The Poetics of Transience: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping

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Author: Marcia Aldrich
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,964 words

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[(essay date spring 1989) In the following essay, Aldrich examines the mother-daughter relationship in Housekeeping, particularly how Sylvie and Ruth evade patriarchal ideologies through language, female relationships, and unconventional actions.]

Yet how could it be otherwise, since the very notion of a self, the very shape of human life stories, has always, from St. Augustine to Freud, been modeled on the man?Barbara Johnson, "My Monster/My Self"

When we write primarily of women and not in opposition to men, according to Mary Jacobus, we are subverting convention by presenting "a difference of view"--an attempt to inscribe female difference within writing as an alternative to separatism or appropriation.1 Such subversions aptly characterize Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, a novel in which narrative view shifts quickly from Edmund Foster, the patriarch of the novel's central family, to the women who survive him: his widow, Sylvia; her three daughters, Sylvie, Molly, and Helen; and Helen's daughters, Lucille and Ruth (who serves as narrator). Husbands and fathers mysteriously disappear in the first chapter of Housekeeping before the lives of the women unfold, almost as a prologue to the novel proper.2 The novel avoids thereby an oedipal narrative of Edmund Foster, a master plot determined by the role of the father, in order to represent those conflicts generated by the figure of the mother. With the novel's opening sentence ("My name is Ruth") and its allusion to the Old Testament story of loyalty between daughter and mother-in-law, we are turned to a story of feminine escape and love. The allusion recalls for us how Ruth and Naomi, through their bond of devotion, escape the bitter abandonments of the past, and their escape informs Robinson's novel as its primary theme. Housekeeping clearly values the mother/daughter relationship, but in allowing the women of the novel to come into their own, Robinson also attempts a new kind of expressivity, inscribing female difference within writing itself. This "difference within," as Barbara Johnson calls it, is enacted through Robinson's poetics of "transience," a specifically female mode of experience and language.3

The place of this rewriting is the American pastoral. The impulse of the dominant ideology of this pastoral, brilliantly charted by Annette Kolodny, is to view the landscape as feminine and as victim to the masculine activity of cultivation.4 But Ruth's narrative in Housekeeping does not entail a despoiling of nature or of the mother; it tries to rid itself of the destructive tendencies which led Thoreau to recognize that "his own pen was a weapon that, however much it celebrated the settlement of America, aligned itself unnervingly with the destruction of the New Eden."5 Ruth's narrative of female transience and unconventional housekeeping suggests that an illusion of ownership and mastery has blinded men to the meaning of a feminine nature. Ruth attempts to embrace feminine nature and the mother, countering the violence of what John Crowe Ransom in the 1930 agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand called "the masculine form."6

Ruth's account of Edmund Foster...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053082