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Gilead | Context


Major Biblical References

Appropriately for a meditative novel about faith, Gilead is full of references from both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. The parable of the prodigal son is central to Gilead's narrative about fathers and sons. In that parable, found in Luke 15:11–32, a father has two sons, one who is faithful and stays home, and the other who takes his share of his father's estate, leaves home, and spends the money unwisely. When this prodigal son returns home, the faithful son is angry and finds it unfair that his father should welcome his brother with a feast. But, the father says, they should rejoice because "this brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." In Gilead, John feels like the faithful brother, as his own brother, Edward, renounces his faith. Despite this act, John feels as though his father still loves Edward more, even moving away from Gilead to be near Edward. This buried resentment is part of the reason John is unable to forgive Boughton's "prodigal" son, Jack.

Other major biblical references include the following:

  • Abraham and Isaac: Genesis 21:1–3 tells the story of how Sarah bears Abraham a son, named Isaac, in his old age. John's wife Lila compares John to Abraham since he also has a son in his old age.
  • Mary Magdalene: Mary Magdalene is a follower of Jesus after he casts out seven demons from her. In Mark 16:1, she brings spices to anoint Jesus's body in the tomb. In Gilead, John alludes to the similarities between the transient pasts of Lila and Mary Magdalene by stating, "Mary Magdalene probably made an occasional casserole." He says Lila "makes a very unlikely preacher's wife," but she "never flinches" from her role.
  • John the Baptist: John the Baptist is the prophet whom biblical scholars agree baptizes Jesus. This event is chronicled in Mark 1:9–11. In Gilead, John says contradicting Grandfather Ames would be like contradicting John the Baptist, which is significant because John the Baptist is known to have correctly prophesized the coming of Jesus. John later recounts a dream in which Grandfather Ames "baptizes" him and Boughton with a surprise burst of water from his hat.
  • Hagar and Ishmael: Genesis 21:8–21 tells the story of Abraham sending Hagar and his son Ishmael out into the wilderness on Sarah's orders. God tells Abraham not to be distressed, and he tells Hagar he will take care of Ishmael. In Gilead, John preaches a sermon on Hagar and Ishmael to illustrate how God provides for his children, even when they are abandoned. Jack is present for this sermon and feels personally attacked due to his abandonment of his own child.

Major Historical and Literary References

In addition to biblical allusions, Robinson also references a number of great thinkers including philosophers, writers, and historical figures. Central to the question of faith and spirituality in Gilead is John's discussion of the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72). As John mentions, Feuerbach wrote The Essence of Christianity (1841), which inspired his brother Edward to atheism. John reads it "in secret" so as to avoid upsetting his parents, but he claims he finds nothing offensive in it, only that Feuerbach is wrong to distance joy from Christianity. John quotes Feuerbach's view of water being "the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit." This view of water is central to the symbolism of baptism and forgiveness of sin.

Other major personalities referred to include the following (in the order they appear in the novel):

  • John Locke (1632–1704): Locke was an English philosopher known for his foundational work related to empiricism, a school of philosophy that proposes all concepts originate in experience. In Gilead, John refers to Grandfather Ames's contemporaries knowing "their Locke." He means they are classically educated.
  • John Milton (1608–74): Milton was an English writer best known for Paradise Lost (1667). In Gilead, John refers to Grandfather Ames's contemporaries knowing "their Milton." He means they are classically educated.
  • John Donne (1572–1631): Donne was an English writer best known for his romantic poetry. In Gilead, Donne's poetry is one of the things John thinks Lila should read to educate herself. He especially likes the line, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally" from the poem "Death, be not proud" (c. 1610). This speaks to John's belief that mortal life is a prelude to eternal life.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834): Coleridge was an English writer best known for the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798). In Gilead, John refers to Coleridge's assertion that "Christianity is a life, not a doctrine." This is part of John's defense of Christianity and his warning against proofs that try to reason out faith.
  • Isaac Watts (1674–1748): Watts was an English minister, best known for writing hymns. In Gilead, John refers to one of Watts's hymns when he discusses how he remembers giving his son communion, also known as the Lord's Supper, in the same way his father gave him the biscuit in the burned down church: "Time, like an ever rolling stream, / Bears all its sons away; / They fly forgotten, as dream / Dies at the opening day."

Free Soilers

In Gilead, John Ames's grandfather, also named John Ames, goes to Kansas as part of the Free Soil movement prior to the American Civil War (1861–65). Free Soilers believed that slavery should not expand into the western territories that were not yet states, such as Kansas. They thought that an economic system in which "free men" work "on free soil" was superior to a system built on slaves.

Grandfather Ames is (fictionally) involved in the events of Bleeding Kansas (1855–61), a series of violent episodes between antislavery Free Soilers led by American abolitionist John Brown and proslavery "Border Ruffians." These conflicts occurred as a prelude to the Civil War, when antislavery emigrants came from Northern free states to Kansas specifically to make it a free state. This, too, is Grandfather Ames's expressed reason for moving from Maine to Kansas: he has a vision from God telling him to fight to free slaves.

John Ames recounts a story from his father in which he encounters a wounded soldier in his barn during the violence. The soldier refers to Grandfather Ames being in cahoots with "Osawatomie John Brown." John Brown used the town of Osawatomie, Kansas, as a headquarters for his antislavery activities. On August 30, 1856, hundreds of "Border Ruffians" attacked Osawatomie and killed John Brown's son Frederick. This early skirmish became known as the Battle of Osawatomie and was instrumental in building the legend of John Brown.

The Epistolary Novel

An epistolary novel is made up of documents. The most typical form is letters, but novels made up of newspaper articles, blog posts, emails, diary entries, or other historical documents are also considered part of this style. Gilead is conceived as a letter from a dying man to his son, with his intended audience being not only this son (once he is presumably old enough to understand his father's musings), but also God. By naming the writer of her letters John, Robinson clearly alludes to John the Apostle's letters in the Bible.

The major types of epistolary novel are monologic, dialogic, and polylogic:

  • A monologic novel like Gilead includes the letters of only one individual, and the action is usually mainly inward and psychological.
  • Dialogic (letters between two characters) and polylogic (letters between three or more characters) novels tend to be more plot driven, often employing misunderstanding between characters and distance or time to raise tension.
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