Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: The End

Josh

First off, let me say that I had mostly forgotten the ending of this book, and I’d like to discuss a little bit how the last sixty or so pages function pretty differently from the first 190.

At about the halfway point, John Ames, the narrator, focuses what seems to be, both in the construct of the letter he is writing to his son and in the construct of the novel as it had been set up for us to that point, an inordinate amount of space and energy on Jack Boughton, the son of Ames’ lifelong friend, Old Boughton. Ames argues with Young Boughton, voices suspicions about his motives for returning home to Gilead, and even worries that his wife and young son will in some way be victimized by Young Boughton after Ames passes away. The plot, as it were, changes, but the novel’s thematic focus only grows stronger through the change in our narrator’s attention.

In fact, when Ames actually finds out why Jack has returned, Robinson, for the first time, uses a page break, as if to signal that we readers are lighting out onto new territory for the novel’s end. That section begins, “Jack Boughton has a wife and a child,” a plain statement on its face, but one that confuses many of Ames’ longstanding feelings about Jack, of whom very little good can be said. The irony of the novel’s ending is thick. Young Boughton is almost exactly like Ames in one central way: he cares very deeply for his wife and child and is struggling to come to grips with the complex and often frustrating situations in which he feels he will leave or has left them.

Over the last several pages, Ames finds himself in a paternal role, giving fatherly advice and aid and – most essentially – prayer to Jack because Old Boughton is too frail to take on the burden. In this way, he gets a glimpse of an alternate reality in which he could have been the father to a forty year-old man who has frustrated and disappointed him at every turn. Ames is able to work through, if not entirely resolve, many of his feelings about Jack and boil his interactions with him down to an extension of grace. This grace, and the relinquishing of some old grudges (which amount to pretty much the same thing), occupy much of the novel’s end, and it couldn’t be more perfect.

I’ll quote only two passages from this section, this first one from the scene on page 244 where Ames goes to see Old Boughton, who is sleeping, too weak to have a proper conversation:

“So I said to him in his sleep, I blessed that boy of yours for you. I still feel the weight of his brow on my hand. I said, I love him as much as you meant me to. So certain of your prayers are finally answered, old fellow. And mine too, mine too. We had to wait a long time, didn’t we?”

The second is from the next page:

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light…. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant that it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

The connection between the even described in the first and the feeling described in the second seems to me to encapsulate much of Gilead‘s major concern: the beauty and presence of God in the world we leave behind, and the challenge that it can sometimes be to remember that it offers us a reflection – even though it seems inadequate some times – of the grace that bridges the gap between us and God.

Over these last pages, Ames get to show his son what I know I wish I could show mine, that he is a creation of the Lord, seeking refinement through grace. The fact that the novel shifts from being a collection of short little tales about the past and the moral and theological concerns that they highlight for the narrator to being a detailed narrative of much of what’s going on around the narrator in the present highlights in a more dramatic and satisfying way how the action of Ames’ beliefs, in the form of his last interactions with Jack Boughton, leaves his son a more valuable testimony to what his father was all about than all the theological wisdom could have. We see Christlike thoughts throughout the novel, but the ending gives us a picture of Christlike action as actually approached by an exceedingly normal man (albeit a preacher, but still) with exceedingly normal fears, concerns, and struggles.

A friend of mine tweeted a quote that goes something like, “People should leave church not saying ‘What a good sermon,’ but ‘I’m going to do something.” That thought is reflected for me here in this book. The whole thing is brilliantly constructed, but if it ended at that page break, it would leave more than plot unresolved. It would be easy to say of Gilead, “Man, what a good book,” but I think the ending, and how it highlights the essential similarities within the (fallen) human condition, will hopefully lead me to be more ready and willing to meet people where they are, and see the gift that God offers me by giving me the capacity to forgive others and extend to them even a small fraction of the grace that has been repeatedly extended to me.

Curtis

I am late getting to this post and Josh has already done a fantastic job reviewing the final section so I will attempt brevity.

I cannot recall ever reading a novel in which my thoughts on a character change as drastically as with Jack Boughton in this novel.  As his similarities with John Ames become more and more clear, along with his loyalty to his family, the reader cannot help but fall in love with the character that was so annoying only a few pages ago.

I was fully expecting something awful to happen at the end of this book, and I was refreshingly disappointed on this expectation. At the page break mentioned above by Josh I was expecting that we were preparing to fast forward a few years, switch narrators, and find that Jack Boughton’s wife and child were actually the former wife and child of John Ames.  I may be a but of a pessimist, I am not sure, but I have to think that Robinson thought that people may have thought the same as I did when writing the novel.

As Josh mentioned above, one of the obvious lessons in the book is that of grace.  As Jack’s story unfolds we find many similarities within the life of our beloved narrator and we understand that the young man that was once the object of such scorn from the elder, is almost one in the same.  I thought that the parallel that Jack draws between his own “marriage” and that of John’s was particularly interesting.

A few quotes (the two that Josh mentioned are some of my favorites in the entire book):

The Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing than loyalty to whatever doctrines and customs and memories I happen to associate with Him.

There are a thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together.  One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.

This is a fantastic novel, I cannot stress that enough.  I think this truly is a book that can change people, including myself.  Reading it at this point in my life (about a week away from having my first child) has proven even more insightful.  I will definitely hold onto this book and read it again in a year or so as I would imagine that I would have some further or even differing insights after becoming a father myself.

Thanks for reading and following along with us through this book.  If you have any thoughts or comments on the novel feel free to leave them in the comment section of this post.  Also, we would appreciate any recommendations on what we should read next.

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