Study Guide

John Ames (Jack) Boughton in Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson

John Ames (Jack) Boughton

Jack is the bad-boy son of Robert Boughton, who named him after his friend John Ames.

Now in his forties, Jack has returned to Gilead for reasons unknown—at first. He has a common-law wife and son, and he has come home to see if it would be a suitable home for them as well. His wife—spoiler alert—is black, which means that she and Jack have to deal with laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Such laws wouldn't be an issue in Gilead, but still, Gilead's black residents are long gone. (A church fire drove them out.)

In the end, Jack leaves Gilead, probably not soon to return. His future is as uncertain as his life has been.

Jack's something of a symbol for the uncertainty of the modern world creeping into Gilead—and into the religious convictions of its Christian faithful. Should he be punished for what he has done, or should he be forgiven? Is there room for his unconventional family in this traditional world? Will people be compassionate or judgmental?

In one key scene, Jack Boughton asks John Ames what he thinks about predestination. He's not looking to pick a fight (at least not entirely), and it's not the fun of a debate that interests him. Deep down, Jack fears he may be predestined for an unhappy, squalid existence, no matter what choices he makes. All the love that's been poured on him seems not to have given him the grace to reform his life.

Ames cannot answer Jack's questions. Only time will tell if there's any cause for hope.

An Unexpected Son

When John Ames baptized baby Jack, he didn't expect he'd be giving the kid his own name. When Robert Boughton says "John Ames Boughton" at his son's baptism, it's almost like he's giving his son away to Ames as a token of friendship. That's how Ames takes it, anyway, and that's how Jack takes it, too. Even now, he refers—with traces of irony—to Ames as "Papa" (1.7.67).

It can get awkward, though. When Jack introduces himself to Lila, for example, he calls himself John Ames Boughton. When Lila shows surprise at this name—indicating she didn't know Jack shared her husband's name—Jack takes advantage of her embarrassment. If Lila doesn't know Jack's real name, it means Ames hasn't felt comfortable telling her. "I gather bygones are not bygones yet, Reverend," Jack says to Ames, drawing attention to the fact that the older man hasn't forgiven him yet.

Nevertheless, when Jack needs parental advice, either from a father figure or from a spiritual guide, he turns to Ames. It's to Ames, too, that he confesses his secrets, and it's to Ames that he says farewell to Gilead, perhaps for the last time.

Preacherly Jack

Ames describes Jack as "preacherly." That seems like an odd thing to say about someone who's led a rather scandalous life—and, more importantly, who doesn't even buy into the faith. So what does Ames actually mean?

Well, he's thinking more in terms of general personality:

There's a way of being formal and deferential and at the same time cordial, while maintaining an air of dignified authority," Ames says "I never mastered this myself, but my father had it and Boughton had it…But of sheer and perfect preacherliness I have never seen a finer example than this Jack Boughton, heathen that he is, or was. Your mother asked him if he would like to say grace, and he did, with an elegant simplicity that seemed almost wasted on macaroni and cheese. (1.8.14)

One of the things that makes Jack interesting is this duality in his character. Despite the fact that he has a dignified authority and cordial demeanor, for example, he can be the most frustrating person to deal with:

He treats words as if they were actions," says Ames. "He doesn't listen to the meaning of words, the way other way other people do. He just decides whether they are hostile, and how hostile they are. He decides whether they threaten him or injure him, and he reacts at that level. If he reads chastisement into anything you say, it's as if you had taken a shot at him. As if you had nicked his ear. (1.11.16)

Jack is a guy with serious potential. He's got a lot of gifts, he's disarmingly honest when he wants to be, and he has a natural feeling for the spiritual side of life. Ames's biggest challenge is to understand, appreciate, and bring out this side of Jack, whose tough life hasn't necessarily allowed him to become what he could have become.

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