Within a moment can exist the fullness of life and within a single town can exist the fullness of the world. Having spent seventy-four of his seventy-six years in a single parsonage, Reverend John Ames found the world in Gilead, Iowa. Through Ames’ world in Gilead and the moment of fleeting life in Reverend Ames, Marilynne Robinson examines the dynamics of justice, grace, and forgiveness through the relationship of father and son. A leading professor in creative writing, a student of John Calvin, and a citizen of Iowa herself, the essence of the text and the protagonist’s values are seamlessly infused, producing a seeming genre of its own (Mason).
As a dying man with a young child, Ames determines to preserve his fatherhood that neither he nor his son will ever experience; as his wife explains to the boy, Ames is writing his begats. He notes to his son, “I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way” (Robinson 102). To have the paper, pen, and time to write anything at all, it is significant that Reverend Ames should find the begats the most important; in his dying, Ames finds the greatest loss to be that his son may lose the heritage of fathers that came before him. The purpose of his writing is thus an ode to fatherhood.
Since the begats are the entirety of the work, it is necessary to acknowledge the method with which Ames makes sense of the life he is passing on to his son. Memory surfaces as his primary means of preserving heritage; his time at his desk is spent reflecting on the experiences of his life that he most wants his son to know. Ames claims, “I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am… It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing (Robinson 162). Simple memories, after percolating in his mind for the last seventy-six years, surface with meaning: “As I write I am aware that my memory has made much of very little” (Robinson 47).
One such necessary memory is that of the collapsed church. With the rain falling equally upon the charred remains and those gleaning from the rubble, Ames recounts seeing the old women’s hair falling loosely around their necks, hearing their voices chorusing in hymns, and feeling the same rain that turned the ash to liquid dampen his own skin. With ashy hands, his father produces a single biscuit from his pocket, breaks it, and offers a morsel to the young Ames. Though his father was only sharing a meal, it was a profound experience for Ames: “I can’t tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me. I can’t tell myself what it has meant. But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me” (Robinson 94). A bite of bread from the hands of his father became his most memorable Communion experience, one that he references multiple times throughout the begats. If memories are Ames’ means of making sense of his life, then it is noteworthy that it is primarily memories – and those of his fathers – that he records for his son. Ames is not rambling in his recollections, but synthesizing his life in the way he finds best.
Such memories are precious to Ames because of how they connect him in time to meaning, meaning that shapes his own fatherhood. As he passes on memories and their meanings, he is also keen to create them for the child. When the boy steps forward for his first communion experience, Ames recalls, “I broke the bread and fed a bit of it to you from my hand, just the way my father would not have done except in my memory. And I know what I wanted in that moment was to give you some version of that same memory” (Robinson 103).
Beginning the begats with his own formal introduction, including his birthday, origin, and name, Ames begins, “And what else should I tell you? When I was twelve years old, my father took me to the grave of my grandfather…” (Robinson 9). The bulk of his writing jumps from simple comments on everyday experiences with his son to reflecting on his relationship with his own father and grandfather. From his efforts to interpret the tension between the men, it is evident that the relationship between his father and grandfather has been a great concern to Ames.
Ames recounts the incident when his father, as a child, was required to scour the manure and blood stinking up his parish due to his own father’s involvement with outlaws. Throughout his childhood, Ames’s father was left to wander and doubt about his father’s cryptic involvements in war, only certain of his whereabouts when he would finally return home in blood-stained shirts. Ames recounts his father claiming, “’I never dared to ask him what he’d been up to. I couldn’t risk the possibility of knowing things that were worse than my suspicions” (Robinson 110). Perhaps it was the lack of security the son experienced in his youth that ignited the dissension between Ames’s father and Ames’ sgrandfather once they spoke with each other as men. Ames also records the argument over war and peace in which his fathers would only refer to each other as “Reverend,” the argument that broke their relationship, the argument in which “a chasm truly opened” (Robinson 85).
Ames remembers the road to his grandfather’s grave as the time that his father recounted these memories with the twelve-year-old Ames. This journey, a significant time in his fathers’ relationship, symbolized his father’s need to reconcile with his grandfather, to put the broken pieces of their relationship to rest. Ames recalls, “It grieved my father bitterly that the last words he said to his father were very angry words and there could never be any reconciliation between them in this life” (Robinson 10); how painful the longing for reconciliation must have been to prompt the son to spend a month scouring the Kansas wasteland for the lonely grave of his father – and to bring his own son along in the process.
If the magnitude of meaning that Ames gleans from these memories indicates how much he treasures his own father, then the importance of the begats cannot be underestimated; Ames’ love for his own, solitary son cannot be underestimated. With astonishment Ames writes,
I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. (Robinson 52)
Years spent alone in the parish as Boughton’s household flourishes with the grandchildren of his own eight children is reason enough for Ames to cherish his family so. But in the account of his lineage, Ames is intentional to include the scope of his fatherhood. Thus, he cannot complete the begats without including Louisa and Rebecca. Should he never have held the face of his own baby daughter, perhaps the noise of Boughton’s home would not have made his own seem so silent; to watch his son stretch in the grass with a cat, then, is nothing short of a miracle. To fully communicate to his son how precious his simple existence is, it is necessary that Ames include this loss.
For fatherhood to be the masterpiece that it is, then perhaps the little boy stretched in the grass is the climax of his life. Reflecting upon baby Rebecca, Ames writes, “Every time I have christened a baby I have thought of her again. That feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand – how I have loved this life” (56). This remark similar to one he makes as he begins the begats: “Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you are kneeling on the ground together with…so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world” (9). The man experiences the fullness of life no more fully than through his children. The dying man is astonished that he should experience such fatherhood, such fullness of life, after a lifetime alone: “And my prayers were answered, beyond anything I could have thought to ask. A wife, and a child. I never would have believed it” (Robinson 205).
Though he may contentedly include his lost Rebecca, Ames will be forced to acknowledge fatherhood to the fullest before the begats are concluded. The opening pages are musings of his past fathers and present moments with his child, lacing together the complete heritage. The pattern is broken, though, when the prodigal son contacts his father: Boughton’s most beloved is coming home. Ames makes no effort to conceal his concern that Jack is returning. Though he is happy for his dear friend to be reunited with his child, Ames stubbornly keeps himself at bay, claiming, “the mere fact of [Jack] troubles me” (Robinson 186). Though a nuisance to Boughton, Jack is a villain to the Ames, or so the reverend is convinced: “How should I deal with the fears I have that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly unanswerable meanness of it?” (Robinson 190). The pages that once only featured pleasant memories and moments are now littered with concerned musings.
For a man who treasures life in fatherhood, nothing should be more offensive than the life of Jack Boughton. Ames is often vague and omits many details throughout the text – such as his wife’s past and even name – but is blunt about the prodigal’s history. Regarding the abandonment and death of the baby girl, Ames reflects, “That one man should lose his child and the next man should just squander his fatherhood as if it were nothing – well, that does not mean that the second man has transgressed against the first” (Robinson 164). That Ames should resent Jack is justified. That Ames should fear for his wife and son is justified.
But is it understandable that a dying man should labor on end about the history of another man in a journal to his son? If Ames’ intention is to record his begats, then speaking of Jack Boughton is as necessary as speaking of his fathers, or Rebecca, or the child for whom the text is written:
But when I asked Boughton, “By what name do you wish this child to be called?” He said, “John Ames.” I was so surprised that he said the name again, with the tears running down his face… John Ames Boughton is my son. If there is any truth at all in anything I believe, that is true also. (Robinson 188-189)
As Boughton claimed when Ames baptized the baby boy, Jack is as much Ames’s son as he is his biological father’s. When Jack squandered his fatherhood, he also squandered it for Ames, consequently losing for the single man the closest thing to a grandchild he may have ever had.
And that Jack Ames Boughton is the son of John Ames is validated when, upon his return, he strolls up the path and asks with a smile, “How are you doing, Papa?” (Robinson 91). He lingers in Ames’s yard throughout his stay, playing with his son and chatting with his wife. He asks to meet privately with Ames, which resorts in a terse conversation passed in the pews of the parish; before Jack abruptly leaves he says, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am…Forgive me” (Robinson 173). Jack allegedly returns to be with his dying father, but he soon proves that Ames is the dying father of his concern. Ames is the one to whom he pleads for forgiveness of his daughter and help for his little boy; after squandering his first family, Jack is now having his second stripped away. Ames is also the one to bless him before he leaves again, perhaps for another twenty years.
Knowing that Jack is leaving Gilead on behalf of his wife and son, Ames is able to bid him a harmonious farewell. The reverend writes for his son:
If I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night in the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. (Robinson 237).
Ames hypothetically denies the fullness of fatherhood to be with his little boy in his unconventional (as Jack calls it) marriage. But it is not until the confession, blessing, and forgiveness that Ames understands why Boughton would practically do so, too, to sustain, protect, and pardon his lost son. To compare the son blowing bubbles at his cat with the son who left his little girl to die is a bold claim to the mystery of love beyond justification, beyond explanation.
That feeling of a baby’s brow is tender, damp, and pure at Christening; “How I have loved this life” Ames utters for his Rebecca’s baptism. What he must have thought regarding life and fatherhood cannot have been much different with the brow of Jack, his son, in hand at the bus depot. Though Jack squandered both his fatherhood and sonhood, violating what is most sacred to Ames, the old man is able to whisper to Boughton on his deathbed, “I blessed that boy of yours for you. I still feel the weight of his brow on my hand. I love him as much as you meant me to” (Robinson 244). A page later the begats end, an indication that Ames has entered the death that prompted his writings: his fatherhood has peaked.
Fatherhood has been the paradigm through which Ames has experienced his moment of life. Though he has spent the length of a lifetime musing over his own fathers in his empty house, he has also experienced the fullness of it in seven short years with his boy. Such a life, such a fatherhood, would be incomplete, though, without the experience of granting forgiveness, unwarranted and unjustified, to a child. That it is unwarranted and unjustified is essential to the nature of forgiveness. Just as Ames loves his child for his sheer existence – without warrant or justification – so too he is able to bless and forgive his prodigal son, his namesake. That Jack now has a new family does not change that he forsook one of the past, and that he returned briefly does not excuse the twenty years of distance, nor the fact that he departs once again. But that he may rest on the shoulder of a father before doing so is everything for both.