Author Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead tells the story of a fictitious Congregationalist pastor named Reverend John Ames and his family. He is dying from a heart condition and has a small son who will never really know him because the boy is only seven years old and his father will likely not live much longer. This is a sad state and the story is told from the perspective of a man who knows that his time on the earth is limited and tries to tell a lifetime's worth of fatherly advice in a matter of pages. The book is a story of John Ames's life with his father and grandfather because he wants his son to have these memories but will be unable to give them to him orally. This story is about the male family dynamic and the rich heritage which fathers pass onto their sons, which is seen through John Ames's experiences with his father and grandpa, and also about how traumatic it is when that dynamic is interrupted, like the relationship between Ames and his son. This family dynamic is what the novel Gilead is really all about. Marilynne Robinson explains the great importance of the paternal family members and their relationships with each other by telling about the different generations of Ames men.
John Ames spent his life preaching to others and encourages his son to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers but tells him that he does not need to do this if it is not what he wants. He is dedicated to doing what is right for his son and uses the lessons that he has been given from his father and grandfather. In the novel, John writes a series of journals to his son where he writes:
I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters (Robinson 102).
It is hard to imagine that a person would have to explain a lifetime of lessons in the writing of a few pieces of paper. The father and son have only had seven years together so John does not know enough about his child to gauge his personality or to understand him on any really deep levels because the child has not yet really developed identity outside of his mother and father because this takes more time. John Ames loves his little boy which is obvious from the fact that he is working so hard to communicate with him and he wants the two of them to have a relationship like John did with his father but it is interrupted by the fact that John is going to die very soon.
John's father was a preacher and so was his grandfather but they were very different men. In a way, he was trained from a very early age that in order to be considered within his family, he also had to become involved in the religion. If he did not do so then his father would not think of John as highly and this put pressure on him to become a preacher (Leise 348). The father was a pacifist who believed in promoting peace but seemed to lose his father in God as he aged. Mr. Ames even insisted that his son receive Holy Communion outside a church that had been burned as a symbol of nonviolence. In describing the event in his journals, John says, "I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers" (Robinson 95). After that, John would always equate religion, his father, and a degree of sadness.
Although he was perhaps the most stereotypical type of preacher, that of the relaxed and clamed individual who promoted the turning of the other cheek and peace when at all possible, he is far less able to hold on to his religious principle than other preachers, such as John Ames's grandfather. Religion was an important part of John's upbringing since he and his family lived in a parsonage. The two men did not communicate with one another very well and this impacted his ability to communicate with his own little boy (Tanner 227). In addition, his upbringing was changed by when he was twelve years old and his father took him to visit his grandfather's grave. At that time, John learned that death and life and religion were all connected to one another. While on that trip, John's dad prayed for spiritual help and the two of them, John and his father, became closer which taught John that to embrace his dad's religion would mean a closer bond between them. On reflecting about that trip, John says, "My father bowed his head and began to pray, remembering his father to the Lord, and also asking the Lord's pardon, and his father's as well" (Robinson 14). Little John felt the need to pray also on that day even though he did not understand what prayer really meant because he was so young. This makes it very difficult later on when the dad starts to question his beliefs because this is the thing that they bonded over.
On the other hand, Ames's grandfather was an abolitionist who fought against slavery in the United States in the years up to the American Civil War. He was a chaplain working in the Union army and so also a religious man but very different from his son. John's grandfather used the church to support the union and encouraged the members of his congregation to fight against the Confederacy. His experience in the war affected the way he preached. Since he was wounded in the right eye, he considered it to be the will of God and considered his whole right side to have been made holy for his service. The side of him that was not religiously sacred, the left, he used particularly strongly while giving his sermons. John says to his little son, "I wish you could have known my grandfather. I heard a man say once it seemed the one eye he had was somehow ten times an eye" (Robinson 31). Being involved in the church has been passed down in the Ames family through three generations but each man has performed his duties differently and with a different attitude. In a family unit, the father will usually pass down the wisdom an knowledge that he has learned through his life, including the lessons which were taught to him from his family.
John Ames himself has had a clerical career which has been haunted by his own sufferings. One of the very first things that John writes to his son are the words, "I told you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life" (Robinson 3). He does not care if his little boy becomes a pastor but that he makes the right choices for himself. John has lost a wife and a young daughter as well. It is not unusual for people who have had such great losses to question their religious beliefs and even to question the existence of God. It also can either strengthen or worsen the potential relationships that people have with their other family members (Weele 217). This is the case with John as evidenced in his relationship with second wife Lila which happened many years after the death of his first wife and his young daughter. He is very likely still suffering from his grief when they begin their relationship.
The relationship between Lila and John is very important. It is also highly important that it is she who had to propose to him even though the novel takes place in the 1950s when a woman asking a man on a date, let alone daring to propose to a man, was considered highly inappropriate because it was unladylike. However, even though this wife and husband got together in an unconditional manner, she helped lift him up from the negative psychological place he was in. In a letter to his son, John urges his little boy to listen to his mother and to love her. He says, "I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a very great loveliness in her. When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself" (Robinson 139). This is the ultimate lesson…