Study Guide

Robert Boughton in Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson

Robert Boughton

Once tall and impressive, Robert Boughton has become frail in his old age—frailer than Ames, even, who's older than he is. "Reduced to a heap of joints," he says of himself (1.2.81). He and Ames grew up in Gilead together and became BFFs. Because he's so frail, Boughton doesn't get out much or do a whole lot. Porch conversations with Ames are a highlight of his week.

Like Ames, Boughton's a preacher—or was. While Ames comes from the Congregationalist tradition, Boughton "is a staunch Presbyterian—as if there were any other kind" (1.5.21). Ames notes that the two of them have their disagreements, "though never grave enough to do any harm" (1.5.21). The friends' theological debates have tended to be more along the lines of friendly discussions—maybe heated at times, but not enough that either would mute the other on Twitter.

Toward the end of the novel, the plot is concerned with what Boughton's reaction to his son Jack's secret could be. Glory and Ames both fear that anything too startling could kill the old patriarch. When Jack confides the truth about his wife and child to Ames, Ames doesn't tell his friend or Glory.

In fact, where Jack is concerned, Robert Boughton might not see clearly. Ames explains:

And old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he had favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant. (1.21.114)

Boughton is like the father figure in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son: Robert Boughton loves his son well beyond what his son is due. Is it Boughton's excess of uncritical love that made his son an irresponsible rascal, at least for a while?

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