There are many father and son relationships in this novel: Ames's father and his grandfather; Ames and his father; Ames and his son; Boughton and his son; and Ames and Jack Boughton, a variation on the father-and-son relationship. Most of these relationships are fraught, filled with tension, misunderstanding, frustration, and occasionally antipathy. Some of them are healthier than others; some put their problems front and center, while others repress their true feelings for the sake of harmony. There often seems an impassable gulf between the men, although there is indeed affection and love. Ames's quasi father-son relationship with Jack occupies a central place in the novel, as he will not be able to have an adult relationship with his own son. Ames works through his feelings with Jack and comes to learn a great deal about himself as well.
Old Age and Dying
Ames's letter to his son is also a meditation on old age and dying. Ames's perception of the world is colored by the fact that he knows his time here is almost over. He focuses on the world and the people around him, delighting in their beauty but realizing that his absence is imminent, and in some respects is already starting. Old age and dying are complicated in that they encourage reflection, wisdom, patience, and grace, but all of this perspicacity is coming at a time when it is not going to be relevant very soon. Ames's awareness that he has an afterlife helps mitigate his sorrow, but it is still there below the surface.
Ames understands the virtues of forgiveness very well, but it takes him a long time to be able to proffer it to Jack Boughton, whom he views only as a disruption, as a source of pain to his friend, as a potential threat to his own family. He struggles to extend forgiveness to this young man who plagued him as a child and still seems to possess meanness. However, as the novel progresses, Ames does begin to focus on the man's weariness, anger, and loneliness as he endeavors to understand Jack and his own thoughts towards Jack. It is not until he learns Jack's true history in terms of his wife and child that he is able to offer true forgiveness and compassion; he then is a source of comfort to Jack as he tries to navigate his situation and do what is best for himself and his family. Other characters have their own issues with forgiveness; Ames's father cannot forgive his own father, whereas Boughton can easily forgive his beloved Jack.
Sin and Redemption
Many of the characters in this novel are deeply flawed but Robinson depicts them with compassion and grace. The eccentric and impassioned John Ames, Sr.; the melancholy Lila with her mysterious past; the troubled and lonely Jack Boughton; and Ames himself, who, while generally rather saintly and sweet, still reveals moments of pride, judgment, despair, and stubbornness. All of these characters are dealt with fairly, however; the novel encourages us to recognize their humanity, to see that our sins and flaws do not fully define us, that we can achieve redemption at any time. Even Jack, whose life has arguably been full of mistakes and who has caused much pain to others, earns our sympathy and understanding by the end of the novel.
Grief and Sorrow
There are beautiful moments in this novel, and moments of joy, delight, and love. However, the main tone of the novel is one of a sweet sadness, a tone of grief and sorrow. It is not heavy-handed or overwhelming, but rather subtly pervasive. Ames's imminent death, his sense that he being erased while still alive, his awareness that he is not going to get to see his son grown up, his meditations on his complicated family history, and his coming to terms with his fraught relationship with Jack Boughton are all sources of grief for Ames. Furthermore, he meditates on the role of sorrow in Christianity, noting that it is a mainstay of human life but that God identifies with the sufferer.
The Pleasures of the World
Despite the sorrows of his life, Ames maintains a fervent and deep appreciation for the pleasures of the world. He delights in people telling jokes, lovers, fireflies, drops of water, his son on the swing and in the sprinklers, his wife's face, the prairie, and more. While he knows there is an afterlife and he will be there soon, he does not dwell on that; rather, he is fully present here on earth, fully open to the miracles of God's sublunary creation. The novel teaches it readers to pause, to marvel, to reflect, to appreciate. Robinson is keen to express her belief that this is not contrary to Christianity in the sense that God wants us to contemplate and derive pleasure from our world.
Robinson is an avowed Calvinist in the sense that Calvin is a religious figure whom she admires and touts as a crucial influence in the development of American religion. However, her brand of Calvinism is not that of the Puritans, who embraced a strict and punitive God, eternity rather than the present, and a limited range of ethical views; instead, she embraces the humanist Calvin whose writing indicates that it is fully appropriate to focus on the immediate and the immanent rather than the transcendent. Her Calvinism is softer, more modern, but still cognizant that God has a grand vision for human beings.
Gilead Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Gilead is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.