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Robinson’s Crusoe: Housekeeping and Economic Form

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 219-248 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0019

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Among the handful of characters in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), there is only one who both cares about money and has money to care about: Sylvia Foster, the grandmother of Ruth Stone, the narrator. Early in the narrative, Ruth remembers her grandmother picturing heaven as a place very similar to earth but “without the worry of money” (10). This worldly concern, however, turns out to be slight. We learn that she looked after her orphaned granddaughters without material difficulty; we also learn that she enjoyed contemplating the wealth she accumulated, the pension she received as the widow of a railroad employee, and the modern economy’s mechanisms of exchange:

Since my grandmother had a little income and owned her house outright, she always took some satisfaction in thinking ahead to the time when her simple private destiny would intersect with the great public processes of law and finance—that is, to the time of her death. All the habits and patterns and properties that had settled around her, the monthly checks from the bank, the house she had lived in since she came to it as a bride, the weedy orchard that surrounded the yard on three sides . . . all these things would suddenly become liquid, capable of assuming new forms. And all of it would be Lucille’s and mine.

. . . My grandmother loved to talk about these things [selling the orchards but keeping the house for safety’s sake]. When she did, her eyes would roam over the goods she had accumulated unthinkingly and maintained out of habit as eagerly as if she had come to reclaim them. (27; emphasis added)

Ruth recalls her grandmother’s money matters with bemusement. In her mind, “satisfaction in thinking” about the exchangeability of assets facilitated by public institutions of “law and finance” is the sign of a narrow imagination. It squares with another of the grandmother’s shortcomings: “she distrusted the idea of transfiguration” (10). Though an observant Christian, she is insensible to the idea that a mere mortal such as her deceased husband might become a radiant, otherworldly version of himself. “She hoped that he would somehow have acquired a little more stability and common sense” in the afterlife, “but she did not set her heart on it” (10). Nothing in that bland modicum of hope, however tenderhearted, qualifies as inspired. Thus lacking strength of economic and theological imagination, Sylvia Foster is subject not only to the softly digging irony of the narrator but also the mildly dramatic irony of the author: despite all her talk about the fluid transformation of capital, the grandmother is a figure of inert convention. She “lived her whole life in Fingerbone” (9) in a most “serenely orderly and ordinary” way (25).

In Robinson’s first novel it makes sense that someone who accepts a stunted theology also likes to stay put and harbor fantasies about capital exchange within a conventional Keynesian economy. Without explicitly condemning such proclivities, Robinson seeks to elaborate alternatives. The grandmother’s life is precisely the sort that Ruth and her aunt Sylvie will, with dramatic flourish and little irony, leave behind for a life of transience. As the novel portrays Ruth’s preparation for this venture, it also betrays her increasing trust in the idea of transfiguration. Embraced less as a doctrinal belief pertaining to heavenly afterlife than as a kind of existential premise bestowing value on reimagined earthly life, transfiguration ultimately serves to justify the novel’s aesthetic, economic, and ethical commitments. Interweaving empirical realism and speculative conjecture through the perspective of Ruth—whose favorite locution is the speculative “say”—the novel proffers these threads of verifiable and unverifiable detail with equal conviction. This technique contributes to what critics have almost unanimously acclaimed about the novel—its expansive lyricism. But if they recognize Ruth’s transfiguring imagination as the source of the novel’s aesthetic power, they don’t often consider the way Housekeeping insists on intertwining this idea of transfiguration with its idea of political economy.

In what follows I examine the economic and ethical implications of what might be called Housekeeping’s politics of transfiguration. The novel advances an alluring but ultimately regressive vision of political economy. It...

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