(This concludes the four-part review of Marilynne Robinson’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: ‘Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting… By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it’ (215). This existential angst leads her to move on because ‘Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same’ (194). The number, no doubt, is uncountable, but that they are all the same is contested by Lila, the protagonist of Robinson’s latest novel: ‘In a song a note follows the one before because it is that song and not another one’ (259). While Sylvie and Ruth are itinerants by volition, Doll and Lila are not. Robinson explores the ground between the two extremes, choice and Hobson’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 ‘as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one’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.’ She nurses the idea that at some point of time she and her husband will resume their life together again ‘without the worry of money, in a milder climate’ (9-10).
The narrator, Ruth, recalls that when her grandfather died, her grandma was left alone to raise three teen daughters. Grandma’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 – abandoned by their mother who too drowns in the lake – 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 – 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 ‘worthless things’ as ‘proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift’ – 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 ‘detergent boxes’ and drink from ‘jelly glasses’. The ‘tables and chairs and cupboards and doors … painted a rich white, layer on layer, year after year’ 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 Sylvie’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 aunt’s utter indifference. Soon they grow apart, both physically and figuratively – ‘While she became a small woman, I became a towering child’ recalls Ruth (97). Ruth is attracted to her aunt’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). ‘It was as if, drowning in air, she had leaped toward ether,’ is how Grandma’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 – as also the basic instincts of homo sapiens – play their part in the novel.
Justifying her transient ways, Ruth cites Cain’s descendants ‘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 sorrow’ (193).
Robinson deals in metaphors. Letting ‘the darkness in the sky become coextensive with darkness’ in her ‘skull and bowels and bones’ during her night out with Lucille in wilderness, Ruth thinks ‘there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest, memory, thought, track, or trace, if only the darkness could be perfect and permanent’ (116). But darkness is never ‘perfect and permanent’, and we spend ‘our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark’ (130). And ‘the mind’s eye is not utterly baffled by darkness.’ ‘Thoughts bear the same relation, in mass and weight, to the darkness they rise from, as reflections do to the water they ride upon… our thoughts reflect what pauses before them’ (166).
Grandpa’s Dictionary is another rich metaphor. The growing girls go to it for meanings, and discover dried flowers between pages. Ruth doesn’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 father’s saying repeatedly that ‘when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn’t want anymore’ (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 ‘abandoned homesteads’, to watch out for children who don’t show up. She tells Ruth that she tried ‘to catch one once… lure it out with marshmallows’ so she ‘could see it’ (148). 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 ‘drifting in the dark’, the bridge as ‘a chute into the lake and that, one after another, handsome trains slid into the water without even troubling the surface’, the bridge as ‘the frame of a charred house’, she and Sylvie hear the children who live there but can ‘never find them’, Sylvie teaching her ‘to walk under water’, and their clothes flying ‘like the robes of painted angels’ (174-5). For a girl who has ‘never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming’, who could never say, ‘This I have learned from my senses while that I have merely imagined’, 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 ‘besides her rubbers and her hunting jacket, two dresses and seven flannel shirts, not to keep off the cold … but to show herself a woman of substance’ (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 ‘escaped this world years before’ she ‘entered it’, but ten pages later she says he ‘had sometimes spoken of disappointment’ (13). Lily and Nona are ‘not in the habit of cooking’ 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: ‘God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’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 transgress… 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 can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.’
The novelist takes her cue, steers clear of judgment, and produces in her fiction, a range of characters – from feminine psyche instinctively familiar to her, to unerring insight into masculine world – sure sign of an enduring writer.
D. 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.