Ames walked along with his father, happy with the man’s quiet strength and their conversation about the miracles in the Bible.
His grandfather spoke of visions as well. He was part of the abolitionist cause, fiery and passionate—“a man everlastingly struck by lightning” and the “most unreposeful” (49) man Ames knew.
Ames muses on how thoughtful his wife is, and how pretty Lila is even though she does not think she is. His son is God’s grace to him, and something he never expected to have. He loves his existence, the sun on his hair, and the twinkle in his eye.
He thinks of Louisa as a child, running around in her braids and bonnet. He envies Boughton for getting to see his children grow older, for he will never get to experience that.
Ames knows he could have married again when he was younger but is grateful for whatever kept him waiting for Lila. She told him very seriously that he ought to marry her, and he did. He is trying to be wise in his letter, like a pastor and an old man ought to be. He thinks of the touch of a baby's brow against the palm of his hand and “how I have loved this life” (56). He often thinks of existence and the amazing and beautiful things in the world.
An old woman named Lacey Thrush died the night before, he writes, but it was fast and a kindness to him because he did not have to exert himself too much.
Ames relates a tale his grandfather told of an abolitionist settlement in these parts a long time ago. They had a dry-goods store on one side of the road and a livery stable on the other and started building a tunnel under the ground between the two. It was too large, though, and one day a horse and rider fell in. The man got out but the horse was stuck and unconscious. The fellow was offered a horse for trade and left. The settlement then thought about the horse still stuck in the hole. At that time a young Negro man had come to their settlement from the South, but laughed at them and decided to flee beyond. They wanted to help him but he did not need it, so they turned back to the horse. They then filled the tunnel, which eventually became like a creek.
Ames watches his son and Tobias play in the sprinkler, connecting it to old Baptist baptisms he would watch at the river. He remembers Edward coming back from Germany, and how his brother quoted Psalms to him as if to show him that he knew it but was not persuaded.
He also remembers how he used to be envious of Boughton’s lovely family of four girls and four boys, but soberly thinks how some regretful and terrible things happened to that family as well.
This morning he is trying to think of heaven but it is difficult. He admires how his mind, even though it contains deficiencies, has kept him intrigued all these years. He knows poetry and Scripture very well. His wife knew little when they first came together but now spends much time with the Bible and tells him she will rear their son in the faith well. She claims she will read all his sermons in the attic someday, and he hopes she will even though it will take a long time.
In the plain, old, and dark church Ames reflects on how he has loved his physical life. Through the hard times over the years—wars and Depression—he prayed there and felt peace. He enjoyed watching dawn come into the quiet sanctuary. The congregation will pull the church down after he dies, but he is pleased they are waiting for him before rebuilding.
At night he would walk around town. He knew people were up with problems but thought he’d be an intrusion so he did not interfere. The Boughtons were also troubled, but it was years before he knew what ailed them. He prayed for them to have peace.
Jack Boughton, Boughton’s eldest son whose full name is John Ames Boughton after his friend, called. This one boy has caused so much grief in the family, though he must be thirty or forty now. He is like the prodigal son, and Old Boughton is excited to see him.
Ames is mildly annoyed at his creeping affliction. He is not to climb stairs, and Lila wants to move his books into the parlor. He thinks, “it is actually hard for me to remember how mortal I am these days” (74); he must be more mindful, if not just to spare his wife the worry.
He returns to his story of his grandfather, who was in the Union Army as a chaplain. His father was born in Kansas because his grandfather came from Maine to help the Free Soilers. They moved to this house when he was young; his mother loved her kitchen.
Once Lila did not know she ought to not iron on Sundays, and now spends her time reading and learning. She goes to the public library a lot, and is reading The Trail of Lonesome Pine.
When he was a kid, Ames and other kids heard of a murder committed with a Bowie knife that was thrown into the river. Once his own father took him to throw his grandfathers’ things, including a pistol, into the river. First he’d tried to bury it, but then disgustedly threw it into the river. Before getting rid of them, his mother washed two old shirts of his grandfather’s, and then buried them.
Ames always thought his grandfather had done something terrible. He remembers a picture of him with wild hair, a crooked beard, and a ferocious stare. He expected his father was covering up something terrible the old man had done. Once, his father and grandfather had an argument (conducted stoically and civilly, of course): his grandfather indicated he was disappointed in his son’s sermon. His father, white and angry, commented that he knew his father had placed great hope in that war, but that the time with the pistol in his father’s belt clearly had nothing to do with Jesus. His grandfather defended his vision. Not long after, he left a note and was gone.
Ames learned his grandfather was involved in the violence in Kansas before the war, and that his own father never liked to speak of it. His own father hated war, and hated seeing his father head off to it. Ames’s father joined right at the end.
Glory, Boughton’s daughter, has come to announce that Jack is home and will come pay his respects soon. Ames thinks of how one of the other sons, Theodore, is a credit to the family but Jack is not.
When he was younger his father used to tell him stories. He told him how his grandfather’s preaching on the divine righteousness in death set the women weeping. He preached young men into war and the church was hit hard. He also went to war and then came back to stay with the congregation in the time of amputation, death, and despair. His grandfather would go down and watch the Methodists at their outdoor meetings by the river. He probably knew he could not “preach life back into a church that had lost as much as his had” (89). His main problem, as Ames sees it, was his “sort of strenuousness in ethical matters” (90). His experience may not have kept him see that the sun shines on all.
Jack came today. He is a lot like his father. His son was looking for Soapy, the cat, and was happy to meet Jack. It had been a perfect morning until Jack came. He is about the age of Ames’s wife.
He is a bit sad to see his son recognize the difference in age between himself and Jack. It is the first time his son sees him as old.
Once when he was a kid he helped his father pull down a burned and ruined church. He ate a biscuit that tasted of ash, which he will never forget and will always connect to that day. The women let their long hair down and mourned; it was sad and beautiful at the same time.
The first part of this section is Ames’s continued meditations on his life, his family, his experience of the sensory aspects of the world, his love for his wife and son, and his sweet sadness about leaving the world (the second part of this section is about the homecoming of Jack which will be dealt with in later analyses). Readers learn more about his grandfather, one of the most memorable characters in the book. The old man’s exterior—wild hair, crooked beard, one missing eye, a piercing stare with the other eye, emaciated frame—matches his interior, which Ames describes as angry, restless, and impassioned. He is involved with the violence in the Kansas territory before the war and helps John Brown in his radical abolitionist endeavors (see “Other” section of ClassicNote). Before the war he preaches the young men into fighting, and when he returns from being a chaplain in the Union Army, he cannot rebuild his broken and denuded congregation. Later in the novel Ames reflects on how nothing ever really went his grandfather’s way; he always had to struggle, always had to rage. His grandfather is a symbol of the contentiousness, passion, anger, and tumult of the antebellum era. The passions that rage within him and between him and his son point to the larger conflicts of the day. The difficulties Christians face when it comes to war and violence are made manifest here; while no one would disagree that a war to end the institution of slavery is just and right, the loss of even one precious life is profoundly disturbing. Ames’s father balks at violence being the tool used to bring about justice, and he laments his father’s focus on war rather than peace.
One of the aspects that critics most focus on is, of course, religion. Throughout the text Ames grapples with theological questions, and Robinson frequently alludes to the writings of other prominent religious figures, such as Jonathan Edwards, Anne Bradstreet, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. Critic Christopher Leise’s article on the novel engages with Robinson and religion, his central point being that “Gilead promotes the kind of aesthetic attention to the world that Ames exhibits in these digressions, as a vehicle to an experience of the divine in the immediate and the immanent: an experience that stops short of knowing through reason and is content with simply living in the experience of the miraculous in the everyday.” Ames has heightened perception of the world around him, which is colored by his understanding that he will soon be leaving said world; this, however, does not mean he is obsessed with the infinite but seems to want to save that for when he is dead and spend his time here and now focusing on the sheer pleasure of the world.
This is a repudiation of the Puritan tradition, Leise writes, because they had a brand of Calvinism that looked to the afterlife. Robinson has a new interpretation of Calvinism after Puritanism: “one that finds the beauty of the world not simply as an a fortiori argument for the beauty of God’s afterlife, but as an experience of the divine itself… Robinson places the humanist Calvin before the theological one.” Robinson does this through using the epistolary form of the great spiritual autobiographies that came before him, such as Augustine’s Confessions, but she “injects the much older form with a new purpose.”
The true Puritan is the first John Ames, grandfather to the narrator. He has a bleak and angry worldview, and is “defined almost as much by what he rejects as what he believes.” Ames does not espouse this. He departs from the Puritan way by not dwelling on shortcomings and suffering, by avoiding unnecessary anger and resentment (most of the time). He delights in this world and all of the sensory experiences it offers. Leise looks at he moment when he interrupts his father’s revelry with a kiss: “He decides that the elder man’s purely spiritual, abstract meditation is trumped by the rare beauty of the world about. By an act of touch, he brings his father back into the world and a more immediate spiritual experience.” He then does not have a “transcendent” moment or seek to connect his temporal experience with an infinite one; he just “re-presents the experience, the miracle of the sublime, of God made manifest in this world –never mind any higher ideas, and never mind the world beyond for just now.”
Overall, Ames emphasizes and delights in the incandescent, which is not about denying the transcendent but instead leaving heaven for heaven and focusing one’s attention and affection on the world around us.