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‘A little willingness to see’: Attending to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

One of Marilynne Robinson’s central concerns in her 2004 novel, Gilead, is the nature and forms of human attention: who and what we pay attention to, and, crucially, what we fail to pay attention to. The novel (the first in a tetralogy of interrelated novels) takes the form of a letter from John Ames, an ailing Congregationalist minister, to his son Robby with the ostensible aim of providing a ‘begats’ of his family’s life. Within these letters, Ames is keen to demonstrate the value of careful attention and quiet reflection in revealing life’s inherent mystery; specifically, he insists that apparently ordinary events can ‘shine like transfiguration’, provided one brings ‘a little willingness to see’ (280). By inviting his son to notice the ways in which the world continually evades our conceptual (and linguistic) grasp, Ames urges humility and child-like reverence over narrow-minded judgements and dogmatic certainties. However, in remaining confined to Ames’ solipsistic perspective, the novel makes clear that there are elements in his life which he fails to attend to properly, including his family’s relationship to America’s abolitionist past and the position of his estranged godson and namesake, John Ames (Jack) Boughton. By demonstrating the link between ‘reverent attention to this world’ and ‘the imperatives of ethical refinement’, Robinson makes clear that such inattention ultimately results in apathy towards pressing political conflicts, in particular, the nascent civil rights movement. By depicting Ames’ struggle to recognise how his perception has been blurred by inattentiveness, Robinson shows readers how even a devout minister who has dedicated his entire life to carefully watching the world can suffer from serious lapses in judgement. Gilead thus invites readers into a deeply mediative space in which they can recognise their own failures of attention, in the hope of encouraging a more just and ethical engagement with the world.


The novel’s epistolary form has its origins in a long-standing tradition of spiritual autobiographies and a more specific history of Puritan New Englanders addressing letters to their children. As Lynne Hinojosa notes, such autobiographies pay close attention to particular life experiences in order to show readers ‘how God’s truth and guidance were present both in one’s life and in history’. From its opening, the novel’s terms are clearly established, and as readers we become, in effect, Ames’ son, allowing our attention to be guided by his ‘fatherly wisdom’ (45). In narrating his ‘own long experience’ (45) of life through the lens of God’s grace, the spiritually attuned Ames can show his son how, even in moments of ‘deep darkness’, such as the death of his first wife and child in childbirth, ‘a miracle was preparing’ (63) in the form of his second wife, Lila. Robinson’s suggestion here is that, in the process of ‘put[ting] [one’s] thinking down on paper’, one can ‘think more rigorously’ (159) about one’s life events, thereby fully appreciating the complexity and mystery of the world. Thus, for Ames, as for Robinson, writing takes on a fundamentally religious character, closely tied to ‘a state of concentration’ akin to meditation or prayer; indeed, at the start of the novel Ames confesses that ‘writing has always felt like praying’ (21). This is not surprising, given Robinson’s own beliefs about the inherently spiritual nature of writing and reading (one sometimes wonders if Ames is merely meant to serve as a proxy for Robinson’s own theological views). In her lectures and essays, she frequently defends literature for ‘train[ing] [her] attention and [her] imagination’, specifically through a form of ‘acknowledgment’: by earnestly representing ‘what holiness feels like’, readers can ‘feel acknowledged in what they already feel’. Through reading Ames’ letters to his son, we enter a novelistic space in which universal human emotions such as death, grief, loss, and joy are depicted with what James Wood has identified as a ‘spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction’. Wood’s comments here are instructive when situating Robinson’s unexpected success within the contemporary American literary landscape; numerous critics have commented on the way Gilead ‘teaches [one] how to read it’ by ‘slow[ing] [the reader] down to walk at its own processional pace’, thereby learning to ‘read patiently and with wonder’. As Rachel Sykes suggests, Robinson’s ‘quiet novels’ offer a radical alternative to ‘the noise of the political now’, embodied in the ‘big, ambitious contemporary novels’ of “late” postmodernism (such as those by Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen). Rather than viewing ‘quietness’ as ‘reticence, at best, and conservatism, at worst’, I follow Sykes in arguing that the ‘balm’ of Gilead lies precisely in the primacy afforded to individual attention directed towards “ordinary” people and their complex histories, which is then shown to be closely tied to a just ethical engagement with the world.

* * *


In Gilead, seemingly ordinary or mundane experiences are shown to glow with an excess of religious significance, providing they are looked upon with sufficient attention and patience. Ames’ frequent references to Protestant thinkers such as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, as well as American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, situate him (and Robinson) squarely in a tradition of ‘Mainline Protestantism’ which ‘encourages reflection on experience[s] of every kind on the assumption that [they are] profoundly meaningful’. For example, in his Institutes, Calvin argues that God ‘daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe’, such that one ‘cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him’. Similarly, Edwards writes in his ‘Personal Narrative’ that, shortly after his conversion, ‘[t]he appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be a[n] […] appearance of divine glory in almost everything’. If God can be said to continually manifest Himself in the physical world – or, to use Robinson’s Calvinist metaphor, ‘nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed’ – it follows that the best way to apprehend Him is through a carefully cultivated attentiveness to the ‘unadorned’ yet ‘Christlike’ (281) elements of ordinary life. Unlike Glory Boughton in Home, who becomes afflicted by the sheer sameness of the Iowan landscape (‘the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose’), Ames’ receptivity to the divine potential within the mundane allows him to be ‘astonish[ed]’ by a mere ‘line of oak trees’ (64), despite having ‘lived [his whole] life on the prairie’ (64). Ames confesses to ‘lov[ing] the peacefulness of an ordinarySunday’, which he likens to ‘standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain’, an experience through which he can ‘feel the silent and invisible life’ – providing he ‘take[s] care not to trample on’ (23) the Edenic garden through plain absent-mindedness. In the novel’s final few entries, where there is ‘nothing to distract [his] attention’, Ames’ prose soars to heights of immense lyrical beauty: ‘I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turns radiant at once’ (281). In this moment, Ames explicitly acknowledges the divine inspiration which allows him to glimpse the sacred in the mundane: ‘the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance […] [a]nd then it sinks back into itself again’ (279–80). Given that ‘the world can shine like transfiguration’ through something as fleeting as breath, Ames reminds his son of the primary importance of having ‘a little willingness to see’ (280) God’s presence, which forever lies ‘under the surface of life’ (7).

Throughout Gilead, Robinson draws readers’ attention to the ineffable mysteries inherent in one’s subjective experience, which cannot readily be subsumed into dogmatic systems of belief, thus advancing a liberal theology which is ‘short on doctrine and long on wonder, mystery, and wisdom’. Crucial to Ames’ apprehension of mystery is his ability to inhabit a state of childlike wonder and awe; in his letters, he likens himself to ‘a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things’ (64), drawing biblical parallels with ‘Adam waking up in Eden, amazed […] at the brilliance pouring into [his] mind through [his] eyes’ (76). This childlike mode of perception may seem at odds with Ames’ frequent references to himself as ‘just an old man’ (230), ‘a limited man’ (217), and a ‘tremulous coot’ (161). Indeed, Robinson suggests that this visionary form of perception is ‘a skill that we’re born with that we lose’; however, by continually striving to refine his attention, Ames can view the ‘primary fact of existence’ (216) as ‘just remarkable’ (76) into later life. Ames’ religious commitment to mystery permeates every interaction he has in the novel; when ‘people come to speak to [him]’, he is ‘struck by a kind of incandescence in them’ (51), and when carrying out religious rituals such as baptism, he can momentarily ‘acknowledge’ both their ‘mysterious life and [his] own mysterious life at the same time’ (26). This sustained emphasis on mystery inevitably means that Ames refuses to propound specific theological dogma or submit his faith to ‘proofs’, since to do so would be to ‘claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp’ (204). When Jack Boughton pushes Ames to give his ‘views on the doctrine of predestination’ (170), he evasively declines, refusing to ‘force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it’ (173). By suggesting that reductive theories must be unnaturally forced onto religious mysteries, Ames makes clear that any form of theological systematisation will prove ‘inadequa[te] in [an] argument about ultimate things’ (203). As we shall see, however, Ames’ exclusive emphasis on the inherent mystery of Christianity reveals his inability to confront the real-world consequences of religious dogmatism, most notably in Gilead’s problematic racial past.

In drawing attention to the difficulty of ‘trying to describe what [he has] never before attempted to put into words’ (51), Ames highlights that certain ineffable experiences will resist forms of linguistic comprehension. In his ‘experiment with candor’ (7), Ames moves away from his public, ‘pulpitish’ (33) role as preacher (with its focus on verbal expressiveness) towards a more private, confessional mode, in which he can more honestly call attention to the difficulty of textually representing his experiences. Taking two supposedly ordinary phrases such as ‘belie[f] in God’ (162) and ‘God exists’ (204), Ames suggests that the ‘awkwardness of language’ (162) and a ‘problem in [his] vocabulary’ (204) prevents him from elucidating these ideas further. In both instances, Ames emphasises the ‘absolute unlikeness’ between our ‘radically limited and peculiar notion of what existence is’ (163) and God’s ultimate Being, which is ‘set apart’ and therefore ‘not to be imagined as a thing among things’, but rather as a linguistic concept that is ‘not of a kind with other language’ (158). This does not mean, however, that one should stop attempting to represent the ineffable in words; Robinson suggests that whilst all ‘serious theology’ must grant the ‘apophatic as a frontier which one does not pass’, there remains an ‘enormous acknowledgment’ in granting such a frontier. In trying to make ‘inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said’, Robinson develops a prose style in Gilead which ‘acknowledge[s] that it does fray’, drawing the reader’s attention to gaps in human understanding that cannot easily be ‘closed by extensions of existing ways of thinking’. For example, after recounting a visionary scene between a ‘young couple’ (31) playing with water, Ames turns his attention to the ‘word ‘just’’ (32). Instead of a more cataphatic approach to language characterised by verbal excess (‘the sun had come up brilliantly’, ‘the trees were glistening and very wet’, ‘a storm of luminous water came pouring down’ (31–32)), Ames wishes for a more simplistic, apophatic language embodied in the word “just”. Through prefixing his statements with this word, Ames hopes to ‘call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself’: ‘the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured’ (32). Thus, even as he highlights language’s inability to capture experiences which are ‘ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree’, Ames urges his son to nevertheless accept such ineffable experiences as self-evidently ‘real’ (32).


* * *

Ames’ attentiveness to the profoundly mysterious nature of the world parallels Robinson’s liberal defence of one’s (often flawed) subjective experience against various forms of reductionism advanced by modern scientism and evangelical Christianity. In opposition to forms of atheistic science which confidently assert that ‘whatever has not been explained will [eventually] be explained’, thereby ‘banish[ing]’ individual religious testimonies as remnants from a more primitive past, Robinson instead emphasises the ‘fragmentary’ nature of all human knowledge, which leads us to ‘overstate and over-interpret’ the world. Robinson views rigid forms of ‘certainty’ as something that ‘makes Christianity un-Christian’, leading her to ‘cultivate uncertainty […] [as] a form of reverence’ since any attempt to ‘interpose theological interpretation[s]’ onto the world will inevitably ‘obscure [any] new marvels’ yet to be discovered. Here, we may ask how Robinson’s criticism of religious certainty relate to contemporary debates regarding liberal and fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity. As Christopher Douglas has convincingly argued, Gilead takes the form of a ‘liberal Christian protest against the political empowerment of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity’, opposing the ‘doctrinal certainty’ of such movements with a ‘nondoctrinal Christian cultural identity’ embodied in Reverend John Ames. However, rather than accusing Robinson of ‘dishonestly cleansing “true” Christianity of its history by “forgetting” [its] unsavory aspects’, I will show how Gilead’s seeming aversion to the ‘destructive potency of religious self-righteousness’ (166) enables Robinson to highlight a major blind spot in Ames’ thinking – namely, his inability to recognise his implicated role within Gilead’s repressed abolitionist history.

Despite Ames’ attempts to cultivate a finely tuned awareness towards the world around him, Robinson highlights key elements of his experience which he pays insufficient attention to, most notably his family’s historic relationship to America’s abolitionist past. Ames’ grandfather is revealed to be an ‘acquaintance of John Brown, and of Jim Lane’ (53), and was ‘involved pretty deeply in the violence in Kansas before the [civil] war’ (97), whereas his father, whose ‘hopes [were] in peace’ (96), rejects any such justifications for violence. Due to this stark disagreement, Ames remembers a ‘kind of truce in [their] household that discouraged talk about the old times in Kansas, and […] the war’ (53), with these events being both psychologically and physically repressed. Ames draws his son’s attention to the ways in which people can superficially ‘bur[y] their differences’ under the guise of ‘Christian forgiveness’, whilst not burying them ‘very deeply’ (39) at all. In a similar vein, Ames recounts a memory of his father destroying his grandfather’s pistol: first he ‘buried’ it, and then dug it up and ‘broke it up the best he could with a maul’, and eventually he ‘flung the pieces as far as he could into the water’ (90), in an attempt to make the past ‘vanish entirely’ (91). This shared trauma is repressed linguistically too, with Ames’ father and grandfather referring to one another by the highly formalised title ‘Reverend’ (96) in their terse exchanges, which eventually lead to a ‘chasm’ (97) of ‘mutual incomprehension’ (8) opening between them both.


Enacting the Biblical trope of the father’s iniquities being visited upon the son, Robinson shows how Ames is subconsciously ‘implicated’ in a buried family history ‘without knowing what [he is] implicated in’ (93), repressing these memories through ‘spen[ding] a lot of time trying not to [cry]’ (119). When Ames does learn the history he is implicated in, he admits to being ‘predisposed to believe that [his] grandfather had done something pretty terrible’ (93) and that his father was ‘right’ (86) in opposing his grandfather’s violence. As I have argued, this predisposition stems from Ames’ fundamental aversion towards religious dogmatism: his one-eyed grandfather is remembered as being ‘afire with old certainties’, lacking the ‘patience for anything but the plainest interpretations of the starkest commandments’ (36). However, as we read, we realise that Ames’ rejection of his grandfather’s monomaniacal visions results in political apathy towards what Robinson has termed the ‘Third Great Awakening – the civil-rights movement’. Indeed, Ames continually skirts over a blatantly racist attack on the ‘Negro church’ in Gilead, where ‘someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it’ (41), downplaying it as ‘only a small fire’ (195) or a ‘little nuisance fire’ (264). Even as ‘what was left of the congregation moved to Chicago’, Ames appears incapable of recognising why the town (and his abolitionist grandfather) ‘had once meant a great deal to them’ (42) – he is merely one of many ‘people [who] have forgotten’ (86) Gilead’s radical roots. Here, as Sykes argues, Ames comes to embody ‘political quietis[m] in its most negative and accusatory sense’, a man who retreats from ‘express[ing] discomfort at the social, economic and racial inequality he witnesses’ by indulging in the solipsistic pleasures of the prairie at dawn. This is part of a more widespread cultural amnesia that Robinson diagnoses in Midwestern towns such as Tabor, the town upon which Gilead was based. Just as Robinson laments the fact that ‘[h]istory has ebbed away from Tabor’, such that people have overlooked the ‘impact of this one little settlement on American […] and world culture’, readers come to recognise ‘an old urgency that is all forgotten now’ in the ‘littleness’ and ‘shabbiness’ (267) of Gilead. Over the course of the novel, however, we witness Ames being ‘drawn back into this world’ (272) through allowing his moral attention to become more diffuse, incorporating not only Jack Boughton but also (through Jack’s black wife, Della) the wider plight of the African American community in the late 1950s.

* * *

Despite Gilead’s perspective being radically constrained by a single narratorial voice, Robinson leaves enough space in Ames’ narrative for readers to identify his own flaws and limitations (such as his ‘covetousness’ (152) and inability to ‘control [his] temper’ (7)), even as he cannot identify them himself. The central figure who forces Ames to confront a reality outside of his narrow-minded prejudices is Jack Boughton, a figure who reminds both Ames and Gilead of a repressed racial history that would rather be forgotten. As Jack, the novel’s ‘prodigal son’ (83), is gradually introduced into the narrative, Ames’ writing becomes noticeably constrained and conflicted, retreating from a more outward-facing attentiveness towards his surroundings into an internal quarrel between Christian ideals and personal prejudices. Despite recognising that, ‘according to Scripture’, he ‘ought not to be’ the ‘judge’ of Jack’s ‘transgression[s]’ (139), Ames maintains that he cannot ‘forgive’ (187) Jack, nor ‘see good faith’ (175) in him. For Ames, Jack embodies a mysterious evil which he cannot make theological sense of; however, rather than accepting Jack’s inherent ‘mystery’ (210) with his characteristic magnanimity, Ames is ‘trouble[d]’ by the ‘mere fact of him’ (212), leading him to reach for reductive moral conclusions: ‘a piece of work’ (142) or ‘just mean’ (210). As Robert Leigh Davis argues, when Ames writes about Jack, ‘he can’t make the writing shimmer and doesn’t want to’, since he is unable to see that ‘incandescence’ (51) which he can reliably discern in others, suggesting that something is ‘blocking [Ames’ moral] lens’. In this case, it becomes clear that Ames’ ‘old covetise’ (160) is to blame.


When Jack first arrives in Gilead, Ames depicts him as a serpent-like presence who interrupts his ability to ‘notice […] minute by minute’ the Edenic ‘perfect morning’, with his ‘lovely wife tend[ing] [to] her zinnias in the mild morning light’ (106–7). Later, whilst giving a sermon on the topic of ‘Hagar and Ishmael’ (135), Ames recounts how his ‘evil old heart rose within [him]’ when Jack sits alongside Lila and Robby, explicitly acknowledging his fear that Jack will replace him to form ‘a handsome young family’ (160). Upon seeing him, Ames unexpectedly ‘depart[s] from [his original] text’ (147) to discuss the ways in which children can be ‘victims of [parental] rejection or violence’ (148), a veiled attack on Jack’s notorious abandonment of Annie Wheeler and their illegitimate daughter. Despite recognising that his words have turned Jack ‘[w]hite as a sheet’, Ames mainly focuses on his disrespectful ‘grinning’ (148), assuming that the fault lies in Jack’s failure to ‘listen to the meaning of [his] words’, subsequently accusing him of ‘considerable egotism […] to take [his] words as directed at him only’ (149). And yet, when readers compare the way this scene is retold in Gilead’s sister novel, Home, one realises the extent to which Ames’ perception has become mired in jealousy and hypocrisy. Speaking to his sister Glory, Jack glosses the sermon as an ‘illustration’ of his ‘disgraceful abandonment’ of his illegitimate child, intended to ‘appall’ him under the judging ‘eyes of Gilead’. Whilst this account is clearly affected by Jack’s own defensiveness, it remains closer to the truth of the sermon’s intent, and ultimately almost costs Ames his longest friendship with his ‘second self’, Robert Boughton. Through such an obsessive and myopic focus on Jack’s moral character, readers also notice how Ames is departing from his original ‘intention […] to speak to’ (230) his son truthfully. For example, when Ames fails to notice his son showing him a ‘picture’, Lila tells Robby in ‘the kindest, saddest voice’, that ‘‘[Ames] doesn’t hear you’ […] Not ‘He didn’t’ but ‘He doesn’t’’ (162), with the definitive use of the present tense implying that Ames is now doomed to remain inattentive to his son. By highlighting the consequences of Ames’ inherently fallible perceptions, Robinson makes clear that ‘[t]here is always more to any situation or character than one book can contain’, and, in returning to different characters of Gilead throughout her tetralogy, she can affirm that there will ‘always [be] another way of seeing or knowing’ beyond any individual’s narrowly focused attention.

Despite this emphasis on narratorial unreliability, Ames possesses enough self-awareness to recognise how his ego-centric interactions with Jack have led him (and the rest of Gilead) to fall short of the Christian ideals of forgiveness and compassion. Such openness to his own ‘present bewilderments’ (218) enables Ames to expand his moral attention to include America’s contemporary civil rights struggle. Ames frequently admits to spending ‘hours in meditation and prayer over John Ames Boughton’ (140), attesting to his own belief that ‘right worship’ entails the ‘right perception of people you have a real and deep knowledge of’ (154). Thus, it becomes clear that in order to overcome one’s own prejudices and neuroses, one needs to engage in a form of disciplined, loving attention directed away from the self towards another. Self-correction can also come from listening to the perspectives of others – for example, Lila ‘rebuke[s]’ Ames following his terse exchange with Jack over predestination, suggesting that ‘some people aren’t so comfortable with themselves’, which Ames later recognises as ‘quite right’ (175). Following the only page break in the entire novel (indicating that a radical moral revaluation has occurred away from his writing), Ames reveals that Jack has a wife and child. Through this revelation, in which we learn that Jack has lost the right to see his black wife Della and their child due to ‘anti-miscegenation laws’ (250) in Missouri, Ames and Jack begin to speak in a ‘common language’ (194) which acknowledges their profound source of mutual sympathy: they have both suffered the loss of a wife and child (both of whom are called Robert). Thus, Ames can reinterpret Jack’s behaviour towards his family not as an attempt to usurp his place, but rather as being motivated out of a feeling of loss for his own family. In this moment of anagnorisis, Ames can bridge the ‘inviolable, untraversable, utterly vast spaces between [them]’ (225) by accepting Jack as ‘another self, a more cherished self’ (215), thus ‘demonstrat[ing] [his] faithfulness’ (141) embodied in this loving gaze directed towards another. Here, Ames realises that in attempting to ‘protect’ himself from Jack by habitually ‘seeing meanness at the root of everything he did’ (263), he has in fact been ‘struggling against [his] rescuer’ (176), the man who will allow him to ‘see the beauty there is’ (265) in all humans – that is, the Imago Dei.


Through blessing Jack, an act which the reader is encouraged to view as Ames’ moral apotheosis (given his confession that he would have ‘gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment’ (276)), Ames is forced to confront his own complicity in Gilead’s treatment of its African-American population. In his two conversations with Jack regarding the ‘fire at the Negro church’, where Jack reminds him that it ‘has been many years since there was a Negro church’ (264) and the African-Americans who lived in Gilead are ‘all gone now’ (195), Ames admits ‘there wasn’t much [he] could say to that’ (264), implicitly acknowledging how such moral dumbfoundment has been produced by sheer inattention. Ames comes to accuse Gilead as ‘standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it’ (266) since it has forgotten its old ‘courage and passion’ which once made it ‘a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on’ (267). As the grandson of an infamous abolitionist, Ames realises that ‘the fault is [his] as much as anyone’s’ (266) and will ultimately mean that Jack and his family cannot live safely in Gilead. Despite his inability to make amends for his life-long inattentiveness towards this issue, Ames comes to recognise that, through reading his letter, his son will learn from his moral failings and thus reaffirm the link between closely attending to the world’s ‘beauty’ (280) and the ethical need to make himself ‘useful’ through ‘honor[ing]’ the ‘precious things [that] have been put into [his] hands’ (281). This theme of intergenerational improvement occurs structurally too: as a tetralogy in continual dialogue, each Gilead novel implicitly acknowledges that we will only partially realise our failures of attention, and thus each novel’s inconclusiveness serves as an invitation for us to consider our own contemporary moral failings. As Barack Obama, one of Robinson’s most prominent defenders, has argued, the ‘ideals and values of America […] are not discredited by our failures to live up to them. It just means that we’ve got to work harder’. Thus, in his final words, Ames prays that his son will learn from his father’s failures and ‘grow up a brave man in a brave country’, continuing this legacy of intergenerational betterment and allowing him to go to the grave with a truly clear conscience: ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep’ (282).




Primary Reading

Robinson, Marilynne, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)

—— ‘Credo’, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 36 (2008), 21–32

—— Gilead (London: Virago, 2005)

—— Home (London: Virago, 2008)

—— Jack (London: Virago, 2020)

—— ‘Language Is Smarter Than We Are’, The New York Times Book Review, 11 January 1987, 8

—— Lila (London: Virago, 2014)

—— ‘Onward, Christian Liberals’, The American Scholar, 75 (2006), 42–51

—— The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)

—— The Givenness of Things (London: Virago, 2015)

—— What Are We Doing Here?: Essays (London: Virago, 2018)

—— When I Was A Child I Read Books (London: Virago, 2012)

Secondary Reading

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, ed. by John T. McNeill, 2 vols (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960)

Cep, Casey, ‘Book of Revelation: Marilynne Robinson’s essential American stories’, New Yorker, 5 October 2020, pp. 44–53

Cunningham, Andrew, Marilynne Robinson, Theologian of the Ordinary (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2020)

Davis, Robert Leigh, Playful Wisdom: American Literature and Ludic Faith, from Walden to Gilead (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020)

Douglas, Christopher, ‘Multiculturalism and Unlearned History in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”’, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 44 (2011), 333–53

Dowling, David O., A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019)

Edwards, Jonathan, ‘Personal Narrative’, in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. by John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 281–95

Engebretson, Alex, Understanding Marilynne Robinson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017)

Fay, Sarah, ‘Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction No. 198’, The Paris Review, 186, Fall 2008 <> [accessed 5 March 2021]

Hart, Jeffrey, ‘Now, a Masterpiece’, National Review, 28 March 2005 <> [accessed 5 March 2021]

Hinojosa, Lynne, ‘John Ames as Historiographer: Pacifism, Racial Reconciliation, and Agape in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead’, Religion and Literature, 47 (2015), 117–42

Hungerford, Amy, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion since 1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1982)

Larsen, Timothy, and Keith L. Johnson, eds., Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2018)

Leise, Christopher, ‘“That little incandescence”: Reading the Fragmentary and John Calvin in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”’, Studies in the Novel, 41 (2009), 348–67

Mendelman, Lisa, ‘Unaffected: Marilynne Robinson’s Postmodern Sentimentalism’, IJAS Online, 6 (2017), 32–44

Mensch, Betty, ‘Review: Jonathan Edwards, Gilead, and the Problem of “Tradition”’, Journal of Law and Religion, 21 (2005/2006), 221–41

Milota, Megan, ‘Seeking Being in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” and “Home”’, Amerikastudien/American Studies, 61 (2016), 33–51

Painter, Rebecca M., ‘Further Thoughts on A Prodigal Son Who Cannot Come Home, on Loneliness and Grace: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson’, Christianity and Literature, 58 (2009), 485–92

—— ‘Loyalty Meets Prodigality: The Reality of Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction’, Christianity and Literature, 59 (2010), 321–40

Pleog, Andrew J., ‘‘Trying to Say What Was True’: Language, Divinity, Difference in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead’, Journal of Language, Literature and Culture, 63 (2016), 2–15

Reiff, Marija, ‘The Creative Calling’, in After the Program Era: The Past, Present, and Future of Creative Writing in the University, ed. by Loren Glass (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016), pp. 11–20

Roynon, Tessa, The Classical Tradition in Modern American Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021)

Seidel, Kevin, ‘A Secular for Literary Studies’, Christianity and Literature, 67 (2018), 472–92

Shy, Todd, ‘Religion and Marilynne Robinson’, Salmagundi, 155/156 (2007), 251–64

Stevens, Jason W., ed., This Life, This World: New Essays on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Gilead and Home (Leiden; Boston, MA: Brill Rodopi, 2016)

Sykes, Rachel, ‘Reading for Quiet in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels’, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 58 (2017), 108–20

—— The Quiet Contemporary American Novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018)

—— ‘Those Same Trees: Narrative Sequence and Simultaneity in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels’, IJAS Online, 6 (2017), 55–65

Tanner, Laura E., ‘“Looking Back from the Grave”: Sensory Perception and the Anticipation of Absence in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead’, Contemporary Literature, 48 (2007), 227–52

Williams, Rowan, ‘Native Speakers: Identity, Grace, and Homecoming’, Christianity and Literature, 61 (2011), 7–18

Woelfel, James, ‘Challengers of Scientism Past and Present: William James and Marilynne Robinson’, American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, 34 (2013), 175–87

Wood, James, ‘Acts of Devotion’, The New York Times, 28 November 2004 <> [accessed 5 March 2021]

—— ‘Hysterical realism’, in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (London: Pimlico, 2005), pp. 167–83

—— ‘Marilynne Robinson’, in Serious Noticing: Selected Essays (London: Vintage, 2009), pp. 447–57

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