The structural and literary symbolism of the horizon/horizontality is one of the most powerful and versatile devices in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead (2004). From an organizational perspective, Robinson carries Gilead’s setting, characters, and core narrative over to her subsequent two novels, Home (2008) and Lila (2014), structurally linking the three. Of these partner novels, Gilead most prominently centres around genealogical ties, particularly the relationships between fathers and sons. For example, the male protagonists share names horizontally across family lines, as with the sons John Ames Boughton and Robert Boughton Ames. Yet the connection between Gilead’s fictional genealogies and Robinson’s scholarship on theological genealogies reveals the most radical use of horizontality in her work. Genealogy, as visually understood through the hierarchy of family trees, is vertical given that we speak of individuals descending from prior generations. Even from a Christian perspective, humans, beginning with Adam, are believed to be descended from God. However, genealogy, as seen by Robinson in Gilead and her readings of the New Testament, is horizontal because it symbolizes Christian fellowship and a surrendering of human fatherhood to the ultimate fatherhood of God.

In her most recent book, the collection of Christological essays The Givenness of Things (2015), Robinson explicitly writes about the paternal genealogy of Christ in the New Testament, or rather, lack of one. Her attention to Christ’s paternal roots is reminiscent of the fictional paternal roots in Gilead. Through the connections of theology and genealogy, Robinson paints the complexly “taut skeins” of the paternal relationships in Gilead (14) ultimately drawing a horizontal, Christological, relationship between sons and fathers. Rather than be confined by the linear sense of genealogy, Robinson ultimately asks her readers to interpret the Ames genealogy through the precedence of Christ’s genealogy, which embraces a horizontal framework.

When Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, he fulfilled the telos of the Old Testament genealogies that welcomed the coming of the son of God. Being fully human and fully divine and referring to himself as the “Son of Man” (more on this later), Christ universalizes his direct relationship with God, a relationship that, thanks to his sacrifice, all human beings in Christ share with the spiritual father. This horizontality collapses generational differences, focusing on the direct human-to-God relationship, thus equalizing every human, every generation, on the same genealogical plane. This Christian fellowship is pillared by the example of Christ’s paternal relationships, which Robinson implicitly understands as a horizontal, genealogical framework, particularly in her 2015 essay “Son of Adam, Son of Man.” At first glance, Gilead appears to follow the orthodox vertical genealogy, introducing its male protagonists by their generational order. But the story that unfolds also reveals a horizontal interpretation of genealogy, one that focuses on sons in order to emphasize the superseding, spiritual fatherhood of God, and thus marginalizing the significance of human genealogies.

Gilead’s structure, as its narrator Reverend John Ames explains, illuminates this (for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the narrator as Ames from this point forward). Ames calls his letters to his son his “begats,” referring to the genealogical lists of the Old Testament. In “Son of Adam,” Robinson considers a different meaning of family lines when she explores Jesus’s unconventional genealogy, the only genealogy included in the New Testament. The inextricable linkage of theology and genealogy is an indication that Robinson consciously juxtaposes the family relationships in the Gilead partner novels through the understanding of Christ’s complex familial relationships, which are inherently non-vertical given the absence of a biological human father. The genealogies mapped in Gilead follow the horizontal shape of the Christological genealogy not because of the lack of fathers, but because of the emphasis on the universal, all-forgiving fatherhood of God. The move away from depending upon a biological understanding of family presents itself in Robinson’s other novels, particularly her first, Housekeeping (1980).

Ames’ intention to compile the letters that form the book as his son’s begats, stated within Gilead’s first ten pages, sets up Robinson’s genealogical focus. However, genealogy narrowly defined as the continuous line of descent from ancestor to ancestor, barely fills three sentences in Gilead. Ames paints a very short family tree, only going back three generations from his young son, Robert. The most salient feature of these brief genealogical forays is the shared vocation of the ministry–“My mother’s father was a preacher, and my father’s father was too, and before that, nobody knows, but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess” (Robinson, Gilead 6). Genealogies in the Old Testament, conversely, consume a substantial presence. One of the more important and practical implementations of genealogies in the Judaic second temple period was its use as a “legitimacy principle,” where one’s ancestry served as a requirement to become a rabbi (Johnson 88). Genealogies, Marshall Johnson writes, particularly in the later Judaism of post-exilic writings, served to “preserve the purity of the nation, that is, the identity of the Jewish people” (85). Unlike Judaism, Ames’s Congregationalist church does not require patrilineal evidence to become a member of the church leadership (Congregational Library & Archives). Furthermore, Ames insists to his son that he should feel no obligation to enter the ministry himself (Robinson, Gilead 23). Robinson’s allusion to the vocational intersection of genealogy and theology illustrates that one’s genealogy gains meaning beyond biological history, an idea explored in Housekeeping as well.

Jesus Christ’s genealogy is striking not only for its absent biological paternal history, but also for its unconventional narrative format, at least compared to its Old Testament predecessors. The gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, opens with the genealogy of Jesus, whom he writes is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” thus skipping over direct biological ancestors (Matthew 1:1). Many of the Old Testament begats choose to define genealogies by fatherhood, such as the list of the patriarchs from Adam to Noah: “When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth […] When Seth had lived one hundred five years, he became the father of Enosh […]” (Genesis 5: 3, 6). Luke’s gospel also defines genealogy by sonhood, and even more unusually, arranges the linear genealogy retrospectively, beginning with Jesus: “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Mathat […]” (Luke 3:23-38). He concludes Jesus’s genealogy seventy-four generations later, with “son of Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:23-38). Overstreet argues that Luke’s “ascending framework…emphasizes the person with whom he begins his list, Jesus” (314). I also believe that there is special significance in the choice of the word “son” to describe Christ in his genealogies that is echoed in Robinson’s exploration of the relationships between fathers and sons in Gilead. Choosing to define himself as a “son,” Christ, like Ames, implicitly honors the spiritual and universal fatherhood of God.

Some scholars believe that the word “son” in biblical genealogy is used in a wider sense to connect a person with any one of his ancestors, however remote (Maas). One way of interpreting Robinson’s essay title, borrowed from Luke, is to transliterate his phrase “son of Adam” from the Greek into biblical Hebrew, ben adam, which means “son of man” (as noted in the footnote to Psalm 8:4:  “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”) [1]. Therefore, with the title “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” Robinson explores the reconciling of Christ’s divinity and humanity specifically through genealogy. In the Gospels, Jesus is the only one to use the phrase “son of man” which he uses to refer to himself. For example: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). Robinson also notes that there is remarkable consistency among the Gospel accounts in which the phrase “son of man” appears, a linguistic preservation that survives despite the inconsistent contexts in which the phrase occurs (Robinson, The Givenness of Things 252-3). This illuminates the clearest instance of horizontality present in the Gospels and the Gilead partner novels–the shared narrative, setting, and characters, despite each account’s respective narrator and plot. Therefore, when Robinson or the gospel writers do retell a scene and preserve what is said across perspectival lines, this adds a particular significance to the phrase. For this reason, the words “son of man” greatly interests Robinson, which on its face, she writes, simply means a human being (Robinson, The Givenness of Things 253).

Robinson follows this linguistic line of inquiry in Gilead. Ames introduces himself to the reader, and to his son, by way of sonhood–“I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames” (Robinson, Gilead 9). This structure most closely aligns with Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, though is consistent with Matthew’s as well in placing the person of genealogical focus in the position of sonhood (Jesus and Ames). For Robinson, this emphasis on sonhood establishes the poignant framework of the novel–a dying father prospectively describing himself to the son who will barely know him in conscious life. By addressing the narrative to Ames’s son, Robinson places the reader in the position of the child, which is useful in fleshing out the horizontal genealogical shape of the novel–that God’s fatherhood is universal for humankind, rather than dependent on the linearity and mortality of human fatherhood. Matthew and Luke’s choice of the word “son,” similar to Robinson’s, presages the revelation that comes with Christ’s resurrection; that genealogy is not determinative because all men and women, regardless of heritage, can be the sons and daughters of God.

Therefore, the novel’s begats, rather than working as a mere genealogical list, serve as genealogical retellings. In “The Politics of Genealogies in the New Testament,” Jeremy Punt writes that the literary function of genealogies is to serve “more than lists of names linking generations, genealogies describe and at times even construct whole histories of significance” (377). Robinson says something similar in her essay “Limitation”:

If I am correct that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are both in some degree ironic, critiques of the assumptions that lie behind all genealogy, then there should be no surprise in the fact that laconic Mark altogether omits any mention of Jesus’ descent, and even of his parentage. (The Givenness of Things 264)

For Robinson, genealogies are more than histories of significance, they are also theological statements (The Givenness of Things 269). In 1 Timothy, Paul cautions against those who overemphasize their parentage, “the myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than divine training that is in faith” (264). In Christianity, this faith is the focus on Jesus’s life, teachings, and resurrection, not his family tree. Robinson believes that the “major business of the early church,” which would have included the role of the gospel writers, “was to tell a sacred narrative” (265).  The most important feature of Christ’s family tree is the very lack of one: through Christ, the significance of paternal genealogies is rewritten as a direct relationship with God.

Gilead is thus a literary genealogy, a sacred family narrative Ames writes for his son to read in adulthood. Ames’s gesture is made all the more meaningful because these begats move toward the reconciliations between fathers and sons, expressed as blessings. The very first story Ames shares with his son, which immediately follows his genealogical biography, is Ames’s search for his grandfather’s grave. This pilgrimage is immensely important emotionally and spiritually for Ames, and by including this formative memory so early in the novel Ames further establishes the significance of family in his and his son’s life (Robinson, Gilead 17). More specifically, this memory studies, and ultimately collapses, the generational differences within a family.

After helping clean up his grandfather’s grave, a pubescent Ames stands quietly as his father offers aloud a prayer of pardon. What Ames witnesses when he looks up is an astronomical equilibrium of sun and moon, and simultaneously, a metaphorical equilibrium of three generations of fathers:

At first I thought I saw the sun in the east […] Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down […] They seemed to float on the horizon for quite a long time […] And that grave, and my father and I, were exactly between them, which seemed amazing to me at the time, since I hadn’t given much thought to the nature of the horizon. (Robinson, Gilead 14)

Robinson links genealogy and theology in Gilead most emphatically in this image of the horizon. If only momentarily, these celestial bodies, as well as the fathers and sons, are metaphysically aligned in “dazzle and flame” (Robinson, Gilead 49). The horizon is often considered a metaphor for the liminal, the boundary between the heavens and the earth. In this scene, Ames feels witness to the “miracle” of the mutual blessing between his father and grandfather, emanated from beyond the latter’s grave (48). Ames notes the “palpable currents of light passing back and forth” between the sun and the moon (14). The horizon doesn’t mark a barrier, but instead offers a current of communication.

By situating this blessing in the image of the horizon Robinson also draws attention to the great cosmological and theological question of origins, questions she returns to frequently in her non-fiction (see, for example, “Cosmology” in When I Was a Child I Read Books). According to Christian doctrine, God is the ultimate creator, and, for the purposes of this argument, the first father. The horizon then is a metaphor which subverts the ostensible boundaries between human generations, equalizing the positions of fathers and sons in the ultimate fatherhood of God. Therefore, the visible horizon is not a boundary, but a symbol for the bonds of fatherhood shared between God and every human individual.

The blessing at Ames’s grandfather’s grave serves as a precedent for the novel’s climactic blessing of Jack by Ames. Recalling his initial observation of the grave’s “incompleteness” (Robinson, Gilead 14), an allusion to the sense of regret and bitterness Ames’s father and grandfather harboured towards each other when both were alive, a young Ames leaves the graveyard feeling a “sweet strength,” an “assurance” (48). Not only does the blessing serve to reconcile at least some of this acrimony, Ames learns “what an amazing instrument” one can be in experiencing and distributing a blessing between a father and son (49). Towards the end of Gilead, Ames becomes the instrument of his dear friend, Boughton, in his blessing of fatherhood unto Jack. Jack chooses to share the existence of his son, importantly also named Robert, with Ames rather than with his own father, because he worries the news of a half-black son born out of wedlock might be enough of a shock to kill Boughton, already near death. The sharing of the name Robert among the novel’s youngest sons symbolizes another method by which Gilead horizontally links generations and families. Though Ames is not Jack’s father, he is Jack’s godfather and namesake, and he feels Boughton’s hand on his hand during the blessing (243).

The act of blessing Jack visually recreates a similar horizontal aesthetic as that of the earlier grave scene. Sitting alongside the reverend waiting for his bus out of Gilead, Jack lowers his head so that, Ames notes, it “almost rested […] against my hand” (Robinson, Gilead 260). Their bodies are physically positioned along the same plane, as are, more specifically, Jack’s head and Ames’s hand. The moment is absent of celestial theatrics, but similar in the notable absence of a third generation–the Roberts, Ames and Jack’s sons, and Jack’s father. This time the blessing is a benediction more than a call for pardon: “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father” (241). In this moment, Jack is as much Ames’s son as he is Boughton’s. Where the first blessing of Ames’s grandfather’s grave establishes the ultimate fatherhood of God, this second blessing reinforces the irrelevance of patrilineal genealogy.

Robinson explicitly writes about the insignificance of strict genealogy as she reads it in the New Testament: “In Jesus God brushed away this web of contingency” (The Givenness of Things 247). Jesus complicates the reliance on a conventional patrilineal genealogy in several important ways. First, the ancestors enumerated in Matthew and Luke’s genealogies only establish Joseph’s lineage, whom both gospel writers clearly stipulate is Jesus’s putative, legal father (246). The Christian tradition of Mary’s virgin birth indicates that God is Jesus’s father, which for the first time since Adam, establishes a direct line of descent between man and God (242). Robinson writes that Luke’s exhaustive counting-off of generations acknowledges that “all humankind are the children of Adam, therefore ‘made in the likeness of God’,” resonating with Genesis (248). Robinson writes that by establishing Christ’s origin “as the son of God, shared, as Luke says, by Adam, the gospel writers make ancestry moot,” inviting the interpretation of a universal genealogy and a universal father (248). The purpose of genealogies in the Old Testament is to indicate that Jesus is unique in the line and transforms what genealogies have historically meant. All humanity is now wrapped up in the heritage of Christ, as the sons and daughters of God. This interpretation transfigures the shape of genealogy from one of verticality (a family tree, distinguishing generational differences) to one of horizontality (the horizon, highlighting generational universalism).


* * *

Despite all this emphasis on paternal genealogies, Robinson does not ignore maternal lines; in fact, women figure importantly in the make-up of complex family units both in Robinson’s fiction and Christ’s New Testament genealogies. Most significantly, many biblical scholars believe that Luke’s account traces Jesus’s real parentage through Mary’s genealogy. Heli was Mary’s father, so when Luke writes “He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph, son of Heli” (Luke 3:23), this comports with ancient convention to silence the mother’s genealogical link (Overstreet 321). Though disagreement among scholars exists, if Luke is delineating Christ’s genealogy through his maternal genealogy, then it is only through Mary that Christ is linked to the royal line of David. Therefore, all the Old Testament begats are fulfilled only through Christ’s maternal lineage. Furthermore, Matthew’s genealogy of Christ is unconventional not only for emphasizing sonhood, but also because he includes four women in addition to Mary: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. What makes Matthew’s account unusual is not his decision to include women, which was done on occasion in Old Testament genealogies, but his decision to exclude women who are highly regarded in Jewish circles, such as Sara, the wife of Abraham (Hakh 109). All four of the women he does include have histories with varying degrees of non-chastity (prostitution, adultery), and they each have non-Israelite members in their families, if not identify as such themselves, such as Rahab and Ruth who are Gentiles (Hakh 110). According to a number of scholars (Freed, Overstreet), one reason Matthew inserted these women into Christ’s genealogy was to demonstrate Jesus’s role as a savior to sinners. Raymond Brown proposes an alternative reason for Matthew’s interpolation of these women. Two elements connect these women to Mary. The first is that “there is something extraordinary or irregular in their union with their partners,” and second, “the women showed initiative or played an important role in God’s plan and so came to be considered the instrument of God’s providence or of his Holy Spirit” (Brown 73). This latter interpretation recognizes the vital matriarchal role of Christ’s lineage.

Regardless of Matthew’s decision to insert Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba in Christ’s genealogy, what is clear is that these women are all outsiders, not unlike Lila, Robert’s mother and Ames’s second wife, who has an itinerant past that includes prostitution. Lila’s self-identification as an outsider in Gilead, economically, spiritually, and culturally, is further complicated by her absent biological genealogy. Lila’s idea of family is formed by a childhood lived among a transitory community of migrant workers, contrasted only by the consistent, compassionate presence of Doll, her surrogate mother. Doll singles Lila out as a young child and extracts her from the home where she was abused, and together they become each other’s adoptive family. In fact, Doll names Lila after her sister (Robinson, Lila 10), another example of the horizontal sharing of names across families. Ames, steeped in the legacy and locality of his family history, embraces Lila and her past, what little she offers him. A couple quite literally united by faith–the two meet in the middle of one of Ames’s sermons, and he baptizes her before they marry–neither Ames nor Lila regard knowledge of her genealogy as necessary to building their own family. Though the lack of a maternal genealogy in Robert Boughton Ames’s begats might invite anti-feminist readings of the novel, I believe Robinson instead uses this genealogical structure as an example of the irrelevance of human lineage.

The female protagonists of Housekeeping, Robinson’s other career-defining novel, also share this identity as outsiders, especially in relationship to rebuilding and redefining the family structure. Robinson opens Housekeeping with a female genealogy, given in the first-person: “My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher” (1). As the narrative unfolds, the reader fills in the gaps of the biological Foster family tree. But what is significant about this inaugural genealogy is its emphasis on emotional bonds; it represents Ruth’s lineage of care after her mother’s suicide. Here, as in Gilead, there are recognizable overlaps between theology and Housekeeping’s genealogical structure, as Martha Ravits makes clear:

This genealogy of ordinary women, a revision of Biblical patrilinear genealogies, indicates at the outset how Robinson’s language steeps her novel in textual traditions that recall the very foundations of our cultural inheritance while shifting the vantage point to a female perspective. (645)

What Ravits implicitly argues is that biological lineage is irrelevant when it comes to forming a family unit. Similarly, Ljubica Matek in “Family as an Emotional Construct in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping” argues that the female protagonists’ “identity is constructed through family relationships which are essentially emotional, not biological, legal or spatial” (1). In fact, the home, traditionally the symbol for the family unit, becomes a “non-place” because it is where individuals in the Foster family have historically been distanced from their relationships to each other, as with Sylvia and her daughters (Matek 3). Towards the beginning of Housekeeping, Ruth describes her grandmother’s house in the language of horizontality, encapsulating both the centrality of family and also the claustrophobia that ensues when familial relationships gather meaning only around a specific space. From within, “the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more” (Robinson, Housekeeping 3). When Ruth chooses a nomadic lifestyle with Sylvie, neither “gives up on family or belonging. Rather, Sylvie and Ruth […] prove that family cannot simply be constituted by means of a house or blood and marital ties” (Matek 15).

Some scholars have explored the non-biological construct of Ruth’s family, specifically the “generating absence of the mother,” as an example of the novel’s horizontality, visually reinforced in the image of the railroad (Ryan 350). Katy Ryan writes, “Born of people falling to their deaths (Ruth’s mother and grandfather), Housekeeping ends with a counter-image, an image of crossing over a bridge (horizontality) rather than falling from it (verticality)” (350). Like Robinson’s later protagonist in Gilead, Ruth is drawn toward “images of redemption…because these images reverse gravity, reverse the fatal falls in her family” (355). Both Ruth and Ames illustrate unconventional family units and, thus, the insignificance of biological genealogies through the symbolism of the horizon. Ruth, in crossing Fingerbone’s bridge with Sylvie to draw a new maternal family unit; and Ames, through the paternal blessings offered within and across family lines.


* * *

While Robinson powerfully demonstrates the horizontal genealogical relationship between every human and God, she also shows where Gilead’s characters fail to embrace horizontality in its fullest sense: as equality between all men. Sarah Churchwell points out the irony of Gilead’s trans-historical setting as an “amnesia” of racial justice (Churchwell, “The Balm in Gilead”). By paralleling the three Ames generations, Robinson contrasts Iowa’s radical abolitionist history, embodied in Ames’s grandfather, with Gilead’s present-day passive racism, embodied in Ames himself. Gilead takes place at the cusp of America’s Civil Rights movement in 1956, the same year as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. And yet Ames, along with what seems the rest of the town, fails to act as a “brother’s keeper” to their fellow African American neighbors (Churchwell, “Roundtable Discussion”). As Churchwell asks, in a town as small as Gilead, why didn’t Ames know the pastor of the “Negro church” (Robinson, Gilead 36)? Why didn’t the town do more to keep and protect the diminishing and increasingly vulnerable African American congregation?

In one of the only scenes that Robinson preserves in great detail in both Gilead and Home, another example of the structural horizontality shared among these novels, Jack reveals Ames’s failure to live out his pastoral duty of Christian fellowship. Their conversation concerns an actual article written by Lincoln Barnett in the 1948 Ladies’ Home Journal, titled “God and the American People”. In Gilead, Ames dismisses Barnett as “very interesting” (142); Churchwell, upon reading the article herself, discovers instead a “robust examination of the hypocrisies underpinning Americans’ claims about their own religious attitudes in 1948” (Churchwell, “Roundtable Discussion”). The editors of the Ladies’ Home Journal conducted a Gallup poll to measure “the extent to which Americans consciously associate religion and their conduct” which Barnett interprets as “dramatically incompatible with the facts of American behavior as revealed on every level of existence today” (Barnett). Thus, Churchwell interprets Gilead’s begats in light of America’s history of racial justice and the unwillingness to recognize one’s own moral blindness: “genealogy as a chain of consequences begetting consequences” (“Roundtable Discussion”). Herein lies the weakness of the horizon as metaphor: the human eye perceives only the horizon directly in front of him or her, therefore missing an expansive view of history, an inclusive view of human experience.

So, what then is the nature of the horizon? The word “horizon” traces back from the Greek kyklos, meaning “bounding circle” (Online Etymology Dictionary). In astronomy, too, the horizon is a “great circle of the celestial sphere, the plane of which passes through the centre of the earth and is parallel to that of the sensible horizon of a given place” (Oxford English Dictionary). In theology, circles are frequently used to symbolize the nature of God – infinite and without origin, the first creator. In geometry, every point on a circle’s circumference is equidistant from its center. If we continue with this analogy, the horizon is any point on the circumference of an enormous circle. In Christianity, the center of this circle would be God. A Christological genealogy fulfills the telos of the vertical family tree into one of horizontality, establishing a direct relationship between all humankind and the universal fatherhood of God. But the more accurate shape to illustrate this direct, universal relationship, is circular.

Emerson, an early influence of Robinson’s, reinforces this ideology in his famous “Circles” essay (1841). He writes, “St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere” (1). Of the nineteenth century writers who inspired Robinson as a student, Emerson was of particular interest given his “metaphoric language,” a language she later emulates in her fiction (Interview). Perhaps it is no coincidence that Emerson begins his essay on the metaphor of the circle with the image of the horizon: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end” (1). Robinson’s radical symbolic and structural use of the horizon/horizontality finds its theological and genealogical roots in Emerson’s metaphoric language of circles.

The horizon serves as a powerful symbol of Christian fellowship in its ideal: a levelling plane for all generations to stand in equal relationship to God, each individual in the same childlike position to the ultimate father. But for this very reason, Christian fellowship meets its limitations in its horizontality. The horizon blinds us from the human circles, to use Emerson’s metaphor, of our brethren, and perhaps sets an impossible task for our flawed society to treat every human with the dignity bestowed by God. Readers should not recuse Ames for his inaction to fully live out his pastoral and ethical responsibilities. Ames comes to terms with his own moral shortcomings only after his blessing Jack and learning of his personal stake in rectifying racial inequality. Ames’s lack of conviction on matters related to racial equality, along with Boughton’s, convince Jack that he and his interracial family will not be welcome in a town even with deep roots in racial equality (Robinson, Home 208).

Perhaps Ames’s failure to follow the example of his abolitionist grandfather comes from the fact that Ames only lived the daily obligations of fatherhood very late in life. His horizontal understanding of fatherhood as man’s relationship to God comes through the process of writing these begats and serving as a son, grandson, and a father to Robert and Jack. Ames writes that it is through God that “we are made instruments of His providence and [are] participants in a fatherhood that is always ultimately his” (Robinson, Gilead 129). Ames is more qualified than most fathers to understand this. His witness to the difficult relationships between fathers and sons, his deliverance of God’s blessings, in addition to his decades as a vocational father to Gilead’s pastoral flock, inform his Christian belief in God as the ultimate father. But in the end, his faith in God’s final fatherhood is strengthened by the reality of his own impending paternal absence. And with this faith comes the understanding that to believe in God the father is not simply a transfer of responsibility, it is a surrendering of fatherhood. “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years” he writes to his son, “But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction” (210).

Robinson expresses the horizontal and circular natures of her novels’ family ties through her theological reading of Christ’s genealogy. Her virtuosity as a writer and scholar is evident in many ways including in the multiple expressions of the horizon and horizontality in the Gilead partner novels. Explicitly, Robinson employs a horizontal sharing of narrative, setting, and names across the partner novels. More subtly, she establishes a horizontal understanding of family relationships through the ideal of a Christian fellowship. She illustrates the metaphor of the horizon cosmologically–the simultaneous equilibrium of sun, moon and earth with the three Ames generations–as well as spiritually–the cross-paternal blessing of Jack by Ames. Through her novels and essays, Robinson encourages her readers to interpret genealogies theologically rather than biologically; this “surrendering” of human fatherhood to the ultimate fatherhood of God. Universal and permeable, the relationships within and across Robinson’s fictional families poignantly share the symbolic and structural characteristics of the horizon.



[1] In the original form, the gospel of Luke is written in Greek, and therefore it does not have the phrasing, “son of Adam, son of God.”


Works Cited

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Churchwell, Sarah. “The Balm in Gilead.” Encounter. ABC. 14 February 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

—. “Roundtable Discussion on Marilynne Robinson.” Marilynne Robinson Symposium, 10 June 2016, Nottingham Trent University, 12 June 2016. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.

“The Congregational Christian Tradition.” Congregational Library and Archives. 14 Nov. 2016.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Circles.” Ralph Waldo Emerson Texts. September 2009. Web. 19 November 2016.

Freed, Edwin. “The Women in Matthew’s Genealogy.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 9, no. 29, May 1987, p. 3-19.

Hakh, Samuel. “Women in the Genealogy of Matthew.” Exchange, vol. 43, 2014, p. 109-118.

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“Horizon, n.” def. 3a. OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 20 November 2016.

Johnson, Marshall. “The Narrowing of Genealogical Interest in Later Judaism.” The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies with Special Reference to the Setting of the Genealogies of Jesus. Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 85-95.

Maas, Anthony. “Genealogy (in the Bible).” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 13 Nov. 2016.

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Overstreet, R. Larry. “Difficulties of New Testament Geneaologies.” Grace Theological Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, Fall 1981, p. 303-26.

Punt, Jeremy. “The Politics of Genealogies in the New Testament.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 2, 2013, p. 373-398.

Ravits, Martha. “Extending the American Range: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” American Literature, vol. 61, no. 4, Dec. 1989, p.644-66.

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. Picador, 1980.

—. The Death of Adam. Picador, 1998.

—. Gilead. Picador, 2004.

—. Home. Picador, 2008.

—. Interview by Sarah Fay. Marilynne Robinson, The Art of Fiction No. 198, Fall 2008.

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Ryan, Katy. “The Horizons of Grace: Marilynne Robinson and Simone Weil.” Philosophy and Literature. vol. 29, no. 2, October 2005, p. 349-64.


Image credit: “Hovering on the Horizon” from NASA’s Earth Observatory is licensed under CC BY 2.0.