T.S. Eliot once argued that you could not fully understand Dante unless you were a believing Catholic. You can appreciate and admire Marilynne Robinson’s beautifully evoked novel if you don’t share her religious values: You can even be moved by it. But unless you are a believing Christian with strong fundamentalist leanings, you cannot truly understand Gilead. Lacking such faith, you’re probably not going to like it much, either. That is, if you read Robinson with the seriousness and intelligence she deserves.
Sorry to be so categorical, but here is a novel that has not been carefully crafted to extend the broadest possible appeal. Here, at last, is a novel written out of passion that will—or should—arouse strong passions. More likely, however, Robinson will be condescendingly deflated with inflated prattle about her radiance, her poetry, her seeming goodness, etc. On the contrary. She is quietly, gently militant about her Christianity. She is fearless about expressing it. Robinson currently represents everything that liberal, urbane, ironic culturati are now derided for smugly disdaining. And so image-sensitive liberal, urbane, ironic culturati are going to want to prove their complex open-heartedness by indifferently swooning over her book.
John Ames, the novel’s protagonist, is a physically ailing though mentally sharp 77-year-old Congregationalist minister, living and preaching in Gilead, Iowa. A profoundly pious man, Ames considers the Bible an incontrovertible source of moral authority. He describes life as “the great bright dream of procreating and perishing.” He speaks of the “courage and loneliness” of every human face. He extols to his 6-year-old son, for whom he has written this spiritual memoir, the “Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you.”
That last sentiment goes unchallenged as the novel’s controlling perspective, and for a non-Christian, it is impossible to share. To pass over it as some light fictional conceit would be to transgress against the novel’s essential meaning. The first two sentiments, for a skeptical, secular reader, are impossible to accept. To such a reader, there is nothing great or bright about suffering and dying; and some human faces, like the faces of torturers, do not possess a trace of courage, and not any sort of loneliness that would arouse love or forgiveness. Ames would test the faith of many Christians, too.
You might think that I’m confusing Robinson with her protagonist, but Gilead is too genuinely felt, too deeply, purposefully imagined to be an ironic impersonation à la Remains of the Day. As in Robinson’s superb first novel, the more subtly religious Housekeeping—an instant classic when it appeared 23 years ago—water is Gilead’s leitmotif, and her plain, spare, mostly unself-conscious language has the honest transparency of water. Robinson might make John Ames open to competing versions of Christianity; she might make him confess a minor spiritual weakness from time to time. But he is—refreshingly—an almost entirely reliable narrator, whose religious faith unifies and justifies Robinson’s story.
Gilead’s conception rests on Ames’s cherished memory of walking through Kansas as if through a wilderness, searching with his preacher-father for his preacher-grandfather’s grave. Ames’s grandfather was a fiery abolitionist; his father a pacifist. Pre–Civil War Kansas itself, suspended between independent territory and statehood, between slavery and anti-slavery, is an apt metaphor for these ethical choices. Gilead mostly impartially sets a belligerent, interventionist vision of Christianity against a peaceful and serene one, and it implies that this conflict repeats itself in the strife between unforgiving fathers and wayward children.
Ames’s own conflict, which is also the novel’s central tension, involves his inability to forgive a surrogate son for an irresponsible act. The way Robinson handles this is strikingly specialized. Like Ames, she perceives the younger man as someone defined almost solely by his transgression. Despite Gilead’s insistence on the divine splendor of God’s creation, Robinson does not allow her characters to exist outside narrow moral dilemmas. In every case, this means right versus wrong, with forgiveness forged in a spirit of love as the necessary resolution. All of Gilead’s principal characters are loving and forgiving.
Which is to say that these people finally seem sprung from some moral vanity, some secret disdain for their flesh-and-blood particularity. They are not even convincing as saints, since neither they nor the world suffer on account of their saintliness. You realize that these impossibly virtuous characters are being held aloft not by their plausibility but by a near-fanatical authorial certitude about the values that they represent. A real, honest-to-goodness certitude is a bracing originality. And yet it makes you feel that you are trying to comprehend a book that, for all of its affecting prayerlike quality, is itself fundamentally uncomprehending and unforgiving of the human ego, including the religious ego, as it really is. Gilead almost makes you—it’s embarrassing to admit this—want to start being ironic and urbane again.