Study Guide

John Ames in Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson

John Ames

Old and frail, pious and learned, John Ames hasn't much time left in his life—but he has a lot to live for: he truly loves his young wife and son and worries about what will happen to them once he's gone.

John Ames was born in 1880 in the state of Kansas, "the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames" (1.2.2). He's lived seventy-four of his seventy-six years in Gilead, Iowa. Now his heart is failing—"the doctor used the term 'angina pectoris'"—and his days are numbered (1.1.4).

John Ames has decided to use his remaining days for the benefit of his son. He writes his son a letter—a very long letter—trying to make up with words for the long absence he'll have from his son's life. "I'm writing your begats, and you seem very pleased with the idea," Ames notes (1.2.2). This will be his family history, his genealogy.

Not a Saint

Early on his letter, Ames makes sure his son knows he's not "by any means a saint" (1.2.83). "My life does not compare with my grandfather's. I get much more respect than I deserve" (1.2.88).

Ames's isn't a bad fellow, by any means, or lazy man, like some dudes around town. He's just lived a rather quiet life, compared to some, and he hasn't done anything spectacularly terrible or spectacularly grand. Much of his life was marked by loneliness. He's spent it writing thousands of pages (no worries: not this letter), preaching from the pulpit, and he prays when he can. Now, in old age, he finally has a wife and a son; but because he's way over the hill, will soon pass away from them.

The point is that Ames is a good enough to guy to know that he's not that good. He's humble, and that's a quality that helps him understand the complexity of life and the complexity of the people around him. He knows there's no one-size-fits-all kind of faith, and he knows it's not his job to judge people. His job is to help people.

The Old Preacher

Early in his letter, John Ames apologizes to his son for the limitations of his age. "I regret very deeply," he says, "the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time" (1.1.5).

Ames doesn't like being old. He doesn't like the difficulty he has getting his books and sermons together. He doesn't like it when the youth in town think of him as "the old preacher" (1.1.8). He also doesn't like it when other people try to comfort him (1.2.85).

But Ames doesn't complain for long: "As you read this," he writes to his son, "I hope you will understand that when I speak of the long night that preceded the days of my happiness, I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort—grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace. Almost never" (1.6.3).

Ames is a man of faith and hope. He's suffered—he lost a wife and child in his youth, for example—but he's pressed on. He doesn't have the answers he wishes he had—about the fate of Jack Boughton, for example, or the state of his brother's soul, or how his son's life will turn out—but he chooses to hope, even without having resolved these matters.

Even in his theology, Ames can get by without every last question answered. "For a man of the cloth, you're pretty cagey," Jack Boughton says to him (1.14.62). It's true. Ames has his convictions, principles, and beliefs. He'll argue his interpretations of Scripture. But at the end of the day, he's not prone to think every religious question has a satisfying answer. This is another aspect of his humility: he knows that reality is too complex for one person to ever fully understand, so he keeps an open mind even when he sticks to his convictions.

What matters most to Ames, concerning himself at least, is whether he's able to live according to the shifting dictates of his faith. The return of Jack Boughton to Gilead puts Ames to his biggest test: can he forgive someone he's distrusted and disliked since he first met him? Can he see the beauty in Jack and impress that beauty on his own son?

The answer seems to be yes.

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