Image from Gilead book cover

Discussion Questions for Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Discussing a work of literature with others not only builds a better understanding of the literature, but also builds community by making relationships stronger through a shared space and shared focus.

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For Gilead in particular, corporate response through conversation can help people share with each other, learn more about one another, and discuss relevant, enduring questions that can affect life going forward.

Many of the best conversations proceed organically.  But, it can be hard to get them going.  So, here are a few suggestions and topics for conversation.

Tips for Conversations about Gilead

  1. Have copies of the book available so people involved in the conversation can look at passages and refer to them.
  2. If your discussion is scheduled ahead of time, perhaps give people access to this site’s “Reading Guide” [link] so that they can come prepared with reflections and so on.
  3. It can be helpful to ask people to bring a few things to the discussion: (1) a passage that they identify as getting to the heart of the novel; (2) a passage about which they had a strong response; (3) a question about the book or life that emerges from their reading.

Discussion One: Good Life, Good Death

Read the first two paragraphs of Gilead aloud together. In them, the narrator, John Ames refers to the good life (“there are many ways to live a good life”) and the good death (“I might be gone sometime . . . .To be with the Good Lord”).

Questions about the text

  • What is the novel’s vision of living the good life? Find some passages.
  • What is the novel’s vision for good preparation for death? Find some practices or passages that emerge from the text.

Questions to build community

  • What IS the good life? What vision of the good life emerged from your upbringing?
  • How has your vision of the good life changed over your lifetime or in the various locations in which your life has been lived?
  • What do you think it would mean to die well? How should Christians prepare for death? Have you heard of or seen any helpful examples?

Discussion Two: Vocation and the Meaning of Work

After the opening of the novel, in which John Ames says “there are many ways to live a good life,” the novel reflects consistently on the meaning of work--using work in the ministry as one example. Passages abound. “The great benefit,” Ames writes, “of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate.  It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore” (7).  He thinks over too, what all adds up to, tallies up his boxes of sermons on page 19, mentions his embarrassment at having to dispose of them on page 40-41, and even discusses how he will do so at the end of the novel on page 245. 

Questions about the text

  • What do you think John Ames means when he writes about the concentration of the religious vocation?
  • What are key moments (successes or failures or experiences) and relationships in Ames’s journey in working through the meaning of his life’s work in the ministry?
  • Do you think Ames ever comes to terms with the meaning and value of his work in the ministry?  

Questions to build community

  • How may Christians in lots of vocations concentrate and have a good basic sense of what is being asked of us and what we may ignore?
  • How should we conceive of meaningful work?

Discussion Three: Race and Christian Community

John Ames writes, “There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either” (6). Gilead seems to be the record of a man’s trying to grapple with what’s happening under the surface of everyday life. One of the main subterranean aspects of life in Gilead for its 1950s residents is its race history. Ames tells a funny story about its misguided support of the underground railroad (58-63--literally underground!); John Ames’ grandfather has fierce and morally questionable ties to Bleeding Kansas and abolitionist history (105-110); and the town has become, mid-twentieth century, even more racially segregated than it had been (171-172) in a state that had prided itself on being a “bright, radical star” against slavery and racial injustice.

Allow members of your group a few minutes to re-read the passages above--and then reread the following passage (on pages 36-37)

I think that was a big part of [Ames’s grandfather] running off to Kansas. That and the fire at the Negro church. It wasn’t a big fire--someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the smoke and put the flames out with a shovel. (The Negro church used to be where the soda fountain is now, though I hear that’s going out of business. That church sold up some years ago, and what was left of the congregation moved to Chicago. By then it was down to three or four families. The pastor came by with a sack of plants he’d dug up from around the front steps, mainly lilies. He thought I might want them, and they’re still there along the front of our church, needing to be thinned. I should tell the deacons where they came from, so they’ll know they have some significance and they’ll save them when the building comes down. I didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather. He told me they were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them.)

Questions about the text

  • How does John Ames think about this incident and race in the town?
  • Of what significance are the lilies?
  • How does the novel want you to think about race and the church/town? How might the historical allusions and baseball references play into the novel’s take on race and the church?

Questions to build community

  • To what extent does your experience of church and race compare to that described in Gilead?
  • What does this look at a 1950s rural, white church and town offer readers in the 21st century? 

Discussion Four: Relationships and Reconciliation

Gilead is a novel-letter written from a father to a son, and other father-child pairings abound in the novel:  Ames’ Grandfather and Ames’ Father, Ames’ Father and Ames’ brother Edward, Ames’ Father and Ames himself, John Ames and his daughter who has died, John Ames and Jack, Old Boughton and Jack, Old Boughton and the other Boughton children, Jack and his child who has died, Jack and his child Robert. And there are passages about children and parents throughout--Biblical references and so on.  Most of the relationships are troubled in some way, circumscribed with deep tensions and hurts, and disagreements on theology and politics.

Questions about the text

  • Choose a parent-child pairing above and describe the nature of the relationship as portrayed in the text. 
  • What are points of conflict and tension?
  • How does John Ames work through issues surrounding the brokenness in his relationships with his father and with Jack?
  • Some readers view Gilead as having strong ties to the parable of the prodigal son. What might such a reading offer you by way of help in understanding the text?

Questions to build community

  • Henry Nouwen has written that the point of the parable of the Prodigal Son is to teach us all to become more like the Father.  What does Gilead, as a reading of the prodigal son narrative, do to illuminate the particular power of the prodigal son narrative for an American Christian community?
  • Brokenness in parent-child relationships is a common difficulty; how might the journeys of John Ames and Jack Boughton--or any of the other parents/children in the novel--speak into the brokenness in your community’s background or present day struggle?

Discussion Five: Community, Care, and Loneliness

After his wife and child die, and his grandfather, father, and brother leave, John Ames is often quite lonely, despite the lovely friendship of Robert Boughton and the kind ministrations of his congregation. What sort of community is it?

Questions about the text

  • What sort of community is portrayed in Gilead? As we see it through John Ames’ narrative, is the town of Gilead a good place for Christian community? How so?  What examples of Christian community emerge?
  • How does the novel reconcile loneliness and Christian community?

Questions to build community

  • How would you describe the communities in which you live and serve?
  • Who are insiders and outsiders?  Who stays and who leaves?
  • What are major events in the histories of your communities, and to what extent has the community responded to/grown through times of difficulty?
  • How might story-telling contribute to the building/healing of community?  Are there classic stories--funny, meaningful, inspiring, exemplary--that members go back to (or COULD if they were shared), such as the stories shared on pages 58-63 and 96-97 in Gilead?

Discussion Six: Place

Gilead is a profoundly Midwestern novel, shot through with images of American heart-landscape, such as this:

As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial--if you remember them-and I thought of another morning, fall, a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and there was such energy in the things transporting among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me.  I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me. (56-57)

The end of the novel closes with a prose hymn to the prairie--linking its travail to Christ’s: “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded” (246).

Questions about the text

How does the landscape function in the text?  To what extent does Robinson elevate landscape from setting to theme? Why is the Midwesternness important?

Gilead is a novel named after a place--a place where some people leave and some people stay. The name alludes in part to a biblical phrase from Jeremiah 8:22 “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? /Why then is there no healing / for the wound of my people?” that became an African American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” What is the effect of thinking through the resonances of this title and its enduring questions alongside the content of the novel Gilead? Why does John Ames stay? Why does Jack Boughton leave?

Questions to build community

  • What is the history of the place in which your community resides? Where can you learn more? How would you map it?
  • How much do you engage the landscape of your community? What are practices that help you see it?
    Who stays?  Who leaves? Why?
  • What are the balms of your community?  Where is the healing?

Discussion Seven: Radiant Passages

Members of your book discussion may come prepared with passages, or you may take a few minutes prior to discussion finding some.

Start with those that get to the heart of the novel.  Have volunteers--popcorn style--share their passages, taking turns among everyone to look up the passages in question and read them aloud.  After each passage, let the volunteer and another few group members offer up what they identified as key ideas, images, and feelings offered in the passage.  After several have contributed to the discussion, try as a group to articulate what has been shared as the heart or essence of the novel. What do you learn about your group’s own character and makeup by the topics, ideas, images, and feelings marked as central to Gilead?

Next, share some passages that evoked strong feelings and response (wonder, anger, passion, delight, confusion, nostalgia, curiosity, revulsion, et cetera).  Discuss them in a similar way as the heart of the novel passages.  After hearing from several people, ask the group: do particular feelings and passages offered here change your group’s assessment of the essence of the novel?  In what ways?

If your group needs some ideas for passages to consider, try these:

  • The paragraph on page 19 that begins, “Your mother is respectful of my hours up here in the study.  She’s proud of my books.  She was the one who actually called my attention to the numbers of boxes I have filled with my sermons and my prayers. . . .”
  • The paragraph on page 24 that begins “Boughton takes a very dim view of him, because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issues as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. . . . “
  • The paragraph on pages 27-28 that begins, “That mentioned of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church.  There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me.  The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. . . .”
  • The paragraph on page 45 that begins, “A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. . . .”
  • The paragraph on 56-57 that begins, “I have been thinking about existence lately. . .” and ends, “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”
  • The paragraph on pages 66-67 that begins, “this morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success.  I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. . . .”
  • The paragraph on page 96-97, which begins, “Whenever I have held a Bible in my hands, I have remembered the day they buried those ruined Bibles under the tree in the rain, and it is somehow sanctified by that memory….And my own church is sanctified by the story that was told to me. . . .”
  • The paragraph on page 102 beginning “I’m trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I’m trying to tell you thinks I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way.  When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters.  There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. . . .”
  • The paragraph on page 197 that begins, “Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides with me. . . . In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. . . “
  • The blank page between pages 215-217 of the novel.  While there are small breaks in the text throughout, which seem to indicate where writing was left off and picked up again, this is the only long blank section in the novel. What do you think it’s for?  Why is it there?
  • The paragraph on page 245 that begins “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance--for a moment or a year or the span of a life. . . .” or any of the following paragraphs until the end of the book.

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