Gilead Summary and Analysis of Pages 144-192


Ames and his son walk over to Boughton’s to return the magazine he borrowed with an interesting article about Americans and religion in it from several years back.

Ames acknowledges that two insidious notions about Christianity are that religion and religious experiences are illusions, or that religion is real and one’s participation in it is an illusion; he finds the latter more problematic.

He and Boughton discuss their thoughts on heaven. Jack comes and sits with them; it is the first time Ames has seen him since the Sunday service and it seems a little awkward. Glory comes by and Ames notes how happy she is. He realizes he may be too hard on Jack, for it is a good thing he came home to his family. He is ashamed.

Lila stops in to tell him dinner is ready, and sits down to join them for a bit, which she does not often do. He thinks about how she used to speak improperly and how he loved it, but once Boughton corrected her and he thinks she is insecure now. She used to say “it don’t matter.”

Jack asks Ames for his thoughts on predestination, which Ames admits frankly is one of his least favorite topics. He says that there are many attributes of God and humans do not understand all of them, but he does not like the word. Glory and Boughton are visibly annoyed by the conversation. Jack asks if some people will be born to evil lives and then go to hell, to which Ames responds that a person’s behavior tends to be consistent with his nature, but only his behavior is consistent. People can change if there is another factor involved. He says there are things he just does not understand and will not force a theory on a mystery.

His wife can see he is getting upset and speaks up, asking if people can’t change what the point of getting saved is. Jack smiles and mentions that his father and Ames should be interested in this question and he knows they have been to the Methodists’ tent meetings, but then he stops. Ames’s wife encourages him to continue. She says quietly that people can change, and everything can change. The conversation ends.

On the way home, his wife says Jack was just asking a question, and that maybe not everyone is comfortable with themselves. Ames understands this to be a rebuke. He does not like talking about the faith with people who have no sympathy for it. However, defensiveness is not ideal.

Sleep is elusive and grueling for Ames.

He knows there are bonds that oblige him to be tolerant and kind to Jack Boughton, and it hurts to bear witness against him. However, the story must be told. Ames begins and says when Jack was about twenty and in college he became involved with a young, very poor woman. She conceived a child but he never acknowledged it or provisioned it. At times Boughton, his wife, Glory, and even Ames went out to see it but he did not. They brought clothes and left money but the woman and the family were proud and spiteful. It was very hard on the Boughton family. When the child was three she cut her foot and died from an infection.

When his mother died Jack did not come home, perhaps because he wanted to spare his family. The baby had looked just like him. Now things seem fine, and Ames wonder what sort of reconciliation everyone worked out.

Ames found a couple of old sermons, one on forgiveness. People are forgiven, but they must also forgive as well. He remembers when he and Glory went out to see the young woman and the baby one time. They did not get close on account of the hostility, but watched the two play. The young woman was mean and mocking towards the child. Glory sadly said she understood nothing of the world. That sermon on forgiveness leads Ames to think of Jack, and he does not know how he would even begin to forgive the man.

Tobias and Ames’s son are playing and Jack comes over with his bat and glove. Ames sees that there is something on the man’s mind and goes to speak to him. Jack asks if he will be in his study at church tomorrow and Ames says he will be in the morning.

Ames believes that we must be in adulthood in Paradise, and that heaven is probably what Boughton suggested it was: “the best pleasure of this world” (166).

Ames wakes up and puts more care into his appearance, realizing there is a fine line between a gentleman and a codger; he wants to do right by his lovely young wife.

He is sleeping sitting up in a pew when young Boughton finds him. He is a bit embarrassed but glad that Jack allows him to collect himself. They have a few awkward starts to the conversation but Ames says they should try again. Jack tries to ask why he cannot believe the things his father says, and Ames does not know. He turns the conversation to what he had heard, that there was once a colored regiment in the area during the Civil War. Ames says there were once Negro families who lived in Gilead but they had since moved away.

Jack asks about Karl Barth and Ames is irritated. He also asks if Ames ever wonders why Christianity always seems to wait for thinking to be done elsewhere and Ames responds no, even though he has thought that himself. He thinks Jack is “winning” the conversation, but the young man does not seem happy about it.

Ames is frustrated and although he speaks of Barth’s wrongness, tears come to his eyes. Jack is profoundly sorry and sadly leaves. Ames is embarrassed and wonders if he ought to write Jack a letter.

He thinks of his grandfather again, whom he admits he did not really like to be around. The old man’s eye always seemed full of disappointment. He grew very eccentric as well, and Ames remembers one time when the mayor asked him, as a veteran and elderly member of the town, to speak for Fourth of July. The family was nervous. The speech was brief and bleak, and spoke of visions and Gilead as being a place of dust now. Not very many people seemed to be paying much attention.

Ames does not enjoy arguing with people over religion or furnishing “proofs,” and cautions his son not to look for them because they are “impertinent” and “are never sufficient to the question” (179).

It is strange to him to feel grief and illness in the same organ: his heart.

He hears his wife and Jack talking on the porch. Jack gives her a letter to give to him, which is short, and says he will not trouble him again. His wife looks sorry for both of them. Ames sends a note back with her saying he ought to be the one apologizing, but his health is bad and he hopes they can speak again soon.

He remembers Jack as a child, a child who loved pranks and causing mischief but always seemed so lonely. He even used to steal small things, but only things that mattered to the people from whom he stole. As a teenager his transgressions were a little more problematic but since his family was well respected he got away with them. Now Ames would describe him as lonely, as well as angry and weary. He feels like he can’t judge him like other men but finds him simply mean.

It is Ames’s birthday and he has candles in his pancakes. It is a sweet, lovely day. He is seventy-seven. The family goes on a birthday jaunt and Jack is not there. Glory makes an excuse for him.

Ames writes another note and takes it over to the mailbox himself. Jack is outside and comes up to him nervously. It does not seem like he read the first note, probably fearing a rebuke, and he is happy to hear Ames tell him it is a sincere apology. They agree to talk and Ames feels a weight off his chest.

He remembers how Boughton surprised him on the morning of Jack’s baptism as a baby by saying his name was to be John Ames instead of Theodore Dwight Weld. This was so emotional and unlike Boughton. Ames had felt strange and cold, and wondered if he had never been able to warm to the child and feels a burden of guilt about it.

Now, though, as he writes it out he realizes it is not true. John Ames Boughton is his son—he is “another self, a more cherished self” (189).

He still wonders about the feelings he has that Jack might harm his wife and son just because he can.

He feels now as if he had never been lost before, that his wanderings to the limits of his understanding are unmatched by what he is thinking now. His new bewilderments are new territory.


This is a difficult section, one that includes musings on theology, the painful and complicated backstory of Jack Boughton, and awkward and disappointing conversations between Ames and Jack as Ames tries to work through his feelings regarding the man.

Here Robinson engages with Calvin and idea with which he is most commonly associated—predestination—giving voice to her own beliefs about the faith. Critic Todd Shy looks at Robinson’s religion in his article on the novel and her book of essays, The Death of Adam. He notes how Robinson believes Calvin is the most important American religious influence we have, and that her view of this is “Calvinism stretched and molded to humanist purposes”; she most admires “the grandeur of his vision of what God intends for humanity. It is the ‘elegance’ and ‘gallantry’ of his moral vision, not his orthodox precision that she extols.”

Shy believes that Calvin might not approve of her “modern” approach to his theology, though, as she seeks to “shift attention away from the majestic heights of Calvin-style revelation to the local authenticity of the individual”, as seen in John Ames. Her writing is cognizant of modern priorities of social justice and “ethics to thrones formally occupied by less concrete debates.” John Ames is more concerned with wisdom and presence rather than metaphysics, and “apprehension rather than revelation.” Ames is rooted in the world, and what Robinson wants to stress most about him and Jack is their humanity. When Ames finally sees Jack as a sort of son, this is complete. Overall, then, Shy writes that the novel “embodies Christian humanism rather than Reformation faith.”

Jack’s backstory now being revealed, the reader must decide whether or not they find him a sympathetic character. As the narrative of his childhood and his treatment of the young woman and their child unfolds, it is clear that we are not supposed to be sure how exactly we feel. Jack’s actions with the young woman are reprehensible, but he was a young man who made a mistake and seems to have paid for it the rest of his life. As a child Jack was mischievous and a tad cruel, but he was also a lonely child who never quite fit in. His siblings went on to accomplishment and prosperity, but Jack could never quite make something of himself. When Ames reveals what is going on with Jack right now (see the final analysis) Jack gains our sympathy even more.

As for Ames, though, he is still working through his feelings for Jack. He does seem to have an epiphany toward the end of the section, however. He admits to his son that he had never felt close to the child, not even from the day of its baptism when his own name was bestowed upon it, and wondered that “the child felt how coldly I went about his christening, how far my thoughts were from blessing him…I do feel a burden of guilt toward that child, that man, my namesake. I have never been able to warm to him, never” (188). After he writes these thoughts down, he realizes they are not true, that he allowed his own jealousy and misery about his life to color his thoughts toward the child but that he certainly does not hate him and actually considers him “my son… By ‘my son’ I mean another self, a more cherished self” (189). This does not mean that Ames is fully ready to embrace Jack, especially since he does not know the true story of what is going on with him and mentions that if Jack ever hurt his family “I’m afraid theology would fail me” (190), but this is certainly progress.