Treatment of Race: An Analysis of Racial Politics in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
Marilynne Robinson’s epistolary novel Gilead takes place during the Civil Rights Movement when racial issues are at their apex. After realizing that he is dying of a heart condition, the main character John Ames writes an account of his life for his seven-year-old son, but chooses to avoid conversations about race. John spends time pondering over a number of subjects including family conflicts and theology, yet manages to overlook racial politics. Race, however, is still a significant but subtle theme in the novel. Issues of race have been surrounding John’s life from his grandfather’s fight for abolitionism to his godson’s marriage with a colored woman. Racial tensions are also an evident issue in John’s hometown of Gilead during the 1950s. Although John does sometimes acknowledge the topic of race, he seems largely apolitical and oblivious.
Early in the novel, John Ames mentions that “at this writing [he] has lived seventy-six years” which establishes the setting of the book as 1956, Gilead, Iowa (Robinson 9). The 1950s have been described by many historians as an era of conflict as the emerging African-American Civil Rights Movement exposed the underlying divisions in American society. Race was a national obsession during the 1950s, but that does not seem to concern John. He starts writing his letter only two years after the Brown v. Board of Education, which was a United States Supreme Court decision that reversed the policy of segregation and ordered the integration of African-Americans into all public schools. John, however, does not mention a single word about the incident, nor provides any information about the ongoing race issues to his son. He also starts writing his letter a year after Emmett Till’s tragic death, but ignores the incident, proving his unawareness in the world of politics. In addition, 1956 is a year that precedes the Montgomery Bus Boycott that inaugurated the Civil Rights Movement, which shows how heavily race issues are involved with John’s life period. Even the history of Iowa suggests how significant issues of race should be in John’s life. Ever since its creation in 1846, the state of Iowa has prohibited slavery and declared itself a free state. Iowa was also heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as seven years prior to John’s letter, the Iowa Supreme Court in the case of State v. Katz ruled it illegal to refuse service on the basis of race. In his letter, John chooses not to address any of the troubling issues during a period in history when racial tensions emerged as a national obsession, showing his obliviousness in racial politics.
Furthermore, John’s obliviousness becomes more evident when the history of his family is taken into account. John’s and his family’s fictional hometown Gilead was founded as a type of a garrison for militants fighting the spread of slavery. The town knows John’s grandfather as a national hero for his commitment to fight for abolitionism. His grandfather set up abolitionist camps and underground railroads prior to the Civil War in order to help African-Americans escape the plight of slavery. John even mentions that his grandfather “was an acquaintance of John Brown, and of Jim Lane,” two of the most prominent abolitionists in the nineteenth century (47). Along with John Brown and Jim Lane, his grandfather participated in a violent political quarrel known as Bleeding Kansas where he fought on the anti-slavery side. Knowing John’s grandfather’s history, it would seem that John himself would be an active advocate of civil rights for African Americans. John, however, seems to have moved away from that mentality much like his father. Both John and his father criticized grandfather’s visions where Christ asked him to join the fight for abolitionism, which sparked a multi-generational conflict. Father has moved away from his father’s ideology of attaining peace through rigid dedication, and John seems to share his father’s views. The differences in ideologies and mentalities have caused John to become apolitical in matters of race, and even when John’s time period is characterized by commitment and dedication to fight social issues, John remains unobtrusive and oblivious.
With John’s godson’s sudden appearance, he struggles to address the issues of race in his letter even more. Racial politics in Gilead do not seem like a topic of concern for John, but John’s godson Jack Boughton – who happens to have a family with a colored woman at a time when interracial marriage was criminalized by anti-miscegenation laws – wants to know what sort of role race plays in Gilead. When Jack attempts to start a conversation about race, John chooses to neglect whatever Jack says. Jack asks John about Iowa’s colored regiment, but John sees no purpose in talking about it. When Jack asks him about the fire at the Negro church that occurred in Iowa, John responds by stating how long ago it was and how “there was very little damage,” sounding dismissive of racial issues in Gilead (171). He refers to the incident as a “little nuisance fire” and makes the tragedy seem unimportant (231). Although John’s own godson is directly affected by racial tensions and the mistreatment of African-Americans in the United States, John still decides to remain unconcerned with issues of race.
Towards the end of the book, John begins to share his grandfather’s view of Gilead as a place of ruins, but does not acknowledge race relations as an issue that is evident in Gilead. President Ulysses S. Grant once called Iowa “the shining star of radicalism” for its active commitment to fight for abolitionism, but after almost a hundred years, John sees the state as “a dogged little outpost in the sand hills” (176, 234). He realizes how far Iowa has fallen from its founding spirit, but overlooks racial politics as part of the cause. John ends his letter with high hopes for his son and town. He references Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” about dreams and hopes drying away or exploding. He believes that “hope deferred is still hope,” and relies on it as a factor that will bring the state of Iowa back to its original status of a “shining star” (247). As Langston Hughes’s poem shows, however, a hope or a dream deferred does not lead to any resolution. The reference of the poem suggests that John is in fact aware of the race issues that Iowa is struggling with, but he chooses not to reflect on them. Ultimately, he shows his obliviousness and inactiveness by failing to address racial tensions as a problem in Iowa, and solely relying on hope to improve the state’s situation.
Although racial tensions were extremely prevalent in 1950s Iowa, John overlooks racial politics, which shows his obliviousness and disinterest in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Issues of race directly affect John’s family, as his grandfather follows his divine calling to fight for abolitionism and his godson gets married to a colored woman, but John remains oblivious and struggles to address race properly in his letter. John’s improper treatment of race in his writing suggests that Marilynne Robinson herself has issues with dealing with race in her novel. Robinson understands the significance of race during John’s life period and attempts to acknowledge it in her novel, but more often than not, leaves things unaddressed. Robinson excludes many incidents involving racial tensions that occurred in the 1950s and, in a way, reduces the importance of race within the context of the novel. Race plays a major role in her story, but she seems to be making it of secondary importance. Robinson herself has lived through the era of the Civil Rights Movement, but through her story of John Ames writing a letter to his son, pays little attention to the issues of race that were so important in that time period. Essentially, John’s unawareness and his inability to address race in his letter suggests that Robinson herself struggles to highlight the importance of racial politics in Gilead.
Works Cited Harris, Julian. “Open Access Journal Publishing and Amicus Curiae.” Amicus Curiae, vol. 2011, no. 87, Oct. 2012, doi:10.14296/ac.v2011i87.1526. Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. Picador, 2004. Sabin, Henry. “Iowa and Slavery.” Making of Iowa, Nabu Press, 2010, iagenweb.org/history/moi/moi30.htm. Scott, A. O. “Return of the Prodigal Son.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/books/review/Scott-t.html. Smith, Ali. “Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Apr. 2005, www.theguardian.com/books/2005/apr/16/fiction.alismith.
Theme and Narrative in Gilead: Finding the Blessings and the Heart to Forgive
The narrative of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is expressed in the form of a long, heartfelt from a dying father to his young son. Intended to be read after his imminent passing, John Ames III writes to capture his moral sentiments and life advice through a series of stories and memories, all influenced by his upbringing in a pious family and occupation as a pastor. After expressing his guilt and solace for leaving his family with next to nothing monetarily, Ames hopes the letter will leave his son with something of moral value (8). Written in the ordinary town of Gilead, Iowa, the letter is the embodiment of the father’s life’s worth of knowledge and lessons, and it is essentially the only thing he leaves in the physical world for his son. Throughout the novel, there are a variety of stories and memories compiled in a stream of consciousness fashion. However, one story line remains prominent from cover to cover, and stands out for its themes of forgiveness and personal progress: Jack Boughton’s return to his childhood home of Gilead and his subsequent departure.
Son of longtime friend Robert Boughton, John Ames considers his namesake, John Ames Boughton, or Jack, his own son. While it is initially unclear why Jack has returned to Gilead, John III eventually reveals Jacks secret dishonor. In his early college years, Jack fathered a child with a young girl who lives outside their town in a poor family in a run-down, old house. The mother gives birth to the child, only to have her die at the age of three due to an infected laceration. This could have been prevented had Jack been involved in their lives and removed them from their lowly living circumstances, but Jack “never acknowledged the child” and never “[made] any provision for it at all (157).” While Jack’s actions were in accordance with his selfish desires and motivations, the judgement of the justness lies in the perception of the onlooker. Despite John Ames’ consistent framing of situations for the better, and searching for the good in every moment, he sees, Jack’s decision as one of dishonor. Not only did Jack abandon his daughter and her mother, but he refused to acknowledge their existence.
While one might believe the Ames Family’s capacity to find a blessing in even the grimmest of circumstances is a testament to optimism and how to live one’s best life, through analysis of John’s ultimate forgiveness Jack and the abundance of blessings that proceed it, it is confirmed that the acknowledgement of even the smallest blessings yields the ability to attain empathy, giving way to the extension of forgiveness for even the most heinous acts. The age-old adage of the glass being half full or half empty is a proverbial manifestation of the two ways one can assess a situation. One way airs on the side of pessimism, observing the situation as negative and undesirable. The other side is an outlook of positivity and optimism, and it is the way in which John Ames III was raised to view the world. There are a multitude of examples in the novel whereby John finds, or is shown, the blessing in even the most dire situations. With his father and grandfather both being pastors and his generally devout upbringing, the importance of finding the positive parts of every situation is instilled in John from a young age. This was a skill his one-eyed grandfather mastered, as he was even able to understand the loss of his eye in battle as a form of blessing, remarking “I am confident I will find great blessing in it (36).” Additionally, while on a trip to Kansas with his father, in search of the grave of late John Ames I, the two find themselves starving, without water, and covered in dirt from head to toe. Even still, the two are able to enjoy each other’s company as they “stood [at the gravesite] until the sun was down and the moon was up.” After they witness this magnificent sight as the “great taunt skeins of light suspended between [the sun and moon]”, John’s father remarks that “[he] would have never thought [the graveyard] could be beautiful” and “[he was] glad to know that” it was possible (14). In this moment of struggle, where the two are begging to work in exchange for food, John’s father finds beauty and meaning. Despite the less than desirable circumstances of John’s grandfather’s death and the way that it impacted John II, the beauty surrounding the place of death and sadness is emphasized, illustrating the small blessing hidden in this difficult time.
Yet another example of finding a positive aspect of a disastrous situation also takes place when John is a young man. Reminiscing, he writes about “the great deal of pride” his mother took in her chickens who “yielded eggs at [an astonishing rate] .” One afternoon; however, a storm set upon Gilead and “general disaster” ensued (35). The wind ripped the roof off the hen house, sending the chickens running wilds and the dogs, with unparalleled enthusiasm, chasing after the chickens and tearing into them. If that wasn’t enough, the fresh laundry which was hanging outside on the line begins sagging into the muddy ground. Even in the face of extreme chaos and death of their livestock, his mother gently mocks “I know there is a blessing in here somewhere,” replicating the demeanor and words of her father-in-law (36). The two, mother and son, share this moment inside together, a flash of bonding, and that is the great blessing. As John grows older, he is able identify the favorable parts of different circumstances himself, even if he is not directly involved. One morning, on the way to church, he sees a young couple taking a stroll. He shares in the letter that “the sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.” Watching closely, he observes “the fellow [jump] up and [catch] hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them.” Even though this outcome might have caused another pair to be angry or frustrated with the water dripping onto their clothes “they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her dress (27).” He remarks that “it was a beautiful think to see … because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily” for other purposes (28). This moment captures his innate ability to see blessing in just a simple moment of beauty, while also acknowleging the blessing that is the pure and holy substance of water. John’s continual striving to “find the blessing…somewhere” in every phase of life, allows him to develop empathy (35). As John is a man of God, it is appropriate to define empathy in context of the word of God, through the text in The Bible. Galatians 6:2-3 reads, “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way, obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important (The Holy Bible 1479).” Through analysis of this passage from Galatians, it becomes clear that through the counting and acknowledgement of blessings, one realizes the multitude of positive features in their life, allowing them to exemplify empathy for those who do not have the same ability, thus sharing their burden.
No man is free from exhibiting empathy as no man is “too important to help someone,” however by continually seeing the blessings in life, one becomes more aware of the empathy that should be shown to others (The Holy Bible 1479). By seeing one’s own fortunes, it becomes easier to empathize with misfortunes of others and demonstrate forgiveness. This is exemplified in John’s baptism of Jack just before his departure from Gilead (Robinson 241). John decides to forgive Jack for dishonorable act because the practiced skill of finding a blessing in the worst situations throughout his life allowed him the empathy to bear some of the weight of the burden his auxiliary son was feeling, and through the baptism, Jack was cleansed of sin. Understanding another person’s perspective circumstance grants John the ability to, yet again, find a blessing in the bad. John separates Jack’s dishonorable actions from the noble qualities he possesses and focus on those. John writes, “There’s a way of being formal and deferential and at the same time cordial, while maintaining an air of dignified authority,” going on to describe “his preacherly manner (150).” While one might believe Jack deserved punishment for doing nothing to prevent the death of his daughter, who never grew to be older than a toddler, John shows unprecedented forgiveness for the selfish, immature action.
Jack has an unparalleled duality as a character: a combination of good and bad. John extends forgiveness because he sees blessings in so many little things in life, allowing him to develop empathy and recognize the redeeming qualities in Jack, forgiving and secondarily baptizing the man. Though Jack’s decision to leave his child and her mother was not honorable in John’s eyes, as shown by his unwillingness to talk about what happened, John still forgives. This is also due to his pious nature, as a man of god he acts as god acts, extending forgiveness to all sinners despite his previous apprehension about Jack’s moral character. Essentially, there is too much good in Jack to let his poor decision triumph. The good trumps the poor decision-making early in his life. Throughout her novel, Robinson demonstrates the aptitude of John to “find a blessing in [any circumstance] somewhere (35).” Through scrutinized parsing of Ames’ letter to his son, it becomes clear that the empathy and compassion gained from a life of finding even the most seemingly inconsequential blessings in life allows the capacity to forgive immoral actions. John does as God would call him to do, and, acting on empathy, he relieves some of the burden of the death of Jack’s daughter from Jack.
The ability of John to forgive his auxiliary son for such a dishonorable action has meaning outside the limits of the fictional city of Gilead. Robinson’s message to readers is reflected in Johns choice to forgive. Under the realm of god, even the worst of sinners are eligible and deserving of forgiveness. To forgive such an offence, one must be able to see the blessings in their own life, giving them the ability develop empathy. Ultimately, with empathy one can identify the good in a sinner and chose to value their goodness over their sinful actions, this is the act of forgiveness.