Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Thomas Gardner

This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a novel to savor

Marilynne Robinson's second novel, Gilead, is a quiet, deeply moving celebration of the wonders and sustaining bewilderments of human consciousness. As its narrator John Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, describing a difficult journey through the back roads of Kansas he had taken as a child with his father and remembering a shared vision of the rising moon and setting sun on opposite horizons, "palpable currents of light passing back and forth," consciousness is a sort of sweet mysterious strength most of us only brush up against at extraordinary moments:

I can't tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world—what a sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn't understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you're filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn't matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.

Ames is a 76-year-old pastor, struggling with angina and struggling too with the realization that he won't be able to pass on to the young son of a late, miraculous marriage what most mattered in his life. So, in a long letter, worked at over the course of a spring, summer, and early fall, he composes his life for his son. It's as if his life had been a long dream, intricately detailed, much of it having taken place in the rutted world or lonely wilderness he mentions above, and what he does as he writes, his son's face before him, is attempt to read and enact—to see and suffer again—its inner drama. If he begins simply passing on advice and family history, he ends having passed on a sense of consciousness itself, its power and its limits, its strange, almost wordless exhilarations.

The book is a great gift, and worth the wait. As most readers of contemporary fiction know, Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, was published 25 years ago, in 1980. It's one of the three or four strongest novels of that period—the sort of book you press on new friends or your best students. Like Gilead, Housekeeping is the first-person unfolding of a single consciousness. Its narrator Ruth, fatherless, having lost her mother in a haunting suicide, finds herself, along with her sister Lucille, under the care of their transient and apparently unstable Aunt Sylvie in the family home in Fingerbone, Idaho. Fingerbone is dominated by a lake, in whose depths the bodies of Ruth's mother and grandfather, indeed, much of what matters to Ruth, rest. The lake, its surface freezing and thawing, its boundaries shifting with spring floods, is a constant reminder to the lonely girl that there is "some other element upon which our lives floated as weightless, intangible, immiscible, and inseparable as reflections in water." Freed by the example of her aunt's casual approach to housekeeping—doors stay open, flood waters enter and are embraced, meals are eaten in the dark, the broken family attuned to the immense world outside their fragile walls—Ruth opens herself to what Emily Dickinson calls the "sumptuous Destitution" of the empty world she finds herself in. Details of the landscape, fragments of memory, and bits of the Bible all become material for her lyric re-composition of the world. Ruth's thinking becomes a way of dancing under water, her prose a means of touching a world "lost but not perished." Sylvie seemingly leads her through "the slowest waltz, … our clothes flow[ing] like the robes of painted angels." It's the strange, sad beauty of this prose, the exhilaration of it, that readers have in mind when they pass this novel on. And it's just that strange beauty that John Ames wants his son to be ravished by.

The theological underpinnings of Housekeeping were not immediately apparent, though it seems obvious now that Ruth is remembering, and Robinson was expressing her fascination with, Emerson and Dickinson and Thoreau—and not only these writers but the shared religious heritage they drew from. This second idea, however, only became clear with a series of essays Robinson began publishing in the '80s and '90s, many of them collected in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998). There, Robinson mounts an impassioned attack on the modern tendency to explain ourselves solely in economic, social, and political terms—essentially "desacraliz[ing] humankind" by insisting on accounts of our actions that reduce us to the drives of competition and self-seeking. Such a world "has no place in it for the cult of the soul, that old Jacob lamed and blessed in a long night of struggle." Against such reductive accounts, in which "Moral behavior has little real meaning, and inwardness, in the traditional sense, is not necessary or possible," Robinson returns to versions of humankind that celebrate the individual's self-revising encounters with a world grander and more terrifying than we are able to acknowledge. She reads Calvin, for example, her most developed example, as a celebrant of that inward world—God, in Calvin, presenting himself to human contemplation "in the image of the world," a presentation continually overwhelming, but rendering unique and privileged, each individual response it calls forth. Such accounts, she argues, have vanished from the way we talk about ourselves as a culture without ever having been discredited.

Both Housekeeping and Gilead could be said to stand against such cultural amnesia by presenting versions of soul-making so remarkably beautiful and individual that one is forced to wonder why we ever let such habits of mind atrophy. Housekeeping does this by reducing its stage to a young girl with a few books and memories and extraordinary eyes; from that, an entire crystalline world grows. Gilead attempts something broader. John Ames has a full life which he looks back on and reads and re-reads, seeing it as a sort of parable whose full meaning he can never confidently grasp. His first wife and child died decades ago, those wilderness years that followed finally being brought to an end with the surprising marriage of his last years. He has made his life in the small Iowa town of Gilead, within striking distance of Kansas. By 1956, when he is writing, the town's importance during the years of the abolitionist movement, which his family was deeply involved in, has become almost totally obscured—an ember buried under layers of ash and forgetfulness. He has a grandfather, whose abolitionist legacy overwhelms him, a father he is disappointed in, a wife whose radiant sadness seems addressed to him from another world, and a son he adores.

As with Ruth in Housekeeping, Ames often reads his life through metaphor, as in this striking memory of watching as a young child while his father helped pull down the remains of a church struck by lightning, ashes and rain everywhere:

You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. In those days no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like schoolgirls. It was so joyful and sad.

He returns over and over to the ashy taste of this moment of communion, sharing "the bread of affliction" while in the background women abandoned themselves to rhythms so deep that they seemed to all but vanish into them. "I can't tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me," he writes to his son. "But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me." He carries it inside of him as a vision of "prodigal renunciation, … empty-handed prodigality. … I have nothing to give you, take and eat."

There are visions, Ames remarks, "that come to us only in memory, in retrospect," and this is certainly one of them—speaking to him both of the smallness of human life in the face of great mysteries and of the incandescent glimpse of the sacred any one of our gestures provides once we quit clinging to this world and our places in it. Much like Ruth, Ames reads his life and the world around him out of a chastened sense of their utter weightlessness when compared to eternity, and their utter value, as the places of its fragile incarnation:

I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.

The novel shifts near the halfway point when the ne'er-do-well son of a friend returns to Gilead, a namesake whom Ames had baptized as a child and then hardened himself toward as he brought grief and heartache to his family and the community. The friend's son returns, "his inexplicable mortal self," and begins taking an interest in Ames's wife and young son, whom Ames must soon lose. Suddenly terrified about a future he'll be able to do nothing about, Ames finds himself, as he writes, in the wilderness again: "I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. … [But] my present bewilderments are a new territory that make me doubt I have ever really been lost before." With this turn, Ames' not only struggles to read his past; he must also read and engage his present. It's a mark of Robinson's quiet and deeply meditated artistry, then, that what Ames enacts in reaching out toward the son of his friend in an unexpected blessing, understanding that he will soon be as nothing before the world's larger forces, echoes and completes a series of earlier visions in the novel. We are reminded of the bread of affliction, the grandfather's absorption in a divine call to free the captives, even Gilead's once incandescent standing for principle. Ames' single gesture knocks the ashes off all these selfless moments and sends new sparks flying. "This poor gray ember of Creation," Ames muses. "Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration." Hopkins would have understood.

Thomas Gardner is professor of English at Virginia Tech. His book Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Writers is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Most ReadMost Shared