Marilynne Robinson achieved her first literary success with the novel Housekeeping (1980), which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Then more than two decades would elapse before the release of Gilead (2004), which won the Pulitzer. It was followed by Home (2008) and Lila (2014). These three “Gilead novels” follow the interior lives of three separate characters as they interact with each other contemporaneously in the mid-20th century town of Gilead, Iowa.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels are not action-packed books. They are set in a very small town in a very boring state at a time when there was even less happening there than there would likely be today. And yet I knocked out all three of them in under a week. For me they have the same appeal as John Williams’ Stoner in that they tell a simple story beautifully. I love these books for reasons that are a little difficult to explain and that I don’t expect others to share and that I could ramble about if you let me. But maybe it would be helpful to ration them out.
First, I love the formality of the characters’ faith. There is something very comforting – to me – about a pair of aging preachers like John Ames and Robert Boughton sitting on the porch and speaking to each other about the promise of grace and the nature of perdition. These are men for whom life and afterlife are very serious matters, and by whom nothing is trivialized. Their dialogue is very finely crafted, and whatever stuffiness or sternness they exhibit is tempered by their advanced age. They’re old guys, so they can say what they want.
In Gilead, this good-natured seriousness is heightened by the form of the narrative – the book is one long extended letter from the aging Ames to his young son, written in the belief that death will separate them before they can get to know each other properly. In Home, a similar dynamic frames the relationship between the increasingly decrepit Boughton and his middle-aged prodigal. In Lila both characters appear at their most patient and deferential.
This is the sort of religiosity I remember from childhood, and I remember finding it mostly unbearable at the time. But as an adult it all feels very appropriate. I’m old enough now to recall when my church made the switch from formal chapel services with a man in a suit behind a pulpit to an auditorium setting with a loudmouth in a Hawaiian shirt pacing the stage and sweating. Hymnals were replaced with projected text, organs with worship bands, God the Father with God your Pal. I carried a Bible with lots of loud neon lettering on the cover.
All this to say that, at some point in the 1990s, faith became a little too casual. Though I appreciated it at the time – I was a kid, after all – I can’t say I much care for it anymore. There is something nostalgic about the version practiced by Robinson’s characters. In my agnostic adulthood I’ve become a King James Version kinda man.
I feel you – there is something attractive in that formality, in Ames’ and Boughton’s slow, rocking-chair conversations. And when I interpret it all as a knowing game between old friends (the learned references to the Bible, secondary texts, and theological disputes), it all feels pretty cool – a high-minded but purely metaphorical way of talking about human quandaries.
But these characters mean it. They really think there’s a god up there. They think theology is a meaningful process for discerning that god’s will. They think that if an idea appears in the Bible (or Calvin, or wherever), it has extra moral authority.
These beliefs are baseless. Now, if these beliefs were idle, maybe it wouldn’t matter. But Ames and Boughton use these beliefs as tools to deal with the central challenges in their lives. (And as leaders of two of the town’s major congregations, they try to convince everyone else to do so, too.)
The trouble is that the tools aren’t up to the task. Sometimes, in fact, they’re the very source of the tension the characters feel.
I’d like to hear more about that because, if I recall, this is pretty much your critique of your time at divinity school as well. I’m still not sure I get it. The gist seems to be that theology is interesting and all, but God’s not real, so what about that?
Aren’t you willing to grant these characters the sort of worldview one would expect from third-generation preachers’ kids growing up in rural Iowa in the early 20th century? Can’t you spare some leeway for a mysticism based in an ancient faith tradition that tries to make sense of an infinitely mysterious reality? And didn’t you expect that divinity school students would probably believe in God?
The fact that these characters have these worldviews makes sense to me. What I find irritating, however, is their self-satisfaction: they seem to think that they’ve got all the tools they need to understand everything that’s comprehensible, and a theology that accounts for the beautiful mysteries of everything else.
This is plainly untrue. Events routinely shake Ames’ theology to the core, but he doesn’t have the capacity – or perhaps the courage – to articulate the conflicts between his beliefs and his real life. Instead, he retreats into esoteric hand-waving.
It feels to me like Robinson’s doing the same thing. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there are deep limitations to these characters’ worldviews, limitations that actually make it more difficult for them to understand themselves and each other. The characters wrap themselves in vague, self-congratulatory pseudo-profundity, and Robinson gives an authorial nod from on high.
I don’t mind the dishonesty or self-blinding – we’re all afraid of something, and we all seek to cover our eyes sometimes. What I mind is the pompous tone – the smug unwillingness to acknowledge real tensions, the insistence on trying to subsume those tensions in lofty, unexamined, and ultimately meaningless language. This is what bugged me about divinity school – fear and confusion masquerading as high-mindedness.
John Ames is an admirable guy in a lot of ways – but as a reader, I often feel like I’m watching him try to box with ghosts. And I want to ask: if we really care about him, shouldn’t we want to know who signed him up for a fight like that?
But we do know that – his father signed him up, and his father before him. That’s actually the second thing I love about these books – the way that family histories double as American histories. Ames’ grandfather was a man of unshakeable faith whose abolitionist zeal drove him, on the one hand, to unspeakable acts of violence in the Civil War and the “bleeding Kansas” era, and, on the other, to incredible lengths of generosity, such that his wife had constantly to hide their money, food, and clothing so that he wouldn’t give it all away.
The tensions created by a man of such extremes nursed a certain resentment in his son, whose own road to professional religiosity led straight through pacifism. Their formal yet intimate rivalry prompts one of my favorite passages in the first book:
They had a particular way of addressing each other when the old bitterness was about to flare up.
“Have I offended you in some way, Reverend?” my father would ask.
And his father would say, “No, Reverend, you have not offended me in any way at all. Not at all.”
And my mother would say, “Now don’t you two get started.”
If I recall, John Ames’ father and grandfather were both named John Ames as well, but his son is named Robbie, after Robert Boughton, who had named his son after John Ames. So we have three generations of John Ameses whose stories correspond with important historical moments, culminating in that of John Ames Boughton, who goes by “Jack” and who marries a black woman at the height of the 1950s Civil Rights movement.
Gilead covers the entire scope of this history, from the 1850s to the 1950s, but we have to wait for Home and Lila to get the more detailed version from alternate eyes.
I’ve always been drawn to large, sweeping stories that run down through generations. The Gilead novels provide this in a way that allows us to see both the warmth and the cold that arise in devoutly religious families. And since these family stories are interwoven with the larger American story, we get a sense of the religious tensions informing so much of the American past.
It’s all so beautiful and moving that I practically had to smoke a cigarette afterward. And you just think… what? That they should all be atheists?
I’m not running these characters down or saying that their beliefs make them stupid or contemptible. I just don’t like it that they ignore or overlook the central questions of their own lives, and that they do so pretentiously. Ames feels like it’s his right to teach his townspeople theology, and he and Boughton get into all kinds of esoteric theological debates, but they don’t engage with basic questions about whether their books and traditions are worth taking quite so seriously in the first place. Any good freshman humanities class would press students harder than these men press each other.
Yes, there’s tons of beauty in these books. But it feels to me like Robinson has her thumb on the scales: she can’t stop trying to squeeze every last drop of wistful beauty out of her characters’ religiosity, but she won’t acknowledge what their religiosity costs them. That’s what’s frustrating. Why protest so much? Why not a little more honesty and balance? Lots of other authors manage it – Graham Greene, for example.
I’m not saying we all should be atheists. I’m not sure I care that much about what goes on in other people’s heads, or if it’s really my place to. But I do think I react a little when I’m asked to respect faith. Why?
I’d say you’re asked to respect faith, in these cases, because it is so important to the characters – so central to their lives and to their understanding of the world.
If I were to defend Robinson on this point, I would cite her treatment of Jack and Glory Boughton in Home and of Lila Ames in Lila. These characters have all had real difficulties in life, and none has been consistently faithful to Christianity. All of them raise doubts and criticisms – both of religion and of the religious.
That’s the third thing I love about these books – the way they allow us access to various characters’ minds.
We’ve talked before about the capacity of reading to instill empathy in people, and Robinson’s project does this as well as anything I’ve ever read before. Her technique of depicting the same scenes in separate volumes – approaching the same interactions from different points of view – is really fascinating.
In Gilead, for instance, we get to watch John Ames discuss predestination with Jack Boughton at some length, and during this talk we share in his suspicion that A) Jack is a disrespectful punk and B) that he might be hoping to steal Lila and Robbie away as soon as Ames dies.
But when we arrive at this same scene in Home, we see it from Jack’s perspective, understanding that A) he is genuinely worried that he has been predestined for hell, B) he hates his own inability to exude sincerity, and C) his only romantic interest is in his own wife, from whom he has been forcibly separated and about whom he feels unable to speak, even to his own family.
It’s impossible to know how often this sort of miscommunication and misunderstanding occurs in our own lives, but Robinson prompts us to suspect that it happens a lot.
The latter two books give us this perspective in large doses, skillfully mixing honest criticism of faith with candid depictions of sorrow, if also with the respect that doubtful and wayward children continue to offer their devout and aging parents. This blend contributes to the air of formality that hangs across the trilogy, and that demands your serious attention throughout.
Given that I didn’t make it through Home or Lila, I have to concede some ground here. It sounds like Robinson’s approach to religion differs pretty significantly between the first book and the other two.
I want to pick up on this question of respect. You wrote, “I’d say you’re asked to respect faith, in these cases, because it is so important to the characters – so central to their lives and to their understanding of the world.”
It sounds like you’re suggesting that there’s no way to have empathy and hang onto our critical thinking skills at the same time – that if we’re going to understand the role faith plays in these characters’ lives, we have to give up on thinking clearly about that faith (including whether it’s based in anything real, and what its true costs might be). In other words, it sounds like you’re saying that respect involves suspending judgment.
But maybe we’re using the word “respect” differently. What do you mean by it, exactly?
I just mean that faith is so central to who these people are that it is practically inseparable from their personalities. I try my best to be somewhat deferential to the belief systems of the people I meet – even if I don’t buy into them personally – if only because doing so feels necessary to respecting them.
If you didn’t enjoy Gilead then you may not enjoy Home or Lila, either, but in some ways they are very different books.
Of the three, Lila is probably my least favorite, but I say that as I would say that pepperoni is the third in my ranking of most delicious pizzas.
And for being third, it also has my favorite passage of the three. It comes toward the end of Lila’s backstory, which unfolds progressively throughout the novel. She was born into an abusive and neglectful family and stolen away as a toddler, then raised by her kidnapper-surrogate mother as the two of them migrated across the midwest looking for dust bowl-era field work and trying to survive. Consequently she received very little education, endured long periods of malnourishment, and ultimately lost her guardian after she was arrested for stabbing a man who may have been trying to recover his long-lost daughter.
After a period spent working in a St. Louis brothel because she had nowhere else to turn, Lila catches a lift to Iowa with some lady who saw her waiting for the bus in the rain. In the car, this lady mentions that she should probably try to convert Lila to Christianity, since that’s what her pastor says to do, and that being a Christian means she has to watch her language and stay away from the theater. Then she makes small talk and asks Lila about her life. After some awkward silence, we enter Lila’s thoughts:
She was quiet again. Lila could feel her wondering, and she almost said, I was working in a whorehouse because the woman who stole me when I was a child got blood all over my clothes when she came to my room after she killed my father in a knife fight. I’ve got her knife here in my garter. I was meaning to steal a child for myself, but I missed the chance and I couldn’t stand the disappointment, so I got a job cleaning in a hotel. You can’t say dang or go to movies, and look who you got sitting next to you hour after hour. Look who you been offering half of your spam sandwich. She was laughing and the woman glanced at her. So she said, “You can try bringing me to Jesus if you want to. Might pass the time.”
The latter books definitely do a better job than the first of interrogating shallow Christianity – the type that monitors swear words and cultural consumption, and even that over-invests in theological questions. Lila has been through some shit in her life, and the faith that she encounters in others usually cannot speak to her sorrows. Her experience has been real and gritty in every way that pop Christianity is artificial and lame. But eventually she meets and marries John Ames, in part, it seems, because his particular quality as a “preacher” appeals to her. His patient efforts to explain Christian theology to her uneducated sensibility constantly runs up against a mysterious life story that he cannot understand.
Lila is the lost sheep sought for and found, just as Jack Boughton is the prodigal son not quite returned. And by the end of the trilogy, both of them come off more honest and authentic than John and Robert.
At points these books may be tough to get through, but I think the effort is rewarded in the end. It definitely was for me.
I know we agreed that your comment here was supposed to be the last one, but part of me wants to push the respect conversation a little further.
It seems to me that respect has something to do with how we value things. I respect you as a person – I value your existence. And I respect your right to live your life as you choose, because there’s something valuable about each of us having the chance to figure out our own lives. (That’s pretty close to the core conviction of classical liberalism, I think.)
But that’s different than respecting the actual choices you make or the beliefs you adopt. I might understand how your life has led you to do so, and I might feel a ton of empathy for your journey. But if you end up endorsing astrology, you’re making a mistake – your conclusions are just unwarranted. Should we “respect” astrology nonetheless? (If I ask you about how human beings appeared on Earth, do you respect “creationism” and “natural selection” equally as answers?)
And if your mistaken beliefs end up leading you to harm others (say, by depriving your children of medical care, like some Christian Scientists), you’re doing something I don’t value – overlooking the real, tangible interests of another human being in the name of a confused ideology. Is that worthy of respect?
Back to John Ames, though: if I met him in real life, I’m not sure I’d say any of the things that I’ve said to you – at least not until I knew him well. I’d treat him with respect, even if I couldn’t feel respect for all the things he believed.
Like you, part of me occasionally wishes that I could share his worldview, too. There is something comforting about it, something lovely and sacramental. But I can’t share it, and apparently neither can you. Maybe that’s something we can explore another time.