Novel and Robinson

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Religion: A Trivial Conundrum

Religion in fiction, much like religion in politics, has grown to be considered taboo. Religious characters are often expected to be comedic and used only as experimental or secondary. Their only true attribute is that of piety, playing on old stereotypes to drive the characterization. In a world where being politically correct gets in the way of day-to-day talk, approaching controversial topics in any form of writing can be seen as potentially unprofitable, too risqué. The competitive market of publishing doesn’t allow room for mistakes anymore and it’s easier to stay on the safe route than to stray on alternative, smaller – often more interesting – roads that may or may not lead to success. This makes literature that deals with the religious on a primary level all the more rare and exciting to read. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is one such example. Religion is indisputably in the forefront of this tale and, although it may not be the catalyst of the narrator’s writing, it is, without a doubt, one of Gilead’s main themes. The novel’s very format is even done in such a manner that its sole goal seems to emphasize the holy, the divine – religion, in particular, Christianity. The novel is written from the perspective of John Ames, an old Reverend, on his deathbed, writing his final words to his then seven-year-old son in the form of a letter. A writer his entire life, Ames uses his best tool as a measure to insure that his son know something of his life, even if Ames has passed away years before the son ever gets a chance to read the letter. The novel reads somewhat like a diary, a spiritual one at that. At every corner scriptures are referenced or Ames’ faith somehow fits into the narration. Robinson very easily transmits Ames’ constant remembrance of Christianity by plucking in allusions to God, the Church, or his work, not to mention the almost over-usage of the word “Christlike”. Religion very early on is dealt with as an important subject and as the book continues, it gains more and more time in the spotlight. While initially one could think that the novel would focus less with the nature of Christianity, since Ames even says that he does not with to persuade his son to follow his footsteps in the Ministry – even if he does point out some of its “advantages”[1] – as it roles forward, the focus drifts ever closer to God and how the world itself reminds Ames of the sacred. The narrator’s descriptive tendencies, in themselves are also a way Robinson finds to allude to the religious. They are Ames’ way of referencing God’s work, attempting to capture the magnificence that he sees in the world, and transmitting it to his son via words, much like God did to Moses. All that is beautiful, all that is right, it would there seem, is thanks to the Almighty. Robinson uses a very poetic tone in her writing of this novel, which helps connect the secular with the divine and emphasizes even more the novel’s religious nature. As Robinson herself said in an interview, “both poetry and theology push conventional definitions and explore perceptions that might be ignored or passed off as conventional, but when they are pressed yield much larger meanings, seem to be part of a much larger system of reality.” [2] A poetic diction, therefore, lends to the reader more easily identifying with the holy. It is easier to connect with the abstract when using a language that lends itself more readily to emotions and ideology rather than straightforward storytelling and facts. In this manner, the non sequitur tendencies of the novel also lend to the goal of lifting the reader to a theological level. Robinson also has Ames mention poets such as John Donne and George Hebert, stressing the importance of the lyrical. The poetic quality, additionally, is not presented in an overly romanticized fashion, but more as a part of Ames’ view of life. He speaks of the world as God’s masterpiece and, has small...
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