Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world.
One of the most appealing things about Ames is that he is not rigidly dogmatic, doctrinal, or full of "strenuousness in ethical matters.” He can read an atheist like Feuerbach for his merits rather than dismiss him outright since he is not a Christian. This is a testament to Ames's intelligence, rationality, wisdom, and life experience. He is the sort of Christian that earns the respect and admiration of Christians and non-Christians alike, for he avoids fundamentalist views and judgmental attitudes. He can understand his atheist brother Edward even while his father cannot. And because he is writing these things down for his son, he is clearly encouraging the child to have an open-minded view of the world.
I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for its existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly.
One of the most marvelous aspects of the book is Ames's ability to appreciate the wonderful things around him, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. He teaches the reader to slow down and mark the wondrousness of the world around them and to avoid glossing over its beauty and strangeness. Even though he is not far from the afterlife, he prefers not to dwell on that but rather to engage with his mortal existence. He counsels his son to be open to the world's offerings and to delight in it outright. He openly says he will miss the world, this "interesting planet"; this is a different interpretation of the traditional sort of Puritan belief system in which this world is transient and thus not worthy of our regard as we instead look to heaven and eternal life.
I believe that the plague was a great sign to us, and we refused to see it and take its meaning, and since then we have had war continuously.
Here Ames is rather similar to his grandfather in the sense that he sees signs as communication of God's feelings towards the human race. He interprets the Spanish flu as an indication of God's anger at and disappointment with the human race, and comments that there has been continuous war since, because humans have not heeded the sign. This is similar to Ames's grandfather because that man had visions in which he believed God was telling him to take certain measures in regards to Kansas, abolitionism, the war, etc. Ames never delivers the sermon in which he expresses these ideas, though, which is what differentiates him from his grandfather. He believes the things he expresses but cannot bring himself to bring pain to his congregation when they hear his words.
My grandfather seemed to me stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn't actually sleeping. He was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew...
Ames's grandfather is one of the novel's most memorable characters. His descriptions of the old man create an image of a restless, angry, passionate, eccentric, and energetic figure—one who sometimes stumbles into trouble but mostly creates it for himself. His cause is noble—abolition of slavery—but his methods are suspect. He preaches the young men of his congregation into war and seems to not care about the sacrifices that are made. He is so committed to the cause that he cannot be there for his own family, which sows sadness and resentment. His black-and-white ethical beliefs are also problematic, Ames notes. The "ashiness" Ames mentions here is mirrored in the thunderstorm scene in which Ames and the old man attend a baseball game in a wild storm. John Ames Sr. is identified with the untamed side of nature, whereas Ames is identified with its beautiful, serene side.
...over the years things happened in that family that caused some terrible regret. Still, for years it all seemed to me blindingly beautiful. And it was.
Ames seems almost perfect, but he does possess several "sins,” one of which he identifies as covetousness. In particular, he spends most of his life coveting Boughton's large and lovely family and the putative happiness they exhibit. His own wife and child having died, Ames spends the bulk of his adult life alone. He loves Boughton and his family but cannot help this very human impulse. However, he realizes later that what was occurring behind the scenes was terrible and painful, and learns a lesson from his covetousness. For readers, the lesson is also clear: every family has its sorrows, none being immune from the vicissitudes of human existence.
My father said that it was that banner that had sent him off to the Quakers. He had said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was "purifying," and the thought that those women could believe the world was any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him.
This passage asserts the profound difference between John Ames, Sr. and his son (Ames's father). The elder Ames believes that war is purifying, that the death of young men in the war will bring about redemption for slavery, that God is on the side of the Union, that bloodshed is the only strategy. The younger Ames is unconvinced; his interpretation of the Bible does not allow for war to be glorified. He objects to this passage of God being a "purifying fire" because it is unbiblical and legitimates violence rather than peace. He chides his father for preferring war to peace. This argument is just one of many between the two men, and exemplifies the difficulties fathers and sons have in this novel in understanding each other.
I don't forgive him. I wouldn't know where to start.
Ames vacillates between wanting to understand Jack and determining that he is "mean,” a threat to his family, and cannot be forgiven, as this quote reveals. Ames always had a problem with Jack ever since he was a child; he saw him as lonely and mischievous, and a disgrace to his loving family. He could not forgive him for abandoning the young woman and child, and for leaving town in shame. Now his return is equally frustrating to Ames, who sees him as a disruption and, as stated, a threat. Jack taxes Ames's patience and capacity for grace and sympathy; his presence causes Ames to reflect more deeply than he has in some time, and to learn a lesson about forgiveness and acceptance in his twilight days. Jack shows Ames that he still has much to learn.
In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence.
This is beautiful and profound assertion of how our own reality is all there is: we can never fully understand anyone else because we can never live another's life, only our own. There is a gulf, then, which means that it is difficult to forge meaningful relationships because of the inability for human beings to fully transcend their own centrality. This may seem rather bleak, but the point of it in the context of the novel is that Ames is realizing that he should not judge Jack and hold Jack to his own standards. He can never know what it is like to be Jack, to feel as Jack feels, to think as Jack thinks. Thus, he should not excoriate his behavior because he does not live Jack's reality.
...that was the first time in my life I ever felt I could be snatched out of my character, my calling, my reputation, as if they could fall away like a dry husk.
Ames's rectitude is one of the most salient parts of his character. He may be a bit stubborn and prideful, but he also displays an amazing wisdom, rationality, kindness, and morality. In this one sentence, though, in which he details his feelings about meeting Lila and falling in love with her, the reader gets a refreshingly open and honest look into his soul. He becomes a lot more relatable and accessible. He, too, is affected by lust; he, too, can imagine losing his faith because of the powerful feelings he has for another person. He does not dwell on these feelings too much, and indeed tells his son how appropriately he behaved until they were married, but this revelation is nonetheless an important glimpse at his very human side.
Jack Boughton has a wife and child.
This short, succinct sentence answers a great deal of questions and forms the climax of the novel. Jack reveals the story of his life and its sorrows over the last several years, answering Ames's and the reader's questions. Now that Ames knows the story, he can finally start to understand Jack and work through his antipathy towards the man. This revelation humanizes Jack, contextualizing his return to home, his behavior and his attitude, and his need to unburden himself to Ames. It allows us to have sympathy for this beleaguered man, providing nuance to a character that we have only seen through Ames's skeptical eyes. The grace we feel for him mirrors the grace God feels for all human beings, as Robinson asserts.
Gilead Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Gilead is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.