A Few Comments on Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING

HousekeepingI find it difficult to read a book when I can’t discern the author’s purpose in the writing of it. Reading Robinson’s Housekeeping was reading “through a glass darkly.” It wasn’t so much that it was “purposeless”. I never had that sense, but only of my own reading failure. At times, I glimpsed a phrase of such piercing brilliance that I’d gasp and then it would elude me again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read literary fiction and it was hard going, especially with prose as dense and elusive as this. I admired it, but I didn’t enjoy it. Like most litfic, there isn’t much plot. Two sisters, Ruthie (really more the main character) and Lucille are left in the town of Fingerbone (creepy name, memento mori-ish) by their mother, who drives her borrowed car over Fingerbone’s bridge and into its lake. The girls are raised by their grandmother, then by their grandmother’s two sisters-in-law, then by their eccentric, dream-ridden maternal aunt, Sylvie. Much of what I have to say will consist of what the novel is not rather than what it is. It’s not a coming-of-age narrative. (You can’t really spoil a novel without much plot, but be warned, I’m not careful about discussing whatever struck me in what follows.) 

Ruthie and Lucille grow up haphazardly, with this phrase embodying their childhood “It was our custom to prowl the dawn of any significant day.” Who hasn’t woken up only to wander aimlessly through the house and garden? Sometimes, Robinson perfectly captures the possibilities of dreamy fleetingness in our settled existence. Ruthie’s and Lucille’s paths diverge when they’re teens.

The first thing I noticed about the novel is that the title is House-keeping, not house-work, the work is the thing that keeps it. The grandmother and great-aunts keep house by house-work, but Sylvie treats the house and girls as she would if she were living outside and the girls were small creatures:

Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie’s housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swallows.

I guess this might be one of the novel’s tensions: our attempt to make of time something permanent, stable, solid. Sylvie doesn’t consider housekeeping in this way. It’s not a philosophical stance, “all is vanity”, futile illusion, etc., it’s the way she is. Sylvia isn’t much for explication.

When the novel opens, the narrator, Ruthie, describes how her grandfather, like her mother years later, died in Fingerbone’s cold lake. He worked for the railroad and his train derailed, plunging it into the lake. It’s a caustic voice that says, “his mortal and professional careers ended in a spectacular derailment” and an ironic one that comments on humanity’s laughable attempts at permanence when divers retrieve only “a suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce … no relics but three, and one of them perishable.” I laughed.

I went along, following the girls on their prowls, with the uncomfortable teacherly feeling that they weren’t receiving a proper upbringing of books and goals and at least semi-planned futures. But Robinson had other plans, ones about the passage of time and tide and our attempts at embodying meaning in matter:

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. [Ha, I thought, the commercial metaphor used to point to the futility of our economic determinism, a great big HA!.] So shoes are worn and hassocks sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on …

I don’t think Robinson’s ethos is an “all is vanity” Ecclesiastical one. There is our nature, the embodying into things of what we can barely glimpse, and the Other Nature, God or Spirit which helps us pass through and out: “What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” and “It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.”

… when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

I loved this passage, with its negative space standing in for God. The desire for love, knowledge, understanding, comfort holds its fulfillment. It’s important to feel it, I think Robinson would say, not to numb ourselves, or like Lot’s wife, which she describes following this passage: “salt and barren, because she was full of loss and mourning, and looked back.” How much of our life is spent on reflecting? What good does it do us, says Robinson? How does it nourish us? “If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat.”

I pause here to quote a passage that I think perfectly exemplifies my neighbours to the south and which can be said to describe all of humanity and which is Robinson’s understanding of Evil:

The people of Fingerbone amd its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

Embodiment can come in a half-way decent form, like housekeeping, or it can come in “shotguns” and other evils. It’s another way of saying that Cain and Abel is Us and Them. Robinson is not a writer of hope, but of inevitable wholeness brought about through no effort of our own. In religious terms, what we might call “grace.” All the crap that happens, well it’s part of the package with the okay stuff.

Near the novel’s end, the world in the form of the town sheriff and well-meaning townspeople show up at Ruthie and Sylvie’s door, questioning their wanderings, Ruthie’s truancy, lack of hygiene, and their Grey Gardens house. One of the ensuing conversations:

The lady persisted. “Some people — some of us — feel that Ruthie should have — that a young girl needs an orderly life.”

“She’s had so much trouble and sorrow.” So much, yes, she has, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s a pity. It is.

“Really, she’s all right,” Sylvie answered.

Murmurs. One of them said. “She looks so sad.”

And Sylvie replied, “Well, she is sad.” She laughed. “I don’t mean she should be, but, you know, who wouldn’t be?”

Again, silence.

Another of the novel’s tensions: Martha, townswoman; Mary, Sylvie. Who wouldn’t be, indeed, in this vale of tears?

In the end, like Hagar and Ishmael, Sylvie and Ruthie (whither thou goest) are “cast out,” exiled, because to live as “being” and ignore the realpolitik of “becoming” cannot help but lead to a rift with the ways of the world: “Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping.”

And we return to Ruthie’s beginning, with this consideration:

Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting. I (and that slenderest word is too gross for the rare thing I was then) walked forever through reachless oblivion, in the mood of one smelling night-blooming flowers, and suddenly — My ravishers left their traces in me, male and female, and over the months I rounded, grew heavy, until the scandal could no longer be concealed and oblivion expelled me. But this I have in common with all my kind. By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it. So they seal the door against our returning.

A more stupendous condemnation of becoming and embodiment I’ve yet to read. Who asks to be born? We are “unconsenting” in our embodiment and thus our parents, complicit in our suffering. Our common humanity is to be embodied and in our embodiment to be deprived of the benefits of oblivion, or “unbeing”, which could have ensured our resurrection. In Robinson’s world, there is no virtue in utterance. The best, to twist the Bard, is silence.

4 thoughts on “A Few Comments on Marilynne Robinson’s HOUSEKEEPING

  1. This book spoke to me because of the familiarity of the dynamics between the three main characters, which shared a lot with those of my sister and me and our mother. (Sister was Lucille, I was Ruthie, if you couldn’t guess. 🙂 )

    The movie is very worth seeing also; I quote it regularly, in fact.

    stranger: “Your son is so cute/funny/sweet etc.”

    me: “Sometimes he is.”

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    • Huh, didn’t know there was a film, not an easy one to make, I’m sure.

      I think, for me, this was more of an “intellectual” read. I was interested in Robinson’s ideas, but can’t say I felt a connection to the characters. I did, on the other hand, feel a connection to Robinson’s theology, as it is implied. I’m curious to read her nonfiction.

      Her ethos and style remind me of Kent Haruf (though I found his work somehow more touching). Have you read him? If not, Plainsong is terrific.

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      • Yes, if you didn’t see the movie first (which I did) I can see it being an astounding choice to film. There’s a lot they couldn’t catch, but it has a quiet depth that is very appealing.

        I’m not familiar with Haruf, but will definitely look for him.

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  2. I guess it’s a film like Silent Light? Truly a remarkable achievement. Along with Haruf’s Plainsong, I’d recommend watching this film. It’s set in a Mexican Mennonite community.

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