Gilead | Study Guide

Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead | Section 2 | Summary



John watches his wife and son playing. He writes about going with his father to visit the grave of his grandfather when he was 12, during a drought. When they found the grave, they tended to it and cleared the area of weeds. Father and son shared a beautiful moment as the moon rose and the sun set on the horizon. They came home after a month, and John's mother, Martha, was horrified by their shabby appearance.

John reveals that his first wife, Louisa, died in childbirth, and the child, dubbed Angeline, died shortly after. John spends many hours in his study, reading and preparing his sermons. To him, "writing has always felt like praying." He met Lila, his current wife, when she came to his church. He baptized her six months later. John also discusses his brother Edward, who went to study in Germany and came back an atheist.

At his friend Robert Boughton's for a visit, John discovers that Boughton's son, Jack, is expected to return home soon. John discusses his grandfather's penchant for stealing things from the family and his father's strained relationship with him. He also recalls his mother's chickens and a sermon he never preached during time of the Spanish flu.


As he watches his son playing with bubbles and the cat, John enjoys the life in their laughter. He says, "Ah, this life, this world," and clearly he already feels himself being pulled away from life. This close to his own mortal end, he is on the outside, looking in at what makes living so precious.

Robinson immediately follows this image of life and laughter with John's story about tending to his grandfather's "parched and sun-stricken" grave during a drought. In contrast to the backyard bubble-blowing scene, the graveyard lacks vitality. There is no life and certainly no laughter. And even though John's father says, "when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore," they set about fixing up Grandfather Ames's final resting place. This careful regard on the part of John's father shows his need for reconciliation with his own father that could never come in real life. The two had "buried their differences" in a polite way "very becoming to men of the cloth," but John points out "they buried them not very deeply." Robinson uses fire as a symbol for anger. These men merely "banked" their fire rather than "smother it" with water, which is Robinson's symbol for the grace and forgiveness that can put out the fire of anger. Because of this, "the old bitterness" was beneath each word like it might "flare up" again.

John reflects on his own personal drought, the long period of years between the death of his first wife and child and the coming of Lila in the pouring rain. Despite his loneliness, he is "grateful for all those dark years ... a long, bitter prayer that was answered finally." John also introduces the subject of his brother Edward. As the reader later learns, John's parents move down to the Gulf Coast to live near Edward, abandoning John in Gilead despite John's faithful service in his father's pulpit. The reader may suspect some bitterness on John's part, as Edward seems to have more of his father's love despite his renunciation of faith. This relationship mirrors the older Boughton's apparent favor of Jack Boughton over his siblings, despite Jack's misdeeds, and further feeds into John's bias against Jack.

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