Novel and Robinson

Religion: A Trivial Conundrum Religion in fiction, much like religion in politics, has grown to be considered taboo. Religious characters are often expected to be comedic and used only as experimental or secondary. Their only true attribute is that of piety, playing on old stereotypes to drive the characterization. In a world where being politically correct gets in the way of day-to-day talk, approaching controversial topics in any form of writing can be seen as potentially unprofitable, too risque.

The competitive market of publishing doesn’t allow room for mistakes anymore and it’s easier to stay on the safe route than to stray on alternative, smaller – often more interesting – roads that may or may not lead to success. This makes literature that deals with the religious on a primary level all the more rare and exciting to read. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is one such example. Religion is indisputably in the forefront of this tale and, although it may not be the catalyst of the narrator’s writing, it is, without a doubt, one of Gilead’s main themes.

The novel’s very format is even done in such a manner that its sole goal seems to emphasize the holy, the divine – religion, in particular, Christianity. The novel is written from the perspective of John Ames, an old Reverend, on his deathbed, writing his final words to his then seven-year-old son in the form of a letter. A writer his entire life, Ames uses his best tool as a measure to insure that his son know something of his life, even if Ames has passed away years before the son ever gets a chance to read the letter.

The novel reads somewhat like a diary, a spiritual one at that. At every corner scriptures are referenced or Ames’ faith somehow fits into the narration. Robinson very easily transmits Ames’ constant remembrance of Christianity by plucking in allusions to God, the Church, or his work, not to mention the almost over-usage of the word “Christlike”. Religion very early on is dealt with as an important subject and as the book continues, it gains more and more time in the spotlight.

While initially one could think that the novel would focus less with the nature of Christianity, since Ames even says that he does not with to persuade his son to follow his footsteps in the Ministry – even if he does point out some of its “advantages”[1] – as it roles forward, the focus drifts ever closer to God and how the world itself reminds Ames of the sacred. The narrator’s descriptive tendencies, in themselves are also a way Robinson finds to allude to the religious.

They are Ames’ way of referencing God’s work, attempting to capture the magnificence that he sees in the world, and transmitting it to his son via words, much like God did to Moses. All that is beautiful, all that is right, it would there seem, is thanks to the Almighty. Robinson uses a very poetic tone in her writing of this novel, which helps connect the secular with the divine and emphasizes even more the novel’s religious nature.

As Robinson herself said in an interview, “both poetry and theology push conventional definitions and explore perceptions that might be ignored or passed off as conventional, but when they are pressed yield much larger meanings, seem to be part of a much larger system of reality. ” [2] A poetic diction, therefore, lends to the reader more easily identifying with the holy. It is easier to connect with the abstract when using a language that lends itself more readily to emotions and ideology rather than straightforward storytelling and facts.

In this manner, the non sequitur tendencies of the novel also lend to the goal of lifting the reader to a theological level. Robinson also has Ames mention poets such as John Donne and George Hebert, stressing the importance of the lyrical. The poetic quality, additionally, is not presented in an overly romanticized fashion, but more as a part of Ames’ view of life. He speaks of the world as God’s masterpiece and, has small details such as, “smell[ing] the rain”[3] or “a bubble float[ing] past [a] window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst,”[4] take on holy connotations to the reader’s.

The mortal and divine worlds seem to mesh in Ames’ head – perhaps the consequence of being so close to death. In fact, at times, Ames seems to speak as though he had already passed on, operating from a dead man’s point of view. For instance he says that “it is actually hard for [him] to remember how mortal [he] is those days. There are pains…but not so frequent or even so severe when they come that [he is] as alarmed by them as [he] should be. ”[5] As a Reverend, Ames does not fear death, so he allows himself to be swept away with its beauty perhaps a little sooner than he should.

His tone is therefore somewhat omniscient, which leads to his sounding rather obnoxious, although that may be a trait that one reserves the right to in old age. The father-son dynamic is also intrinsically important in Gilead. The whole point of Ames’ writing is to find a medium through which to communicate with his son. He aims, through storytelling and somewhat sporadic advice, to give his son some sort of a guide for life. Basically, Ames writes his son his very own, personal Bible.

This may seem like a fairly conceited venture for a Reverend to undertake, and one can see from Ames’ voice that he is, even if he denies it, not the humblest of men. At many points throughout the novel, such as when referring to his wife and his grandfather as people God may like to spend time with,[6] Ames ends up comparing himself, to some extent, with Jesus Christ; essentially calling himself Godlike. Humble, he is not. He even reaches the point of informing the reader that in sheer quantity, he has written as much “Augustine and Calvin. [7] He does so in the calmest of tones, yet still with an undeniable desire to spark some awe in his son. Confusingly, however, he still believes that his life “does not compare with [his] grandfather’s. ”[8] It would seem that a man of the Church would hold God to the highest of esteems, but his grandfather seems to beat out the old white man in the sky at times. Ames views his grandfather in an almost unrealistic idealized view. Even when he criticizes him, the tone is lighthearted and almost playful.

At one point Ames goes as far as relating the thunder and lightning striking in the sky with God “tipping [His] hat to [John Ames’ grandfather]. As if to say, Glad to see you here in the stands Reverend. ”[9] Yet, their relationships are hard to pinpoint and Ames’ reverence and faith in God is indisputable; which lends to a quite confusing reading of the book. All the major conflicts and drives in this book seem to regard the father-son relationship. From the desire that leads John Ames’ to write his letter, to the multiple stories about his own father and grandfather, even to Jack Boughton’s struggled relationship with his own dad.

Ultimately, it seems that all the referencing to father-son relationships is Robinson’s way of emphasizing the father-son condition human beings have with God. He is the ultimate parent – the nurturer and the punisher, the constant in one’s life. All the various conflicts, “daddy issues,” and stories in the novel are therefore metaphors and allusions to the larger, more important questions human beings are faced with and their own tribulations and worries with dealing with the theological.

Religion is a family affair in the Ames’ household. As John writes his letter, he is already the third consecutive generation of Reverends in his family. He speaks of religion as his vocation, deems himself to have been lucky to have had the Church in his path. The only “stray” of the Ames is John’s brother, who was initially raised to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, after the brother’s turn to atheism, John seems to take it upon himself to fill his unworn shoes.

And now, years later, when John is close to departing this earth, he once again takes it upon himself to continue his family legacy; eternalize his family’s contributions to Christianity in the form of a letter to his son. To John, his family life is undoubtedly linked inherently with his religious one. For example, Ames says that “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension. ”[10] Right before this phrase, he speaks of how there are things that he preaches but nonetheless truly does not understand.

He very smoothly transitions from religion to family, almost as if in his mind, there were not a clear distinction. This goes to aid the idea that all the familial conflicts in the novel are there as a tool for Robinson to constantly remind the reader of Christianity and its importance in one’s life. Ames writes his letter to his son as his way of carrying on his existence, eternalizing his memory, emphasizing religion’s importance. Ultimately, it does seem that religion is infused in the story not only as plot device and characterization but also with deeper intents from Robinson’s part to spread her faith.

The father/son dynamic therefore serves much more as a subtle way of perpetuating the divine in the mundane world. It is much easier for a reader to relate with human emotions and domestic troubles than directly with the divine and celestial. Gilead’s story therefore, is only a means to an end – the glorification of Christianity. While writing this book, Robinson may have very well set out with the intention of spreading the Protestant or Christian word, diffusing is subtly through fiction into the American subconscious.

But even if she does, she manages to do so in a peculiar and original manner. She follows the school of the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop which goes very much against Post-Modernism and believes that a plain style is preferable to an overly decorated one. Nonetheless, Gilead does not have the sound or feel of an obsolete book. The voice is meant to be that of a man from the 1950’s and the novel could have very well been written in that decade, but there is still something quite refreshing and original about Robinson’s style.

The tranquility with which she treats the theme of Religion – like it’s just a fact of life – makes so that the preaching really does just sound like fatherly advice. This novel potentially could get quite overbearing with religious undertones but the human-relationships-factor retains enough vitality and presence to overpower it. The metafictional, first person narrative, also brings about the question of reliability. Ames speaks with a certainty that only age brings, he admits ignorance at many points, but they only seem to emphasize his own self-awareness.

At some points in the novel, the first-person voice even seems to mix with that of Robinson’s herself. “I believe I’ll make an experiment with candor here”[11] says John Ames, yet as a reader, I find that Robinson’s own voice resounds through this phrase. It would thus be logical to conclude that Ames’ view of the world, and his desire to spread Christianity onward would coincide with Robinson’s own desires. Even if with ulterior motives, it takes audacity to take a subject as controversial as religion and place it in the limelight of a novel. In an age of Post-Modernism (or is it Post-Post-Modernism? it is almost uplifting to find a piece of work that isn’t trying to take satire and irony to the next level. By strictly following an old-school agenda and format, Robinson manages to be more innovative that most other modern writers – almost in the way fashion repeats itself every few decades and old styles manage to be more cutting edge and modern than that which used to be the next-new-trend. People may criticize Robinson for infusing too much religion and personal agenda into her novel, but in the end, she is still one of the few that manage to do this without sounding overly or even overtly preachy and patronizing.

This in itself is modern and forward thinking. Taboo subjects are usually those that are most interesting and worth discussing, so we can’t let public perceptions and social fears impede us of sharing our opinions – whatever they may be. ———————– [1] Marilynne Robinson. Gilead. New York: Picador, 2004. 23 [2] Interview with Missy Daniel. Marilynne Robinson. Religion and Ethics      Newsweekly. PBS. 9 Oct. 2006 . [3] Robinson 35 [4] Robinson 9 [5] Robinson 75 [6] Robinson 30 [7] Robinson 19 [8] Robinson 39 [9] Robinson 46 [10] Robinson 7 [11] Robinson 7

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