Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Transcript of the Darrouzet-Nardi book club
Dad: Recently, you may have heard or read about the attempts of the Christian right to get bible studies in the schools. They use any and all rationales, including the truism that much of Western literature in the last 400 years draws heavily on biblical themes, stories, and symbols. It has been remarked often that to understand a good deal of Western literature you need to know the bible. Well, in Housekeeping, we have story that is in that long and venerable tradition, for it draws deeply from that well of perspectives, attitude, symbols, and stories. Not surprising, as Robinson is from a religious family--and her new book is also about the religious consciousness in our contemporary world.
There is a lot going on in the book--but to get things started, I’ll bring up what I think are the key tropes--the key themes and symbols. Clearly there is “housekeeping” and the several plays on words that reverberate in the book--keeping house, yes, especially in the later part where the housekeeping degenerates into squalor when Sylvie and Ruth are the only tenants. But also there is the theme of Keeping One’s House--the idea that throughout all the early dramas, the comings and goings of the adults in the two girls lives, there is that great house her grandfather built. It becomes a microcosm of the town itself, of the community where people attempt to create a biblical “city on the hill.” It is the epitome of the domestic solid foundation erected against all issues and problems, the place where families are founded, children raised, the life cycle played out. In times of trouble, people cling to that house. We saw a bit of this theme in the movie “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” where the venerable old house is the symbol of that family, and in the end it goes up in flames. This theme of the house that is a central image or homestead of the lead characters is widespread in our literature. Gone With The Wind has this theme too. Even the house in the Wizard of Oz plays a role distantly kin to this one. The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s classic house-based book, also comes to mind.
In contrast to this theme is the one that goes by the name of transience in Robinson’s book, and which is personified directly in the theme of “transients.” Sylvie is one; the girls’ mother, Nancy had become another. And in the almost surprising end, Ruth becomes one too. The many other transients in the book are mainly at the periphery, what or who people in the town are worried about. Hobos, bums, vagrants. Indeed, the word “transient” is an older 18th and 19th century word applied to the many people who were always about, either rootless or homeless. Hobos, the riders of boxcars, epitomize the type.
So, in the book, we have this theme of house keeping--keeping to one’s house and home--and breaking loose or free from it and the bad state of things that such a free-floating person represents.
But looming behind all of this is the old biblical and Christian theme of how our lives in this world are really themselves transient--that we are ultimately transients passing through this life on Earth on our way from and back to God and eternity, heaven or hell. The song I have been playing a lot lately because I came across two great versions of it this last year is one of the classic folk expressions of this theme: “Wayfaring Strangers.” Its words are worth noting in the context of Robinson’s book and her Housekeeping/Transients theme:
The Johnny Cash version (the other I found is Emmylou Harris’)
I’m a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling thru this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright world to which I go
I’m going there to see my Father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
I know dark clouds will hang ’round me,
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their virgils keep
I’m going there to see my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
Notice in the song, the family motif--the singer is going to see his or her “father” in the first verse, and “mother” in the second. And, that the transient is going home, that is, to our true home, which is not of this world. This is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Christianity and several other of the great religions--the great sociologist Max Weber call them “other worldly” religions. Judaism is not other worldly. But the religion of the old testament is about a people who are transient for the longest time, trying to get over the Jordan, back to their (newly given) home--Israel. Islam and some forms of Buddhism are also other-worldly.
In the book, Ruth and Lucille’s father died oddly in that bizarre train wreck where the train plunges into the river. And then her mother drives her car into the river, killing herself. I don’t have a good read yet on the river. What are your ideas? And there is the whole business of Sylvie taking Ruth out on the lake where they are gone all night and almost swept away.
Which does bring up one of the several direct biblical story motifs that Robinson invokes. She writes about Noah and how while he was building his ark, everyone else was hunkering down in their homes, when, as she writes, ironically, in that almost apocalyptic way, they should have been tearing up the floorboards to build their own boats. They didn’t see the flood coming.
Overall, the book tells an existential moral tale of how we are all transients, that the solid world of houses and homes, roles and all, are temporary. This is an old foundational Christian theme. Ruth’s voice says at one key moment in chapter 9, where much of the symbolism works its way to the surface, that: “The sorrow is that every soul is put out of house.”
Jeanette: I enjoyed the book, although I found a lot of it confusing. I thought the end was interesting, even though I didn’t understand part of it. I didn’t really see the religious perspective (although now I do; it was a good point), I saw a more evolutionary way of looking at it. It seemed to me, together with the ideas of moving around with what opportunities there are (like at the end) and Sylvie’s idea that “families ought to stick together,” that it was kind of like nomadic tribes-people (since many tribes are large family groups) moving around with the season’s opportunities for survival. I saw in it that no matter what kinds of towns or technology you have, you will be forced to move with the opportunities for survival. Not as much as in the past of course, but it does happen. Actually, we are doing that right now. We would rather stay in Half Moon Bay all year, but since Mom needed a job opportunity, we are forced to migrate seasonally.
Mom: My reading of Housekeeping was focused on the literal aspects of Housekeeping, i.e., the housekeeping. I found Sylvie’s rejection of housekeeping a radical act of freedom, but a costly one. Lucille felt she could not live in the squalor and left, even though I think she loved both Ruth and Sylvie. That was a great blow to Ruth in particular.
Part of what I liked about the writing was the small details that built up to the shock of the mess and the lack of homely comforts. Such as when they went on the trip to the lake and Sylvie prepared Ruth a “breakfast” that was just an egg on a piece of toast that she was supposed to eat while they were walking (it could have fallen in the dirt). The precariousness of the nurture, the risk, the lack of care, the willingness to live on the margin are topics that I have never seen anyone write about with a female character. Men do such things all the time, but it is not expected of a woman, and the fact that the author was able to make Sylvie more than a cartoon character was quite an achievement.
I also liked the way Robinson described Sylvie’s odd relationship to the domestic space--keeping all those old cans and other debris. I’m not sure what that meant exactly, but clearly she did not have the usual nesting instincts. And Sylvie did understand about housekeeping--it was not ignorance--as was shown when she got everything spiffed up when they were going to take Ruth away. Even though I was always rooting for Sylvie, I had a sense of relief when she did that, even though I knew it couldn’t last, because of Sylvie’s personality. And yet that’s how deeply ingrained housekeeping is in women at least.
Dad’s view of the transient relationship we have to life and its connection to the Bible was very interesting--and Jeanette’s with our domesticity and need to move for employment. I’m sure Robinson would agree with those interpretations. I felt that Sylvie was just determined to be absolutely free. Housekeeping ties you down, imprisons you with its routines and constant demands. Obviously it is an adaptive behavior, but Robinson was exploring its negative side as well.
The writing was superb. Since I read so much bad detective fiction I can really appreciate it! Here’s a line I used in one of my papers to talk about the uniqueness of life (with respect to activity theory which has a basis in biology):
And there is no living creature, though the whims of eons have put its eyes on boggling stalks and clamped it in a carapace, diminished it to a pinpoint and given it a taste for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it under a stone, but that creature will live on if it can.
That’s amazing! I could never in a million years write anything half that good.
Chris: First, I really enjoyed the book. Certainly unlike any other book I’ve ever read. The style was unique in its passiveness and confidence. What I mean is that I feel Robinson wrote her book to appeal to whoever found it and appreciated it and for nobody else. It’s hard to describe.
The most exciting part of the book for me was relating to some of her many analyses of things people experience in life. The one I remember most vividly was when she spoke about people looking out a window from outside where it’s dark and looking towards light and how it’s opposite when you’re looking from where it’s light towards the darkness only you cannot see it. She had some great line about seeing a flattering reflection, knowing it’s only that but enjoying it nonetheless.
The day on the lake was my favorite part. I’m surprised I didn’t see Ruthie evolving towards Sylvie earlier. It hit me only a little before Lucille actually comes out and accuses her of it.
I do not have a copy of the book. As for what I got out of the book I'm not even sure. Mainly I noted a remarkable literary style. The commentary and portrayal of transients was really interesting. Brings up good points about wanderers.
I agree with Mom--I was pulling for Sylvie in that admirable albeit doomed attempt to house keep whilst the town threatened to take Ruth.
Anthony:I will side with Jeanette in agreeing that Dad’s interpretation of the religious aspects of the book was astute. I got hints of this while reading, but I did not put it all together until reading Dad’s comments. Surely Dad was correct as well that the contrast between transience and housekeeping was the main theme, and also, the connection between the transience of our whole lives and the within-life transience of Sylvie and her type was a cool idea to explore, though I am curious about what Robinson was trying to say about within-life transience--does she see it as respectable, or even noble? I’m not sure I do. I will further side with Jeanette in finding parts of the book difficult to understand, and I don’t think this is because Jeanette is an eighth-grader reading adult literature; instead, I think that Robinson’s style--while finely crafted and poetic as Mom illustrated with that quote--is often obfuscatory. Overall, I had mixed feelings about Housekeeping, both about Robinson’s literary style and about the main implications of the story. Oh, and Jeanette’s characterization of our family as transient was entertaining.
Like Mom, I was many times struck by the graceful phrases and sentences that Robinson writes. She is an impressive word smith. But at other times, it was a chore to figure out what she was trying to say and I read paragraphs over and over again. Take this paragraph:
If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely by expectation. I expected--an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention. Any tedious hour might be the last of its kind.
It starts reasonably enough with the idea of a restless life of unmet expectations. Then Robinson qualifies the idea with some impenetrable bullshit: “were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again...” The idea of a moment having “limits and dimensions” is frustratingly abstract. This is further confused by the statement “most moments were substantially the same.” So, she is expelled from one moment to the next, and always expecting, but the moments are the same? Huh? Then the “And so...” sentence does not follow from the previous sentence, and the final sentence has no bearing that I can see to the theme of the paragraph beyond making Ruth sound like a ranting depressive. Sure the phrases have nice words in them, but what do they mean? And it’s no excuse that “part of the magic is that everyone interprets it for themselves.” Either Robinson has something to say or she doesn’t. Some modern jazz groups like to play harmonically and rhythmic complex charts, but dispense with the melody, to disastrous effect. As I don’t believe that harmonic and rhythmic complexity preclude melody, I don’t believe that graceful writing precludes clarity and continuity. Even Ubik was easier to follow and better at keeping attention than Housekeeping. I can see why this type of writing wins book awards: it is a change of pace for critics who have read several books a week for their entire life and have seen it all. Robinson’s language is creative and new and fun. The comments on the back of the book, which were undoubtedly written by these career bookworms, certainly suggest this. Perhaps this kind of writing is an acquired taste that I have not acquired, but I will say that in the case of jazz--a taste that I have acquired--I am still frustrated when I hear music that I know would appeal only to jazz buffs. Not all of Housekeeping had this problem, but there were enough sections that did to repeatedly frustrate me and give me the sense that Jeanette described, a sense of often losing sight of what was going on.
I thought that the strength of Housekeeping comes from its characters. They were complex, believable, and interesting. This goes hand in hand with the excellent setting and scenery. Dad discussed the good use of the house as a foundation for the book’s action. The town and the lake were also delightful to imagine. I loved the name Fingerbone. As with all good characters, the characters in Housekeeping provoked my evaluation and judgement, and I think, illuminated the author’s position regarding the main theme.
Sylvie is a character that does not function correctly as a member of society. She lives off of money that someone else has saved and contributes little if anything to her community. And maybe that is an important message of the book: here is what happens when you turn off the part of the human spirit that keeps house. But wait, I think you are also supposed to identify with Sylvie and Ruth. They are the protagonists, and their adventures are mystical and wondrous.
This leads me to wonder what Robinson is trying to say about transience. To me, having a hobo take care of these kids is not something to celebrate. It’s a little disturbing to think that Sylvie encourages Ruth, an impressionable adolescent, to become a fellow homeless bum. I would probably side with the disapproving townspeople, but the townspeople are portrayed as spineless morons who try to intervene but fail. The sheriff is a snivelling pansy of a man: “Everything in his manner suggested embarrassment. He sucked his lip and looked only at his thumbs....” And the women who come into Sylvie’s home succeed in doing nothing at all, even though they obviously and rightly disapprove of the way Sylvie is raising Ruth. Not to mention Lucille who, in return for being the one who stands up against Sylvie’s rotten housekeeping, is made out to be materialistic and exceedingly ordinary.
I feel like Robinson paints these characters unflatteringly so that you will like the transients. But I still do not like the transients. Life of course can be harsh, and I can see the circumstances in which transience develops and I sympathize with that, but I do not think it is something to admire or aspire to. In the case of Sylvie and Helen (the mother), it is not that they had some terrible misfortune that led them into these depths; it is that they just seem hardwired to be degenerate. Obviously the grandmother was decent--what in god’s name happened to her kids? Helen ducks out on her responsibilities in a particularly heinous way--by committing suicide--and then Sylvie makes a bad situation worse by being a worthless housekeeper and role model.
Maybe I’m wrong here--I’d like to hear what others think--but it seems to me that one of the subtle messages of the book is that transience is a way of breaking free of housekeeping, and that this is something we might want to do. But I don’t think we should break free of housekeeping. Housekeeping is important and useful. The result of all this is that I didn’t really like any of the characters, even though I think Robinson wanted me to.
We wanted to read a book from a less male perspective this time around and I think that Housekeeping did nicely in that respect. In fact, males factored little into this story, aside from the artistic grandfather who died in the train wreck. (I liked the part about the train wreck and the later references to it. I thought that was a very strange and interesting event to put in the book.) Despite my concerns, I thought Housekeeping was a good book club book. The language and the characters were fun to read and I definitely feel that exposure to Robinson’s style increased my literary breadth.
Chris: I agree with Anthony regarding the drive to be a transient. Once I read Anthony’s entry, I remembered reading the book and thinking “hmm, I don’t know about this,” but the idea holds some intrinsic lure and I let myself be taken in. Robinson more likely actually wanted to say something about this lifestyle rather than merely write some agreeable fiction. And I did finish the read with the impression that she wanted us to think twice about routine and orderliness. Sylvie was presented in such a way that I liked her (although I cannot say I relate to her at all). In fact I don’t know if anyone likes her at all. Perhaps that’s one reason Robinson wrote such a tale. If the eventual readers ended up being like me, then transience is a long call from home.
Mom: Robinson may have been saying that choices in life all have terrible downsides: housekeeping (restrictive), transience (scary). The townspeople were morons to show the downside of the lack of excitement and energy that happens when people get too wrapped up in housekeeping. The trip to the lake was exciting if nothing else.
No one has mentioned the ending yet, which I thought was spectacular: the walk across the trestle and the rejection of the town that had sheltered them, however imperfectly. I found that a masterful piece of writing (though I agree with Anthony that some of the writing was obscure to the point of meaningless).
Dad: I want to say how right-on Chris is about the many places in the book where Robinson writes up a thick description of some everyday experiences, and does so in a way that highlights some of the uncanniness many people experience in the same or similar situations in our everyday life. Chris’s example of her writing about seeing into a room at night and of looking out into a mirroring window is one of several such insightful (punning...) textual displays that Robinson puts on. I too enjoyed this aspect of the book and her writing. Indeed, it was just stuff like that in the first 130 pages or so that kept me going, when not much else was happening.
True, Anthony has called attention to other places where she stretches this way of hers with words and experience to the limit, where she does not quite pull it off. I think I know what she was trying to get at in the paragraph about expectations and moments, and all, but, admittedly, she does not quite make it clear enough what she is driving at in that instance. There is an element of prose-poetry in her writing--and we all know how subjective and difficult reading and “understanding” intent and meaning of lots of poetry can be. I happen to like that, and indulge in it in some of my poems, where there is a stream of consciousness and a play with words, sounds, rhythms. So I am more tolerant of these imprecisions than many readers. I suppose I am more like Anthony’s jazz buff who doesn’t mind some of the more outlandish stuff that people do with jazz and harmonies--except in the literary sphere.
Also, not to beat the dead horse--but a good deal of Robinson’s convoluted text is biblical, inspired by a long tradition of rhetoric and style deriving from the Old King James Bible. She probably heard her father preach a lot and picked up this long-winded stuff from his sermons. But she does it so well so much of the time. Mom’s favorite sentence is another example of her way with words that is in the pedigree of King James Bible English--on down through William Faulkner. Unlike the example Anthony showed, she pulls it off in that sentence. But you have to read that sentence mighty carefully to connect the opening statement “And there is no living creature...” with the punch line and verb completion two lines later: “but that creature will live on if it can.”
If you think Robinson is tough-going and meaning-challenged in some places, try Faulkner! (I don’t care for his stuff. For Faulkner: think Robinson on male conceited steroids and biblical windbag stuff.) It is no accident that Robinson did not win just any major award for this book: she won the PEN / Faulkner award. The various awards look for books that show the characteristics of that “breed” if you will. The judges are much like the judges at the dog show. They read the books, have them stand up and check out their form, their trots, their walks, then pick the one’s that conform to the ideal of that breed or style. This particular book of Robinson’s won a “best of Faulkner” literary breed award.
There is still a richness in Robinson’s effort and accomplishment that goes beyond these difficulties and short-comings. Indeed, I know few books that don’t have them. I think we all appreciated that. To me, she is up there in her demonstrated ability with a Graham Swift--both class B writers in my grading system--which is a very high, good grade. I have only a small handful of writers who get into the top A-, A, A+ league.
There is still the business of Lucille and of the themes Anthony is asking us to consider--about this transient stuff in the here and now. I thought Lucille was the healthiest of the lot. She saw a way out of that depressive life and went for it. She might have tried to help Ruth more, but then, this is a book and that is not what Robinson wanted to have happen in this story with its allegorical designs.
To me, Mom’s valuing this exposition of women sidestepping the dutiful roles of housekeeping for a transient life is both a literal equal-time statement and an allegorical reading. In allegory, the characters and symbols stand for things bigger, broader or other than themselves, and they are often caricatures: So, one can imagine in real life a person, a woman, turning her back on “housekeeping” in a less dramatic way or setting. But the point Mom raised about women versus men taking up this theme in literature is important. It’s good to try on this motif of the “traveling man,” one not rooted in any one place, “on the road,” and see how it plays out when the gender role is altered.
Another problem that Anthony raises is that of the influence of Sylvie on Ruth. With a more creative approach to Ruth and her situation by someone (but there was no one else around in this fictional world), we must imagine that Ruth could have turned out differently, and I think “better” or more purposeful and resourceful, etc. But there is no way to sort all this out for it is not a “real” situation but a text-plot, a writer’s formulation of life situations.
I think the stereotype of the town and people as morons works in the book, but is just that. On the other hand, our nation in this past century is made up countless millions of young people who made it their business to get out of these small American towns like the fictional Fingerbone and into the cities, for many of the reasons brought up in this book. There is a long history of That Experience in books and movies too--from American Graffiti to Rumble Fish and the Outsiders. But American Graffiti at least showed the positive enduring side of the small town, farming life, which works for some but not for others.
I do agree with Chris that without careful attention to the text a second time, it’s hard to say much more than we have. For me, I would actually have to re-read this book to figure any more out about it. It is not plot-driven. It’s meanings are packed into these dense paragraphs that need careful revisiting.
Finally, I think Jeanette has got a hold of a key theme and related it well to our life. We are living this two-place life just now for very special reasons, and it involves not one but two Housekeeping projects!