Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping. (1981. Reissued 2005.) London: Faber and Faber.
When I spied Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, at the local bookstore, it was one of those moments when, without a doubt, a book calls. I was surprised to see it there nestled among the more recent novels, as I knew it was published in the early eighties, but guessed that it had been reissued on the back of her more recent successes with Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Housekeeping was listed in the Observer’s ‘100 Greatest Novels of All Time’, while Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize and Home the Orange Prize. Robinson is not prolific, but it seems that everything she publishes becomes a classic.
Prizes and accolades alone were not, however, what induced me to read Robinson’s first novel. What made me reach for it was the memory of what it had been like reading Gilead, a novel set in a religious community. In Gilead I had found a steady attention to the small, luminous details of life lived in prayerfulness and quietude. The prose was infused with a reflective religious sensibility, where individualism is blended with a community formed around common beliefs and intuitions. It had a Transcendentalist cast to its vision. In American Transcendentalism, God or the divine is immanent in the manifested world, and the task of human consciousness is to recognise this and live in such a way that this immanent spirit is interpreted and extended by human thought and creativity. This American tradition, stemming from Emerson, Thoreau, William James, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, that melds intellectualism and mysticism, has powerfully influenced modern American letters. The concentration on the everyday and common experience, the effort to rescue ordinariness and see in it a solitary beauty, is evident in the American poetic tradition. The gifts of poets like Wallace Stevens and Billy Collins have been the ability to imbue the perceived world with a living significance. Even the work of Adrienne Rich, which takes the everyday as a starting point for considering the political realities we live in, draws its power from this main line of poetic and intellectual energy in American life and letters. In an interview with The Paris Review, Robinson explains something of the religious vision that animates her work:
“Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.”
Transcendentalism was partly articulated in opposition to Calvinism, yet the two creeds seem to share this reverence for the divine manifested in the perceived world. So it was with some anticipation and delight that I settled down to read Housekeeping. Although written more than twenty years prior to Gilead, the later novel was so much a product of a particular vision and voice that I was expecting something similarly committed to observing and honouring the animate spirit in the material world in this earlier work. I was not disappointed.
Housekeeping is narrated in the voice of Ruthie as she looks back on her childhood and adolescence. She and her sister Lucille are abandoned by their mother, Helen. She drives them for two days to see their maternal grandmother, leaves them to wait on the front porch, and then gets back into the car only to plunge it off a cliff into the cold Fingerbone Lake. Left with their mother’s inexplicable suicide the girls are partly raised by their maternal grandmother. After her death, the two girls are passed to a series of incompetent relatives, the last of whom is a vagrant, Aunt Sylvie. The two girls struggle to grow up in the remote town of Fingerbone, which seems joined to the outside world only by a train line that forges its precarious daily journey across the lake on a long-span bridge with pilings driven deep into the lake floor. On the same lake floor lies, somewhere, their mother and, before her, their grandfather, who drowned when a train slid off the rails in the middle of the bridge and sank with all save two of its passengers.
Sylvie, a habitual transient, is ill-equipped to raise two girls in a town tethered to existence only by a fierce commitment to maintaining a homely foothold, and in a family haunted by dispersion and loss. The ‘housekeeping’ that is the novel’s title and central concern, are the acts of humble yet necessary maintenance that keep life going in one spot. Sylvie seems unversed in housekeeping and even the slimmest fundamentals of ‘keeping up appearances’: she sleeps fully clothed, with her shoes tucked under her head; she naps in a local park with a newspaper peaked over her face; she keeps her few personal effects ready-packed in a suitcase at all times; and the meals she prepares seem like the makings of a rudimentary picnic. In later attempts to mimic housekeeping, Sylvie collects used tin cans, jars and out-of-date magazines and newspapers, as if sheer accretion is enough to anchor her life.
The two girls form an alliance, in which they truant and camp and read and attempt to fathom what their lives are about. During these years, Ruthie reflects that she and her sister were, at times, “almost … a single consciousness”. Nonetheless, upon her entry into adolescence, Lucille pledges her loyalty to the world beyond their house – a world of dress patterns, bobby socks, convention and cleanliness. Aptly, she runs away from home to live with her maiden Domestic Science teacher. Ruthie, on the other hand, seems at a loss as to how to either make the transition to the explicable, orderly world of her neighbours and sister, or create another world of her own. Ruthie reflects that:
“It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible – incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. … this feeling of ghostliness …” (105 – 106).
While Lucille catches hold of the “other world” of convention and propriety and hence, seeming permanence, Ruthie gradually unmoors herself from this reality. The passage into womanhood as our society imagines it is, it seems, a bridge she cannot cross.
In Ruthie, Robinson has created a consciousness that looks on a world imbued with both terrible loss and persistent optimism. Her narrative recalls an Old Testament sense of humanity’s doomed wanderings, which are only made sense of in relation to a Promised Land or proffered revelation. A persistent motif in the novel is a destruction that carries within it its own restitution. Hence, the scene in which Sylvie sets fire first to the accumulated newspapers and magazines, and thence the house itself, recalls the vision of human life in the Book of Job: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5: 7.) Both the early Christian and Stoic philosophers imagined human life as sparks of consciousness struck from a central forge and fated to glimmer but briefly before ascending into the night. The magazines and newspapers, repositories of the attitudes and conventions that Sylvie cannot but fail to embody, go up in flames “till some current caught them in the upper air, some high wind we could not feel assumed them” (199). Robinson’s prose has a Biblical cadence in such climactic scenes: “Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping” (209).
The novel’s concerns with loss and the dream of restitution give Ruthie’s narrative a meditative air. Her voice manages to be both elegiac and grateful – a kind of hymn to absent presence. Early in the novel, Ruthie imagines a “resurrection of the ordinary”, a youthful vision of
“a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole. … For what are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” (92)
As she matures, Ruthie’s sense of her own life is still shaped around what is missing – the fragmentary and the unfinished. She gives us a sad vision of herself as “unlike other people” because of her “habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain” (214). It is a sense of storylessness, of having been abandoned by those who might have handed a narrative on, and, in Ruthie’s case, of being unable to adopt a place in the general stream of human story known as ‘society’, that marks her out.
One is pulled through this narrative inexorably and slowly. Despite its brevity, Housekeeping is not a ‘quick’ read. It invites the reader to pause and feel the blessing on every page. Robinson’s vision is centred on heart-ache. In interview she has claimed that
“The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.”
Housekeeping is a religious book in the sense that it is charged with this religious feeling about human suffering and the paradox of smallness and significance. In every passage there is a reverential attention to the flutterings of consciousness, the divine animation in the material world. And yet because of that it is not grand; Ruthie and Lucille and Sylvie are tiny individuals painted against an endless landscape. Housekeeping is about the uncertainty and transience of human life – the troubled sparks.