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Seeing Jack: The Prodigal in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

March 30th, 2020 | 12 min read

By Matthew LaPine

‘For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?’ 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. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable— which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

-John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, 224-225

What do you do when a prodigal returns but does not repent? How are you to look at the ambiguous physical return of the prodigal? Marilynne Robinson depicts the complexity of the ambiguous return in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead. It is possible to read the book as a retelling of the prodigal son parable from the perspective of a “father” who is not sure if his prodigal son has truly come home. The narrative of Gilead is told from the point of view of a dying 76-year-old Midwestern pastor, the Reverend John Ames.

Ames is a “father” in two senses. On the one hand, he has a complicated relationship with his best friend’s son, John “Jack” Ames Boughton, who was named after him (“a godson, more or less,” p. 104). Jack represents the prodigal. On the other, Ames also has a seven-year-old son from a second marriage (having been widowed and bereft of an infant daughter some fifty years prior).

Ames writes his memoir to this natural son to pass on his story and his vision of the world, to be read after his own death. Increasingly, as the narrative develops, the book focuses on the complex relationship between Ames and Jack. The relationship becomes the parable from which the boy and the reader come to know the Reverend John Ames.

Admittedly, the issue of the prodigal son is couched with a long list of other tales and reflections about, for example, the challenge of Feuerbach, the concern for racial injustice, the place for pacifism, and loyalty to places like Gilead. But the Jack thread is the central concern needing resolution.

Jack has recently returned to Gilead, Iowa after a long estrangement from the people of this place. The circumstances of his leaving are full of wrongdoing and shame. But what is less clear is in what spirit he has returned, as penitent or sinner. The reader begins to realize that before his death Ames must administer the balm of Gilead. However, he finds himself unable or unwilling to offer consolation to the weary and wandering soul because he is unable to see him with the eyes of grace.

In the familiar parable of the prodigal son, the reader is let in on the nature of the son’s return, though the father is not. The father simply sees his son “still a long way off,” runs, and embraces him. So Gilead is an argument for fathers, a plea for Christians to adopt the eyes of grace to the prodigals in all our lives.

The book begins bracingly, “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime.” (p. 3) The reader recognizes in this line the complexity of communicating something very heavy to someone very young. The words “I’m dying” are both too light and too heavy for this moment. The boy will not be made to understand, and Ames cannot try. He invests his frankness in the memoir, which is full of memories of love and loss, and mature reflections of Ames’s inner dialogue. It would not have been possible to communicate these things to the boy for years to come. It is a sort of stream-of-consciousness as Ames struggles both to predict and to apologize for what might lie ahead for the boy.

Jack doesn’t enter the story for some twenty pages, and even in this place Ames says, “It actually took me a minute to think who that was.” (p. 21) The topic here is “Old Boughton” (Jack’s real father) and how he ought to be remembered. Ames admits that Old Boughton “is a little cross now from time to time.” (p. 21) Ames explains that Boughton’s unease about Jack explains his worry and weariness.

When Jack arrives on the scene, Ames says he is “smiling as if there were some old joke between us,” and that the “first words out of his mouth” are a lie—“you’re looking wonderful, papa!” (p. 105, referring to Ames) It is here in the story that we see the major tension of the book begin to develop. The description of Jack’s arrival is tremendously interesting because we are given such an interpreted account. To an outsider, the greeting might have seemed warm and playful. To Ames, who knows that the “old joke” is not a joke, the greeting is both disrespectful of Jack and embarrassing to himself.

We are told he is “struggling out of the porch swing at the time, which would be no great problem except of course there’s nothing steady about a porch swing to grab on to.” (ibid) As Ames is helped by Jack from the seat he notices how much taller Jack is than him saying, “it was as if I had stepped right into a hole, he was so much taller than I than he’d ever been before. Of course I knew I’d been losing some height, but this was downright ridiculous.” (ibid) He continues, “One moment I’m a respectable citizen reading up on the political views of Estes Kefauver while his lovely young wife tends her zinnias in the mild morning light and his fine young son comes fondly mishandling that perpetually lost sheep of a cat . . . [t]hen here comes Jack Boughton . . .” (ibid) One minute he is relishing all the glories surrounding him, and the next, he is “hoisted” to his feet by Jack Boughton. And significantly, he also notices the look in his wife’s face at the contrast between himself and Jack, the old man and the young.

There is, in this scene, the first indications of a general theme that will continue throughout the book. The reader understands that John Ames is providing for us the eyes with which he sees the world. They are marvelous eyes, seeing in the smallest things “pleasures [as] shafts of glory,” as C.S. Lewis put it. And yet, these eyes are also troubled by the arrival of this Jack Boughton.

What Ames sees in Jack is a rival for his wife and family, an atheist, a person he cannot trust, and most significantly, the person who about twenty years earlier fathered and abandoned a child from pure “meanness.” We can see then, through the interpretive eyes of Ames, the worry that he will never quite specify. He is worried that Jack, who is about the age of his wife, will settle into his place when he is gone, and, being the same Jack that he has always been, will destroy the very glories that Ames is so loath to leave.

Surprisingly, the tension is not actually between Jack and Ames, as the reader might expect. It is rather between Ames and himself. The chief struggle for Ames is to see Jack with the eyes of grace. There are moments where this vision almost comes. For instance, in spite of his worries about his own family, he gives the following description:

I came home for lunch today and found you playing catch in the street with Jack Boughton. . . . Young Boughton was teaching you to scoop up grounders, probably to cover for the fact that you weren’t likely to actually catch anything on the fly. You were being very earnest about it all, running hither and thither on those clever child legs of yours, and he was saying, “Come on, come on,” and pounding his glove, and then, in a sportscaster’s voice, “He’s rounding second, folks. Will the throw be in time?” And you would lose the ball again, and he would say, “This is amazing, folks. The runner appears to have tripped on his shoelace! He’s down! He’s taking a while to catch his breath! Now he’s up, he’s headed for the plate!” He would say, “He’s dragging his left leg, folks, he’s hopping on one foot!” And by then you were giggling considerably, but you got the ball to him finally, and he said, “Well, folks, that runner’s out!” It was beautiful to watch you two in the flickering shade. (p. 115)

Yet, Ames cannot shake his old way of seeing, grounded as it is in historical fact. The fact is that Jack had impregnated a poor local girl with whom he had no business involving himself. The fact is that he left the child to her care with little to no support, and in those squalid conditions, the child died of an infection from a cut. And what is most galling to Ames is that Jack assumes an air of decency he does not deserve.

He notes with bitterness, “this John Ames Boughton with his quiet voice and his preacherly manner, which, by the way, he has done nothing to earn, or to deserve,” adding cautiously, “[t]o the best of my knowledge, at any rate.” (p. 135)

For all his worry, however, Ames never does explicitly “warn” his son and wife about Jack Boughton, aside from the memoir. He feels he cannot trust his feelings on the matter and spends a good deal of time in the book examining his way of seeing Jack. He is ashamed to think how impatient he is to see him leave.

There are two “revelatory moments” for John Ames. The first follows a porch visit with Ames where Jack asks a probing question about predestination. Ames sees Jack here as a mere provocateur, but is prompted to reconsider when Jack asks for a follow up appointment at the church. When Ames finds himself “losing” this conversation theologically, to his considerable discomfiture he ends the interview with what he cynically terms “pleading old age.”

He finds himself carried away with describing the long experience of loving God with the people of Gilead in this old church. He says, “When this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth’s own authenticity if I did not also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.” (p. 197) His memoir even tries to disown the tears that accompanied these words, pleading tiredness. But still, it is only through these tears that for the first time he sees Jack as looking convincing saying, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.” In the eyes of Ames, the prodigal is perhaps now in view “a long way off” (Luke 15:20).

He says later that evening as he lies in bed, “Well, I close my eyes and I see Jack Boughton, and it seems to me that more than he has matured or aged he has wearied” (p. 202)— vision altered if not corrected (people who look like trees, Mark 8:24). We have some evidence of altered vision in that it is first here that Ames imagines Jack as perhaps sharing in future peace.

Remarking on an act of thievery Jack had committed as a boy, he says, “I will ask him how he did that, someday when our souls are at peace and we can laugh about it.” For all this progress, however, he thinks it is disgraceful that he cannot speak to him in a way becoming of a pastor (p. 212).

The second of these revelatory moments comes near the very end of the book. Jack a second time comes into the sanctuary to find Ames. Finding by this point a more receptive auditor in Ames, he tells as much as there is to say about why he has come home and allows Ames to see a photograph of his wife and child. Ames says simply, “You see, the wife is a colored woman. That did surprise me.” (p. 247)

Jack tells him the story of how he met this woman and her family, and the story of his son. He is asking advice about whether or not to tell his father about this family; this is his reason for coming home. His concern is for his father’s well-being. He does not want to worry him, knowing the probable consequences of this on his father’s health.

By asking advice he pays Ames, his surrogate father, his namesake, the compliment of confidence, even quipping, “If it were you, not my father…” (p. 261). Ames recognizes this and sees for the first time, Jack as he is. It is in this scene, seeing this second woman, this second child, and the fatherly concern for them, that he first says, “You are a good man.” (p. 263) At the close of this scene he summarizes the meeting: “You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing this all out. Well, on one hand it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him.” (p. 264)

There is only one more significant encounter between the prodigal and his namesake. As Jack is leaving town he is again seen by Ames “walking up toward the bus stop, looking too thin for his clothes, carrying a suitcase that seemed to weigh almost nothing. Looking a good deal past his youth. Looking like someone you wouldn’t much want your daughter to marry. Looking somehow elegant and brave.” (p. 272)

Of the few people who know and love Jack, only Ames now can understand why he has to leave. Ames has fully transformed as a character from hardly remembering Jack to seeing through his eyes. And with the eyes of grace, he asks for a kindness. He wants to bless Jack.

And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—“The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream. (p. 274)

Robinson’s story does not resolve itself as we might like. It’s not clear that the blessing has accomplished anything, or that Jack has been restored. But what we do know is that the “father” has been restored in welcoming him. The old man who wished to explain himself to his son before he died has come to understand himself and to see the ‘godson’ that he never loved as he should. The resolution that has come is that the Reverend John Ames has come home as a fully dutiful son. He has administered the balm that Gilead could offer, the blessing of welcome.

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