In 2014, the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel, Lila, completed a trilogy of books set in the small fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. [1] The Pulitzer-prize-winning Gilead (2004) first tells the story of Reverend John Ames as he contemplates the end of his long religious life in the town. Robinson’s 2008 novel Home then retells the same events from the household of Ames’s best friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, his dutiful daughter Glory, and wayward son Jack. Lila (2014) finally introduces the internal world of an outsider, Ames’s second wife Lila Dahl, who is a marginal presence in Gilead and Home but the central consciousness of the third text in the series. This article examines all three Gilead novels, theorising Robinson’s decision to tell the same story three times. Although distinct objects of focalisation mean that Gilead, Home, and Lila can be read independently, when read together all three expand the reader’s understanding of the same events without progressing, chronologically, past the end of Gilead. The ingenuity of the Gilead novels is therefore to deepen the reader’s understanding of its characters by occupying one shared fictional location and, to a lesser extent, the same narrative moment in 1956. In this way, I also argue that Robinson’s novels are better conceived as partner, parallel, or simultaneous fictions—what Rowan Williams calls “interrelated” (n.p.) narratives or what Sarah Churchwell describes as “companion” or “sibling” (n.p.) texts—than as a chronologically linear series or trilogy.

This article theorises narrative simultaneity in several key ways. Bernard F. Dick defines simultaneous narratives as stories concurrent in ‘real’ time and successive in narrative time (Dick 423), but we might also read the Gilead novels through Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia, which suggests that “at any given moment, languages of various epochs and periods of socio-ideological life cohabit with one another” (Bakhtin 291). Notably, Robinson’s prose expands rather than contracts through its focus on 1956, evoking not only Bakhtin’s idea of “socio-ideological” cohabitation, but also Wai Chee Dimock’s concept of “deep time” by denying limited historical frames that often stress the exceptionality of the present and reinvigorate our “sense of the connectedness” (5) between periods. As a rebuke to those who informed Robinson that Iowa had “no history” (“Life in Writing” n.p.), the Gilead novels recount more than a century in Iowan life through memories and inherited stories that date back to the 1850s. It is, therefore, important to read all three as simultaneous or heteroglossic, polyphonic or ‘many-voiced’, rather than as a traditional sequence or trilogy, because it is only by doing so that the reader can ascertain the depth and importance of Robinson’s repetitions. Specifically, by retelling the same story through three different perspectives, the Gilead novels elaborate racial, gendered, and economic histories that are marginal in Gilead’s solitary first-person narrative but central to the experiences of Glory, Jack, and Lila, whose perspectives finally highlight the centrality of these themes in Ames’s original text.

Beginning with a section on the formal and generic differences between the sequel and novel sequence, this article examines how the stories of Home and Lila add to and expand the reader’s original understanding of Gilead, asking if this ‘trilogy’ of novels can be read as three versions of the same story or, perhaps, as one 864-page text. A second section maps the complex relationship between all three texts, introducing questions about narrative authority in written histories to question what happens when the same period is revisited from different perspectives. Critics have yet to satisfactorily account for the historical and political import of Robinson’s work, preferring instead to attend to the theological and philosophical concerns of her devoutly Christian characters (Christopher Leise, R. Scott LaMascus, Christopher Douglas, among others). A minor, but by no means insignificant, dimension of this article is therefore to assert the contemporaneity of Robinson’s fiction, which despite its attention to the 1950s has much to say about the ways in which every experience of the present is often radically different. A final section then concludes this essay with a close reading of the relationship between Lila and Ames, who view their courtship and engagement in strikingly, if subtly, dissimilar ways.


Sequel, sequence, and simultaneity

Before analysing the similarities and, perhaps, more notable differences between Gilead, Home, and Lila, I want to reflect briefly on terminology. Throughout this article, I refer to the Gilead novels as partner or simultaneous texts and, in many ways, trouble the idea of reading them sequentially. Home, for instance, is not a traditional sequel to Gilead but as James Wood notes, it is “more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings” (n.p.). [2] Still, the sequel remains a useful term through which to theorise the Gilead novels because critics have linked the term to the production of fiction that revisits the world of a “charismatic” pretext since the early eighteenth century (Janet and Jonathan Husband, Heidi Ganner-Rauth, Terry Castle). Literally meaning “to follow,” Paul Budra and Betty A. Schellenberg define the sequel as both a chronological extension of a precursor narrative and a successor to a single text that was originally presented as whole (9). Craig Bourne and Emily Caddick Bourne also argue that while each volume in a series is temporally “self-contained” (169), each successive text provides “more information” so that “the fictional world of the original seems to have been ‘expanded’” (170). The production and subsequent study of sequels therefore poses important questions about the relationship between the author, ‘original’ narrative, and audience. Why, for instance, does Robinson revisit the same town in the same year in three separate books? What original “charisma” (Budra and Schellenberg 5) makes readers want to revisit Gilead, and to what extent does Gilead’s “originality” doom its successors to be what Terry Castle describes as a “tragedy” since Robinson “literally cannot reconstitute” the charisma of her “original” text (133-4)? [3]

By returning to and expanding the reader’s knowledge of the same town, Home certainly resembles a sequel. Yet it would be unwise to define it as such when it neither chronologically nor spatially extends the reader’s understanding of Gilead. While to some extent the reader’s enjoyment of Home depends on their curiosity for and knowledge of Ames’s original story, Robinson sets the second Gilead novel in the Boughton house, a few streets over from Ames’s parsonage, so that it might still be read and most importantly understood alone. The publication of Lila further confirms the insufficiency of the sequel as a description of the Gilead texts. Lila depicts a longer period than either Gilead or Home, and because it is closely focalised through Ames’s wife, who recalls a lifetime of travelling across the United States, many reviewers falsely identified Robinson’s third Gilead novel as a prequel to both Gilead and Home (Michiko Kakutani, Megan O’Grady, Lynne Neary). However, just as Ames recalls 150-year-old stories told him by his father and grandfather, Robinson’s third person narrator accesses the past through Lila’s present-day remembrances. The action of Lila is, therefore, simultaneous to that of Gilead and Home, which last several months from the “fine spring” (Gilead 9) of 1956 to the winter of 1957 when a “light frost” (Home 332) descends on the town. As Sophie Elmhirst writes in her review of Lila, in all three Gilead novels “[p]lot and chronology are irrelevent [sic]; the works co-exist, symbiotic rather than sequential. […] The town of Gilead seems to exist beyond the author, enabling [Robinson] to step in and out of it at will, telling any number of its stories” (n.p.). Robinson does not return to the town of Gilead to chronologically extend Ames’s original story but to retell the same or, at least, a very similar narrative through two different but ultimately familiar perspectives.

If, then, Home is not a sequel to Gilead, and Lila is not a prequel, how can we better conceive of their relationship? While the term ‘sequel’ implies succession, the novel sequence follows the experience of characters, sometimes in the same setting and period, through what Steven Connor calls multiple-novel-length exercises in “world-making” (136). In the French tradition, the roman-fleuve (literally ‘river-novel’) is also an extended sequence of novels, which act together as a commentary for a society or epoch and, like the Gilead novels, often return to a central character or family. Lynette Felber suggests that the “extraordinary length” of the roman-fleuve “embodies—and exceeds—the definition of the novel” (x) by deprioritising narrative linearity and often repeating expositions that are “oblique, sprawling, and reiterative” so that any sense of narrative closure is “diffused” (17). This description certainly applies to Robinson’s fiction: when read as a roman-fleuve, Robinson’s expansion of Gilead’s fictional world is more lateral than chronological. The Gilead novels retain the ethos of the sequel, which John M. Picker describes as based in “cooperation and integration with the earlier work” (363). However, in the style of the roman-fleuve, Robinson adds depth and breadth to the reader’s understanding of the same people and situations by repeating narrative episodes and expositions without moving chronologically forward.

The concept of narrative simultaneity also has necessary applications for the argument expressed here. In narratology, simultaneity refers to narrative events that are isochronous; that is, they occur at the same time or occupy the same temporal interval (Le Poidevin 55). As Uri Margolin writes, novelists often use simultaneity to contrast the diverse and simultaneous actions of different characters in vast cityscapes, crowds, or battle scenes within a single novel (n.p). However, because Robinson returns to the same period and location in three separate novels, the simultaneity of the Gilead novels is altitudinal and instances of simultaneity happen intermittently, occurring between novels rather than within a single text. Roland Harweg calls this feature of simultaneity “telescoping, synchronization or blending of events” (159) because acts of recollection complicate and expand the world of the original novel beyond standard linear chronology. Discussions of narrative simultaneity therefore encourage us to read the Gilead novels as one cohesive text rather than as a series or sequence.

In this way, Robinson’s repetitive mode of storytelling also resembles that of the Gospels, which present the “same story several ways” (Cep n.p.) and use parallel passages to describe the same events from different points of view. All four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) show Jesus as a leader, performing miracles, his crucifixion, and resurrection but differ in the detail and presentation of these stories. The “synoptic problem,” a phrase that scholars use to describe the similarity and slight variation between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is a matter of what E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies call “appropriation” and “adaptation” (221) of a presumed shared source material. Similarly, Gilead, Home, and Lila are records of individual testament that problematise the idea of a single narrative ‘truth’. Taken from the Hebrew, Gilead means hill or mound of testimony, a location of reckoning and possibility, and Robinson’s fiction returns to this one location to complicate, question, and expand what the reader learns in each volume. To extend the religious parallels even further, Ames’s and Boughton’s disagreements about the interpretation of scripture throughout Gilead and Home mimic a wider discord between the stories told by Ames, Glory, and Lila. That is, like Ames and Boughton, the reader must work out what is true for themselves as Robinson often repeats and alters narrative episodes and expositions, diffusing a sense of narrative closure and authority through the lateral expansion of a single fictional world.


The Gilead novels

Put simply, Home and Lila complicate and expand the story originally told in Gilead, retaining a central cast of characters who live in or return to the same fictional Iowan town. All three Gilead novels focus on two Christian families, the Ames and the Boughtons, and narrative episodes overlap around 1956, a detail that readers can calculate from Ames’s admission, “I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 […] I have lived seventy-six years” (Gilead 10), although the date is not stated in Gilead, Home, or Lila.

Gilead is an epistolary novel written from the perspective of Congregationalist minister John Ames to his seven-year-old son, Robby, in the months after he is diagnosed with heart failure. Published four years later, Home revisits the events of Gilead from the household of Ames’s oldest friend and confidante, the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, whose daughter Glory is forced to return home at the age of thirty-eight to care for her elderly father. Both Gilead and Home focus on the trials of old age and detail the deteriorating health of Ames and Boughton. Yet Home’s third-person narrative is focalised through Glory, whose younger brother, John ‘Jack’ Ames Boughton, is the black sheep and would-be “prodigal son” (Gilead 84) of both Gilead and Home. By focussing on Jack’s homecoming, the first two Gilead novels share a narrative arc, although both differ significantly in voice and tone. Gilead is what Alex Hobbs describes as a “Vollendungsroman, a novel of winding down” (120); Ames’s first-person observations are languorous and eloquent, joyful and meditative, as he uses the time remaining to him to contemplate how we “participate in Being” (Gilead 203) through long theological and philosophical discussions. By comparison, Home is almost entirely extradiegetic but focalised through Glory whose perceptions, as Laura Tanner notes, “anchor the reader’s response to the elusive presence of her brother” (36) and the mounting despair of her father.

Jack is a source of anxiety and distrust in both texts. Ames avoids discussing his namesake for most of Gilead, referring vaguely to the pranks Jack performed as a boy and the illegitimate child he abandoned as a teenager. However, Jack’s confession, in which he reveals he has a “colored” common-law wife and child (Gilead 247), provides Gilead with its narrative and moral climax. It forces Ames to reflect on the political and social apathy that marks his life in Gilead, after which he concludes that “this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it, and the fault is mine as much as anyone’s” (266). The peculiarity of then beginning Home, which opens around the same time as Gilead, is the reader’s foreknowledge of Jack’s confession. In Home, Jack hides his relationship from Boughton and tells Glory partial truths; she knows that he has a fiancée but does not learn that Della is African American until the novel’s final pages. Indeed, a larger “twenty-year silence” (Home 75) haunts the second Gilead novel and although Home contains more dialogue than either Gilead or Lila, conversations between Boughton, Glory, and Jack rarely feel communicative.

The events of Home therefore seem bleaker after Gilead. Whatever else it might achieve, the primary function of Ames’s epistle is to communicate; to memorialise the Reverend’s affection for his young wife and son so that “[w]e as readers become, in effect, Ames’s son, encountering his words a half century after he writes them” (Chodat 356). Home, by comparison, shows the Boughtons’ repeated struggle to connect through a silence “deeper than ordinary silence” (29) that becomes more poignant after Jack’s confession in Gilead. With the knowledge of Jack’s secret, the reader anticipates the repetition of this scene in Home and when his confession doesn’t materialise, Robinson’s elision seems more significant, recalling Lynette Felber’s description of the roman-fleuve as a diffusion of narrative closure that deprioritises resolution and catharsis.

With a similar concern for what cannot be said, Robinson’s third Gilead novel provides the absent history of the eponymous Lila, who wanders into Gilead in search of work and quickly marries Ames. This third text in the series is perhaps the best example of how all three novels are, in the tradition of both the sequel and novel sequence, “self-contained” and expansive (Bourne and Caddick Bourne 169-170) of the same fictional world. In Gilead and Home, Lila is a mysterious, much loved, but ultimately marginal figure. She rarely speaks, has no job, friends, or family and the reader learns very little about her, except that she is almost half the preacher’s age and unaccustomed to parish life. In Gilead, Jack provides the only mention of her name, an observation made more significant by Ames’s belief that he is trying to seduce her. In Lila, however, it is Jack who becomes the marginal character: he is never named, proving Ames’s suspicions of a potential romance to be unfounded, and Lila is thus liberated from the anxiety over Jack’s misdeeds that unites both Gilead and Home.

The most significant way in which Lila advances Gilead’s story is inwardly, through the elaboration and expansion of Lila’s character. When she appears in Gilead as Ames’s wife, Lila seems calm and self-assured but in Lila, the narrative’s close focalisation reveals she is chronically anxious, worried that the Reverend will find her “ignorant” (Lila 77) and, even after her marriage, poised to run away. The novel’s reliance on memory contextualises Lila’s anxiety, recalling Dimock’s concept of “deep time” (5) once again as events that “resonate” in Lila’s past are drawn “into the orbit of the present” (126). Indeed, as previously stated, Robinson’s third Gilead novel covers the longest period of all three texts, beginning with Lila’s memory of her childhood in the 1920s and skipping between her itinerant life during the “Crash years” (Lila 15), her early adulthood in a St. Louis whorehouse, her marriage to Ames in the 1940s, and the present moment in 1956. The effect of this temporal unmooring is to trouble the ‘happy ending’ that readers of Gilead and Home both know and anticipate. By interweaving memories of contingency and early trauma, including episodes of neglect, kidnapping, abuse, and poverty, with romantic revelations about her deep love and lust for Ames, who she calls her “big, silvery old man” (11), Robinson unsettles what readers think they know about Gilead, providing new information about Lila’s past while also deepening our understanding of her relationship with Ames in the present.

Lila’s flashbacks therefore sustain the reader’s interest in a third Gilead story that treads similar narrative ground to its predecessors. As Sarah Churchwell suggests, all three Gilead novels share an anxiety: that “imprisonment within our own perspectives” will tempt us to judgement despite the commonality of our “loneliness” (n.p.). Returning to 1956 in three separate novels allows Robinson to explore the isolation of two families and to represent their varied attempts at connection from multiple angles. To my mind, the vague temporal landscape of each Gilead novel also underlines the enduring qualities of every character’s discomfort. As Robinson notes in a 1985 essay, “[s]tarting at Gilgamesh and reading forward, I find no evidence that consciousness has ever been a comfortable experience” (‘Nostalgic Fallacy’ n.p.). Lila, for instance, represents the past as nameless, borderless, and largely eventless. As in both Gilead and Home, the date is never stated: indeed, the reader can only calculate the year through their knowledge of the previous Gilead novels, particularly Ames’ statement (‘I, John Ames’) on page 10 of Gilead, and Home’s allusions to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956.

Contrarily, there is also profound significance to the year in which all three novels are set. First, Robinson sets all her fiction in the mid-1950s. The period broadly appeals to her as the beginning of her own intellectual development (Robinson turned twelve in 1956); a generation removed from the Civil War, at the dawn of the civil rights movement. [4] In an interview with the New York Times, Robinson claims that the first Gilead novel is essentially “about slavery” because, she notes, it details “the problem” of how “people have in the past done the right thing” (“A Moralist of the Midwest” n.p.). At the end of Gilead, Ames not only condemns himself but also the town he has devoted his life to, which was “set up in the heat of an old [abolitionist] urgency that is all forgotten” (Gilead 267). To Ames, and, indeed, to Robinson, the century that divides Ames’s pacifism from the direct action of his grandfather is painfully short. Ames thereby exemplifies a regional “idleness” (DeFalco 85) that is period specific and goes beyond the metaphoric inactivity of the narrator’s aging body.

Second, as historian Simon Hall also notes, 1956 was a year “on the cusp of dramatic change,” which “saw ordinary people, all across the globe, speak out, fill the streets and city squares, risk arrest, take up arms and lose their lives in an attempt to win greater freedoms and build a more just world” (xiv). Not only was Dwight D. Eisenhower re-elected in a landslide but, as Hall argues, a series of “rapid” changes and events including the Suez crisis, US involvement in the Middle East, and clashes over race in the South, undercut the “small-town conservative values” (iv) that historians associate with the period. In Home, these clashes take place in the background: Boughton and Jack regularly watch the news together, debating “the troubles in the South” (Home 182) as Boughton criticises African American protestors in Montgomery and Jack rises to their defence. Read with knowledge of Jack’s confession in Gilead, this interaction, again, seems more poignant. Jack’s readiness to defend the protesters because he knows “a good many Negroes who are more respectable than I am” (182) would have only a passing significance had the reader not learned about Jack’s and Della’s son, and Ames’s grandfather’s abolitionism, in Gilead. For Laura Tanner, Home’s “dim setting and unembellished background” (43) encourages us to read the novel “not only for what it represents but for what it fails to say” (39). Yet, read in sequence, Home actually periodises Gilead and Lila, providing details of the year in which all three novels take place, to emphasise how the people of Gilead distance themselves from their own radical history and from the wider political action of the 1950s.


Rose gardens or graves?

If one idea unites the Gilead novels, it is the inadequacy of a single narrative perspective in telling a story. As Tanner argues, and as I have noted elsewhere, the Gilead novels dramatise “almost nothing” (44) and it is in the eventlessness of Robinson’s prose that subtle shifts in perception gain greater significance. [5] Take for example the simple revelation that, both before and during their courtship, Lila tends the graves of Ames’s first wife and child. In Gilead, Ames alludes to the incident briefly, obliquely, and late in the novel:

[S]he started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, “How can I repay you for all this?” And she said, “You ought to marry me.” And I did. (Gilead 238)

Ames makes no admission that Lila is tending the grave of his dead wife and child, which might seem inappropriate if his memory of her proposal is true. The phrasing of this passage is typical of Ames: he alludes, verbosely, to his “fine and prosperous” gardens and simplifies the episode to a monosyllabic conclusion, “And I did,” without further elaboration. Glory touches on the same act of kindness in Home:

Lila had gone up to the cemetery to look after the Boughtons as well as the Ameses. Glory noticed a special tenderness toward the first Mrs. Ames and her child, who had passed from the world together so long ago, and toward the other little girl (Jack’s illegitimate child) about whom, in that gentle, worldly way of hers, Lila seemed neither to know nor to wonder. […] Jack might have seen late tulips or creeping phlox. That was probably good, Glory thought. She would tell him, if he asked, that the flowers were Lila’s, so he would not think they meant endless mourning […] (Home 100-101)

Focalised through Glory, Lila’s gardening is reoriented towards Jack: his “illegitimate child” and his hypothetical experience at the graveside. This is the first passage to reveal that the “gardens” Lila tends in Gilead include the graves of the Ameses and Boughtons. For the attentive reader who remembers Ames’ description the passage is therefore sadder but, pointedly, neither Ames in Gilead nor Glory in Home speculate about Lila’s inner life. Even Glory, who has a friendship with the second Mrs Ames and is herself a marginalised figure in the community, refers to Lila’s “gentle, worldly way” as if her reasons for taking care of the graves were simple, uninterpretable, and pure.

In Lila, however, the graves are a major concern and recurring motif. Graveyards fascinate Lila in the first instance because she is itinerant and cannot imagine having the dead “gather at the edge of a town, all their names spelled out so you’d know whose they were for as long as that family lived in that place” (Lila 40). Second, as Lila’s relationship with Ames develops she becomes morbidly concerned with where she and her son will fit in the graveyards of Gilead: “Someday the old man would lie down beside his wife. And there she would be, after so many years, waiting in sunlight, covered in roses” (41). A traditional symbol of love, eternal life, and youth, roses dominate Lila’s vision for, and cultivation of, the graveyard. In her first mention of the site, she notices that “[t]he grass was mowed, but nobody had thought to prune the roses” (32). However, by page 33 she is “tending that grave” and cultivating the flowers that she imagines surround the first Mrs Ames in heaven.

The differences between all three Gilead novels are perhaps most keenly represented by the intimacies that Lila and Ames share around this grave. If Home seems sadder through the reader’s knowledge of Gilead, the romantic relationship between Ames and Lila, which seems assured in the first novel of the series, is a major but unstable focus of the third. The moment in which the two become engaged, for instance, is repeated by Ames in celebratory outbursts throughout Gilead:

Then when your mother did come, when I still hardly knew her, she gave me that look of hers—no twinkle in that eye—and said, very softly and very seriously, “You ought to marry me.” […] I was so startled when she said that to me that for a minute I couldn’t find any words to reply. So she walked away, and I had to follow her along the street. I still didn’t have the courage to touch her sleeve, but I said, “You’re right, I will.” And she said, “Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” and kept on walking. (Gilead 55)

When told by Lila, however, the scene becomes nauseatingly uncomfortable. What for Ames unfolds in a luscious garden overflowing with symbolic roses, for Lila occurs on a dry and dusty path during a discussion about the former Mrs Ames’s grave:

“The roses are beautiful. On the grave. It’s very kind of you to do that.”

She shrugged. “I like roses.”

“Yes, but I wish there were some way I could repay you.”

She heard herself say, “You ought to marry me.” He stopped still, and she hurried away, to the other side of the road, the flush of shame and anger so hot in her that this time surely she could not go on living. When he caught up with her, when he touched her sleeve, she could not look at him.

“Yes,” he said, “you’re right. I will.” (Lila 80)

There are slight differences, then, in how the engagement unfolds. We might note, for instance, that Lila believes Ames touches her sleeve while he remembers only his reservation in doing so. Despite the similarities between their versions, their affect also differs substantially. In Ames’s version, Lila arrives “softly and very seriously” but with the intention of asking him to marry her. However, in Lila’s version, Ames invites himself on a walk during which she awkwardly blurts out a proposal, a humiliation which causes her to hide for several days.

Reading Lila after Gilead and Home not only transforms a rose garden into a graveyard, it finally imbues a previously marginal and largely silent character with a rich and extremely anxious inner life. To conclude, we might also suggest that Lila is not the repetition of a story already told in Gilead, as the introduction to this article implied, but an echo. In all three Gilead novels, Robinson revisits the same Iowan town, repeating the similarities of the religious lives, introverted characters, and domestic spaces that are a constant in her work and creating three stand-alone novels that play out her fascination with empathy, goodness, and the overwhelming nature of loneliness in new and richly emotive ways. Robinson’s talent as a novelist seems not to be to invent, in this instance, but to recycle and augment, an element of her work which I argue might only be grasped through a consideration of the simultaneity of all three texts. In Lila’s perspective, the story of her engagement and relationship with Ames gains a vulnerability that the Reverend cannot evoke in Gilead, despite his failing health. Similarly, although Lila’s personal history far predates her marriage to the Reverend, it is the presentation and integration of this history within the same narrative moment as both Gilead and Home that calls into question the possibility of narrative closure. The narrative simultaneity of all three texts therefore gestures to an untold number of partner novels that might write parallel histories of the region without ever passing chronologically beyond the end of Gilead, deepening and extending the reader’s knowledge of one narrative moment in three subtly dissimilar, simultaneous stories.



[1] Robinson claims to be working on a fourth Gilead novel, which critics speculate will be told either from the perspective of Ames’s son, Robby, or Jack.

[2] I would challenge Wood’s use of ‘brother’ given that Robinson is one of very few contemporary women writers to have achieved such notoriety and considering the word ‘sibling’ fits just as well.

[3] Although I am interested in narratology here, it would be remiss to ignore the commercial lure of the sequel, which early English print culture already identified as a “cynical ploy” (Budra and Schellenberg 4) to exploit a literary audience and/or readership. The production of sequels was made possible by the growth of print cultures in the early eighteenth century, increasingly linking an artist’s livelihood to their sales; these sales increased exponentially when a speedy “follow-up” expanded the world of the original text (Schellenberg 85). In interview, Robinson claims to be unaffected by the kind of commercial pressures that many contemporary authors face. Whether you believe her or not, the author often describes her secluded writing process, claiming that she sends novels to her editor one section at a time and only writes more when “I miss the characters – I feel sort of bereaved” (“Marilynne Robinson” n.p.). The ‘sequel’, then, might not accurately describe the relationship that Robinson conceives between herself and her oeuvre, although returning to Gilead three times has inevitably led to increased book sales and further prizes: Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Home won the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award finalist, and Lila also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2014. Still, as Lynette Felber writes of Antony Trollope’s Palliser novels (1864-80), the writing of more Gilead novels seems “motivated less by the success of one particularly popular novel than by the author’s desire to extend his relationship with characters [s]he found congenial” (119).

[4] Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping (1980), takes place sometime after 1954, a fact that is once again implied but never stated: it is indicated by several issues of Good Housekeeping and a copy of the novel, Morton Thompson’s Not a Stranger, which was a bestseller in 1954.

[5] See Sykes, “Reading for Quiet in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels.”


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Image credit: “Nothing Golden Can Stay” (Iowa trees) from Jason Mrachina is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.