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  • “That Little Incandescence”: Reading the Fragmentary and John Calvin in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
  • Christopher Leise

My intention, my hope, is to revive interest in Jean Cauvin, the sixteenth-century French humanist and theologian—he died in 1564, the year Shakespeare was born—known to us by the name John Calvin. If I had been forthright about my subject, I doubt the average reader would have read this far.

—Marilynne Robinson (The Death of Adam 174)

We ought not to rack our brains about God; but rather, we should contemplate him in his works.

—John Calvin (I.v.9)

Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead takes the form of a letter, written by the Rev. John Ames to his six-year-old son. Ames is in his seventies and his heart is failing, so the epistle has the strange effect both of looking back as well as looking forward: while recounting his past, he is writing to his not-yet-adult son, for a time when the boy will be mature enough to understand the dying minister’s more poignant observations on the world around him.

At its outset, the letter seems somewhat directionless. It begins with a series of more-or-less unrelated fragments that are highly evocative, but confined largely to description. A characteristic meditation:

I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity....Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to [End Page 348] see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.


Such passages abound in Gilead, and might merely register as an attentive man’s attempt to capture the beauty of the world in prose. But they also emphasize a third aspect of temporality that the letter’s purpose might otherwise leave overlooked: past and future given due consideration, Ames is also deeply concerned with representing his most immediately present moments.

While telling the story of his life to his son, Ames’s letter eventually crystallizes around the narrative of the Reverend’s best friend Robert Boughton, and the scandalous birth of a mixed-race child to Boughton’s ne’re-do-well son, Jack. (Jack, incidentally, is named for Ames.) It becomes, at times, a melodrama; at others, it is a morality tale about the need to forgive, lest one should forget how crucial a role family plays in a person’s happiness. And while that storyline serves as more than just an occasion for philosophizing, the irruptions of aesthetic appreciation nevertheless register as somehow more essential to the novel’s overall meaning than the plotted sequence of events making up the small-town scandal ever could be.

These tableaus—these interruptions of the narrative characterized by rich, vivid imagery—are most concerned with immediacy. Though they occasionally appear within flashbacks, they are nevertheless intrusions on the Boughton narrative, and frequently disrupt the development of the story’s progress toward resolution. I offer that Gilead promotes the kind of aesthetic attention to the world that Ames exhibits in these digressions, as a vehicle to an experience of the divine in the immediate and the immanent: an experience that stops short of knowing through reason and is content with simply living the experience of the miraculous in the everyday.

Despite the relatively small amount of scholarly attention that Gilead has garnered to date (as compared to Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel), at least one critic has seen fit to seize on these moments as crucial to unpacking the novel’s overall effect. Laura E. Tanner sees Ames’s vignettes as the source of the novel’s “cultural force,” which she argues: “stems not only from [their] lyrical rendering of quotidian experience but from [their] powerful unveiling of...


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pp. 348-367
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