Discussion questions for "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson
- The narrator writes a long letter to his son. He
says "I am writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder
what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or
later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more
than a miracle." What other reasons does the narrator have
for writing his letter?
- Why is the epistolary format of this book effective?
How has the author used the format to tell the story and to reveal
- The narrator seems particularly interested in and
observant of the nature and quality of light. "I have
paid a great deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to
do it justice." Later he calls light a metaphor. How
does the narrator describe light throughout the book? What
special significance does light have to the narrator?
- The narrator explores relationships among four generations
of fathers and sons. What principles (such as respect or loyalty)
govern these relationships? How do they help the
relationships? How do they fail?
- What happened to cause such a deep chasm between the
narrator's father and grandfather? Why was it so important
for the narrator's father to find the grandfather's grave?
- How did each of the three Reverends Ames fulfill their
roles as minister to their congregations? How were they
similar? How did they differ?
- The Civil War and the earlier fight for
abolition of slavery in Kansas profoundly affected the Ames
family. What drove the grandfather to step out of the pulpit
to fight for the free soilers? What shaped the father's unforgiving
- "There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and
I want you to know that. Because that is the truth, even if no one
remembers it." Was the grandfather a hero? The father?
Why or why not? Do all small Iowa towns have their saints and
- The narrator tells of his grandfather's fiery sermons
urging his congregation to take up arms in the fight to free the
slaves. "He did preach those young men into the
war. And his church was hit hard." The narrator's father, on
the other hand, preached pacifism. Which one was right?
What is the appropriate role of the clergy in times of war and
- The grandfather claimed to have visions, direct
encounters with the Lord. The narrator's father says this was
simply typical of the times. The narrator reflects on visions
by saying "I believe that the old man did indeed have far too
narrow an idea of what a vision might be. He may, so to
speak, have been too dazzled by the great light of his experience
to realize that an impressive sun shines on us all. Sometimes
the visionary aspect of any particular day comes in the memory of
it, or it opens to you over time." (p92?) What "visions" did
the characters experience? Do any events or experiences in your
life correspond to any of these three interpretations of visionary
- "I felt certain that he should hide the guilt of his father,
and that I should also hide the guilt of mine. I loved him
with the strangest, most miserable passion when he stood there
preaching about how the Lord hates falsehood and how in the end all
our works will be exposed in the naked light of truth." (p86)
How did the Ames men cope with these deep contradictions in belief?
In what other situations does the narrator find similar
conflicts? How does he deal with them? Does he resolve
- How does the author use language effectively to convey
elusive or difficult concepts? What is your favorite passage
in the book?
- Why was it so difficult for the narrator to forgive or accept
Jack Boughton? Do you see parallels in this relationship with
the relationship between the narrator's grandfather and father?
- The sacraments of baptism and communion recur through the
narrator's reflections as pivotal moments in his life--the baptism
of the cats, the baptism of his daughter, the biscuit his father
gave him after the church fire, his own son's first communion.
Discuss the author's presentation of these concepts and their role
in everyday life.
- What is the balm in Iowa's Gilead? Does the narrator find
- Who is the narrator's young wife? Where did she
come from? Why did she marry him?
- Discuss the narrator's relationships with the women in
his life--his mother, his wife Louisa, and his second wife, as well
as the women of his congregation.
- The narrator spent 45 years alone between the death of his
first wife and marriage to his second wife. How would you
characterize those 45 years?
- Why did this book win a Pulitzer Prize?
Discussion questions on the Picador
Web site. Click on "Reading Group
Guides" on the left column.