Marilynne Robinson (USA, 1943)
Housekeeping (1980) +
Gilead (2004) is a letter written by a dying man to his child, who
will never see him as an adult. The letter is a puzzle of notes on various
subjects that slowly compose the story of the family and at the same time
slowly reveal the old man's view of life. The story is
multi-generational: the writer writes for his son but tells him stories
about his grandfather that he heard from his own father.
Therefore the narrative keeps shifting from the present to a distant past.
It is ultimately a pretext for a series of philosophical meditations on
religion, forgiveness, and death.
History is also very much a protagonist, as we swing from the
Civil War to the segregationist era via wars, droughts and plagues, all
events that affect the decaying town and constitute the backdrop to more
universal stories of love, betrayal, loyalty and faith.
The novel is a letter written in the 1950s by a dying preacher to his son.
He writes it knowing that his son, now a child, will only read it as an adult
man, many years later.
The preachers comes from a family of preachers. He regrets that he is leaving
no money to his son and his wife.
The preacher, John Ames, is 76 years old and has lived most of his life in the
town of Gilead. By the time he was a teenager, his grandfather had died an
itinerant preacher. His father took him with him to a distant town to find
the grave. They found it in a sad place, devastated by the drought, and they
did their best to make the graveyard look better. That was a great adventure
that lasted almost a month.
The preacher was married a young man to a woman who died in childbirth and the child died with her. He then married his second wife, the mother of the son to whom he's writing this letter.
They were married by reverend Boughton, who is now old and incapacitated,
and assisted by his daughter Glory. They are anxious about Jack, who has disappeared. We are not old who Jack is.
The preacher's wife is proud of all the books that he has read and all the
sermons that he has written. He has boxes and boxes of sermons, 50 years of sermons.
The preacher's older brother, Edward, studied in Germany and, after several
years, returned having become an atheist.
The preacher's grandfather was an eccentric man who fought and got wounded in
the Civil War, and who liked to give away things. He left his hometown because he was lonely and because of a fire at the
negro church. We are not old anything about this fire.
The preacher interrupts his memoirs to mention that his son is playing with
another boy, Tobias.
He mentions one sermon that he never had the courage to give: a sermon about
the Spanish Flu that killed so many soldiers abroad. He thought the flu was
a sign, but realized that his sermon would not have pleased his audience,
and so he burned it, but he still thinks that the flu was a sign and that
it was wrong to ignore it.
When he and his father found his grandfather's grave, an eclipse took place (the Moon and the Sun perfectly aligned).
The preacher regrets that he will never see his wife grow old and never see
his child grow up. He envies his friend
Boughton, who had a more traditional family and now even has grandchildren.
He interrupts again the recollections to mention something about the present:
his friend Lacey died, a maiden lady whose family moved to California.
Then he returns to his grandfather, and tells a story of when his grandfather
lived in an abolitionist settlement and tried to build a tunnel that comically
He interrupts the recollection again to mention that Tobias' father just came
to complain that the children used inappropriate language.
At the same time we learn that Boughton has finally heard from Jack, his
prodigal son. "Jack" stands for "John Ames": Boughton named him after his
friend the preacher who is writing this letter.
The preacher knows that the village is planning to destroy his church: they
are just waiting for him to die.
The doctor told him to be careful getting up from a chair and not to climb stairs: his heart is too weak.
The grandfather was from Maine but moved to Kansas in order to help the
abolitionist cause. He even joined the Union Army to fight against slavery
and to the end he preached with a gun in his belt.
When he died, his son (the writer's father) found the gun and buried it and
then threw it in the river.
The gun was a memory of the fights they had, one believing in using guns to
right the wrongs and the other one being a steadfast pacifist.
Grandfather left their home for Kansas after one of their fights over the role of violence.
Grandfather was a member of the guerrilla groups that set Kansas on fire before the Civil War.
Grandfather lost an eye in the Civil War and preached the young men of his
congregation into the war. Most of them didn't come back and the widows and
mothers moved out. The congregation dwindled away and eventually the church
was sold to the Methodists who demolished it.
After the Civil War the writer's father, the son of the eccentric grandfather,
spent time with the pacifist Quakers.
Meanwhile we learn that Boughton has another son, Theodore, who runs a hospital,
and another one, Dan, who is a teacher;
and that Jack has come to pay a visit and played with Tobias.
The writer confesses that most of the old stories he learned from his father
when they were wandering around Kansas. Grandfather was a member of the
abolitionist militias that worked with John Brown. One day, when the father was still a child, grandfather protected a wounded man in the church and then had to kill the soldier who was chasing him. The writer's father was a teenager but
he never forgave himself that he didn't try to help the soldier.
Grandfather was so used to having and using a gun that he would shoot in the air
to tell people that service was about to begin in the church.
Hints that the writer dislikes and distructs Jack Boughton increase page after page, but we are not told what Jack did to deserve it.
The writer warns his son (who will be reading this letter) in so many words not to trust Jack.
The writer plans to write his own funeral sermon that old Boughton will deliver.
One day he tells us that his wife, helped by Jack, moves his studio downstairs
so he doesn't have to climb the stairs anymore. The intention was good but the
writer doesn't like that Jack and his wife become friends.
Jack shows up in church to listen to the writer's sermon and something in his
sermon creates a tense atmosphere between them, an indirect and involuntary
reference to the "catastrophe" that Jack caused and we still don't know.
We also learn that the writer married his second wife, the mother of the child
to whom this letter is addressed, when she was already in her thirties and had
suffered a lot. We also learn that Jack is now 43.
The recollections and the meditations are interspersed with theological discussions. Jack triggers one by asking him about the doctrine of predestination, to
which the writer replies that the scriptures are not clear. His own wife is
intrigued by the discussion that doesn't have a clear conclusion.
The writer often refers back to his atheist brother Edward, who remains a sort
of reference model for thinking logically.
The narrative is also interrupted by news about the writer's health, which keeps
We are finally told the story of Jack: when he was still in college, 20 years earlier, he got a very young girl pregnant, and then never acknowledged the baby.
The girl was from an extremely poor family and her baby died after three years.
Old Boughton and his daughter Glory did what they could for the girl and the baby but Jack never did anything. Jack was mean throughout his life. As a kid he used to steal, but not for money, simply to hurt people's feelings.
He was just a mean person. Jack had trouble with the law but got away with it
because of how influential his family was.
When his mother died, he didn't go to the funeral.
The writer remembers a sermon on forgiveness that he gave but can't bring
himself to forgive Jack. The writer remains suspicious of Jack precisely
because his actions seem to be pure evil, meant to hurt the feelings more
than provide any material gain.
Jack comes to visit the writer and confesses that he never believed any of
the sermons that his father preached about the Gospel.
After a little chi-chat, Jack tells the writer that he is sorry and leaves.
Jack later sends a note to apologize, thinking that he offended the writer,
but the writer writes back that he's the one who should apologize.
The writer remembers a sermon given by his grandfather during a national holiday in which grandfather lamented that Gilead, a town that led the abolitionist movement, was becoming just dust and ashes due to the drought.
The writer also returns to his brother, who was sending long letters to their
father from Germany, letters that upset his father because they were showing
Edward becoming an atheist.
The writer is also curious about the essence of paradise, a reality that humans cannot imagine.
His meditations on reality, being and existence become more and more philosophical. For example, on
the essence of existence: if God is the creator of existence, then it makes no sense to say that God himself exists because his state must be beyond existence.
The writer tells us that it is his 77th birthday
He remembers the sermon he gave the first time he saw his second wife Lila
on a Pentecost Sunday.
The writer confesses to himself that he is afraid of what evil Jack could do
to Lila and their child just out of being mean. And he also confesses that
theology fails him in this.
One day Jack realizes that the writer has not warned his wife Lila about him
and Jack himself is amazed that he didn't do it yet.
The writer also realizes that this letter to his son has become mostly about
his own worries.
The writer finally writes the story of how he met his second wife Lila.
She came to church, he fell in love with her right away without even knowing
whether she was married and despite the fact that she was so much younger than
him, he began to write his sermons with the goal of impressing her, she told him that she had no family and had never been baptized.
He baptized her, she started offering free work around his house and one day
she proposed to him.
Old Boughton, as sick and tired as he is, comes to visit the writer and confesses that he is worried about Jack: he hasn't told him why he came back, nothing
about his job and whether he's married. And then Jack comes in person to
tell the writer the truth: he has been together with a black woman for eight
years and they have a child.
Jack explains that Della's father is a preacher himself and totally disapproves
of their marriage: because Jack is white, because Jack is poor and because Jack is not a religious man.
His wife is now back with her parents and
Jack has been waiting for his wife to write.
Because of the segregationist laws, a white man and a black woman cannot find lawful homes so they had to live in derelict places.
When she got pregnant, her family came to pick her up, and they even found a
black man willing to marry her and raise the child.
This was about the time when the writer, John Ames, was getting married to Lila.
Jack wrote to his father, old Boughton, asking for money, and then used the
money to visit Della and meet her father, the day after the baby, named Robert, was born.
Her father reiterated that he was opposed to their relationship and Jack had
to return to his home alone.
Jack worked, saved money and bought a simple home. Della and Robert joined him
and they lived there for eight months.
Jack found a decent job but had to quit when his boss saw him with a black woman and informed the police. Jack had to send Della and Robert back to Della's father and decided to visit his father. That's why he came to town. Now he is afraid to talk to his father for fear of killing him.
Jack was hoping of settling in that town with his wife and child.
Jack wants advice from the writer, who knows old Boughton better than anyone else and who knows the community better than anyone else.
The writer cannot give definitive answers but guesses that old Boughton would love the child Robert the same way he loved the illegitimate child who Jack abandoned, a consideration that makes Jack feel ashamed.
The writer interrupts the suspenseful take of Jack to write about his own parents who abandoned him. As his father was getting old, Edward purchased a home
and invited them to spend a year: they never came back to Gilead.
The writer became the new preacher of the town. His father came back only
to encourage him to leave Gilead and see the world. It looks like Edward the
atheist son made their father less religious. The writer however decided to stay and spent his life in Gilead, despite the rapid decaying of the place.
The tale of Jack resumes. Jack comes again to talk to the writer and tells him
that he has received the letter from Della and will be leaving town soon.
(We are not told what the letter says).
Jack still hasn't said any of this to his father, nor to his sister Glory.
Upon hearing that Jack wants to leave again, Glory accuses him of wanting to
kill their father, old Boughton. Jack knows that Glory, not knowing the reason, will never forgive him.
The writer knows that Jack is old Boughton's
favorite child, despite being the poorest and meanest.
The writer blesses Jack before he boards the bus.
The writer has finally truly forgiven him.
Jack asks the writer to talk to old Boughton. The writer promises but then
talks to old Boughton while he's asleep.
The writer closes his letter to his son remarking that he has asked Lila to
burn his old sermons.