Gilead Summary and Analysis of Pages 96-144


Ames will never forget burying the burned Bibles, the sounds of the singing, the women holding Bible studies as the church fell into ruin around them.

His grandfather’s right eye was missing, and the family always felt like the visions came from that side. One time he saw local kids making fun of his grandfather and was completely surprised. It hurt him and the family when the old man left.

The day Ames’s father returned home from the army he saw a piece of needlework put up in the church that said, “The Lord Our God is a Purifying Fire”. He was shocked and questioned the women, telling them that that was not from the Bible.

That congregation whittled away, the Methodists bought the land, and the church was torn down.

Ames’s father knew his own father had “preached his people into the war” (101).

Ames comes home and sees his son playing catch with Jack Boughton, which he finds very beautiful to watch.

He is trying to make the best of this situation, he writes, and trying to tell his son things he would have told him if he got to bring him up. He wants to impart the things that are important but it is hard to tell. The taste of the ash on the biscuit seems to be important because of the context of the drought and the rain and the women with their hair down and the singing. It seems like it was a communion of sorts, and when he gave his own son some bread he did it in the way his memory made his father do it.

He wonders if the memory of sorrow will last after death; sorrow “seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life” (104).

He tells his son a few more stories he heard from his childhood. One is the time when his father woke up in the middle of the night and saw John Brown’s mule coming out of his father’s church and other men all riding away. His father rode away too. He went into the church and cleaned up after the horses and scrubbed down a bloodstain. He left and came back and then saw a U.S. Army man sitting there. The man tried to talk to him but he did not know much. He realized the man was shot and his father may have done it. The soldier left. When his father came home he told him that John Brown and the others were fleeing, and he was coming home with a gun and bloody shirts, and shot at a soldier. He told his son this was life and death business and he ought to never say anything. Ames’s father always regretted not looking for the soldier.

Ames thinks about his church, wishing he could make the improvements to it himself. His grandfather gave the weather vane on the steeple to his father. It is a rooster with a bullet hole at the base of its tail feathers, which he heard came from his grandfather shooting his rifle in the air to call the meeting to order.

A waltz comes on the radio and Ames decides he wants to dance to it. He realizes how much he will miss the world. He plans to waltz in the study, and grabs a book to hold if he starts to feel strange pain and collapses while dancing; perhaps that book will gain significance by being clasped in his dying hand. He realizes this is theatrical.

He visits Boughton, who is in good spirits. They talk of baseball and memories. Lila is upset because she did not know where he was, and fears he may just drop dead somewhere.

Ames thinks of Boughton’s somber parents, and of Boughton himself, whom he will always picture as a vibrant young man.

Ames starts the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which his wife was reading. It is about a young woman who falls in love with an older man. He is going to preach on the story of Hagar and Ishmael, and reflects on how we send our children into the wilderness.

Young Boughton comes by and plays catch with his son.

Ames reflects on light within light being a metaphor for the human soul –“the singular light within the great general light of existence” (119).

Jack Boughton comes by and talks of baseball. Ames is annoyed with his preacherly voice, which he says the man did nothing to earn. It irritates him to see Boughton and his son together.

He wonders what he ought to tell his wife about Jack’s story. He considers him such a disruption, and sees how much his son admires him. He tries to be a bit more cordial but it does not always work. He must be more gracious, he decides, but his first impulse is to warn his son and his wife.

The last few nights have been very difficult for him –trouble breathing and discomfort. His wife is taking it hard. She sends his son away to stay with neighbors and brings all of Ames’s writing materials and books into the parlor.

More of his books are moved into the parlor along with his desk and chair and the television. He realizes young Boughton must have helped, but he is not too upset; he is too old to carry anger like that anymore.

On Sunday he gives his Hagar and Ishmael sermon. He sees Jack in the service. He is speaking and trying to answer the question of why God would ask Abraham to do cruel things. He is annoyed at young Boughton smiling in the congregation and thinks of how he does not listen to the meaning of words, only enough to decide if they are hostile or not. Lila looks anxious. He wonders if she thinks this sermon is for her, or for Jack Boughton. Maybe others in the crowd would too, and he nervously hopes something good may come of it.

He finishes his book. It worries him for a bit because the young woman meets a man her age and people remake on how well suited they are for each other, but she loves the old man forever.

Ames begins to reflect on the Ten Commandments, wondering about the order in which they appear. Perhaps they are in order of importance, or grouped by kinds of law. He sees the Fifth Commandment about honoring thy father and mother as belonging in the group of “right type of worship.”

He muses on the sweet, serious sadness of his wife’s past, which he does not know anything about. He dismisses the idea that Christians worship sorrow, but says they do see the sacred mystery in it. Valuing suffering itself is bad, but God takes the side of the sufferers.

Lila does not often talk about herself. She is distant, and thus people are distant with her.

Over the years he helped people with many things, so if they ever give his son money, he ought to think of it as repayment, not charity.

He wonders what he ought to tell his wife, and dreads it. He knows he is worried about Jack inserting himself in his family once he is gone. They even look like a handsome young family, and old feelings of covetousness arise.

He does not want to be old and he does not want to die. He doesn’t want to be a shaky old man in the eyes of his son. He feels as if he is failing, and as if he is being left out.


More of Ames’s family history comes to light in this section. His grandfather was certainly in league with John Brown, and his father had difficulty coming to terms with the violent and lawless actions his father took. His father firmly objects to the tapestry placed in the church because it is not from the Bible in that it suggests that God will use violence and pain to sweep away sin and transgression. Ames seems to be somewhere in between his grandfather and father, but closer to his father. He has a passion and conviction, but he does not advocate violence. He does not have visions of his own but firmly believes that the things that have happened in the 20th century –the Depression, the Spanish flu –are signs from God. Like his grandfather he dwells more in the sublunary, but he is more cerebral, more contemplative, more rational.

As a character in this novel, Lila remains somewhat mysterious (Robinson does tell her story in one of her other novels, Lila). Even Ames does not know her full history, but does not seem compelled to press her to reveal anything she does not want to reveal. She is characterized mostly by her seriousness and sadness, as well as her love for Ames and her son. She is uneducated and did not know very much about religion when she first came to Ames’s church. Clearly something traumatic happened in her past, but she has now found peace and stability in her life here. It is unclear if she truly loves Ames, but she loves her life with him.

Ames continues to reflect on his past, but now there is something more pressing occupying his mind on a daily basis –the return of Jack Boughton, son of Boughton and Ames’s namesake. At this point readers are not familiar with what happened in Jack’s past to make Ames dislike him, or what sort of life the man leads now. All we know is that Ames has a discernible antipathy towards him, and has trouble controlling his thoughts. He vacillates between referring to Jack as a “disruption” and wanting to warn his wife and son, and deciding he ought to be more cordial and realizing that being angry at him in not important.

He delivers a sermon about Hagar and Ishmael in which he discusses children as “victims of rejection or violence” (130), and since Jack is in the congregation, “white as a sheet, and grinning” (130), his emotions run high and he is unable to focus fully on what he is doing. Later in the novel, when we learn that Jack had an illegitimate child whom he abandoned in his youth, and currently has a son whom he cannot fully provide for, this sermon’s impact on the man and the reasons why Ames is so distressed and why he spends time wondering whether or not his parishioners think this sermon was specifically for Jack become a lot more important.

Finally, this section provides a bit more nuance to Ames’s character, which, while still quite soft and kind and wise in an almost unbelievable way, contains more human characteristics than initially indicated. First, Ames’s frustration and vacillation regarding Jack is relatable and representative of his capacity to feel angry and annoyed. Second, he exhibits a moment of pride and arrogance when he writes that if he falls down while waltzing and has a particular book in his hand, “it would have an especial recommendation from being found in my hands” (115). He does acknowledge that it would be “theatrical” but it is an important moment nonetheless. Finally, he does reveal some of his weariness and despair over aging and dying, writing, “I really feel as though I’m failing, and not primarily in the medical sense. And I feel as if I am being left out, as though I’m some straggler and people can’t quite remember to stay back for me” (142). This is a brutally sad confession, and one that makes the normally cerebral and holy Ames much more relatable.