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Gilead | Symbols



For John, laughter equals life. He loves watching people laugh, and "the way it sort of takes them over." Early on, John watches his son playing with bubbles and the cat and enjoys the life in his son's laughter. He says, "Ah, this life, this world," and it is clear he already feels himself being pulled away from life. This close to death, he is on the outside, looking in at what makes life so precious. In Section 7, he witnesses Jack laughing and playing baseball with his son, something John is now too old and fragile to do. And, in Section 17 when John hears Jack laughing with his family out on the porch, it reminds him how Jack "will still be his inexplicable mortal self" when John is "dust."

John recounts how when he took the journey with his father to search for Grandfather Ames in Kansas during the drought, the two laughed "about some fairly dreadful things" in the spirit of staying alive. John realizes they laughed so much because "keeping [themselves] fed was a desperate concern" for his father.

Fire and Ashes

Robinson establishes the symbolic metaphor of fire being anger and ashes being the regret that results from anger. In Section 1, John warns his son about the danger of losing his temper, saying that anger can create much damage in a person's life. John provides the example of his father and Grandfather Ames. Their anger for each other was buried not so deep that "sparks" did not erupt when they conversed. Their final words were in anger, and John's father always regretted not reconciling with Grandfather Ames before he died. This regret is something John can avoid in his relationship with Jack, if only he can find God's grace to reconcile with Jack before he (John) dies.

Grandfather Ames believes, as the needlework on display in his church said, "The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire." Grandfather Ames seems to approve of fiery anger because it purifies, whereas John and John's father see the water (God's grace) that puts out the fire as purifying. This concept is illustrated in John's memory of the rainy day at the burned husk of Grandfather Ames's church. An angry fire burned down the church, and later "the ashes turned liquid in the rain."

The memory of the burned church is central to the novel and to understanding John's personal emotional journey. "Much of my life was comprehended in that moment," John states about that day, remarking that even in the sadness of burying the remains of the church, there was a purifying joy. Later, John compares grace to an "ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials." This means the fire of anger and ashes of regret are essential components in the process of grace because they break down the complex self to lead to an understanding of what is really important—simply that humans exist as eternal souls.


John quotes Feuerbach's view of water being "the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit." This view of water is central to the symbolism of baptism and of forgiveness of sin. The transformative nature of grace is evident in the cleansing power of water. A person who has been baptized is considered a "new" person. John recounts a dream he had of Grandfather Ames throwing a sheet of water over him and Boughton, and how after they were "shining like apostles." This dream foreshadows his next, and last, great transformation, which will be his passing from this world into heaven.

But John also sees the miracle of everyday life in water, exemplified by watching his son and his friend Tobias play in the sprinkler. John appreciates how they are "whooping and stomping" as he thinks everyone should do "when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water." He also believes in some joyous moments he has witnessed and experienced that "water is made primarily for blessing" (like in the act of baptism) and only secondarily for mundane things such as "doing the wash."

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