Study Guide

Gilead Old Age

By Marilynne Robinson

Old Age

And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. (1.1.1)

Ames fears that his son will see him as he is: old and frail. His son is very young—too young to form an accurate assessment of his father's age, but there will be signs, moments when his son realizes that his father is not like most other fathers.

Of course your mother knows all about it. She said if I feel good, maybe the doctor is wrong. But at my age there's a limit to how wrong he can be. (1.1.9)

Even without his heart condition, Ames would only have so much time left on earth. No matter what, he's not going to see his son grow up. He's always known that, so he's had a little time to prepare and think about how he might establish a connection with his son even after his death.

I am also inclined to overuse the word "old," which actually has less to do with age, it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. (1.2.47)

Gilead has become familiar to Ames. Maybe too familiar? He can't leave. He is an old man in an old place, a place that is familiar and comfortable. He can no more leave Gilead than old Boughton can leave his house.

To be useful was the best thing old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear. (1.3.14)

Neither Ames nor Boughton can contribute to home and town life as they once could. The desire to help out is no less strong than it was in their youth, but their bodies no longer cooperate. Boughton, especially, needs others to care for him. He can't be useful; he can only be.

Sometimes I wonder why she'd marry an old man like me, a fine, vital woman like she is. (1.4.3)

Ames knows the answer: Lila needed a stable, settled life. More importantly, though, she loves him. His age is simply not an issue.

She died promptly and decorously, out of consideration for me, I suspect, since she had been concerned about my health. (1.4.16)

A minister like Ames sees death frequently. He has a sense of perspective—even humor—about it; without that, so much exposure to death might become a burden, weighing him down.

How I wish you could have known me in my strength. (1.7.76)

The memories Ames's son will have of him will not be memories of a young, active father. Ames once was that man, but he grew old long before his son came into existence.

Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it. (1.7.136)

Take advantage of your youth while you have it: time moves more quickly the older you get.

The fact is, I don't want to be old. And I certainly don't want to be dead. I don't want to be the tremulous coot you barely remember. (1.14.4)

A Christian man, Ames believes in heaven and in resurrection, but his beliefs don't make him any more welcoming of old age. He misses his youth, and he will miss his wife and son once he's gone.

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