The pleasures and perils of merging: female subjectivity in Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping.'
Because the text accepts Ruth and Sylvie's difference from normative attitudes and behaviors, it subverts traditional ideas about what women are or should be.(2) Herein lies much of its appeal for feminists: the world Housekeeping maps is female-centered, the relationships it represents and values are between women, and Ruth makes a radical decision in choosing to follow Sylvie and in refusing to be contained within spaces traditionally coded as female, domestic, and normative. And if Ruth is like her Biblical counterpart in that her allegiance to another woman is a radical act, she is at the same time unlike that Ruth because she is not reintegrated into a new community through heterosexual alliance. It's not at all surprising that such a text provides rich material for feminists interested in female difference and resistance.(3)
But if Housekeeping is sympathetic to Ruth and Sylvie's escape from the control of the townspeople of Fingerbone, it is simultaneously uneasy about what that escape means. On the one hand, this female escape from containment and reintegration into a repressive status quo is liberating and promising. But the only alternative to the status quo the text makes possible is transience: when Ruth and Sylvie leave Fingerbone they become drifters. As Ruth points out, she and Sylvie are not travelers. Their wandering lacks direction and purpose. Although Ruth sometimes gets a job waiting tables, after awhile people start to react to her as if she puts "a chill on the coffee by serving it" (183). So then she knows it's time to move on. Indeed, as Robinson points out, the text is constructed so that "For all that people know at the end of the book, the worst possible thing might have happened" ("Interviews" 3-4).(4) Unlike Lucille and the townspeople, as readers we know at least that Ruth and Sylvie survive crossing the bridge. Moreover, we know that Sylvie is very much at home in her world, and that it is a world Robinson's highly dense, image-filled prose makes mystical and compelling. There is something deeply satisfying about Sylvie's relationship to the world: it seems that for Sylvie "need can blossom into all the compensations it requires" (131). It is, however, less clear that the same is true for Ruth. And so the text asks us to consider whether Ruth's decision to follow Sylvie and become transient, to exist without community and beyond rituals of nurturing and sustenance, is indeed just about the "worst possible thing" that could have happened.
While Housekeeping supports responses both amenable and antithetical to feminism, it also signifies in contradictory ways for feminist critics. Martha Ravits and Marcia Aldrich, for instance, demonstrate in separate essays the extent to which the text subverts oppressive structures and traditions by articulating a historically silenced female consciousness and a suppressed "femininity" within discourse. But not all feminists find Housekeeping politically promising or useful. Sian Mile argues that Robinson uses merging and the blurring of boundaries to resist reclaiming the body, sexuality, materiality, and maternity for female subjectivity - even, perhaps, as a way to resist subjectivity itself. For Mile, this emphasis on merging puts Robinson at odds with most contemporary feminist theory and produces a problematic vagueness: the text, she claims, "runs the risk of ideological impalpability" (129).(5) She points out that Robinson rejects difference - as it can be known through the body, sexuality, materiality, and maternity - in order to allow for a collapse of boundaries that produces sameness: "~Woman' must not e-merge from the body, mother, house, thing, or sex but must merge with darkness and space until all differentiation between ~I' and ~everything' dissolves" (134). Moreover, Mile suggests that the text finds this collapse of boundaries, this "indifference to difference," "healthier" than maintaining and acknowledging otherness (134). As a result, she finds the text's politics suspect because vague: Robinson's exploration of subjectivity could be "an insidious diversion from the problems of the social and political," or it might be that the text is "essentially radical because it examines what is at the root of the social and political, that is, the human interior" (134).
That Housekeeping supports such opposed readings does perhaps reinforce Mile's claim about its "ideological impalpability." The text does not endorse a sharply defined political position: it is not a polemical book. Housekeeping appeals to some feminists, but others find its politics distressingly ambiguous. Housekeeping can be used to articulate the need to resist an oppressive status quo; it can be used to express the dangers of doing so.(6) Indeed, in this respect the text is like Ruth's grandmother, whom Ruth describes as being "aware of too many things, having no principle for selecting the more from the less important" (22). Critics who act as though this were not the case by ignoring Housekeeping's inclusiveness significantly rewrite the text in their readings. I don't mean to imply that there is a "correct" reading of this or any other text: an understanding of a text's significance is shaped by and within the complex ways a particular reader produces meaning. Rather, I think that to an unusual extent Housekeeping invites a wide range of conflicting constructions and that it does so because, like Ruth's grandmother, it is aware of many things and does not clearly distinguish among them. Or, to put it another way, the text replicates Sylvie's form of housekeeping. Sylvie's housekeeping is characterized by an accumulation of things without making distinctions about their value or importance. It blurs distinctions between, say, the old newspapers and cans with which Sylvie fills the house and the more ordinary items, both decorative and utilitarian, with which most people in our culture make their homes. And it blurs ordinary distinctions between interior domestic spaces and external natural ones, for Sylvie would have boundaries between inside and outside dissolve: there are "crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic" (86). Structurally similar to Ruth's grandmother's indiscriminateness and Sylvie's housekeeping, the text itself accumulates details, but not in service of one particular way of seeing the world it presents.
By resisting distinctions at many levels, Housekeeping challenges the theoretical perspectives critics have imposed on it. Committed to inclusiveness, Housekeeping is not reducible to these theoretical perspectives, based as they are on the very exclusions and distinctions it refuses. What the various readings of Housekeeping show is how very different we literary critics and theorists are from Ruth's grandmother and Sylvie - and by extension, how little our familiar tools for constructing critical readings tell us about the text. We, in contrast to the text and many of the characters in it, specialize in making distinctions. We may, like Ruth's grandmother, be aware of many things, and we may, like Sylvie, accumulate details, but we ultimately arrange, sort, and select those aspects of texts that seem to us to be most useful for our own particular purposes. We are exclusionary: for various and complicated reasons, both personal and historical, we choose one detail over another. This is necessarily and always so: we cannot see the text whole, what it actually "is" in itself apart from us. We need to make distinctions to construct meaning. Housekeeping challenges our critical enterprises because it operates by and insists upon inclusiveness. It calls for critical practices capable of articulating the contradictions its form of inclusiveness leads to and sustains.
Like the terrain upon which the town of Fingerbone is built, Housekeeping can thus be characterized as having "a number of puzzling margins" (4). Either/or distinctions are undone in ways that resist definitive claims: conceptual boundaries between subject and object become unclear. Ruth's decision to follow Sylvie seems both good and bad. The town's attempt to come between Ruth and Sylvie seems infuriating yet understandable. To read Housekeeping is to wrestle with such oppositions and experience contradictory responses. To write about it without acknowledging these oppositions is to lose something vital, to obscure the complex literary experience this text makes possible.
In what follows I focus on Ruth's subjectivity - and what's at stake in Robinson's representation of it - in an attempt to demonstrate a way of writing about this text that respects its own insistence on the inclusion of opposing truths. If the text's inclusion of opposing viewpoints is suggested by its ability to be read in various and contrasting ways, its commitment to complexity and contradiction is powerfully figured in its representation of Ruth. The text records Ruth's struggle to choose whose version of reality to call her own: it records her attempt to determine what she values and who she wishes to become. But Ruth's struggle for individuation is complicated by an equal if not even more powerful desire not to become: she longs to merge with others, to lose herself. To merge in this way can make possible powerful connections with others, but it can also be a way to neglect the self. It can be a refusal to define oneself as a separate, autonomous person.(7) Consequently, Ruth's desire to merge is fraught with pleasures and perils.
When Sylvie arrives in Fingerbone, Ruth and Lucille have been abandoned by their mother, who drops them at their grandmother's house before driving the car into the lake. They have never known their father. Cared for by their grandmother for a time, they lose their primary caretaker once again when she dies. The two elderly great-aunts who replace her find living in Fingerbone and taking care of the two girls much too difficult. And so the aunts determine that Sylvie - even though they call her a drifter, a migrant worker, and an itinerant - is the best possible person to care for Ruth and Lucille. Sylvie, it turns out, is not a woman who gives much thought to traditional forms of domesticity, whether those forms involve keeping house or providing a nurturing environment for children. She has been drifting, riding the trains, never settling down in one place for long. By the end of the novel, Ruth has become like Sylvie - a transient who lives her life outside the boundaries that define the lives of the townspeople of Fingerbone. Unlike Ruth, these are people who have put down roots in one place and live their lives in accordance with other people's expectations. For being different from them Ruth pays a high price. On the other hand, by opting for conventionality and severing her ties to Ruth and Sylvie, Lucille undoubtedly also pays a high price. Although the prices exacted are different for each, it's clear that there are no easy choices for women in this text.(8)
Housekeeping challenges conventional female roles by representing the repetitive nature of keeping house as an ultimately futile attempt to create order out of an ever-threatening chaos. Close attention to domestic detail holds women captive, since what passes for "good" housekeeping in the text requires constant attention and vigilance, its accomplishments attained only to be undone. Beds are made to be slept in, dishes washed so that they might be dirtied. The women in the novel who keep house "properly" have little time for anything else. So it's hard to blame Sylvie for refusing to be contained by domestic rituals. The women who do keep house are solidly connected to the community, but their lives seem sadly circumscribed and narrow. Moreover, their accomplishments are invisible and lack public significance. As Ruth points out, her grandmother Sylvia attended to keeping house her whole life, but when she died her death was noted in the local newspaper with a piece that focused on her husband's spectacular train derailment, complete with a photo of the train. The most interesting public feature of Sylvia's life was that she was married to the man whose train derailed years before. Her insignificance is underscored by the fact that the time of her funeral isn't even mentioned in the article.
Ruth and Sylvie are more like Ruth's grandfather, Edmund, than they are like her grandmother Sylvia. In contrast to the women in the novel who, like Sylvia, in their housekeeping and in their lives try to reenact the commonplace by "performing the rituals of the ordinary" (14), Edmund leaves the flatlands of the Midwest in search of a place where boundaries are less confining. Ruth's description of Edmund's original home is telling:
He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more.
Edmund leaves the Midwest, represented here as a land of confining and limited perspectives, for more expansive vistas. From a place in which boundaries are clearly and closely demarcated - the horizon circumscribes the house itself - he moves to a locale where boundaries and margins are much less confining because they're less fixed or distinct. As Ruth points out, even though the lake is circled by mountains, boundaries in this place constantly shift:
At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish. .
. . And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.
That Edmund chooses a more dramatic and less confining place to live suggests a desire for freedom and a certain amount of initiative and imagination on his part. But as diffferent as he may be from the women who keep house, Edmund is also much more conventional than either Ruth or Sylvie, more connected to the community than they ever are. He holds an ordinary job, rises quickly and predictably through the ranks at work, and wears a "necktie and suspenders even to hunt wildflowers" (15).
Still, his wife recognizes that he is also a little like the man she sometimes imagines, a man who has "crude stripes painted on his face and sunken belly, and a hide fastened around his loins, and bones dangling from his ears" (15). Along with his imaginative connections with nature and his activities as an artist, these "primitive" characteristics place Edmund outside the ordinary and the culturally contained.(9) To some extent he is thus aligned with Sylvie and Ruth, a connection that complicates any reading that simply or easily equates difference in the novel with femininity. Like Edmund, Ruth and Sylvie leave what's familiar and constraining behind, and for them this means that they must flee the circle of mountains. To a greater extent than Edmund, however, Sylvie and Ruth exist outside convention: their difference extends but is not equivalent to his. If Edmund is drawn to Fingerbone because the natural world sparks his imagination, and if he exists to some extent beyond a safe, tame, culturally contained conventionality, he still manages to remain within the social boundaries that define family and domestic life. But Sylvie and Ruth's difference has no place in Fingerbone - for that matter, it has no place anywhere. At the end of the novel, they've become drifters, constantly on the move, never at home. If their escape is liberating, it's also problematic. For what they escape to may indeed be worse than what they leave behind.
Sylvie's housekeeping is, to say the least, just as unconventional as her marriage. (Sylvie is married and has changed her name from Foster to Fisher. But she doesn't act married and when challenged by Lucille to provide evidence of a husband produces a picture of a sailor clipped from a magazine.) Unlike the other women in the book, most notably her own mother, Sylvie makes few attempts - at least until the sheriff threatens to take Ruth away - to battle the forces of disintegration and disorder. But it isn't until Lucille turns on the overhead light in a gesture of defiance that we see the kitchen from a more conventional perspective, for it is then that Ruth first sees Sylvie's way of keeping house as the world would see it:
The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness. . . . Lucille had startled us all, flooding the room so suddenly with light, exposing heaps of pots and dishes, the two cupboard doors which had come unhinged and were propped against the boxes of china. . . . A great shadow of soot loomed up the wall and across the ceiling above the stove, and the stove pipe and the cupboard tops were thickly felted with dust. Most dispiriting, perhaps, was the curtain on Lucille's side of the table, which had been half consumed by fire once when a birthday cake had been set too close to it. Sylvie had beaten out the flames with a back issue of Good Housekeeping, but she had never replaced the curtain.
Sylvie's housekeeping does not keep the house separate from the outside, from nature, from a tendency toward chaos. She prefers the house to be "sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude" (86). Consequently, the house becomes coextensive with the outside world: light during the day, dark at night, flooded when the lake's waters rise. Because Sylvie doesn't like to use artificial lights, to enter the house in the evening is to step, as Ruth points out, "from sheer night to sheer night" (86). Moreover, when the lake rises and floods the house, Sylvie sees no reason to move to higher ground. If traditionally a flood suggests cleansing and renewal, in Housekeeping the flood functions less to cleanse away the past than to make the human domestic world inseparable from the external, natural one. In this way the house becomes redefined: if a woman's place is in the home, one way to make the home less confining is to remove the boundaries that both separate it from nature and define female roles and behaviors.
If this redefinition or collapse of boundaries liberates women from a narrow, circumscribed way of life, the resulting lack of clarity nevertheless has painful consequences for Ruth's emerging and fragile subjectivity. In this place where the inside of the house seems inseparable from the outside world, Ruth's sense of how she differs from others becomes confused. In the dark, Ruth finds that she is "reduced to an intuition" and that Lucille and Sylvie seem to be even less than that. As Ruth recalls, "I was afraid to put out my hand, for fear it would touch nothing, or to speak, for fear no one would answer" 61). Her fears are to some extent realized: when Sylvie touches Ruth's shoulder she doesn't recognize her and calls her Lucille by mistake.
In this instance, Ruth attempts to distinguish herself from Sylvie, to reassert the distinctions that have vanished in the dark. When Sylvie wanders off, Ruth follows, calling out to her. But Sylvie doesn't answer, and her refusal to participate in what would reinscribe difference adds to Ruth's dislocation. Walking across the room with outstretched arms, Ruth eventually finds Sylvie, reaches into her pocket and takes her hand, which she rubs because it is so cold. When Sylvie doesn't respond to Ruth's attempt to produce warmth, Ruth punches her in the stomach. Initially afraid even to put out her hand, Ruth's violent gesture betrays the intensity of her need to prove to herself that Sylvie is really there. Ruth's body seems, in fact, to act without conscious volition. It is a reflexive move in the absence of language to prove to herself not only that Sylvie exists but that she, Ruth, does too, and that they are in fact separate individuals.
Although Ruth acts on impulses that enable her to gain an awareness of herself as a distinct entity, she increasingly describes herself as virtually indistinguishable from Sylvie: "I walked after Sylvie down the shore, all at peace, and at ease, and I thought, We are the same, She could as well be my mother. I crouched and slept in her very shape like an unborn child" (125). In this passage, Ruth's awareness of her own individuality dissolves as she imagines herself an unborn child. In a sense she is unborn, because her subjectivity has not developed into an autonomous, clearly defined entity. And, in fact, to some extent it never does. Ruth begins instead to form herself in Sylvie's shape, rejecting separation, difference, and identity in order to embrace connection and similarity.(10)
If the physical disorder in the house is, as Ruth says, "dispiriting," Ruth's emotional pain, disorder, and fragile sense of self are devastating. Left or abandoned by so many caretakers, Ruth clings to Sylvie, increasingly recognizes something of herself in her, and wants to be claimed by her even though she knows that Sylvie is a less than adequate caretaker. Thus when Ruth first hears that the state has an interest in children's well-being, she is alarmed. While she still doesn't quite believe that Sylvie will stay, not until then does she imagine that she could be taken from Sylvie. Ruth imagines that "Such a separation . . . could indeed lead to loneliness intense enough to make one conspicuous in bus stations" (59). Ruth's fears of being abandoned not only make her protective of Sylvie; they keep her from caring enough about her own well-being.
One of the most problematic features of this text, however, is that to speak of well-being may be equivalent to adopting the conventional stance the townspeople represent, while not to speak of it is to ignore the pain that permeates Ruth's discourse despite her attempts to repress it. In other words, to use terms like "well-being" is to position oneself outside Ruth's own perspective, to assume that one is in a privileged position in relation to Ruth, to believe that one is able to determine what, exactly, is in her best interest. But Ruth occupies a position few, if any, readers share. So we're necessarily in a different place, to some extent responding to something we cannot completely understand, judging Ruth according to what we know rather than from a perspective more like her own. And it isn't clear whether or not within Ruth's realm what we would generally consider well-being makes any sense. At the same time, Ruth would have us believe that in the present narrative moment she is beyond loss, that by the time she crosses the bridge with Sylvie - let alone years later in the present moment of her narrative - she has accepted the idea that "It is better to have nothing" (137). George Toles has suggested that "Privation or lack ultimately does accommodate those in the world of Housekeeping who put their faith in it" (138). But given the way Ruth tells her story, she's not entirely convincing, for her narrative is filled with deprivation, pain, and longing.(11) In the face of such pain, it's difficult indeed not to consider Ruth's well-being. But to consider it is to position oneself closer to the figures of convention - as embodied in Lucille, the home economics teacher, and the other good, churchgoing women - than one may feel oneself able to be. To read this text is indeed to experience the pull between opposing positions and to oscillate between them.
Ruth's lack of clarity and eagerness to collapse distinctions by dissolving boundaries complicate a reader's stance in relation to her. It's very difficult not to be worried about Ruth. Ruth admits that she doesn't know what she thinks about things, and if her diffuseness keeps her invisible, protected from the world, it also terrifies her. As she points out,
It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible - incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. But my allusion to this feeling of ghostliness sounded peculiar, and sweat started all over my body, convicting me on the spot of gross corporeality.
In this passage Ruth recognizes that she is not in fact ghostly, that she is a distinct, separate person, because her fear that she is indistinct invokes a physical response that demonstrates the separateness of her body from the rest of the world. Moreover, her sweat suggests a terror her words do not express as emphatically as the body she finds "gross" and feels she must apologize for. As it did when she belts Sylvie in the stomach, once again Ruth's body expresses what she will not or cannot say.
But the most emphatic representation of Ruth's overwhelming need for both connection and autonomy - as well as her inability to find satisfactory forms of either - occurs when she and Sylvie cross the lake to visit the abandoned homestead. Here Ruth experiences her loneliness more fully than she has before. After showing Ruth the homestead, Sylvie vanishes, leaving Ruth entirely alone. The cold, half-wild, lonely children Ruth then imagines are hiding in the woods around her function as projections of herself: she notes that "there was neither threshold nor sill between me and these cold, solitary children" (133). Angry at Sylvie for abandoning her, Ruth's loneliness is absolute: she's unable
to believe her condition ever could have been otherwise. When she pulls the splintery loose planks out of the cellar and imagines herself as a rescuer of children trapped in the house, it's a symbolic struggle to rescue herself. But her attempt seems unsuccessful: "Perhaps it was already too late to help. They [the children] had lain under the snow through far too many winters, and that was the pity" (136). Ruth's need is so acute, and her hope of alleviating her loneliness and compensating for her loss so meager, that she doesn't even notice Sylvie's return. She has by that time only the desire to become one with the cold surrounding her. For to become one with the cold is to cease to feel it, to be, finally, beyond loss. At least in part, what Ruth is longing for is death - an end to a pattern of deprivation and the death of her awareness of herself as an individual who is necessarily both a part of and separate from the world around her.
Critics have sometimes seen Ruth's abandonment in this section as an initiation from which she emerges newly empowered. Reading the novel against a tradition of male initiation in the wilderness, Martha Ravits examines the episode as a struggle for autonomy in which Sylvie purposely leaves Ruth alone "to come to terms with her loneliness and thereby achieve the influx of will that brings self-reliance" (654). Similarly, Marcia Aldrich claims that "Sylvie temporarily abandons Ruth in a kind of test or initiation to see if Ruth truly wishes to become a sister transient" (137) - an initiation she successfully negotiates, because she does indeed become a transient. But it's hard to see Ruth's initiation into transience as entirely empowering, which raises questions about this "initiation."
When Sylvie reappears - as unexpectedly as she disappeared - she embraces Ruth, who, despite the awkwardness and discomfort she experiences, stays very still. Aldrich claims that "This physical contact is new, pleasurable for both, and signals that Ruth's initiation has broken through to a new intimacy" (137). To some extent she's right, but Ruth's experience of reunion is also painful, for it reminds her of her past. If Sylvie's desertion recalls and allows Ruth to experience again the feelings of abandonment stemming from her mother's suicide, Sylvie - unlike Helen - returns to Ruth. But Ruth's experience of her own need in the present replicates the past, suggesting an inability to move beyond it. For this is how she describes Sylvie's embrace:
Sylvie put her hand on my back. She had knelt on the grass beside me and I had not noticed. She looked into my face and said nothing at all. She opened her coat and closed it around me, bundling me awkwardly against her so that my cheekbone pillowed on her breastbone. She swayed us to some slow song she did not sing, and I stayed very still against her and hid the awkwardness and discomfort so that she would continue to hold me and sway. My grandmother used to forget that she had stuck straight pins in the bosom of her dress, and she used to hug me much too closely in her arms, and I would be as still against her as I could, because if I squirmed at all she would put me off her lap and muss my hair and turn away.
That Ruth draws such a strong parallel between her experience of Sylvie's embrace and her earlier experiences with her grandmother suggests that her basic emotional responses haven't changed. She's still willing to sacrifice her own comfort for such an ambivalent closeness, for a pleasure mixed so intrinsically with pain. This scene represents especially powerfully the price Ruth is willing to pay in order to remain close to Sylvie. She does not express her own desire. To do so would mark her as separate, which is simply too threatening. She perceives the price of separation to be far greater than the painful intimacy she knows.
But Ruth is also angry, which does perhaps signal a shift toward a greater autonomy:
I could feel the pleasure she took in my dependency. . . . I was angry that she had left me for so long, and that she did not ask pardon or explain, and that by abandoning me she had assumed the power to bestow such a richness of grace. For in fact I wore her coat like a beatitude, and her arms around me were as heartening as mercy, and I would say nothing that might make her loosen her grasp or take one step away.
To the extent that Ruth is able to feel angry with Sylvie, she reinforces her difference from Sylvie, her awareness that as similar as they may be they are not identical. At the same time, in the present moment of her narrative Ruth still endures personal discomfort out of fear. As was the case when her grandmother held her, Ruth fears that if she moves, Sylvie will cease to embrace her. Distinctions between past and present become irrelevant. Ruth's "initiation" into a new way of being, which would involve an acceptance of loss that might, paradoxically, move her beyond loss, is incomplete.
But if Ruth becomes more aware of herself as separate from Sylvie during and after this experience, that awareness continues to oscillate with a more general explosion of boundaries between self and other, subject and object. We see this return to blurred boundaries when Ruth and Sylvie return from the abandoned homestead. As Phyllis Lassner notes, "Ruth and Sylvie's experience during their night journey on the lake fortifies the notion that the water dissolves boundaries between self and other" (54). In fact, in this scene two of the text's most powerful solvents, water and darkness, work together to dissolve distance, separation, and identity. Ruth meditates on the notion that boundaries exist only to be dissolved:
It was the order of the world, after all, that water should pry through the seams of husks, which, pursed and tight as they might be, are only made for breaching. It was the order of the world that the shell should fall away and that I, the nub, the sleeping germ, should swell and expand. Say that water lapped over the gunwales, and I swelled and swelled until I burst Sylvie's coat.
In this passage, what begins as a description of the possibility of new life becomes an image of death and destruction as the distinction between life and death blurs. It is similarly questionable whether we can separate Ruth's past and present; it is difficult to know whether Ruth's ordeal of solitude in the wilderness leads her to a new and empowering understanding of herself and others. It's true that she becomes less like the conventional townspeople in the course of the novel and that the "initiation" works to formalize that difference. But any difference after the "initiation" is more a continuation of what has come before than an authentic break with the past, and what has come before is - with some exceptions - a desire to merge, to lose an autonomous sense of self, to experience an undifferentiation of self and other that human life cannot sustain except in fantasy. If Ruth becomes less like the townspeople, she becomes more like Sylvie. Difference and connection are, paradoxically, inseparable.
The realities of physical difference continually reassert themselves and obstruct Ruth's desire to merge completely with Sylvie. In her imagination Ruth can - albeit incompletely and momentarily - ignore those realities. She can reject the literal in favor of imagination and fantasy. Nevertheless, Ruth's body necessarily remains separate, can never completely merge with others. But Ruth fights the limits her body imposes, rejecting its materiality for the freedom of fantasy. On the lake she believes she can have what she wants and undo the irreparable loss of her mother's abandonment. She believes that Sylvie can become her mother, Helen: "the faceless shape in front of me could as well be Helen herself as Sylvie. I spoke to her by the name Sylvie, and she did not answer. Then how was one to know? And if she were Helen in my sight, how could she not be Helen in fact?" (143). Even if Sylvie can become Helen for Ruth, however, she can never be Helen in the material world that exists outside Ruth's imagination and desires. So if we read this passage as an assertion that "need can blossom into all the compensations it requires" (131), that compensation seems illusory. It's not enough.
Ruth's desire to escape the limitations her body imposes and materiality more generally finds a more successful expression in the language with which she narrates her story than in the materiality it maps. Throughout the narrative Ruth blurs fact and fiction. What she does not remember or know she imagines and invents. What she invents is so intricately and seamlessly interwoven with what she knows as to be almost imperceptible.(12) As she acknowledges, "I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming. I know my life would be much different if I could ever say, This I have learned from my senses, while that I have merely imagined" (184-85). Thus at the end of the novel, when she imagines Lucille living in the family home or in Boston, both scenarios, though mutually exclusive, seem quite real. For in fact they are real for Ruth, even if they cannot both be real in fact. With language Ruth can construct a world that responds to her needs more fully than the material world does. But again, whatever compensation for pain and loss Ruth finds in imaginative language is fragile and transitory.
If Housekeeping celebrates and finds compelling a loss of conventional boundaries and distinctions, if it shows how limited a life lived within such boundaries can be, the lives it represents outside those limits are at the same time characterized by uncertainty, loss, and pain. Ruth adapts to being outside and to having so little because she has no choice, not because she chooses not to be connected to others in deep and satisfying ways. The alternatives Ruth's narrative presents, the conventional and the redefined female spaces, are finally equally undesirable. Unlike Lucille, Ruth cannot conform and become a part of the ordinary world without betraying herself in some fundamental way. And while Ruth does choose to follow Sylvie's way of life and seems to belong to that transient world, the novel's ambivalence about Ruth's choices makes it hard to feel very good about a way of life that provides so little sustenance.
Robinson does not offer a new and politically promising female subjectivity. What she does, instead, is represent how compelling it can be - especially in the context of significant loss and perhaps especially for women - to try to overrun boundaries between self and other, to merge, to be absorbed. At the same time, she shows how dangerous it is to allow one's boundaries to be overrun. Ruth's challenge is to develop an autonomous sense of herself while maintaining connections to others. To some extent she succeeds: she chooses, after all, to follow Sylvie across the bridge, and her choice implies agency and a desire to remain connected. Significantly, it is this decision - and not the fact that her mother abandoned her or the belief that she was simply born a certain way - that Ruth thinks accounts finally for how she becomes so different from other people. But she also fails to develop the full range of her subjectivity, because her choice is also to sacrifice herself for the sake of merging with or being absorbed by Sylvie.
Finally, then, the text remains fundamentally divided about what happens to Ruth. It presents, in equally powerful ways, what she gains and what she loses by being who she is and by making the choices she does. To focus primarily on what she gains - freedom from an oppressive, normalizing conventionality and some access to an alternative, female-centered world - is to lose sight of what she loses - the ability to develop a differentiated sense of herself. To some extent, of course, Ruth is differentiated. She refuses the world most people around her unthinkingly accept - a world not, however, without its rewards and compensations. But as she becomes different from that world she does not necessarily become stronger and more autonomous. In order to separate from that world she merges with Sylvie. This merging is not complete, since Ruth never seems as entirely at home in the transient world as Sylvie does (or at least as Sylvie exists in Ruth's representation of her). And so, although Ruth does in a sense become Sylvie, in other ways she does not, for she does not become at all.
Because Housekeeping represents what many contemporary readers are eager to find - namely, female subjects who refuse to be contained by dominant and oppressive ideologies - it seems to me inevitable that critics have read Ruth and Sylvie's transience as a form of female liberation from patriarchal systems of containment and control. And to some extent it is: while Lucille easily fits herself into those systems, it's hard to imagine either Sylvie or Ruth being able to do so. At the same time, I think that once we take this orientation toward the text, we then want it to push further than Robinson does: we want to find in Ruth and Sylvie's resistance a new and promising form of female subjectivity.(13) But Ruth's choices do not offer the sustenance she needs: the text suggests that there can be no adequate compensation in Ruth's present for the acute deprivations of her past. Ruth's early suffering continues to influence powerfully the choices she makes in the present. Because deprivation is what Ruth knows best, she makes choices that - despite the seemingly radical difference of her transient life - tend to replicate the patterns of loss and painful connections that have shaped her life before she leaves Fingerbone. Although the richness of Robinson's prose provides significant compensation for us as readers, in the midst of Ruth's losses, both past and present, there is little room for the emergence of a new and promising female subject. Ruth cannot find everything she needs or desires in this text, and neither can those of us interested in new articulations of female subjectivity.
(1.) By using Robinson's remarks here and at other points in this essay, I don't mean to suggest that I think an author is always the best critic of her own work. Yet Robinson's comments are apt in the context of my argument. (2.) Throughout this essay I use "difference" in two ways. The first indicates, as is the case here, that Ruth and Sylvie are "different" from most of the other characters in Housekeeping because they embrace a way of life outside the institutions and systems that constitute established culture and society. The second way that I use the concept of difference is to address Ruth's subjectivity - that is, her individuation (or lack thereof) as a separate, autonomous person. In each particular instance, my use of the concept of difference should be clear from the context. (3.) Martha Ravits shows how "Robinson consciously sets her novel against the great texts of the American tradition" as a woman writer trying to "reinvent the American myth to fit female consciousness" (644). She suggests that, in contrast to the male protagonist in American literature, "The female hero's courage consists not of physical fortitude tested against external dangers but of courageous subjectivity in the face of isolation and neglect, inner assaults to selfhood sustained over time" (659). Joan Kirkby also sets Housekeeping within the American tradition, examining how the novel enacts a de-evolution into nature that is "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). Kirkby notes the text's ambiguity and suggests that it is "part of a crisis of perception in Western culture and bespeaks our desperate need to find a more viable attitude towards nature and ourselves" (107-8). Marcia Aldrich demonstrates how Sylvie's form of housekeeping and Ruth's literal language work together to enact "the suppressed alterity ... the ~difference within' dominant discourse" (138). Aldrich aligns this "suppressed alterity" with the preoedipal. (4.) Given Robinson's comments surrounding the passage I quote, it isn't entirely clear to me whether the "people" who are understandably anxious are meant to include the townspeople in the text itself, readers of the novel, or both. (5.) Mile points out that most forms of contemporary feminism are very much concerned with reclaiming the body and subjectivity for women, whereas Robinson seems to want to do away with it. On the other hand, Robinson's focus on dissolving boundaries between women recalls some forms of poststructuralist feminist theory and "French feminisms." (6.) In addition to being claimed by feminists, Housekeeping has been appropriated by the very sort of conventionality Ruth and Sylvie escape when they flee Fingerbone. For instance, one of the text's promotional blurbs maintains that it represents what American politicians are fond of calling "family values." Describing the novel as "A stunningly moving story about a devastated family" and Sylvie as a "misfit who flirts with suicide" but "then finds her salvation in a tenuous family life" with Ruth, this blurb inscribes normative values and ideas, views many readers undoubtedly share. (I refer here to a quotation from People magazine in the 1989 Bantam edition.) In a similar gesture, the video version of the film based on the novel has been classified and marketed as a comedy. Certainly the film's treatment of some of the scenes in the novel is quite amusing (for instance, when, with the house flooded, Ruth and Sylvie dance together in the foot or two of water that covers the entire ground floor). But the tale Housekeeping tells isn't funny or upbeat. Rather, it is a story of loss, isolation, and Ruth's painful struggle to determine who she is and what she wants. The video's classification positions viewers by establishing in advance expectations that obscure its challenge to traditional assumptions about women's roles and behavior. In a similar vein, the film shortens the key scene in the book in which Sylvie abandons Ruth at the deserted homestead across the lake, a change which significantly alters one's sense of Ruth's experience and minimizes a viewer's discomfort with what happens. In this way Ruth and Sylvie's difference is appropriated and made safe for a viewing audience assumed to subscribe to conventional values. Literary critics have also sided with the forces of convention in the text. Anne-Marie Mallon, for instance, expresses sympathy with Lucille and the town: "Like the townfolk of Fingerbone, we believe that people and things - like children, relationships, jobs, and houses - need to be made secure. . . . ultimately, we will maintain, everyone and everything need a home" (95). (7.) Nancy Chodorow's account of the development of female subjectivity is, I think, an especially useful way to understand Ruth's subjectivity as it emerges in Housekeeping. Chodorow argues that for girls, given their close identification with the mother, total separation from her is impossible. Thus women are more apt throughout their lives to experience boundaries between self and other as less definitive than men do. By suggesting that this experience of blurred boundaries between self and other is problematic for Ruth, I don't mean to imply that the development of male subjectivity - which, for Chodorow, involves a more definitive recognition of the boundaries between self and other - is somehow healthier or more desirable. Rather, I see Ruth's desire to do away with the differences that intensify an awareness of one's own separation from others as an extreme version of what Chodorow is suggesting. (8.) Paula E. Geyh, who focuses on how feminine subjectivity is constructed in relation to the house in the novel, also notes that there are only two modes of subjectivity open to Lucille and Ruth: the "settled" (constituted within the structure of the patriarchal home) and the "transient" (constituted in resistance to that structure and thus representing a new form of female subjectivity). Geyh argues that the text ultimately suggests that the transient subjectivity is insufficient (as is the settled) but finds a way out of these two positions by arguing that "the feminine subject might be constituted at present, at least in part, by an interaction between the two" (120). While I agree with Geyh that the choices for most women today are not confined to the two articulated in Housekeeping, in my reading the text does not offer a way out of the painful choices it makes available to Ruth. (9.) My use of the word "primitive" here is admittedly problematic in that it reinscribes the notion of difference as less culturally advanced. As Marianna Torgovnick has pointed out, what's constant about the use of "primitive" in the West is that it can mean whatever we want it to mean. In Housekeeping the "primitive" suggest an otherness that cannot be recuperated by the dominant culture. (10.) Phyllis Lassner argues that the novel "confronts and then rescues women from absorbing each other in acts of mothering" (53). She notes the undifferentiated identities of many of the women in the novel, including Lily and Nona, the maiden aunts who briefly take care of Ruth and Lucille. As Lassner suggests, Lily and Nona "parody the loss of women's individuality" (53): it's impossible to tell them apart. For Lassner, the "aunts' getaway prefigures the later escape of Sylvie and Ruth, showing women in communion. But the aunts' fearfulness and lack of differentiation call for a different kind of escape, one in which women can write their own stories by refusing to be mothers" (53). But if the aunts' example calls for a new form of escape, I'm not convinced that the novel represents a more successful form of escape with Ruth and Sylvie. Ruth, especially, does not escape the dangers of undifferentiation. (11.) While I think Ruth's pain permeates her discourse throughout the text, it becomes especially emphatic in the later chapters. When it looks as though the state will intervene and try to take Ruth away from Sylvie, the language of the text becomes much less linear and seemingly less controlled. I think this change signals Robinson's investigation of what happens psychologically to one who faces the threat of unbearable deprivation. Indeed, Robinson has indicated that for her "the process of Housekeeping. . . is to ponder what is essential and what is inessential. If you carry deprivation. . . beyond a sort of austere adequacy, then what?" ("Interviews" 4-5). (12.) There are numerous occasions when fact and fiction blur in the text. For instance, when representing her grandmother's life, Ruth says: "One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, wearing her widow's black, performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith. Say there were two or three inches of hard old snow on the ground, with earth here and there oozing through the broken places. . ." (14; emphases added). Ruth uses a similar construction when she and Sylvie are out on the lake: "Say that water lapped over the gunwales. . . . Say that the water and I bore the rowboat down to the bottom. . ." (139; emphases added). (13.) I'm thinking here in particular of Sian Mile's disappointment with the text's "ideological impalpability" and Paula Geyh's attempt to find a way out of the equally insufficient positions of the settled and transient subjects with a new feminine subject who moves between the two.
Aldrich, Marcia. "The Poetics of Transience: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping." Essays in Literature 16 (1989): 127-40. Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978. Geyh, Paula E. "Burning Down the House? Domestic Space and Feminine Subjectivity in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping." Contemporary Literature 34 (1993): 103-22. Kirkby, Joan. "Is There Life after Art? The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5 (1986): 91-109. Lassner, Phyllis. "Escaping the Mirror of Sameness: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping." Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature. Ed. Mickey Pearlman. Contributions in Women's Studies 110. New York: Greenwood, 1989. 49-58. Mallon, Anne-Marie. "Sojourning Women: Homelessness and Transcendence in Housekeeping." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 30 (1989): 95-105. Mile, Sian. "Femme Foetal: The Construction/Destruction of Female Subjectivity in Housekeeping, or nothing gained." Genders 8 (1990): 129-36. Ravits, Martha. "Extending the American Range: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping." American Literature 61 (1989): 644-66. Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. 1980. New York: Bantam, 1989. ____. "Interviews with Marilynne Robinson." With Tace Hedrick, Eileen Bartos, Carolyn Jacobson, and Anne E. Voss. Iowa Review 22.1 (1992): 1-28. Toles, George. "~Sighs Too Deep for Words': Mysteries of Need in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping." Arizona Quarterly 47.4 (1991): 137-56. Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
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|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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