Every time I read Marilynne Robinson’s quiet novel Gilead, I appreciate it differently. It’s written in the form of an elderly preacher’s diary/letter to his young son. The Rev. John Ames has been diagnosed with a heart condition and expects his seven year old child to grow up without him, so he writes this letter as a way of speaking into his son’s life. But the reflective process of journaling leads the pastor to some profound insights into his own life. It’s not an exciting book: but it is beautiful, and true.
The first time I read it, I remember being struck by the way Robinson creates and maintains a fictional voice of such incredible wisdom and consistency. It’s difficult enough for a writer to create a realistic voice for a character of the opposite gender (For failures, see Hemingways’s A Farewell to Arms, for successes see Cather’s My Antonia), but to craft an entire book in the voice of a fictional character of the opposite gender? And to give that character a lifetime’s worth of literary and biblical references to draw from? Amazing.
My second time through, I grew to appreciate Ames as a person, more than a fictional voice. My husband always says that the great characters of literature are more real than most people ever are. I used to take offense at the idea, but I’ve come to agree that, yes, Odysseus exists in a greater way than I have had the opportunity to exist, and Anna Karenina’s personhood–pathetic though it may be in some respects–eclipses my own in sheer magnitude. Ames does not overwhelm one like these other literary giants; rather, he plumbs a depth of knowledge, wisdom, and compassion that most people will never achieve. His wisdom is best manifest in the way that he acknowledges his weaknesses and moral failings as he experiences them. Instead of waiting until frustration or selfishness has passed to look back on it and note “Why yes, I was thinking wrongly at that time,” he recognizes his errors in real time. Maybe some day I’ll arrive at this height of spiritual sensitivity, but not any time soon.
I just finished re-reading Gilead a third time a few days ago, and it’s been sinking in differently again. This time, I found myself grieving along with Ames at the thought of missing out on his son’s life. The concept was sad enough when I first encountered his story, but I can appreciate the magnitude of that loss so much more now. Is this one of those hidden gifts of motherhood? That bearing a child allows you to go back and re-read every story with a completely different perspective? An entirely new point of identification? I’m so accustomed to identifying with the young characters, the children, the daughters. Will I someday watch Fiddler on the Roof and feel Golde’s pain more keenly than Chava’s? It’s an astonishing thought.
And the change is coming on so quickly, too! Just last night, Zach and I were watching Toy Story 3. Near the very end, as Andy plays with his toys one last time, Zach looked over to catch me crying quietly. (He’s so used to this now, after eight months of pregnancy, that he just chuckles at the sight of my tears, as he should.)
“What’s the matter, honey?” he asked, ever so gently.
Let me just say that I know now and I knew at the time that I was being irrational, but I didn’t have time to come up with a more reasonable excuse on the spot. So, choking back sobs (heavens, I’m tearing up again!), I finally admitted the truth:
“It’s just that….I just….I DON’T WANT OUR BABY TO LEAVE FOR COLLEGE!”