The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

What are some of the implications of the title? Do these reinforce one another?

What are some effects of the fact that this narrative is also a dramatic monologue? The dramatic monologue of a presumably soon-to-die man?

Have you read other deathbed dramatic monologues, and if so, does this resemble them?

What is the effect on the reader of the fact that this novel is ostensibly in epistolary form, and composed for the benefit of his son?

Would this in fact be a likely letter/monograph to leave behind for a child? Do some parts of the novel seem less directly intended for his son?

What are some features of the novel’s style and tone? What category of topics preoccupy him?

In what period is this novel set? To what extent does the narrator respond to social and political events in his immediate present? To what extent is Gilead isolated from the world?

What are some of the elderly minister’s regrets? Why has he left behind so few material possessions?

What are some factors which impelled his late-life marriage?

What do we learn about his young wife? What had been their relationship? How had they met, and under what circumstances did they agree to marry?

What does he know about her past? Had she shared his religious background?

What do we learn about his first marriage, wife and daughter?

In general, which characters in his life are described or represented most clearly?

What do we learn about the character of John Ames’ father? About his mother? Is there an imbalance in the strength of the memories?

What differences had arisen between his father and grandfather? Why had the grandfather left for Kansas?

What seems notable about the father’s trip with his son into Kansas in search of his father’s grave? What is revealed by the farmwife’s care for them and sadness as they leave?

What unusual sight do they see as they sit together at the grandfather’s grave, and how does each interpret it?

What do we learn about the Free Soilers, the grandfather’s participation in the anti-slavery movement, and the condition of Kansas between 1850 and 1870?

What striking incidents of his pre-Civil War childhood does John Ames’ father recall for his son?

What seems revealed by the story of the horse who fell into the tunnel? Is the tale ultimately comic? Believable?

What views does John Ames II develop regarding war and violence of all kinds? Is this an implicit narrative critique of the northern cause during the Civil War, and if so, do you think this is justified?

What does John Ames consider to have been his best sermon? Why does he destroy it?

Why had the African-American congregation left Gilead? How does John Ames III interpret the attempt to burn the African-American church?

What is significant about Ames’s memory of his father’s sadness at the breakup of the Baptist church? The handing to his son of the blackened biscuit?

Is this scene prophetic or anticipatory in some way?

What relationship with his sons does John Ames II have? What is his reaction to Edward’s expressions of religious skepticism?

What effect does Ames Sr.’s rejection of Edward have on his sons and wife?

What seems John Ames III’s attitude toward his brother Edward?

What does the narrator later tell us about his father’s sermon on the topic of “desertion,” and what striking incident from his own life had his father recalled?

What are some of Ames III’s other notable sermons, as he recounts them during the book? For example, what is significant about the one on Abraham and Isaac?

How would you characterize Ames III’s religion? Does it strike you as entirely orthodox? What seem its preoccupations? (imagery of light, water, baptism, grace, etc.)

What do you make of the references to Jonathan Edwards, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Barth?

John Ames III is Congregationalist. Do you see aspects of Congregationalism, and of Calvinism in general, as influencing the mode and content of his thought?

How does Ames approach the Bible and the exposition of Biblical texts? Which types of texts does he emphasize? What, for example, does he do with the ten commandments?

Do you think that the author has been successful in creating a convincing male narrative persona?

What views does the narrator express regarding language? (133) What are his notions of heaven? (147) Have you seen these or similar views elsewhere?

What does he hope will happen to his sermons? Are these a metaphor for aspects of his life and thought? Why do you think he makes no further effort to preserve them?

What is John Ames’ relationship to his friend Boughton? How do the two men differ? Is it significant that Boughton is a Presbyterian minister and Ames a Congregationalist one?

Do we have a clear sense of the senior Boughton’s personality and views?

Ames accuses himself of the faults of covetousness, defensiveness and suspicion. Based on the novel, do you think these self-criticisms are justified?

What do we learn of Jack/John Ames Boughton? On what grounds does he evoke politely masked dislike in the elder Ames?

What incident in Jack’s past does he recount in detail to his son? What had happened to his daughter, and to the mother of his child?

What are some reasons why John Ames III has taken this to heart?

After asking Ames’ view of predestination, of what does Jack accuse him? Do you think he is justified in his criticism? Why do you think the subject is important to Jack?

What seems to preoccupy Jack? What are some reasons for his uneasy relationship with his father?

What are some of Jack’s objections to Ames’ Calvinism, and to religion in general?

How does Ames respond to his skepticism, and to skepticism in general? Has he been an empathetic or understanding listener? (weeps)

What account does he give of his views of belief and unbelief? (179)

Why do you think Ames recalls his grandfather’s Fourth of July sermon? What has characterized the sermon? What application to his own life does Ames find in it?

What changes does the senior Ames II undergo in later life? Are these surprising? How do you interpret Ames’ allusion to a “burned letter from his father”? (178)

How does the fact that Ames III fails to heed his father's advice affect our view of him? Of his relationship to his father? Does his choice anticipate the novel's ending?

What fears and suspicions does Ames harbor towards Jack? Are these justified? What do you make of his dying preoccupation with the younger man?

What had been his reaction to Boughton’s naming of his son after his friend? To his own baptizing of the infant? Why may the incident have affected him so deeply?

What are some of Jack’s boyhood pranks/crimes/adventures which Ames remembers? Why was Jack not reprimanded for taking things from his neighbors?

Is Ames’ a receptive listener to Jack? What do we learn about Ames’ wife from her conversation with Jack while her husband seemingly sleeps beside them?

Why do you think we haven’t learned her name previously? Is her manner with her husband different from her manner with Jack? (200)

What revelations does Jack tell Ames which he has omitted to tell his father?  Why do you think it has been easier to tell Ames than his own father?

What have been some difficulties in Jack’s relationship with his common-law wife and son? How has her family responded? What has been his intention in returning home?

Why do you think he would have wanted to bring his family to Gilead? Does Ames offer him encouragement?

How does he respond to Jack’s intention to leave town as his father is dying?

What do we infer happens at the end? Do the narrator’s final remarks provide a sense of closure? On what do they center?

What have been the main themes of the narrator’s reflections? Do you think that these become clearer as the novel ends? (reconciliation; the sacraments as a source of peace; midwest African-American history; theme of prodigal son; need for non-judgmental view of others)

Does the speaker come to final insights? What are these?

What imagery surrounds his final wishes and acceptance of death? How does this echo earlier incidents or reflections in the narrative?

If you have read Home, what plot elements are revealed which are unknown to the speaker of Gilead? Has Jack interpreted some of his conversations with John Ames differently than Ames interprets them? Is one or the other more correct?


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