The theme of legacy is a central one in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and yet the concept comes under sustained challenge throughout the novel. The impetus behind the events of the novel is one character’s effort to give an account of his legacy to his family and community. The Reverend John Ames, who narrates, is an embodiment of the kind of man we would expect to place a high value on legacy. He is the third of his name (in direct succession) to become a clergyman and therefore represents a tradition within his family of faith formation which he will not have the opportunity to transfer to his seven year old son in any meaningful way. He has also lived almost his whole life in the town of Gilead and has spent his entire career ministering to its residents. In spite of this, he struggles to speak with confidence or conviction of the kind of legacy he will leave to a community that he has become so intimately connected with. At times indeed, he appears embarrassed to be discussing the issue at all and uses his monologue to meander contemplatively on a range of other topics and events.
At the time of the novel Ames is 77, in rapidly declining health and hopeful of imparting to his son some character forming words that might leave him with a positive impression of the impact that he and his forefathers have bequeathed to the town of Gilead and hence, figuratively, to posterity. Yet for Ames, legacy proves an elusive concept. He guiltily admits to his son several times that he has little of any material value to leave him and seems to despair in any case of how materialistic the world around him has become. Ames’ focus at the beginning of the novel is on the historical legacy he passes to his son, namely his lineage. His father and paternal father (the two preceding John Ameses) loom large in the tale of where he came from and he clearly has admiration for both, but their influence upon his character is so varied and the distinction between the two men so great that his attempt to convey their significance is more evocative than material. The legacy of his life’s work as a clergyman ministering the spiritual needs of the town of Gilead is likewise clouded in uncertainty. As if to undermine his sense of inter-generational purpose, the church he preaches from is a temporary structure which has become rather dilapidated and which Ames feels certain will be demolished after his death (the congregation hold off, he feels, only out of a lingering respect for him). His increasing preoccupation with Jack Boughton, a man who cares nothing for legacy or reputation and continually attempts to challenge Ames on a whole range of matters, is indicative of Ames’ underlying concern that people don’t care about legacy and he is forced to confront the hypothesis that perhaps he shouldn’t either.
And yet it is clear that Ames feels a profound link to the past and that he is inextricable bound up with it. It is interesting that the only instance in the novel in which John Ames gives expression to the anger and frustration he has been building is when his own father, former clergyman of Gilead visits him from the American West and tries to persuade him to abandon the town and return west with him. He becomes annoyed when his father belittles the town and the difference that their family have made to it. ‘We have history here’ John Ames asserts, with uncharacteristic desperation and emotion. This occurs towards the end of the novel and it is significant that Ames, a man who’s deep attachment to faith keeps him very conscious of and very much in command of his emotions, reacts with anger to it. His effort to establish a robust legacy to bequeath to his young son is challenged at every turn. But he is especially discommoded by the fact that his father’s, his namesake and his living link to the past, seeming preference for manifest destiny above continuity and community. The pain he no doubt feels on leaving his seven year old son fatherless surely serves to focus Ames on the one thing that can bind them eternally, the legacy of their family. But those who allow themselves to be formed by such concepts must deal with the pain of fighting against the rising tide.