Gilead | Study Guide

Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead | Section 4 | Summary



Lila and the son return with honeysuckle flowers from the graveyard. The son feeds John the flowers as "medicine." John muses on the miracle of existence: "Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined." He mentions memories of Louisa as a child, and he says he could have married again, but is "grateful for whatever reluctance it was that kept" him alone until Lila came along. Lila showed him what it meant to love someone.


While John faces his own mortality, he muses that spirituality gives him "imperishability." He imagines that when his son reads the letter, he will be immortal, both in the sense that his spirit is in heaven and that he lives on through his words. He speaks about "that little incandescence you see in people," which is their light or eternal soul. He mentions this incandescence earlier, in Section 3, and compares the presence of "I" to be "like a flame on a wick." He is enchanted by the loveliness of the world, but he knows his mortal life is "mere apparition compared to what awaits us."

Robinson touches on the theme of unconditional love in this section, where John admits that while he had loved before, he had not really known what it meant to love someone until Lila. The distinction is between the unconscious act of loving and the conscious understanding that love is a gift of God. He says, "I don't know what to say except that the worst misfortune isn't only misfortune." All his dark years allowed him to truly value the gift of Lila and his son, and even though his happy years are short, they are a true blessing to him. Lila compares him to Abraham in the Bible, who did not have a son until his later years, and John admits he envies "men who could watch their wives grow old."

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