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Christianity and Literature Vol. 59, No.2 (Winter 2010) Fraught with Fire: Race and Theology in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead Lisa M. Siefker Bailey Written in the form of a spiraling letter with qualities of a sermon, a meditation, a diary, and a journal, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead offers a reflection of both lamentation and celebration but ends with a hope for a restoration Robinson presents as transcendence. Due to his terminal heart condition, the letter's author, Congregationalist minister John Ames, knows he will not spend much time with his son on earth. Ames laments this fact through words he hopes will allow him to connect in deep meaningful ways with the grown son he is destined not to know in this life. Ames writes this letter with the same zeal he wrote sermons in his career, sermons which will later be burned. As Ames faces the mystery of death, he becomes ever closer to God, both spiritually and literally. For Christians like Ames, there's life after death. Here on earth, there is something good in the mystery of what he doesn't understand. Robinson suggests a transcendent notion of Christianity that encompasses both larger mysteries. One way Robinson represents these mysteries is through the shifting and contrary symbol of fire. The novel is so rich with images of fire that Elle book reviewer Lisa Shea calls Gilead "[a]n inspired work from a writer whose sensibility seems steeped in holy fire" (170). Ames' story uses fire as a representation of the energy of being, which can become destructive like the puritanical mistakes made in Ames' grandfather's church, or transcendent, like the filling of the Holy Spirit.1 We have seen Robinson use images of water, air, earth, and fire in Housekeeping. Stefan Mattessich has suggested that fire in Housekeeping provides a Derridean metaphor of spirit (75). Mattessich points out that Sylvie's bonfire which burns her collection of magazines and newspapers becomes a kind of "fire-writing" that helps to draw boundaries around social norms in communication (75-76). "What goes up in flames for Ruth and Sylvie:'writes Mattessich, "is the world of these norms" (76). Mattessich 265 266 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE uses Derrida to suggest that fire in Housekeepingworks as a force that allows Sylvieand Ruth to break free of the social norms of Fingerbone and at the same time "fold them backinto it" (76) as they become drifters in and around it. Mattessich then demonstrates that Sylvie and Ruth have ambivalence about the world, and he eventually argues that Robinson shows that "fluctuations of the spirit are at their most material and the sacred is indeed acutest at its vanishing" (83). This sentiment is also true in Gilead, where Ames understands his faith, his own spirit if you will, and the very essence of others best when he is closest to losing his life and thus all connection with them. Unlike Housekeepingin which, as Mattessich notes, fire does not enter until late in the novel, fire pops up everywhere in Gilead, from the sermons in the attic to his grandfather's letter that Ames burned, from the Negro church to the firefliesin the yard.' Mattessich reminds us that, at the end of Housekeeping, we never know "whether the house survives the fire or not" (76). The same is true of Ames' sermons and of the letter he is writing. At the end of the novel, we come to the end of Ames' life,and Ames suggests that Robert ask Lilato have the deacons arrange to "have those old sermons of mine burned.... There are enough to make a good fire. I'm thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow. Of course she can set by any of them she might want to keep" (Robinson, Gilead245). Just as we are unable to tell whether or not the house survives the fire at the end of Housekeeping, we are unable to learn whether or not Ames' sermons survive the fire he requests. While firein Housekeepingbecomes asymbol ofbothdisenfranchisement and power that changes social norms and main characters, fire in Gilead represents both the destructive forces of society and the power...


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pp. 265-280
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