This is the halfway point for my series of posts on great novels about marriage, and with this third installment I think I see some intertwined themes emerging. All three of the books so far—Kristin Lavransdatter, How to Be Good, and now Marilynne Robinson’s generational Iowa epic-in-miniature Gilead—are also stories about being sorry, and trying to be better, and wondering how much any person can ever really change.
It makes sense that these themes would emerge in novels about marriage. Marriage isn’t about the climactic, startling choice, but about the long haul of living with that choice. And marriage in these novels is a sequence of strategic retreats from previous positions: chastenings, repentances, more and less complete forgivenesses. Kristin’s husband Erlend is almost a caricature of this theme; it’s hard to find a page of the novel in which he isn’t either repenting, or doing things he’s right about to repent. Dr. Katie Carr in How to Be Good is threatened by her husband’s amendment of character—and terrified that she won’t be able to match it.
The husband in Gilead may seem like he has little to repent or to forgive. John Ames is already an old man when the story starts. He has lived his whole life in a tiny, fading Iowa town, serving as its Congregationalist pastor. His best friend is also a minister, albeit a Presbyterian one: The counterpoise of predestination and grace becomes poignantly central to the novel. All his life Ames has been respected, even when he was also patronized or pitied by the locals. When he was in his sixties and had already lost a wife and child, he met a younger woman, whose history is kept mysterious throughout the novel. He fell head over heels in love and ended up courting her despite his own best efforts to avoid it. When the story opens they have a young son, and Ames has learned that he doesn’t have much longer to live.
At first Gilead seems more like a story about fathers and sons than a story about marriage. Ames’s wife is a shadowy, gentle figure, a silhouette defined by everything we don’t know about her. Reading the book I thought it was “really” about war, and it is that too: The book takes place in the early 1950s, as the town gets its first television sets, but slavery and the Civil War smolder through the novel. It’s a book about shame, about the tribunal of one’s own heart and the tribunal of a small town with a long memory. It’s a book with unforgettable passages like Ames’s pitiful boyhood trek, stumbling alongside his father, to find his grandfather’s grave. It has lots of scattered, sharp little insights, like Ames’s diagnosis of his own covetous heart: “I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have.”
And it’s a suspense novel, in a way. Tired old John Ames, the theological cop called in for one last case, tries to figure out whether his best friend’s son Jack is plotting something which will endanger the soon-to-be-fatherless family. Jack the prodigal son has returned, cozying up to John’s wife and pressing theological arguments nobody wants to have. (It’s painfully funny to watch several of the characters irritably try to forestall the debate about predestination, which—here’s the weight of the small-town past again—they have all had many fruitless times already.) Jack’s earlier misdeeds make John Ames very frightened, and he drops increasingly sinister hints to the reader that this black sheep may become his wife’s husband once he’s out of the way. What Ames finally learns about his potential rival—and namesake, whose life has rhymed in strange ways with Ames’s own from the baptismal font all the way down to the present—challenges Ames’s deepest beliefs about himself, his town, and the ways God works to save unregenerate souls.
And by the end Gilead resolves itself into a novel about marriage after all: about, among other things, the way marriage can attempt to salve a sense of shame and displacement. In Gilead marriage doesn’t only require forgiveness; it is in some sense a form of forgiveness. Marriage is an attempt—not always successful—to find a place where you can be seen for who you are, who you were, and who you might become, and loved anyway.
“Emerging adults” today typically view the possibility of personal change as deeply threatening to marriage. As Premarital Sex in America found, young adults think you shouldn’t get married until your personality is basically fixed, until you’ve found yourself. In Gilead, by contrast, figuring out who you are or can be is a lifelong project. Images of change slowly build into a cascade as the novel approaches its end: baptism, transfiguration, dreams, and memories in which glittering sheets of water pour over and transform a person—or a romance, or a friendship. This is a tough, sad novel where few of the characters get what you’d want for them, but the hope it provides is precisely a hope that, as John Ames’s wife firmly holds, “A person can change. Everything can change.”
Editor’s note: This post is the third in a series on five great novels about marriage.