To Caption Absent Bodies: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping

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Author: Allyson Booth
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,233 words

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[(essay date fall 1992) In the following essay, Booth examines the significance of bones, artifacts, and the story of Noah's wife in Housekeeping, arguing that these elements reflect Ruth's attitude toward physicality and her effort to preserve a connection to her deceased and absent loved ones.]

Ruth Stone is abandoned by her mother, tended by her grandmother, and given up as hopelessly eccentric by her sister Lucille. When Ruth and her aunt Sylvie escape the concerned citizens of Fingerbone by crossing a bridge at night, the townspeople conclude that the pair has fallen into the water and drowned. "Lake Claims Two" reads the headline, but the aunt and niece have lived as transients for more than seven years by the time this narrative is composed. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping may thus be read as Ruth's postscript to her own obituary.

Her postscript is a private one, though, which never attempts to displace the newspaper's report of her fate. She reasons, for instance, that the house she and Sylvie fled must belong to Lucille now, "Since we are dead."1 That Ruth should frame her own narrative in terms of (rather than in opposition to) the newspaper story reveals a willingness to conflate seemingly contradictory texts in a way that threatens the veracity of neither. Gradually, she manages to reconcile the fact of her reported death with the fact of her subsequent life; her narrative works out the logic according to which death by drowning may be interpreted as the textual equivalent of life by drifting.

The only difference between absence and death is a corpse. Ruth has withdrawn her own body from the townspeople in a way which invites confusion between the two, and the project of her narrative cannot but implicate her grandfather and mother as well--absent bodies whose status as corpses may only be conjectured. While the skeletons of Edmund and Helen almost certainly lie on the lake's bottom, proving such near-certainties is impossible. In fact, stories told by two men standing on a caboose looking backwards and by a few boys gone fishing constitute the only verbal arrows pointing toward corpses at all.

To complicate matters: because death and absence share an ambiguous margin, the certainty of other verbal renderings of Helen and Edmund is suddenly at issue as well. Ruth's painfully uninformed speculations about her mother, in particular, betray a daughter's understandable concern to anchor herself in an idea of family, yet she and Lucille cannot even agree on the color of Helen's hair. Consequently, Ruth is perpetually reading and rewriting the lives and deaths of her mother and grandfather in the light of new information. Their absences are described as accident, defection, abandonment, and suicide at various moments in the book, as Ruth experiments with overlaps of language, struggles with her own memory, hunts for evidence in the memories of others.

She pursues two strategies in her project of reinscribing absent bodies. The first is an attempt to articulate the bodies of Mrs. Foster and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053086