The narrator is John Ames, speaking in first-person. He is writing his son a letter, which he hopes his son will read this when he is grown.
His parishioners often ask him about death, and now he is told that he is dying because his heart is failing. He regrets that he has nothing to leave his son, who is young right now, and his wife.
He thinks so many things are beautiful, such as watching people laugh. He appreciates jokes as much as anyone, but people don’t share that side of themselves with him because he is a minister.
He is keeping his condition a secret. He marvels at the things people tell him, though.
In his family, his mother’s father was a preacher, his father’s father was, and others beyond. He thinks he should have learned to control his temper from them.
His own father acted according to principles but was somewhat disappointing to him and others.
Religious vocations allow you to concentrate better, he muses.
Ames’s son is about seven years old and he came very late in his life. He is very serious, just like his mother. When he met Lila he saw the expression of fury and sadness in her eyes.
He, John Ames, was born in 1880 in Kansas, and is now seventy-six and has spent seventy-four of those years in Gilead, Iowa. When he was twelve, his father took him to his grandfather’s grave. The man had been born in Maine and then went to Kansas and died there. Ames’s father had tried to find his father and finally learned where he had gone and died. This was 1892, and Ames and his father traveled there. The journey was tough since there was a drought, and they often did not have enough food. A countrywoman helped them on their journey, and they found the grave. It was a lonely gravesite. At one point Ames realized he’d accidentally walked on graves, and felt sick and guilty. He and his father spent some time there and tidied up the grave, and watched the moon rise as the sun set. This was a great adventure. Looking back, Ames see how young and vigorous his father was, just like himself until recently.
Ames married a girl named Louisa when he was young, but she died giving birth to their daughter Rebecca (Angeline). His friend Boughton baptized her.
Boughton is his closest friend and neighbor. He is younger than Ames but looks older. His daughter Glory is home after a failed marriage. Her brother Jack may be coming home soon too.
Ames writes his sermons word for word and they are all in boxes in the closet; this is his life’s work. Writing has always felt like praying to him. Lila is proud of his work and the books, which number 225.
He thinks of when he met Lila. She came into church one day and watched him very seriously. One day there was a baptism and she watched in “stern amazement” (21), then asked Ames to baptize her himself.
When Ames was a child he baptized a litter of kittens with Louisa, his future first wife. He remembers “how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand” (23) and would wonder for years “what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them” (23).
Ames likes what the famous atheist Feuerbach says about the purity of water, and that he does not dislike him as much as others like Boughton do.
He mentions Edward, his older brother, who went off to study at the university in Gottingen. He was very educated, cosmopolitan, and published a book on Feuerbach. He had been sent by the church to be a great preacher, but he came back an atheist. He got married and taught college. He fought with his father over religion, but Ames always respected his brother. Edward gave him a few books and a little painting of a marketplace that currently hangs in his house. He will leave the books to his son.
He ruminates how he is always inclined to use the word “just” and also overuses the word “old,” which seems to be rooted more in affection than age.
He visits Boughton, who is sad thinking about his deceased wife. Glory mentions Jack’s homecoming. Ames notes that Boughton says things he shouldn’t now that he is old and uncomfortable.
Ames tells his son he is sorry he is alone all the time, and that he sees that he is a serious child. He is like his mother, who is an unlikely wife of a preacher. He likes that she seems at home in the world, even for this short time.
He has understood what a sort of holy poverty meant. His grandfather left them with nothing. That man was perceptive and intense, lacking in patience and afire with certainty and confidence. He was selfless and gave things away all the time. He was a bit unbalanced but could see through everyone and everything. His eccentricity was prominent, but it also concealed his anger. Both his father and grandfather had a repressed sort of anger they occasionally directed toward each other.
Ames’s father found his own father after the war and was shocked that he’d been wounded. The old man claimed he would find the blessing in it. He was a terribly lonely old man, which may have been the reason why he went to Kansas; the fire at the Negro church also prompted this.
Ames is happy his son has a friend named Tobias.
He reflects on his childhood and his friendship with Boughton and their adventures. Now Boughton is very old and wizened.
When he was young Ames was tall and larger than most. People always thought he was older than he was and expected a lot of him. He is no saint, though, and feels as if his reputation for wisdom is outsized. His flock has made his reputation. He has never wanted comfort from anyone but Boughton.
He thinks about the boxes again, and how if he had time he’d read his whole life of innermost thoughts. He ought to burn them or someone else will, which is sad. The boxes are the record of his life.
One sermon is not in there –a sermon he wrote in response to people asking how influenza could kill so many people at the same time as the Great War. His sermon concerned how the disease killed these young men before they could go off and kill other young men abroad, and this was a good thing since it saved them from ignorance and cruelty. His courage failed, though, and he did not give the sermon. He is proud of it, however, and would answer for it in heaven. That time was hard, and he remembers the death and preaching with a scarf around his mouth. The plague was a sign and people ought to have seen its meaning. War has been continuous since then.
His lonely dark time was most of his life. Time was strange. There was baseball, though, which he loved. One time his grandfather took him to go see Bud Fowler play in Des Moines. That day a thunderstorm raged and the young Ames thought it was God acknowledging his grandfather. The two shared licorice. When his grandfather was younger, he and John Brown were friends. Not long after the baseball trip, his grandfather took off for Kansas; perhaps that day was when Kansas transformed from “memory to intention” (47).
What is apparent immediately after picking up Gilead is Robinson’s style, which may take a little time to get used to. She writes in a slow, languid prose, the mood created a serene and placid one. She has no chapter breaks, preferring to write in almost a diarist form—the overall structure is that of a letter—with some of the entries only a paragraph, others stretching on for several pages. Stories are woven throughout the novel, mentioned and then dropped and picked up again later on. Chronology, then, can be difficult to follow; this is Robinson’s very authentic way of presenting the end-of-life meditations of an old man who wishes to leave his son a record of his history, thoughts, and beliefs but does so in an occasionally rambling, digressive, or spontaneous fashion. Another notable element of the novel is the vacillation between small, sweet moments of little import to the actual “narrative” (such as watching his son swing) and the moments that are larger and more impactful and help propel the narrative forward. And in terms of that word “narrative”, the novel’s central conflict is actually rather muted. It is more of a collection of vignettes and musings and personal histories rather than a novel with a singular conflict and the systematic stages of plot development. Overall, Robinson creates a lovely, contemplative, and lingering work, one that requires us to approach it in a different fashion than we might expect.
In this first section of the book Ames’s character begins to unfold. He is the son and grandson of a preacher, and has his own Congregationalist church. He has a young wife and son but is currently dying of heart troubles although he has a bit of trouble coming to terms with that since he generally feels okay in the beginning. However, he is acutely aware of the passage of time and its effects on himself and his friend Boughton, whose obvious worsening health strikes him.
His own imminent death does not seem to anger him; in fact, Ames is a remarkable character in his softness of spirit, in his resignation and acceptance, in his gravitas and wisdom. Even when he talks of the terrible things that have happened to him, such as the death of his first wife and child and the subsequent dark years of his life, he maintains equanimity of temperament and the ability to delight in the pleasures of the world. Similarly, his acknowledgement that he is dying is never hysterical or histrionic; instead it is accepting. Most of Ames’s time is spent thinking and writing rather than doing, which is a reflection of his ill health and old age, but the reader still gets the impression that he is a man still engaged with the world.
Much of the novel is Ames grappling with his family history, particularly his relationships with his grandfather and father, and their relationship with each other. While both men were preachers, they were very different in temperament and their understanding of the faith. Ames’s father’s complicated history with his own father is indicated early on when he and Ames look for and find the gravesite, which is in Kansas because the old man left the family to return to the scene of his earlier exploits during the antebellum and Civil War eras. There is a great deal of pain in these pages, as family members hurt, disappoint, vex, and confuse each other. Ames writes that his own father disappointed him sometimes. He also has an interesting relationship with his brother Edward, an atheist and scholar whom Ames admired but occasionally felt misunderstood by. Edward and his father also had a tempestuous relationship, to which Ames alludes a few times.
Not just family history but the history of America lingers in the penumbras of the narrative. The antebellum era with its violence and abolitionism, the Civil War, racism and postwar experiences of African Americans, WWI, the Spanish Influenza, WWII, and the Eisenhower age—all are the backdrop upon which the intimate dramas of Ames’s life play out. This is a very American book, with American history, American religion, the American landscape all shaping the people and events of the novel.