Like Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, and other novelists of the Midwest before her, Marilynne Robinson elegantly draws evocative settings in which her characters must cope with the loneliness and the isolation of their settings. Although her first novel, Housekeeping, is set in a little town in the Northwest, the two young girls at the novel’s center must discover strategies either to embrace the forbidding loneliness of the glacial plain on which they live or to reject its haunting isolation and the ghostly memories that inhabit the town. Robinson effectively re-creates the social and physical challenges that life in often inhospitable environments can bring. Although her novels rarely focus on community, they do explore the ways in which individuals must navigate the rough waters of their lives in the larger world.
Many critics have called Robinson a feminist writer and have often spoken of her in the same breath with Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, among others. While Robinson’s novels certainly feature lyrical prose, as do the works of these other writers, only Housekeeping focuses on women and their role in society. That novel does ask questions about the nature of women and what it might be like to live in a society populated exclusively by women. The only men in the novel are either deceased or ineffectual, and the two young girls and the aunt with whom they live must decide how they want to define themselves as women. Do they define themselves in the light of men, dressing for them and becoming a part of their society, or do they define themselves by their tasks—“housekeeping,” for example—and construct their own society apart from the world around them? Can they define themselves simply by the ways in which they construct their own community of women and the codes they enact to provide structure to that community? In the novels published since Housekeeping, however, Robinson has focused specifically on the lives of men who must come to terms with their harsh environments as well as their spiritual roles in their communities, in their families, and in their own lives.
Above all, Robinson’s novels meditate on religious questions, and they are imbued with an almost mystical quality in which even the bleakest landscape or most mundane social situation is shot through with rays of transcendence and spirituality. Both Gilead and Home deal explicitly with a family of preachers and their attempts to understand their calling and the power of grace and mercy. Although Housekeeping does not feature religion in the same explicit fashion, it nevertheless raises questions about incarnation, revelation, grace, the nature of faith, and mystery.
After their mother dies by driving her car off a cliff into a lake, Ruth and Lucille, the two young sisters at the center of Housekeeping, grow up in the family house under the guidance of a variety of women. Set in the small Far West town of Fingerbone, the novel revolves around these two young girls’ coming-of-age in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the glacial lake that borders the town has swallowed up both their grandfather and their mother.
After their mother dies, the girls first live in the family house with their grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster. When she dies, two bumbling great-aunts, Lily and Nona Foster, take over responsibility for the girls. Since these women are never sure what to do with the children and never sure how to respond to their questions or their behavior, they soon flee, but not before they ask the girls’ aunt, Sylvie Fisher, if she can come live with the girls. While Lily and Nona debate whether or not Sylvie, the prodigal daughter of Sylvia Foster, who has run away to get married and never looked back, will even show up, Ruth and Lucille try to take care of themselves and explore the town and the woods surrounding it. Sylvie Fisher does indeed show up one day, and Lily and Nona gladly flee from their child-rearing tasks.
The girls soon discover that Sylvie is an eccentric who lives by her own rules and in her own time. When the house floods, she simply moves the family to the second floor, visiting the first floor sometimes to grab a piece of coal for the stove. Although Sylvie appears to be committed to staying with the girls, the two sisters are constantly afraid that she will leave silently one night, never to return. Sylvie’s odd behavior begins to drive a wedge between Ruth and Lucille, who had once been close-knit as they tried to navigate the choppy channels of a world full of loss. Eventually, through a number of incidents, Lucille decides to leave home and to live with one of her schoolteachers. She makes some new friends, goes shopping for clothes, and begins to fit in with her classmates at school. Ruth, on the other hand, becomes more and more like Sylvie. One night, the two of them row out onto the lake and spend the night there. The next morning they hop a freight train back into town. When the local sheriff appears at the door later that morning to try to remove Ruth from Sylvie’s custody, Ruth decides in that moment that she prefers a life of transience with her aunt Sylvie to a settled life in Fingerbone. The novel’s dramatic ending follows them to their own ends as they burn down the family house and vanish into the woods.
Several themes emerge in Housekeeping that appear in Robinson’s later fiction as well. The novel emphasizes the nature of place. Fingerbone, a haunting skeletal name that symbolizes death as well as a pointer of new directions, is physically isolated, and its isolation is made even harsher by the periodic flooding of the glacial lake. This small town is not only the...
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