One quiet night, Ames joins his wife and son on the porch. It is a pleasant evening. Jack walks by in the dark and Ames’s wife joins them. Ames says he is a great comfort here to his father. Lila takes his son inside to bed. Ames says he is impressed Jack knows Karl Barth and Jacks laughs and says he tries to crack the code but Ames would be wary of his motives.
Lila comes out with cider and sits. Ames feels like Jack is a son returned home to peace. He reflects that everyone has “a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations” (197).
Ames appears to have nodded off but he was still awake. Jack and Lila talk quietly, comfortably. He says he is restless and will probably be going back to St. Louis. She said it took awhile to get comfortable here but he replies that the opposite is the problem: it is like returning to the scene of the crime. She says people speak highly of him and he wonders if Ames warned her. She says Ames never speaks unkindly of him. He says he was always wary of a settled life and she says it was all she ever wanted.
Ames lies awake and thinks of this. He is amazed Jack is so surprised that Ames did not warn Lila, like he’d been negligent. He wishes he could smooth Jack’s brow and calm away guilt and regret to see what he is dealing with, but this is not theologically acceptable.
He starts to feel a little guilty that he is not speaking to his son as much in these words as writing out what he is struggling with.
He tells the story of his relationship with Lila. She came to church one day and he noticed her and hoped she would come back. He did not know if she was married and she looked young, so he could not admit his feelings. For the first time in his life he “felt I could be snatched out of my character, my calling, my reputation, as if they could just fall away like a dry husk” (205).
He began to look for her on Sundays and hoped his sermons would impress and please her. One Sunday she was not there, and he felt so dull, so terrible, and so sad. He missed her like she was the only friend he had. She returned the following Sunday. Boughton smiled at his attempts to look more polished. She came to him and asked him to baptize her and he agreed. They spent time learning the doctrines of the faith and he baptized her. He was always aware of her youth and never behaved in an untoward fashion. He wished he did not have to be secretive and decorous.
The women would come to his house and perform small tasks, and one day Lila came. He asked how he could repay her and she said he ought to marry her. He did.
Glory comes over and takes Lila and his son to the movies. She has Boughton with her, which is odd since he rarely leaves the house. He sits quietly with Ames and they listen to the radio. He suddenly says Jack is not right with himself yet, and he does not know what was going on with his life. Ames privately thinks he ought to speak with Lila.
Jack comes to Ames’s house and seems surprised to see his father there. He sits with them. He seems aware of the conversation’s tenor and has a perceptive smile. Boughton nods off. Ames is frustrated he has to seem dishonest about what they were talking about, and their conversation is forced.
Later Ames prays, struck by Jack’s sadness.
Ames suddenly and succinctly writes, “Jack Boughton has a wife and a child” (217), and begins to tell what happened. Jack came by when he was at the church sorting papers. He looked a little unkempt but had shaved, and Ames admitted he was interested to see him. They sit and talk. Jack says he was surprised to come home and find his father so old, and that he cannot tell him what is going on. He pulls put a photograph of himself with an African American woman and a young boy –it is his family.
He explains that it was difficult for the woman’s family. They are married in the eyes of God but not officially. Her father is a minister and does not want them to marry. They spend time apart because she and the boy often go back to Tennessee to be with her family, which pains him. He says that the father does not like him because he is an atheist, to which Ames asks if that is true. Jack says he is “in a state of categorical unbelief” (220) rather than anything else.
He has not had word from his wife since he left St. Louis and is waiting to hear from her. He tells the story of how they met. She was a teacher and was walking home in a rainstorm and dropped her papers, and he stopped to help her and she said thank you Reverend. He pauses and says that if they could find a way to live he thinks she would marry him.
Della, the young woman, was always nice to him and invited him over to have tea with her and her roommate. He told her he was not a reverend. They had Thanksgiving dinner together as well. She was mad that he had been drinking but was kind to him. They behaved respectably but her sister got wind and came out from Tennessee to watch over her. When the school year was over her brothers came and took her home. He went to the church where her father preached to find her. His white skin made him stand out and her father insisted if he were an honorable man he would leave her alone. He decided to do that because he saw how good her life was.
In the fall they ran into each other and he tipped her hat to her and she burst into tears; this was when they considered themselves married. Della became pregnant and the school dismissed her. Jack could barely provide for her so her father and brother convinced him to let her go and stay with them. He was relieved because he felt terrible that he could not provide for her. He said he’d come to Memphis when he could save up enough money. He had to write to his father to get enough to pay off debts.
He finally went to her and the baby had been born the day before. He spoke with Della’s father, who thought he was descended from John Ames, the great abolitionist. Jack let this pass since he thought it might help him. He sat with Della but knew he had to go find a job. He left her and went to find work in St. Louis.
Now Della and their son, Robert Boughton Miles, go back and forth. He is lovely boy and wants for nothing. Jack has had difficulty with work and things continue to go poorly for him. He loves his bright and beautiful son, who wants to be a preacher. He wishes he could introduce him to his own father but thinks it might kill the old man.
He notes that Ames has made an unconventional marriage himself—alluding to Lila’s age—which annoys Ames, but then Jack immediately looks weary and regretful.
Before he leaves, downhearted and tired, he rests his head on Ames’s shoulder for a moment. Ames feels the loneliness and that he ought to be like a second father to the boy. He tells him he is a good man. Jack asks hopefully if he might live here with his wife to avoid the anti-miscegenation laws of other places. Ames says he does not know about people here. Jack says sadly it does not matter because he has lost them anyway. He leaves. Ames prays, wondering why he wrote this all out for his son but then concluding, “he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him” (232).
Ames reflects on the tragedies of his lifetime, such as war and Depression, and wishes people would think about what the Lord wants them to understand.
He writes of his father and mother who lived near the Gulf Coast in a cottage Edward built for them. They only came back twice to visit, once when Louisa was lost and once to talk him into leaving. He never wanted to even though his father and Edward wanted him to have broader life experience. He felt that he was not a fool and resented that he was not assumed to be able to invest his loyalties where he saw fit.
Ames goes to Jack and tries to give him a bit of money, but this seems to offend. He says he got the letter he was waiting for and is leaving. Glory is angry and Boughton is miserable. Ames thinks about the situation, knowing that all the other successful children will be coming home and filling the house to be with their father and grandfather in his time of passing. He knows that Boughton would abandon them all for that one lonely son, extravagantly giving him love. He wishes he could see that happen. Ames understands why Jack cannot be around all that.
He says goodbye to him before he goes and notes that he looks older than young, but also elegant and brave. He gives him a book and preaches at him a bit. They walk and Ames tells him he understands why he is leaving. He allows Ames to give him a little bit of money. Ames says he would like to bless Jack, and Jack agrees. He puts his hand on Jack’s head and blesses him, and Jack looks as if he does not believe the things Ames says. They say goodbye.
Ames rests inside the quiet church and thinks about how Jack invested hope in coming here but then had to relinquish it.
Boughton’s family is all in town but not the son he wants most. Ames wishes he could tell him of the benediction but knows he cannot. He sees his friend is almost gone from this mortal world and he wishes he could help resolve part of the “great mystery” (243) for him. He tells his sleeping friend that he blessed his boy, can feel the weight of his brow, and that he loves him as much as Boughton always meant him to.
He thinks he ought to have his old sermons burned.
The beauty of the prairie astounds him, and its lack of adornment seems Christ-like. He loves this town, and dying here would be “the last wild gesture of love” (247).
He prays his son will “grow up a brave man in a brave country” (247). Now he will pray, and then sleep.
The novel ends in a manner that befits its general content, style, and themes: it is a quiet, soft, and sweet end in which Ames thinks of his son growing up without him, and then that he must pray and rest. This end is anticlimactic in the sense that Ames does not die, as some readers may have expected, or feature Ames’s son picking up the narrative. There is very little closure at all –no closure regarding Ames’s death, Boughton’s death, and what will happen to Jack Boughton in terms of his reunion with his family and answers to questions such as his ability to provide for them and live with them. However, this is appropriate given the overall structure of the narrative, as Ames tells a meandering yet thoughtful story of his life, current preoccupations, and advice for his son without much organization or hierarchy.
Ames’s letter to his son his major way of working through the problematic father-son relationships he has experienced in his life. He is able to do this because he is at the end of his life; his dying, as critic Laura E. Tanner asserts in her insightful article on the novel, “shapes the sensory and psychological dynamics of human perception.” In his memory, moments of interaction between father and son “mark the intermingling of emotion and perception”; the moment with the biscuit and ash is particularly important, for “the spiritual significance of the moment remains inextricable from its emotional and perceptual immediacy.” Emotion and sensation are tied together indelibly.
Throughout the novel Ames grapples with the “anticipated loss” through his focus and his powers of perception. He may feel a degree of comfort that he will have an afterlife, but this heightens his sense of an anticipated absence because it will be as if he is looking on from beyond the grave.
Ames turns his attention to the immediate, to the temporal, to the physical. Tanner references studies done by scientists that suggest how age changes a person’s perception of time in that we “realize time has the dimension of depth as well as duration” (Tanner quoting Berg and Gadow). People of advanced age tend to have more intense perception and “the biology of aging and/or the knowledge of limited time contribute to increased focus and heightened awareness; the intensity of each act of perception emerges as a compensation for the diminished ability or opportunity to perceive.”
Ames’s advanced age means that he is now an observer rather than an active participant in life. Death has bracketed his life and it is impossible for him not to be conscious as well as self-conscious about everything that happens to him and around him. He feels he is vanishing from the world, or at least only occupying it “contingently.” Tanner writes that experience now is a “series of distant perceptions that reflect the aging subject’s liminal location in a culture of autonomy.” He feels as if his relationship with time and space is “unraveling” and he is being dispossessed. This is seen when he admires the young family created by his wife, son, and Jack. It is also seen when Lila tells their son that he cannot hear them. The most telling example of this absence is when Lila and Jack talk on the porch while Ames putatively slumbers next to them. He is present but also is not, and is more of a “pleasureless voyeur granted invisibility by the process of disincarnation that accompanies illness and old age.” Even though nothing inappropriate happens, it is still a melancholy and embarrassing moment for Ames. Overall, Tanner suggests “For Ames, the anticipation of his own absence renders him incapable of dwelling in the present with ease.” His present is full of grief and loss even if they have not actually happened yet.
While the novel is interlaced with grief, the acceptance Ames is finally able to offer Jack is a joyful factor. Although readers may have more ease in appreciating Jack’s situation and his essential humanity, the fact that Ames does get there eventually is notable. It is a comfort for Jack to have Ames know his true story, to bless him, and to understand why he must leave. Robinson’s book, so rooted in the lived experience of human beings, asserts that compassion, understanding, and love are what we must offer to our fellow creatures in order to alleviate the suffering that is a concomitant of this mortal existence.