Marilynne Robinson Robinson, Marilynne (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marilynne Robinson 1944–

American novelist.

Robinson's lyrical prose in her first novel, Housekeeping, caused Anatole Broyard to express "a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language." The novel centers on efforts to cope with a world characterized by impermanence and loss. In it Robinson conveys an acceptance of transience that approximates celebration.

Paul Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most small American towns have at least one: the "odd" house that everyone knows and gossips about, the old place going to seed on the outside while a hidden, perhaps unimaginable life transpires behind drawn shades or yellowing lace curtains. A home haunted by its occupants fascinates the neighbors and many, many writers; the phenomenon crops up from Poe to Faulkner to Harper Lee and beyond. That last category now includes Author Marilynne Robinson. Her unsettling first novel [Housekeeping] deals with the fall of yet another house, but from an unusual vantage. The story is told by an insider who helps pull down the roof.

Ruth Stone and her younger sister Lucille are deposited as small children at their grandmother's house in Fingerbone, an isolated community….

When their grandmother dies, care of the castaway daughters eventually falls to their Aunt Sylvie….

Lucille finally senses how peculiar the three of them look to the town and escapes from "Sylvie's dream."…

Sylvie and Ruth are passive, quicksilver characters, prone to skittering off at a hint of pressure. Having created wraiths without motives or accountable pasts, Author Robinson left herself a big problem: how to nudge them through a plot, make them interesting, worthy of attention, when they seem so in-different about themselves. She solved it with language. Ruth's narrative is as colorful as she is pallid. For a self-confessed dreamer with a tenuous hold on reality, she shows a keen sense of the here and now, and of the right words to record it….

Housekeeping has a few slack moments. Ruth occasionally meditates on a scene without sufficiently setting it. She sometimes meanders. But this first novel does much more than show promise; it brilliantly portrays the impermanence of all things, especially beauty and happiness, and the struggle to keep what can never be owned….

Paul Gray, "Castaways: 'Housekeeping'," in Time (copyright 1981 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 117, No. 5, February 2, 1981, p. 83.

Le Anne Schreiber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marilynne Robinson has written a first novel that one reads as slowly as poetry—and for the same reason: The language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience. Miss Robinson's muse is clearly John Keats, and her theme, like his, the inextricability of pleasure and loss.

What sustains the lyricism of "Housekeeping" is the immovable melancholy of its narrator, a quiet dreamy girl named Ruth who becomes so used to loss so young that she cannot envision clinging to anything more permanent than a moment, a memory or a dream. (p. 14)

The controlled lyricism of Ruth's language, which had been anchored in sensuous detail, becomes unmoored [as tension mounts and the novel nears its end]…. Since Ruth is our narrator, when her imagination becomes fevered and hallucinatory, so does the novel, and it never quite regains its equilibrium.

This lapse is perhaps inevitable. None of the romantic poets ever fully managed to solve the problem of how to sustain lyric intensity over the course of a long narrative poem. (Even Keats left "The Fall of Hyperion" unfinished.) And there is only so much one can ask of a first novel, even one so generous in its accomplishments as the one Marilynne Robinson has given us. (p. 16)

Le Anne Schreiber, "Pleasure and Loss," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 8, 1981, pp. 14, 16.

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself. It's as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration. You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.

Marilynne Robinson's "Housekeeping" is not about house-keeping at all, but transience. It is about people who have not managed to connect with a place, a purpose, a routine or another person. It's about the immensely resourceful sadness of a certain kind of American, someone who has fallen out of history and is trying to invent a life without assistance of any kind, without even recognizing that there are precedents. It is about a woman who is so far from everyone else that it would be presumptuous to put a name to her frame of mind. (p. 132)

Miss Robinson works with light, dark, water, heat, cold, textures, sounds and smells. She is like the Impressionists, taking apart the landscape to remind us that we are surrounded by elements, that we are separated from one another, and from our past and future, by such influences.

At one point in "Housekeeping," Ruth has grown so awkwardly tall that her sister, Lucille, knocks the heels off her shoes to help her stand and move more naturally. Marilynne Robinson, too, does something like this. She knocks off the false elevation, the pretentiousness, of our current fiction. Though her ambition is tall, she remains down to earth, where the best novels happen. (p. 133)

Anatole Broyard, "'Housekeeping'," in The New York Times, Section C (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 7, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 3, March, 1981, pp. 132-33).

Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Housekeeping is] written with infinite care. It could easily be made to sound precious, and at times the fine style does become claustrophobic: 'For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it?' All the same, it is an exceptional, strange, alluring novel….

The family life is finely done, from the grandmother's quiet ordinariness to Sylvie's abstracted love of air and darkness, her sad stories, her hoarding of useless things, her transient's habits. But all this depends on and is interwoven with the setting. The 'sharp watery smell' of the ploughed land, the depths in which the dead lie hidden under the busy water-life at the surface, the 'delicate infrastructure' of ice below the earth, the mysterious geography of mountains, shores, lake and bridge, are beautifully felt.

Gradually a satisfying analogy emerges between the house and the lake, the family memory and the geological layers: it is a novel about traces, flotsam, the perishable marks of 'every spirit passing through the world.' Marilynne Robinson's successful negotiation between the idea and its precise embodiment is an admirable, if very peculiar, achievement.

Hermione Lee, "Glaswegian Phantasmagoria," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9888, March 1, 1981, p. 32.∗

Julie Kavanagh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the beginning of Marilynne Robinson's outstanding first novel [Housekeeping], set in a far-Western town by a glacial lake, domesticity is endowed with an almost spiritual aura. After the death of their father (the train he was on plunged into the lake), his three adolescent daughters cleave like infants to their mother, who encircles them with a kind of elemental warmth. The stability of their home is palpable: the girls sleep on starched sheets under layers of quilts, their mother makes cakes and apple sauce on rainy days and in summer mixes a pot-pourri of blown rose petals and spices. But the novel sets out to subvert this kind of tranquility, exposing it as illusory, and housekeeping subsequently becomes a gesture of despair.

Years later, when Helen, one of the daughters, returns home to Fingerbone to commit suicide by driving her car into the lake, her mother tries to restore order in the lives of the two children Helen leaves behind by adhering to household routine…. The two jittery maiden great-aunts who housekeep for Ruth and Lucille when their grandmother dies likewise take refuge in habit and familiarity as a way of handling a crisis. But their veneration of routine, of the need to make each day a replica of the next, is not to be reconciled with the vicissitudes of growing children ("Lucille and I perpetually threatened to cough or outgrow our shoes"). The aunts flee back to their basement room in a residential hotel, leaving Sylvie, Helen's vagrant sister to take over guardianship of the girls.

Housekeeping to Sylvie means a merging of love and squalor…. This good-natured eccentricity, however, has far more significance than is at first apparent. The sequinned velveteen ballet slippers Sylvie buys as school shoes for the girls represent not just her liking of fanciful gewgaws, but, spoiling as they instantly do on the muddy walk to school, are emblems of the novel's main theme—an acceptance of transience, an acceptance which Sylvie embodies: "To her, the deteriorations of things were always a fresh surprise." Lucille's growing desire to conform to the lives of ordinary people is expressed in her rejection of these slippers: she pulls the sequins off and demands red rubber boots: "Lucille saw in everything its potential for invidious change … Ruffles wilted, sequins fell."

Ruth and Lucille often come home after a day's truancy in the woods to find Sylvie sitting—and sometimes eating—in the dark....

(The entire section is 1020 words.)

Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Housekeeping is concerned with much more than the gentle account of the failure of [a] family to survive their battle with [an] insidiously hostile environment. Ruth and Lucille's last guardian, Aunt Sylvie, is given to lonely, eccentric confrontation of the lake [in which her father and her sister drowned]…. The water unmistakably draws her; and she takes Ruth on a wild expedition to a ruined house some miles along the lake shore where she hopes that the ghosts of its dead children might appear to them. And when Lucille leaves the household for a more stable one (to live, symbolically, with her Home Economics teacher), Sylvie takes Ruth away from prying police and solid citizens into the world of transients...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Rosemary Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Selfhood and shelter have had an intimate association in literature…. [The] notion of shelter is linked with an inner effort to forge a new self. (pp. 306-07)

[In] Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson has exploited this familiar connection, immersing it in a story as riveting and taut as the plunge of a train from bridge tracks into lakewater below, the book's primal and haunting incident. While its homely title suggests domesticity, such a connotation is askew of the novel's design, which limns personal preservation as much as household maintenance, private as well as familial order. Yet the two themes are fundamentally inseparable, and "house" here is the self, product of toil and prey to destruction. In the end, both literal and figurative houses are intentionally destroyed, but out of ashes and dissolution a new self and life emerge….

The underlying pilgrimage that impels the novel is … an ordinary one, the journey to self-consciousness or maturity. Housekeeping is an elementary book in another sense too, in that it is steeped in images of earth, water, air, and fire, which suffuse even minor details of each episode….

Clarity and precision mark every level of writing in this work: its stark narrative incidents; its economical character portraits; and its spare tones of language. Though they are restrained, however, the details nonetheless resonate….

Like Sylvie, Ruth has constructed a self which can confront oblivion and survive.

Housekeeping is an achievement of similar magnitude, a deft defiance of convention, a singular book. (p. 307)

Rosemary Booth, "Three Insiders, One Outsider: 'Housekeeping'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1981 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVIII, No. 10, May 22, 1981, pp. 306-07.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For] Marilynne Robinson in Housekeeping, style is metaphor: the identification of life with and through unusual language. The elegant, measured prose of Housekeeping transforms a year in the life of two small-town teenage girls into a profound meditation on loss, transiency, and the shelters we use for protection. The voice Robinson gives her narrator Ruth … is original, very much the sound of Ruth's inwardness, yet some comparisons help describe the qualities of this voice and the appeal of the book. Housekeeping has the sibling intimacy and domestic observation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, the beauty of threatening landscape and deep dream in John Hawkes's Beetle Leg, and the combination of quiet and excited sensibility found in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Best of all, though, is a distinctive rhythm—a matter of pace, syntax, and tone—that cannot be described but lingers after Robinson's equally wonderful visual effects wear off. William Gass has said he forgot the plot of Middlemarch a week after he read it but remembered its rhythms for years. The same is true of Housekeeping. (p. 88)

The elegant art of Housekeeping shames the journalistic realism of more popular fiction by women—and by men—for its metaphors examine the codes of sexual differentiation in ways no amount of brand names, uncouplings, and up-scale chatter can. Robinson is a subtle and lyrical writer but not "delicate," the write-off word for some work by women. Housekeeping has power because Robinson, like her narrator, goes her own way, watches, waits, and listens, distills a language that can cleanse the world, not just rearrange and tidy it. (p. 89)

Thomas LeClair, "Fiction Chronicle: January to June, 1981," in Contemporary Literature (© 1982 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 83-91.∗