Gilead | Study Guide

Marilynne Robinson

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Gilead | Section 8 | Summary



John spends the morning at Boughton's reminiscing about old times before returning home and eating sandwiches with Lila and his son. John starts reading the book Lila is also reading, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. He prepares a sermon on Hagar and Ishmael. Jack comes by to play catch with John's son, and then comes by again to chat. John remarks on Jack's "quiet voice and his preacherly manner" and confesses that seeing Jack together with Boughton "has been one of the great irritations" of his life. John says that no transgressions surprise him anymore, and that sins are "worn and stale" because they have been committed so often.


The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is an actual book by John Fox Jr., which was a bestseller in 1908, and tells the tale of an older man who falls for a younger woman. John is charmed that Lila is so engrossed in a novel that centers on an age-gap romance, and later in Section 12, he says this was a way she showed him her love.

Robinson also references the biblical story of Hagar and Ishmael from Genesis 21:14–21. This story speaks to John personally as it assures him his son will be provided for, even after he himself dies. It is also a comfort to John who feels his own father abandoned him in Gilead, going south with his brother Edward instead. Leaving Lila and his son is the biggest downside to his mortality, but his spirituality allows him to feel at peace with dying. "That is how life goes," he says, "we send our children into the wilderness." Fortunately, "even that wilderness ... is the Lord's." John reflects that Hagar and Ishmael's time in the wilderness is a "moment of divine Providence within the whole providential regime of Creation." He compares this with the phenomenon of "light within light," which he sees as "a metaphor for the human soul." It is this incandescence he spoke of earlier (in Sections 3 and 4) that is "the singular light within the great general light of existence." What he sees as an eternal light within him is integral to his understanding of mortality and spirituality.

But even though John might like to go gently into his promised afterlife, he now has Jack's "considerable disruption" to contend with, and it irritates him. The old anger is sparking within him, and clearly this is a fire he needs to put out with the grace of forgiveness before he can go.

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