Generosity of Spirit: Faith, Democracy, and Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

by Elisabeth DellaRova

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Jonathan Levin

As my honors capstone and a culminating course for the English major, I have completed an individual study on the theme of grace and how it relates to the American experience in Marilynne Robinson’s work, specifically her three books Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). The books are about the families of John Ames and Robert Boughton, who are preachers and lifelong friends living in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s. Through the books, Robinson presents her view on modern American Christianity, placing it in the context of American religious movements such as Transcendentalism, Puritanism, and especially Calvinism. I spent the semester reading many of Robinson’s essays, many of which focus on religion, grace, American history and politics, and Calvinism, as well as outside sources on American religious history, scholarly criticism of Robinson’s fiction, and interviews with Robinson. From my interactions with these readings, I have concluded that Robinson argues that the grace that comes out of American Christianity is synonymous with generous discourse and a generosity of spirit. She feels that this form of grace is becoming increasingly lost, or perhaps silenced, in American culture, especially since the mid-20th century when her books are set. Through her characters–John Ames, Jack Boughton, and especially, I will argue, Lila Ames–Robinson presents a display of the way this generosity of spirit should intersect with faith and democracy in our nation.

11 Replies to “Generosity of Spirit: Faith, Democracy, and Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead”

  1. Thanks for sharing your presentation, Elisabeth, and your work with Professor Levin! I’m so glad you’re drawing continued attention to Robinson’s work, who’s beloved by so many readers. However, as a person who thinks about regional identity as being as important as national identity, I want to put pressure on you and your use of the term “American experience.” Is this a viable term? Do you threaten to expand a particularly regionalized, racialized, and classed existence to the point of a national generalization that is problematic? I’m clearly skeptical. Nevertheless, congratulations! Professor Richards

    1. I’ve considered this…I address it very slightly in the paper but definitely could have gone in a different direction with the project and focused specifically on this. I do think at times I am not “careful” enough with using the term “American experience,” but Robinson’s use of it does ring true to me. Though the books themselves feature a relatively homogenous set of characters and therefore don’t directly address a significant portion of American religious and racial culture, I think the overall idea that I pull out of Robinson’s writing is applicable to more than just this corner of Americanness. In Lila, especially, two very different characters (Lila and John Ames) choose to learn to meaningfully communicate with each other across their differences. And I present Robinson’s idea that learning to meaningfully communicate across great difference is itself an American ideal and part of the American experience (even if we don’t live up to it always–which we certainly don’t). So that part of it, at least, holds up for me.

      Thank you for the question! I miss Combs. 🙁

  2. Grace, generosity, faith, democracy . . . I know you must have started this before the coronavirus came along, but how great to be writing about the kind of big topics people are talking about in the time of covid-19.

    1. For sure! I wrote this last semester but I’ve returned to it several times since because so many of Robinson’s ideas are so relevant during this crisis. She rejects cynicism and instead suggests that grace is the only way to enact change or to live contentedly in our democracy, and that requires us to love and hold deep respect for even those members of the democracy that are the most ordinary, or the hardest to love. She writes in an essay: “Truly, I am sick to death of presumptive contempt of the only human souls most of us will have any meaningful relationship with, who offer the only experience of life in the world that most of us will ever have occasion to ponder seriously, that is, respectfully and compassionately, that is, with grace.”

  3. Elisabeth – it was nice to be reminded of your presentation that you shared at the Fall Honors Symposium. Has your opinions about the themes presented in Robinson’s works changed at all now that you have graduated from UMW and entered the working world?

    1. Hi!! 🙂

      I’ve actually reread a lot of Robinson since graduating and it’s been fascinating to try to apply her ideas to the “real world.” I’ve become less cynical about a lot of things, which has been nice but also confounds other people. I do think that her work is especially relevant in this current crisis, especially her beautiful words about assuming the best of others, not living in fear, and doing my best to make myself useful. So I don’t know if any of my opinions have changed, but I’ve certainly been able to apply a lot of her work to real situations.

  4. Congratulations again, Elisabeth! It’s gratifying to look back on this— I applaud your bravery in trying to think, with Robinson, about the role of grace in our troubled times. It was a pleasure and a privilege to support your research and writing!

    1. Thank you again, so much, for the opportunity to work with you on this. It has truly changed so much about the way I think about the world. Especially lately!

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