Study Guide

Gilead Mortality

By Marilynne Robinson


I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. (1.1.3)

Here is an interesting observation about religion: the devout often ask their pastors unanswerable questions, expecting them to know what no human can know from experience. The living cannot be expert witnesses of death. But people want to know, and the preacher seems like the person to ask about it.

It's humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then to have to find a way to dispose of it. (1.2.86)

Ames has written thousands and thousands of pages, but like him, these words will pass away. Some may outlive him, but they too are eventually mortal.

I know they're planning to pull it down. They're waiting me out, which is kind of them. (1.5.39)

Ames's congregation wants to build a new church, but they know the sight of the current church's destruction would destroy Ames, so they've opted to wait to build the new one until after Ames has passed on.

This is another thing you know and I don't—how this ends. That is to say, how my life will seem to you to have ended. (1.7.4)

In a way, Ames is communicating with his son as if from the past into the future. His son will know how the story ends before his father does—in the sense that his father's words will have a fuller meaning in the future then they have when he is writing them.

I'm pretty sure a lot of the treasures and monuments I like to read about now and then don't even exist anymore. (1.7.13)

Here is another sign of the transitory nature of the world. The things that interest Ames, that he cherishes, have not all survived even during Ames's own lifetime. It's as if his world is passing away before him.

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. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. (1.15.23)

It's been said that music is especially beautiful because its life is so brief: a note is played and heard, and then it's gone. There's beauty in mortality precisely because beauty, almost by definitions, is momentary; it doesn't live forever.

…when I see you, at the end of your good long life, neither of us will be old. We will be like brothers. That is how I imagine it. (1.15.35)

Ames doesn't imagine heaven as a place; he thinks of it a time of resurrection and restoration with those who, like him, have died. He imagines a glorified state of youth, where fathers and sons are more like brothers.

I do hope to die with a quiet heart. I know that may not be realistic. (1.15.120)

Even close to death, Ames worries about what tomorrow will bring. He figures his heart will be restless until it rests in his God.

I'll pray, and then I'll sleep. (2.21.149)

The final words of the letter—and the novel—speak to the old man Ames has become. He's a mortal man who finds usefulness in prayer, and sleep, which he almost certainly does more of these days, is sort of like death. Ames is preparing for his final rest.

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