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.

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