Why are many of the characters uncomfortable with the conversation about predestination?
Predestination is one of the thorniest elements of Calvinism, and by extension of the Congregationalist faith. It asserts that human beings are predestined for either heaven or hell, that damnation is caused by sin, and that only God can give salvation. It is controversial because it does not seem to allow free will or autonomy. Glory and Boughton openly express their concern about talking about this subject, which Jack brings up, because it often leads to fights and misunderstanding. Ames writes that it is his least favorite topic, but nonetheless tries to explain to Jack that he does not think good people are "consigned to perdition" (151) or sinful people consigned there either. Lila, who does not seem uncomfortable but rather fascinated by the topic, weighs in and says that people can change. The conversation thus seems more important for what it reveals about the characters—their attitudes, their demeanors, and their beliefs—than for the theological aspect of it.
What is the significance of the ashy biscuit?
Ames discusses the biscuit that has the taste of ash on it several times in the novel, and even writes to his son, "the bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it" (103). The biscuit reminds Ames of his father, of the beauty that can be found in moments of sorrow, of communion and sacrifice. The critic Laura E. Tanner writes that spiritual significance is always wrapped up the in the sensory and material for Ames, so when he reflects on various memories he can taste the biscuit (and vice versa). Tanner writes, "even as he pushes the bread his father feeds him toward the spiritual realm of the communion wafer—the hands which present that communion, the bread covered with ash, the food offered from his father's side—that Ames would leave his son, his attempt to exchange essence for experience only returns him to moments which render 'the usual companionable way' of father and son rare and holy."
How does the structure of the novel reinforce its themes?
The novel immediately reveals itself to be unique in terms of its structure: it is slow, meandering, and thoughtful. It jumps around chronologically and occasionally veers into the tangential. It vacillates between small moments and large ideas. The critic James Woods wrote in his review of Gilead that "Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details." Readers are aware of time, just as Ames is aware of his time running out. Both the reader and Ames know what is eventually coming, so slowing down to indulge in the quiet and miraculous details of the novel/life is imperative. Readers cannot race through the text or hope to stick with a traditional narrative structure, just like Ames cannot live the vigorous, active life he once did but must embrace a slower, more methodical, and more contemplative existence.
What role does the figure of Jonathan Edwards and his writings play in Gilead?
It should come as no surprise that Robinson is influenced by Jonathan Edwards. He was one of the most prominent early American theologians, and at the center of the Great Awakening. His jeremiads spoke of damnation for those who strayed from righteousness, and culminated in the famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Robinson doesn't invoke this version of Edwards, though; rather, she invokes the Edwards who delighted in the natural world and revealed the mind of a scientist in his early writings. Ames doesn't even deliver his jeremiad sermon, and prefers to direct his wonder toward his terrestrial life, not the afterlife. The Edwards in the novel are those who are the least religious. Ames does not see the world as an allegory, the material containing transcendent truths, but instead the Calvinist idea of the material being just that.
What is the significance of Jack's return home in the novel?
Ames's letter to his son is full of his family history, his advice about the future, theological ruminations, and his thankfulness for his wife and son and the beauty of the world around him. However, about midway through the book Jack Boughton, the so-called prodigal son, returns and causes a great deal of disruption in Ames's life. This isn't done just to add plot intrigue, but rather to give Ames a last life lesson. Ames's equanimity is shaken, and he has to come to terms with his own character flaws of resentment, judgment, and pride. It is a journey toward self-knowledge that comes in fits and starts, and is heavily taxing to the ailing Ames; nevertheless, he learns a great deal about forgiveness and compassion, proving that it is never too late to achieve enlightenment and growth.