gilead is a 2004 novel by Marilynne Robinson.

It is set in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. The narrator is Rev. John Ames, who over the course of the narrative turns 77 years old, and has for many years been the Congregationalist pastor of the small, "shabby" town. The good news is, in his old age Rev. Ames married Lila, a woman barely half his age who bore him a son, Robby. The bad news is, Rev. Ames has heart disease, and is doomed to die of heart failure, relatively soon.

The entire book consists of the letter that Rev. Ames is writing to 7-year-old Robby. Knowing that his son will grow up without him, Rev. Ames writes about their family, their life in Gilead, and Robby's "begats." Special attention is paid to Rev. Ames's grandfather, a preacher who was a radical abolitionist and in fact participated in guerrilla warfare in "Bleeding Kansas" before the Civil War. This is in contrast to his son, Rev. Ames's father, himself a preacher who mostly in reaction to his radical father became a pacifist.

Rev. Ames's best friend, Rev. Robert Boughton the Presbyterian minister, is also in failing health. Rev. Boughton is visited by his semi-estranged son Jack, who was named for Rev. Ames. Jack was a juvenile delinquent in his youth and has been something of a rake in his adulthood. John Ames, who is acutely aware of his own mortality, is very worried when he sees Jack Boughton paying a little too much attention to John's soon-to-be-widowed wife.

This novel was the start of a series that was followed up with Home, a Perspective Flip in which many of the same events are told from the POV of Robert Broughton's daughter Glory, then prequels Lila and Jack which tell some of the backstories of, well, Lila and Jack.


  • Death by Childbirth: Decades ago, John Ames married his childhood sweetheart Louisa, only for her to die in childbirth. The baby, their daughter Rebecca, died as well.
  • Death of a Child:
    • John is haunted by the memory of his daughter Rebecca, who died right after she was born.
    • This is part of the reason why John can't stand Jack Boughton despite continually reminding himself of his obligation to Christian forgiveness. In the back story, Jack Boughton seduced, impregnated, and abandoned a teenaged girl. That girl gave birth to a child that died at the age of three when a cut on her foot got infected.
  • Delinquents: Before his misspent adulthood Jack Boughton was a wild youth. He once rigged up John Ames's mailbox to explode, and he later stole a car, just for kicks.
  • Due to the Dead: Early in the book John tells the story of how when he was a boy, he and his father went off to Kansas to tend to the grave of his grandfather, who had gone back to the place of his radical youth and died there. It was not an easy trip, in the wilds of the Great Plains of the 1890s where a wrong turn might lead to death by dehydration, but they made it and they cleaned up Grandfather Ames's neglected grave.
  • Epistolary Novel: The whole novel is a single letter written by a dying John Ames to his young son.
  • Eye Scream: The first Rev. Ames, John's grandfather, was a radical abolitionist who wound up serving with the Union Army as a chaplain. When he came home, he was missing an eye.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Jack Boughton and his wife. Her family disowned her. He eventually tells John that the reason he's back in Gilead is to see if he could bring his wife and son there. He concludes that he can't.
  • May–December Romance: In his late sixties, John married a woman named Lila who was over 30 years younger than him and eventually bore him a son.
  • The Place: Gilead, Iowa, which was founded as a sort of front-line outpost in the war against slaveholders in Missouri and Kansas.
  • The Reveal: Jack Boughton is not, in fact, prowling around Lila Ames. He has a common-law wife and a young son of his own. The problem, as far as 1950s society is concerned, is that his wife is black. (Notably, the sentence where John Ames reveals this comes immediately after the only chapter break in the entire book.)
  • Significant Name: This is a book in large part about Christian theology and the meaning of faith, and "Gilead" is the ancient Biblical name for the land east of the Jordan River. There is also an obvious allusion to the Balm of Gilead, an ancient healing herb that is also mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven".
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: John's mother used to keep money in her Compartment, because if she didn't, her weird father-in-law would steal it and give it to the less fortunate.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: John is very aware of his failing heart. He is often kept awake at night with angina, and his wife gets panicky whenever he walks off anywhere without an escort. He writes a letter to his son so the boy will know something about his father.