Is there a balm in Gilead, and can it be found?
The word Gilead usually signals healing, restoration, and comfort. But in both instances where “Gilead” appears in the bible, it shows up only in the negative, a promise dangled but deftly withheld. Jeremiah 8 contains a suffering people’s pleading question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”, while Jeremiah 46 relays God’s mocking reply: “Go up into Gilead, … [but] thou shalt not be cured.”
For obvious reasons, questions of comfort and cure have lately been much on my mind, as have the different ways “comfort” is imagined. The famous African-American spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead” offers an uplifting message of justice and peace that marks a crucial counterpoint to two literary — and white — uses of the term, made prominent by novelists Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) takes place in the “Republic of Gilead,” a dystopian successor to the United States led by a brutally misogynistic Christian fundamentalist regime. At first glance, it contrasts dramatically with Robinson’s novel Gilead (2004): Gilead, Iowa, is a fictional 1950s small town, unremarkable except for its forgotten history as a stronghold for a fervent strain of Midwestern Christian abolitionism. Indeed, when asked by a reader via Twitter if she saw any connection between the two, Atwood responded succinctly: “No.” But two uncanny similarities link these ideas of Gilead: both novels are backdated to the mid-1950s, and both address their accounts to a “you,” trying fervently to find words that can connect them to a distant reader.
I find these hazy links too compelling to ignore. What would it mean to read these two vastly different novels as if their central characters exist on different planes of the same cross-section of history, writing separate missives from the same realm? How could these strangely simultaneous scenes be dispatched from the same Gilead?
Both these Gileads, I think, offer ways to understand this moment, including all the contradictory currents of nostalgia and outrage, hope, and despair that define it. Atwood’s invocation is sardonic. The Republic of Gilead divides its citizens into functional categories determined by gender and class, with the male Commanders on top and the Handmaids on the bottom. Handmaids are subjected to ritual rape in the hopes of overcoming a fertility crisis, and the leaders who institutionalize this violence under the banner of the biblical Gilead demonstrate how appeals to the mysteries of divine providence can prove frighteningly amenable to totalitarian atrocity.
In contrast, Robinson’s Gilead provides the wistful backdrop for the extended meditations of an elderly Congregationalist pastor whose diagnosis of terminal illness prompts him to reflect on his life. The pastor, John Ames, has spent nearly all his life in Gilead, Iowa, which is to say his dedication to his life’s work has been the balm that sustained him through decades of loneliness and uncertainty.
The handmaid Offred, who narrates Atwood’s novel, shares little in common with Ames, yet both characters take shape against an idea of Gilead that constantly shifts along the spectrum between the despair of the Old Testament and the hope of the hymn. If Ames and Offred share the same God, and therefore the same Gilead, the vast differences of the novels testify to an underlying problem of interpretation: how could Ames’s belief in God lead him to a life of humility and compassion, when the same belief leads Offred’s Commander to tyranny and grotesque violence? I don’t think it’s as simple as saying one belief is “true” and the other is “false.” The jump from belief to practice requires hermeneutics, and in this case, to think about what “Gilead” means is to consider how the beliefs we hold become the worlds we inhabit.
So what do these Gileads — both written by skilled white authors reckoning with the moral threats they see in the world say to us now?
In order to answer that question, it’s important to note a third, more disturbing commonality –these Gileads are unmistakably white. Each novel acknowledges this, but both have been critiqued for positioning Black pain as a metaphor or plot device to further the character development of their white protagonists. Atwood explicitly links the plight of the handmaids to the American slave system, describing an “Underground Female Road” that helps refugees escape. Citizens of the Republic are overwhelmingly white, ostensibly because the Regime has forcibly “resettled” the “Children of Ham” to a distant outpost.
In the novel, this is presented as further evidence of the regime’s boundless cruelty, but critics of the television adaptation have noted how it conveniently erases Black bodies while indulging in fantasies about the presumably greater horror of white slavery. Sophie Lewis sees this “flattening, dehistoricizing postracialism” as at once the reason for the series’ status as a contemporary feminist phenomenon as well as the fallacy that ultimately defangs it. This “white historic amnesia,” she writes, reproduces “a wishful universalist myth at least as old as liberal feminism itself: women, united without regard to class or colonialism, can blame all their woes on evil fundamentalists with guns.” Thus, for all its dystopian elements, The Handmaid’s Tale might be better understood as a feminist utopia, after all, Lewis writes, a captivating but limited allegory of feminist resistance that sidesteps more difficult questions about what meaningful solidarity might look like across the bounds of race and class.
Nostalgia begins to make sense of that critique. Offred’s fears are more acute than Ames’s, but what she longs for is precisely what he has: a life of quotidian concerns rather than extreme crises. Her memories of the pre-Republic past infuse minute details (laundromats, plastic shopping bags, nail polish) with overwhelming nostalgia. “If I thought this would never happen again I would die,” Offred ruefully remarks, remembering an ordinary moment with her husband before life changed.
Such a longing for a return to normal is a familiar refrain of these past months, with the world reeling from the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But the whiteness of these Gileads reminds readers that nostalgia for a “normal” past can only be a white fantasy, and the mass demonstrations for racial equity sparked by George Floyd’s murder supersede this fantasy and replace it with future-oriented longing for meaningful justice and peace.
The novels in Robinson’s Gilead sequence reckon with racism more explicitly. Ames understands himself as part of a family legacy of anti-slavery activism, but the ongoing effects of racism don’t register for him until he learns that his estranged godson and namesake, Jack Ames Boughton, has returned to Gilead to determine if he could live there peacefully with his black wife and son, escaping the anti-miscegenation laws of the south. Gilead turns out not to be an option. (Robinson’s next novel, Jack, forthcoming in September, promises to spotlight more of this story; an excerpt appeared in the New Yorker earlier this month). Ames and others are humbled to realize the latent injustices of Gilead, injustices it has been all too easy for him to ignore. Yet their belated realizations yield no material attempts to address the issue, and critics like Briallen Hopper see this as symptomatic of a broader problem in Robinson’s theological and political vision. Hopper reads the novels’ “sinister imprecision” regarding the details of Civil Rights-era history as part of a general preference for tragic individuals submitting to their fates over the vitality of embodied communities mobilizing together.
Thus, beyond the coincidences of timing and form, the novels fail alongside each other too, sharing an all-too-limited vision of Gilead that fudges the lines between hope and despair, activism and submission, longing for a return to the past instead of uniting for a better future. But in that very failure, they also remain grimly faithful to the murky instability that defined “Gilead” from the beginning. “Thou shalt not be cured,” God says, and yet the fact that a balm exists, somewhere out there, ahead of us, still available, can deliver the peace and energy needed to keep pursuing it at all.
Alongside these Gileads, consider the hymn that both novels evoke. The spiritual’s precise origins are unknown, but it began to appear in hymnals just after the turn of the twentieth century, and against the context of the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement, its message became increasingly poignant. The hymn takes up the receding, impossible ideal of the Old Testament and recasts it as a guarantee of justice and peace:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
“Gilead” here articulates a yearning around which communities have built powerful solidarity. In the hymn, the name can serve as an imaginative placeholder for a better future. “Thou shalt not be cured,” says the Old Testament God; “There is a balm,” sang Black congregations again and again. In the hymn, we have our hope. The task of building a better Gilead is a matter of reinterpreting the givens and refusing to reconcile ourselves to any injustice—racial or otherwise—as a manifestation of God’s will.
Ann Marie Jakubowski is a PhD student in English at Washington University in St. Louis. She tweets (sporadically) @AMJakubowski.