- Border Crossings in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping
Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping has been drawing the kind of acclaim that may establish it as an American classic.1 Most of the praise for the novel focuses on the masterly display of language, but some of it falls particularly on its reputation as a woman's novel, a rare book that touches some central female experience. Aviva Weintraub calls Housekeeping an "essentially female novel" and the lake that dominates the landscape "an essentially female image" (69). Joan Kirkby sees the novel as a rejection of "the patriarchal values that have dominated American culture and a return to values and modes of being that have been associated in myth and imagery with the province of the female" (92). In addition to feminist perspectives both commentators apply the categories of either Freud (Weintraub) or Jung (Kirkby) in their discussion of the novel. The novel is certainly dominated by female characters, and it may indeed, as Kirkby suggests, reject patriarchal values such as "the house as a symbol of the female self and the female body" (107). However, her claim that the novel "is a reconciliation with the archetypal female principle of regeneration through decay" (107) describes a work [End Page 716] more thoroughly polemic than I think the novel is. In any case, the application of categories—Freudian, Jungian, gender—strikes me as a domestication of the novel in a manner that the text implicitly resists.
In its meditations on the ambiguous nature of death, the deceptiveness of appearances, and the opposition between the values of a conventional and transient life, Housekeeping spills over convenient and culturally-conditioned critical enclosures to challenge both our perceptions and our conventional and taming critical terminology. In this essay I argue that the novel might be fruitfully understood as an unconventional primer on the mystical life, in which the basic accomplishment for both the protagonist, Ruth, and the reader is the expansion of consciousness through a process of border crossings—social, geographic, and perceptual. These crossings, in turn, are developed through the novel's central metaphor of transience. Transience implies pilgrimmage, and the rigors and self-denials of the transient life are necessary spiritual conditioning for the valued crossing from the experience of a world of loss and fragmentation to the perception of a world that is whole and complete.
The novel treats a family in which two strong tendencies compete: one is the tendency toward transience and shifting margins of experience, the other toward housekeeping within the confines of conventional marriage, family, and social rootedness. Grandmother Foster exemplifies this latter tendency, having "lived her whole life in Fingerbone" (9) beside the lake of the same name. For her, the rooted and circumscribed life produces the "resurrection of the ordinary" (18) as life passes through its cycles, and nature brings daily its "familiar strangeness" (18). Her daughters manage this fostering of homely life much less successfully, Molly joining missionaries in China, Helen joining her father in the depths of Lake Fingerbone after her marriage fails, and Sylvie embarking on a life of transcience when her marriage does not hold. When Sylvie rejects an ordered life, her mother shows her displeasure by "[omitting] her name from virtually all conversation, and from her will" (42). Granddaughter Lucille, however, carries her grandmother's valuing of the ordinary forward; in her determination "to make something of herself (132), she embodies the spirit of conventional housekeeping, carving out a life of substance within social boundaries.
The competing impulse to cross conventional frontiers is fathered by Grandfather Foster. As a young man he becomes anxious about the "foreshortened" perspective his sod house in the plains allows, and he feels the call to travel. As a trainman he is the prototype for the family tendency towards rootlessness. He also pioneers the descent into water, his drowning surely inspiring his daughter Helen when her housekeeping comes undone. When his daughter Sylvie and his granddaughter Ruth make the dangerous night-crossing of the lake, reported in the newspapers as two more drownings, they re-enact in some degree his last and fatal journey. [End Page 717]
Ruth and her grandfather are bound...