Home >> Volume 2, Issue 01

The Challenge Of Forgiveness In Robinson’s Gilead

Lydia McGrew

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is the sort of book that can tempt a reviewer to indulge in the use of superlatives. The trouble with such self-indulgence is that it is as likely to turn readers away as to attract them; human beings, inclined to an understandable skepticism, find it hard to believe that a book can live up to too much praise.

So I shall begin instead by mentioning a criticism that one might be tempted to level against Gilead, namely, that it is sentimental. If I were to say, truthfully, that the book is full from beginning to end of an almost painful love for individual people and an almost unbearable awareness of the world’s beauty, my reader might fear sentimentalism. If I were to add that John Ames, whose voice is the only medium through which the author speaks, is a seventy-six-year-old pacifist who believes that God sent the Spanish flu during World War I as a sign that war is evil, the expectation that the book will be sentimental or, at least, full of shallow moralizing, would only be strengthened. If I were to add, further, that the present-time plot in the novel is not thick (though there are many stories of the past) and that the entire book is written as a letter diary Ames is leaving for his now-six-year-old son to read after Ames is dead, when the son is grown, it might seem that Robinson cannot possibly avoid overwhelming the reader with mere emotion.

The voice of John Ames himself lays to rest any such worry. The reader who opens Gilead is presented, first and foremost, with a person—a Congregationalist minister who has been told that he is dying and wishes to leave some account of his life and family history for the son who may not remember him well in later years. Since a theme of the novel is the fact that in every human encounter, we are confronted with a challenge to our honor and to our capacity for love, it is fitting that the entire novel should in a sense be a presentation of John Ames to the reader as a person either to be accepted or rejected, where rejection would be very difficult indeed.

From the outset, Ames’s conversational style and his diction reveal a mind at once gentle, humorous, and penetrating and eyes able to see things that most of us miss.

I really can’t tell what’s beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes….They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me.

When he recalls baptizing kittens as a child (a subject on which it might seem impossible not to be maudlin), his reflection on baptism as a confrontation with the reality of another being makes the passage impossible to dismiss:

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature…. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out…. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.

Ames’s diction is so realistic that it might go by unnoticed, leaving only its effect of drawing the reader in to listen to him. He repeats certain phrases such as “and that’s a fact,” intensifiers such as “really” or “primarily,” and highly effective uses of the word “of” in phrases such as “every Monday of the world” or “in the dark of the morning.” And as here, with his sudden puzzlement over why there is so little about this advantage of the ministry in the literature, Ames sometimes ends a lyrical or intense passage with a relapse into an ordinary or humorous remark, which increases the sense of listening to the talk of a living person.

Robinson is a powerful writer, and she manages to transfer this power to the speech of John Ames so that, by the time it comes, the reader does not question Ames’s own ability to write a passage like this:

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.

But it is not mere beauty of language that keeps the book going. Even in the earliest pages, which are the most leisurely, the book gives the impression of being almost packed with reminiscences, as Ames moves swiftly back and forth among several different plot-lines. One of these is the account of an exhausting, not to say harrowing, journey he took at the age of twelve into a drought-stricken Kansas with his father in search of his grandfather’s grave. Another is the story of the conflict between Ames’s father and grandfather and of the memories—some rather sinister—that united and divided them. A related thread is the character of that frightening, visionary grandfather and his strange discontent with the world after the end of the Civil War. And almost incongruously, yet seeming somehow to pull everything else together, Ames comes back again and again to the meaning of his lonely life as a widower after his first wife and child died, before the arrival of the mother of the boy to whom he writes—a boy whose name we are never told.

In all of these stories, and throughout the book, the weight of Ames’s love and the intensity of his insight are mitigated for the reader—as, in a sense, they need to be mitigated—by Ames’s irrepressible humor, much of which begs to be read aloud:

[My mother] had her rocker so close to the stove that she could open the oven door without getting up. She said it was to keep things from burning. She said we couldn’t afford the waste, which was true. She burned things often enough anyway, more often as the years passed, and we ate them anyway, so at least there wasn’t any waste…. She never slept well during the nights…. She’d wake up if the cat sneezed, she said, but then she’d sleep through the immolation of an entire Sunday dinner two feet away from her. That would be on a Saturday, because our family was pretty strict on Sabbath-keeping. So we’d know for an entire day beforehand what we had to look forward to, burned peas and scorched applesauce I remember particularly.

Ames’s love of baseball comes up again and again in passages both amusing and serious, though it would not do at all to think of baseball as a solemn thing in the book or as a vehicle of heavy and boring symbolism. It expresses, rather, the joy of life, even in those places where Ames explicitly uses it as a metaphor.

“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment in the twinkling of an eye.” I imagine a kind of ecstatic pirouette, a little bit like going up for a line drive when you’re so young that your body almost doesn’t know about effort. Paul couldn’t have meant something entirely different from that. So there’s that to look forward to.

If the book might be said to have a slow beginning—and to me, it did not seem slow in any sense that could possibly matter—there comes a point at which foreshadowings become real shadows. Ames loves to talk about his best friend, Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister in the town who is also now in ill health. Boughton eagerly awaits the arrival of his son, Jack Boughton, Ames’s namesake. When Ames tells us that Boughton named Jack after him, he says, “[H]e thought…I most likely would not have any child at all. It was very kind of him.” There is something flat about that—a pro forma statement. And at every mention of Jack, Ames’s lack of enthusiasm and even active dislike become more noticeable, especially as they stand in contrast to his usual ability to find something beautiful or loveable about everyone he mentions. Of Jack he says, “I suppose he’ll appear sooner or later. I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment without ever giving anyone grounds for hope.” When Jack Boughton actually comes on the scene, the author’s grip perceptibly tightens. No matter how charitable he tries and means to be, John Ames cannot find it in his heart to like him, much less to love him.

Ames has already spoken of his meeting with his second wife, easily young enough to be his daughter, and of how beautiful she always seems to him. We have already sensed the social gap between her and Ames which favors him, but the overwhelming impression is of his astonished gratitude at their marriage and their child. Now, that security seems vaguely threatened. When Jack comes by, it is a beautiful morning. The little boy is playing; John Ames is watching his wife garden.

Then here comes Jack Boughton, who really is the spitting image of his father in terms of physical likeness, with that same black hair and the same high color. He’s just about your mother’s age. I remember when she lifted her dear face to me to be baptized—lifted it into winter morning light, new-snow light—and I thought, She is neither old nor young, and I was somehow amazed by her, and I could hardly bring myself to touch the water to her brow because she looked a good deal more than beautiful. Sadness was a great part of it, it was. So she has grown younger over the years, and that was because of you. But I have never seen her look so young as she did this morning.

Lest it should seem surprising that Ames should shift so suddenly from Jack Boughton to his wife’s face, the section ends, addressed to his son, “How I wish you could have known me in my strength.”

Then begins Ames’s internal struggle, a struggle in the course of which he is brought back fully into the world of which he has so gently been taking leave: Should he or should he not tell his wife what he knows of Jack Boughton’s character from his past, warn her not to trust Jack after he, Ames, is dead? Might she marry Jack after Ames is dead if he does not warn her? Is it contrary to his own honor, to charity, and to the discretion of his pastoral role to tell her a story twenty years old which might better be left forgotten? His feelings are a mixture of ordinary human humiliation at his age and at the contrast between himself and Jack, anger at all the pain Jack has caused over the years and at what seem even now his deliberately provoking ways, and fear, which seems justified, for those he loves. Because he cannot sort out his personal resentment and jealousy from his purer motives, he cannot decide what to do.

In the course of all of this we begin to get a dual picture of Jack. One picture comes from Ames’s account of Jack’s meanness as a child and of one especially dishonorable and callous act while in college, as well as from Ames’s own perspective on their present conversations. But while it seems beyond question that Jack does needle Ames, there is something else going on, too, as when he asks (in front of his own father), and presses the question, whether Ames believes in predestination, whether he believes that some people are simply born evil and never change.

Ames points out, in his on-going argument with himself, that it really is not his business to forgive Jack. Jack’s great sins over the years have been against others. What he has done to Ames, the nasty pranks in boyhood, for example, are nothing in comparison to the anguish he has caused his father and the harm he has done elsewhere. “I don’t forgive him,” Ames writes decidedly. “I wouldn’t know how to begin.” And which of us has not felt that? Resentment on behalf of others, good and innocent and wronged, can be as corrosive as resentment on one’s own behalf, if not more so, for indeed one scarcely knows where to begin to forgive. The biblical metaphor of forgiveness as cancellation of a debt almost makes it harder, for would it not be arrogant and wrong even to try to forgive a debt owed to another? Ames never answers this question, yet one part of the answer, implicit in the book, seems to be that a wrong committed against others, for which we burn with resentment, is also in some small degree a wrong committed against ourselves, as members of the human family. That fact gives us a small share in forgiveness. And while we cannot give permission to the wrong-doer to renege on his responsibility to repent and (to the extent that it is possible) to make amends, we can let go of our own grudge against him, amounting sometimes to hatred, for having torn the fabric of the universe by his sin.

Nor is forgiveness the only issue. Ames carries a long-standing sense of guilt for the fact that, from the moment of Jack’s infant baptism, he could not love him. Baptism is sacred to Ames. It represents a central theme of his life—that meeting with another creature, the pure intention to bless, the confrontation with a face in its “courage and loneliness.” (“Any human face is a claim on you,” he says, “[b]ut this is truest of the face of an infant.”). His friend Boughton took him by surprise at Jack’s baptism, only announcing at the font that the child was to be Ames’s namesake. And in loyalty to his own dead wife and child there arose in him rejection and anger: “This is not my child.” To this day, that original resentment continues, and the fact that Jack—the child they symbolically offered to the then-childless John Ames to carry on his name—turned out the black sheep of an otherwise wonderful family seems both the confirmation of that original rejection and a rebuke to Ames for refusing the child.

In between tossing a baseball with Ames’s son (an act that Ames finds it hard not to resent) and cleaning up old Boughton’s garden, Jack keeps trying to talk to Ames, even making appointments to meet him privately at the church. There is something in particular he wants to talk to him about, but they cannot find enough common ground for it to come out. The first meeting is a failure. They merely annoy each other, with echoes of the tensions between Ames’s father and grandfather, and they never get to what Jack has come to say. Both feel guilty, and they try again.

That second meeting is the climactic moment of the book, or at least of its plot, and in the name of leaving some things for the reader to discover (though anyone who has not read the book has the whole of it to discover), I will not tell everything about that meeting. Jack asks Ames for specific, practical advice and help, which Ames, with all the good will in the world, is not able to give. Jack reveals the way in which he has tried, and mostly failed, to make something of his life, the way he has changed, and the way he hasn’t. There is nothing there that mitigates the sins of his childhood and young manhood, except in the sense that when a man repents, however partially, implicitly, and imperfectly, and tries to do better, one finds it easier to forgive and love him. We see Jack’s own “courage and loneliness” and, if we cannot yet respect him as a man of good character, we are able to suffer with him and to experience some shadow of the love his father, old Boughton, has for him. (In passing, Ames’s fears that Jack will marry his wife after he is dead are shown to be unfounded.)

Here the movement of grace comes fully to the surface, and Robinson’s genius lies in the fact that grace is neither rejected nor fully and perfectly accepted. For that is how it is in real life—we bumble through our own crucial moments. We see, if only through a glass darkly, what is asked and expected of us, what in some sense we ought to do, but we cannot do it, or cannot do it entirely. In that conversation, in the very midst of asking for Ames’s help, Jack makes a remark about Ames’s wife so casually unkind that it takes Ames’s breath away. “But then that look of utter weariness came over him,” says Ames, “and he covered his face with his hands. And I could only forgive him.” Now that Jack has done something new and cruel to Ames, it becomes possible to forgive him, or at least to begin. Like most of us, Ames is unable to forgive just that easily, and only a moment later he hits back, introducing a seemingly relevant but quite unnecessary reference to the worst of Jack’s old sins. Jack goes white, and Ames says, “You’ll have to forgive me for that.” Now, the forgiveness must go both ways. They struggle along to the end of the conversation. By the end, they are reconciled as far as is possible, and Jack, though weary and in trouble to which there seems no solution, is not despairing. Such is the work of grace on sinful human beings.

The denouement after this meeting does not represent, at least not immediately, either a slow release of tension or a lessening of power. For if, after that meeting, the secrets have all been revealed, Robinson is not yet done with what she has to say and do. (Indeed, her authorial voice at this point almost breaks through that of John Ames, though to explain the details of that most notable flaw in the book, I would have to reveal the one part of the story I am leaving out.) Just as Jack is about to leave the town, leaving Ames to say goodbye to his father for him, comes what is perhaps the book’s most powerful passage, of which I will quote only part:

I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world—your mother excepted, of course—and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face…. And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having.

What Robinson has given to the world in Gilead is a novel that takes with the fullest seriousness the notion of unconditional love and presents that concept, in exquisite and controlled language, as a question, even as the human face is a question. I do not agree with all the ideas in the book—with, for example, Ames’s refusal on principle to defend the Christian faith rationally, with his affection for, of all people, the atheist writer Feuerbach, with his pacifism. But if Christianity is anything at all, it is a challenge to us to do radical things, to love radically, to forgive radically. If our intellectual commitments make us incapable of recognizing and being challenged by a true and powerful portrayal of such love, then we are the poorer for our intellectual commitments, and we are in danger of becoming not thinkers but ideologues.

T.S. Eliot says in “The Dry Salvages” that most of us are undefeated only because we have gone on trying. As John Ames would say, that’s a fact. It is as true of the devout Christian as it is of the drifter, atheist, and alcoholic Jack Boughton. Which is not to say that any of us can in any measure deserve or reach the grace of God, but rather that we strive not to reject it and despair, that it may reach to us and make us what we otherwise could never be—of which Hopkins gives us a glimpse:

          Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash: 
     In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
     Is immortal diamond.1

So there’s that to look forward to.

1 “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” ll. 19-24.