[(essay date winter 1989) In the following essay, Mallon explores the significance of the biblical allusions in Housekeeping, asserting that the novel utilizes homelessness as a metaphor for transcendence.]
When Marilynne Robinson opens her novel Housekeeping with the image of a "spectacular derailment" that sends a sleek, black train plunging into the depths of a lake, thereby abruptly widowing three women in the fictional town of Fingerbone, she is signaling her reader to expect the unexpected in what lies ahead. Surfaces will be shattered in this narrative; circles will be broken; and the lives of the Foster women will be marked from generation to generation by strange disasters and perilous departures. Of such a remarkable history must come extraordinary perceptions and uncommon choices. Robinson's women will not be contained within customary frames nor distracted by conventional stories of feminine valor. They will make their own way in the world, inviting us as readers to release both ourselves and them from structures, domestic or narrative, that would inhibit that journey.
Thus the challenge of Housekeeping lies in Robinson's refusal to "save" Ruth from herself, from Sylvie, and ultimately, from homelessness. Transients and runaways are not among society's favored or fortunate; and homelessness is a condition that evokes our pity or our tension--depending on how deeply in threatens our own rootedness--but never our assent. Like the townfolk of Fingerbone, we believe that people and things--like children, relationships, jobs, and houses--need to be made secure. We might permit, with tentative indulgence, a "stage" of rootlessness, a year or two of journeying. But ultimately, we will maintain, everyone and everything need a home.
Robinson's narrator Ruth understands this sentiment: "Their motives in coming," she says of her neighbors, "were complex and unsearchable, but all of one general kind. They were obliged to come by their notions of piety and good breeding, and by a desire, a determination to keep me, so to speak, safely within doors."1 Movement, as a general rule, is to be guarded against. It signals loss and, we fear, it masks an irremediable emptiness. Yet the detail and the pattern of Housekeeping speak for movement, and homelessness not only is the primary condition of the novel, but also becomes Robinson's metaphor for transcendence. To accept such reevaluation would seem to demand a wrenching of standards and associations that form the very core of our own tenuous claims to security and stability. Yet Robinson, while she clearly understands the enormity of the challenge, gently intimates that the adjustment is all a matter of flexibility. The element of water defines the paradox. "From the lake [in springtime] came the increasingly terrific sound of wrenching and ramming and slamming and upending, as a south-flowing current heaped huge shards of ice against the north side of the bridge" (64). Neither startled nor disturbed by such dramatic changes in the earth, however, Sylvie simply takes Ruthie as they stand ankle-deep in the water that has poured into the house and "pulled me after her...