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.

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