Gilead | Study Guide

Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead | Plot Summary

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One fine spring morning in 1956 in Gilead, Iowa, Pastor John Ames begins a letter to his young son that he hopes his son will read when he is grown. John regrets he is about to die of a heart condition, because he does not want his son and wife to fall on hard times. He hopes to share the wisdom of his years with his son, and his first lesson is that one should control one's temper.

John takes much pleasure in his son's presence and notes that he and Lila are like an answer to "a long, bitter prayer." John lived alone for many years after the death of his first wife, Louisa, in childbirth. He recalls going with his father to his grandfather's grave, noting their strained relationship. He visits his friend Robert Boughton, a fellow minister, and finds out that his son, Jack, is expected to return home soon.

After Louisa's death, John took solace in listening to baseball. He recalls going to a game once with Grandfather Ames. Shortly after that game, Grandfather Ames returned to Kansas to die. John tells of the vision Grandfather Ames had that brought him to Kansas the first time to help the abolitionist cause. John is grateful that he waited to remarry until he met Lila. He talks about how his brother Edward came back from his studies in Germany an avowed atheist, and how Lila attempts to bring their son up with biblical teachings though she herself is unschooled in religion. Lila convinces John to give their son communion.

John recalls Grandfather Ames's pistol from his time in Kansas, and how John's father hated the sight of it. Their difference of opinion on war led to a deep rift between them. Jack returns to Gilead and pays a visit to John. He introduces himself as "John Ames Boughton" to a surprised Lila. John tells the story of a church destroyed by fire and how his experience cleaning up with his father afterward is pivotal to understanding who he is.

Jack continues to visit John and his family, which irritates John. He preaches a sermon on Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. By the look on Jack's face, John assumes Jack feels targeted by John's message. John wrestles with the question of whether to warn Lila about Jack's lack of good character. John visits Robert Boughton, and Jack raises the question of predestination. He wonders if some people are "born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell." Lila counters if predestination is the rule, then there is no purpose in salvation. She believes a person can change.

John finally reveals that Jack impregnated a girl and abandoned their child to squalid conditions. Though Boughton and Glory, Jack's sister, visited and tried to provide for the child, she died at the age of three. John never forgave Jack for squandering his fatherhood. Jack comes by the church to talk to John again about predestination. Jack apologizes.

John celebrates his 77th birthday, and his son is disappointed that Jack does not attend. Jack agrees to talk to John again. John realizes what he fears most about Jack is that he will hurt Lila or their son.

Jack comes by while John is out on the porch with Lila. While they think John is asleep, Lila and Jack talk privately. Jack asks Lila if John warned her about him, and she claims John never speaks "unkindly." Jack seems surprised by the lack of warning.

John writes about his courtship with Lila. She came to his church, and he fell in love with her. He looked forward to her attendance, and the Sunday she did not attend, he was in agony. She came to him to be baptized, and he instructed her in the faith. After Lila helped John in his garden, he thanked her and she proposed marriage. John wonders if God is preparing Lila for Jack.

Jack confesses he has a wife and child in St. Louis, and John is relieved that Jack does not have designs on Lila after all. Jack would like to tell his father about his wife, Della, and bring her and his son to live in Gilead, but Della is black. Because of this, he fears his father's reaction and the town's reaction. Interracial cohabitation is not allowed in Missouri at this time, and though Iowa does not have a law against it, Jack scoffs at the idea that Gilead is liberal and accepting. Jack decides to leave town without revealing anything to his family. Before Jack goes, John blesses him, which is a symbol of John's finally forgiving Jack. Once he does this, John feels at peace and is ready for his eternal sleep.

Gilead Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 John Ames begins a letter to his son.

Rising Action

2 Jack Boughton, John's namesake, returns to Gilead.

3 Jack begins visiting John's wife and son.

4 John wonders if he should warn his son about Jack.


5 To John, Jack reveals he has a wife and son in St. Louis.

Falling Action

6 Without revealing his secret to his dad, Jack leaves town.


7 John forgives Jack and finishes his letter to his son.

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