The Transients

D.S. Rao





(This concludes the four-part review of Marilynne Robinsona��s fiction)

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Picador edition, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1980. Pages 219. $ 14. Winner of the PEN Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, 1982.


For a first novel, to have won not only the PEN Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, but also to be shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, Housekeeping is indeed a remarkable achievement for a writer in her thirties, which could have spurred the author to ride on fame and write more. Not, however, for Marilynne Robinson: she took her time, twenty-four years, for her second novel, Gilead (2004); four more for her third, Home (2008); and six more for the fourth, Lila (2014): the Gilead trilogy took over thirty-four years in the making, chronicling the saga of two pious families of the fictional town, but the seeds had been sown in Housekeeping, her first novel, situated in the largely left alone Fingerbone, with vast wilderness and a large lake bounded by mountains, right for a raw play of elements and humans, nature and nurture, scripture and life, permanence and transience.

Wondering when she became what she had become, when she was abandoned by her mother, or when she followed her drifter aunt Sylvie, or at her own birth, Ruth mulls: a�?Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsentinga�� By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with ita�� (215). This existential angst leads her to move on because a�?Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the samea�� (194). The number, no doubt, is uncountable, but that they are all the same is contested by Lila, the protagonist of Robinsona��s latest novel: a�?In a song a note follows the one before because it is that song and not another onea�� (259). While Sylvie and Ruth are itinerants by volition, Doll and Lila are not. Robinson explores the ground between the two extremes, choice and Hobsona��s choice.

The novelist subtly shifts the focus from the ancient male dominated discourse to the feminist perspectives of recent times, from the sons of Adam to the daughters of an Idaho village. Ruth and Lucille are latter-day counterparts of the primal male siblings, sort of. Most of the characters of Housekeeping are women. The grandfather, Edmund Foster, builder of the house on the hill, drowns in the town lake in a train accident, even before the action of the novel begins, and women might as well have donned the other male roles, say, the school principal, or even the sheriff, without any difference to the story whatsoever.

Grandma Sylvia Foster has a fairly simple view of life a�?as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that onea��s destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting.a�� She nurses the idea that at some point of time she and her husband will resume their life together again a�?without the worry of money, in a milder climatea�� (9-10).

The narrator, Ruth, recalls that when her grandfather died, her grandma was left alone to raise three teen daughters. Grandmaa��s preoccupation has been tending children or keeping house, the two themes that suffuse the novel and raise fundamental issues of life and living. Even the dreams she recounts to her grandchildren have to do with babies, either catching in her apron a baby falling from an airplane, or fishing another out of a well with a tea strainer (25).

The two little girls, Lucille and Ruth a�� abandoned by their mother who too drowns in the lake a�� are raised by the Grandma until her own death; and, after a brief spell of two ageing spinsters taking care of the kids, arrives aunt Sylvie: she tries her hand at housekeeping and raising the girls, who are not at all sure if she will stay; every story she tells them has a train or a bus station (68); she always sleeps fully clothed, with coat and shoes on, or tucking her shoes under the pillow, ready to leave any minute a�� surely the habits of a hobo (103).

Slowly Sylvie gets over the itch to go, or let go, and stays to look after the girls. Her housekeeping, however, is awful. She accumulates a�?worthless thingsa�� as a�?proof of a particularly scrupulous thrifta�� a�� she stacks the kitchen with empty cans, used paper bags, tatty newspapers and old magazines; as mice infest, she brings in a cat, and the cat litters twice; the first litter grows enough to bring birds into parlor, dropping wings and feet and heads all over (180-81). The tableware is packed and put away; the aunt and the nieces eat from plates out of a�?detergent boxesa�� and drink from a�?jelly glassesa��. The a�?tables and chairs and cupboards and doors a�� painted a rich white, layer on layer, year after yeara�� fall into neglect; the paint turns yellow and chips. A curtain half burnt by fire beaten out by Sylvie with a back issue of, ironically, Good Housekeeping, still hangs. Soot looms up and dust piles everywhere (100-1). And in winter, when rains add to the snow woes and flood the house to the depth of four inches, they wear boots and paddle through water (61).

No better than her housekeeping is Sylviea��s raising children. She hardly cares when they go to bed or get up, or what they do with their school or homework. The two girls are at first puzzled at their aunta��s utter indifference. Soon they grow apart, both physically and figuratively a�� a�?While she became a small woman, I became a towering childa�� recalls Ruth (97). Ruth is attracted to her aunta��s transient ways, but Lucille is repelled, begins to notice what she has been missing, and moves out. But does it matter? All roads lead to the same end, death. That life is a journey and earth an inn for travellers to rest for night is a metaphor common to several spiritual speculations. Robinson raises the mundane housekeeping to metaphorical levels: disorder and order, body and soul, mortality and beyond.

Blizzards, floods, and barn and forest fires are periodic occurrences in Fingerbone (177). One year, floods flatten scores of headstones; graves sink when water recedes and look like hollow sides or empty bellies; the library is flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system (62). a�?It was as if, drowning in air, she had leaped toward ether,a�� is how Grandmaa��s dead body appeared to the grandchildren, recalls the narrator (164). In an attempt to forestall a court hearing to take her niece away, Sylvie cleans the messy house but ends up setting it ablaze and fleeing with Ruth. The very elements – wind, water, fire, earth, and ether a�� as also the basic instincts of homo sapiensA� a�� play their part in the novel.

Justifying her transient ways, Ruth cites Caina��s descendants a�?through a thousand generations, and all of them transients, and wherever they went everyone remembered that there had been a second creation, that the earth ran with blood and sang with sorrowa�� (193).

Robinson deals in metaphors. Letting a�?the darkness in the sky become coextensive with darknessa�� in her a�?skull and bowels and bonesa�� during her night out with Lucille in wilderness, Ruth thinks a�?there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest, memory, thought, track, or trace, if only the darkness could be perfect and permanenta�� (116). But darkness is never a�?perfect and permanenta��, and we spend a�?our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the darka�� (130). And a�?the minda��s eye is not utterly baffled by darkness.a�� a�?Thoughts bear the same relation, in mass and weight, to the darkness they rise from, as reflections do to the water they ride upona�� our thoughts reflect what pauses before thema�� (166).

Grandpaa��s Dictionary is another rich metaphor. The growing girls go to it for meanings, and discover dried flowers between pages. Ruth doesna��t know what to do with them, Lucille wants to put them in the stove; one goes nostalgic, the other looks ahead, resulting in fight over a dress, which is abandoned, eventually. And, clothing is pointedly used, in Gilead, for the body bereft of soul, as the boy Ames recalls his fathera��s saying repeatedly that a�?when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesna��t want anymorea�� (15).

The lake has both pleasant and unpleasant associations, attracting kids and adults alike. When it freezes into solid ice in winter, children skate. In milder weather, Ruth and Lucille skip school to explore the wilds around the lake, and spend a night in the open total darkness. Sylvie virtually drags Ruth from bed, steals a boat, rows with her to a remote spot on the lake, goes deeper into jungles, to a�?abandoned homesteadsa��, to watch out for children who dona��t show up. She tells Ruth that she tried a�?to catch one oncea�� lure it out with marshmallowsa�� so she a�?could see ita�� (148).A� Waiting in the boat under the bridge to look at the train passing, they lose their mooring and drift in darkness over the lake. Sylvie assures Ruth, there is nothing to be afraid of, and the lake is full of people drowned in the train accident. Safely home later, Ruth dreams of a�?drifting in the darka��, the bridge as a�?a chute into the lake and that, one after another, handsome trains slid into the water without even troubling the surfacea��, the bridge as a�?the frame of a charred housea��, she and Sylvie hear the children who live there but can a�?never find thema��, Sylvie teaching her a�?to walk under watera��, and their clothes flying a�?like the robes of painted angelsa�� (174-5). For a girl who has a�?never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaminga��, who could never say, a�?This I have learned from my senses while that I have merely imagineda��, Ruth remains a haunting first person singular narrator, a remarkable debut creation of Marilynne Robinson.

Occasionally the grave narrative makes a little room for the lighter side of life. In December, Edith wears a�?besides her rubbers and her hunting jacket, two dresses and seven flannel shirts, not to keep off the cold a�� but to show herself a woman of substancea�� (87). The two bumbling old spinsters making an attempt to take care of the two little girls is the only chapter one can read with a smile. The rest of the book demands attention to minute detail of the passing play of life.

The novel has its share of easily avoidable inconsistencies, understandable in a first novel. The narrator tells on the very first page that her grandfather had a�?escaped this world years beforea�� she a�?entered ita��, but ten pages later she says he a�?had sometimes spoken of disappointmenta�� (13).A� Lily and Nona are a�?not in the habit of cookinga�� due to arthritis (32), but only three pages later they stew chicken and bake apples (35).

In an interview given to Sara Fey (Paris Review, No. 186, Fall 2008), Robinson cites her favorite philosopher Calvin and says: a�?God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. Therea��s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgressa�� To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I cana��t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.a��

The novelist takes her cue, steers clear of judgment, and produces in her fiction, a range of characters a�� from feminine psyche instinctively familiar to her, to unerring insight into masculine world a�� sure sign of an enduring writer.

Dr DS RaoD. S. Rao, Ph.D., is an author, literary critic, retired professor, and former Editor of Indian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently, he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.

5 Responses

  1. Dr Bina Biswaa says:

    Wonderfully written. Dr Rao has really critiqued it well. This appears like esearch paper not only a review.

  2. Dr Bina Biswas says:

    Extremely well written. It appears like a research paper more than a review. Very well critiqued.


  3. J.L.Reddy says:

    Rao’s garu,
    This philosophical novel brings Indian philosophy and religion to mind occasionally. For example the thought …. life is a journey and the earth is an inn.
    Or ” when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes….” ” passing play of life”. “Escaping this world” …
    The metaphor of house keeping is very interesting and apt.Life is really a disorderly housekeeping.
    But the most solacing thought in the novel is. “To think that faultless people alone are worthwhile seems like exclusion of every thing of deep value in the human saga”. It gives hope that they also serve who are not faultless.
    It seems you have developed deep interest in things spiritual.
    Thanks for introducing a significant book.

  4. Mukunda Ramarao says:

    The book and the hidden information or thoughts so skilfully kept by the author is what the reviewer tries to explore and present to the reader, who goes through it without going deep into it. sri D.S.Rao garu has that art of adopting himself as some one can see which the sips the normal reader’s eye. Thanks for such thought provoking reviews by him. We look forward for more such powerful reviews by him.


  5. R.Vasundhara Devi says:

    The review highlights the author’s philosophical insights! Individuals spend life-times to assimilate that kind of knowledge! She brings out ascetic outlines out of those transients in her narrative. ‘ situated in the largely left alone Fingerbone, with vast wilderness and a large lake bounded by mountains, right for a raw play of elements and humans, nature and nurture, scripture and life, permanence and transience’ Ascetics in India are known to seek such situations after they renounce the world. Great conception of that Darkness…

    Calvin ‘quote’ at the end is apt for the narrative piece but disappoints as philosophy. In cases of senseless, perverse cruelty, the victim needs Lord Krishna’s assurance that he will take a new form to restore balance. Did not Calvin go there? I am not familiar with his philosophy. The review is great!

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