Gilead | Study Guide

Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead | Section 21 | Summary



John finally gets Jack's story—he has a wife and child in St. Louis. Jack's situation is complicated in that his wife, Della, is black, and therefore it is illegal for them to live together in Missouri. Also, her family does not approve of Jack, and Jack is afraid Boughton would not approve of Della and the shock of his revelation would kill the old man. Della's father is a minister, and Della at first mistook Jack for a minister also. Because of Jack's name, Della's father believes Jack is actually John's son and that he is a descendant of Grandfather Ames, who is famous for his efforts on behalf of abolition.

Jack asks John if he thinks Boughton would accept Della, or if they could live in peace in Gilead. John is unable to make any promises. John decides to help Jack out by giving him some money, but Jack seems offended by the gesture.

Jack decides to leave town, and John meets him at the bus stop. Jack asks John to say goodbye to his father for him. John blesses Jack by placing his hand on his forehead and asking the Lord for his protection of Jack. John goes to visit Boughton, but he lies dying so John can only tell him that he blessed his son while he sleeps. John writes a blessing for his own son, and then prays, announcing his intention to sleep.


John is much relieved to hear about Jack's wife and son because it allows him to let go of his fears that Jack's intention was to prey on Lila. This clears the path for John to finally forgive Jack, and he demonstrates this forgiveness by giving him a verbal blessing.

John finds and preaches an old sermon on Romans 1: "They became vain in their reasonings and their senseless heart was darkened, professing themselves to be wise they became fools." This is significant because it describes exactly what John has been doing in his thoughts about Jack. As a good person and a minister, he has become vain and forgotten that the essential thing about God's grace is that it is meant for everyone. By darkening his heart against Jack, he became a fool. Now that John understands the error of his ways, he can see and let his son see "the beauty there is in [Jack]."

It is with irony, then, that Robinson has John profess that Jack was perhaps "comforted by the irrelevance of [John's] preachments to anything that had passed between [them]." But of course, while John's forgiveness of Jack might be but a tiny drop of water to Jack, it is transformative for John himself, as he has finally grasped the meaning of unconditional love and can put it into practice.

John compares himself to the good son in the parable of the prodigal son, the one who stayed at home while the prodigal son went out. That makes him the "righteous" one, and he states for him "the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained." But, he has come to peace with the seeming unfairness of this because "there is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be." Unconditional love takes no account of actions; it exists because its object exists. And, in finally finding this peace, John is finally ready to go to his eternal home.

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