'Sighs Too Deep for Words': Mysteries of Need in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping

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Author: George Toles
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,320 words

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[(essay date winter 1991) In the following essay, Toles addresses problematic aspects of language and artistic expression while examining Robinson's approach toward questions of being, nature, and transcendence in Housekeeping.]

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent position of repose.William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

In chapter 8 of Marilynne Robinson's novel, Housekeeping, the young narrator Ruth accompanies her aunt Sylvie on a frigid, early morning journey by rowboat to a "secret" place in the valley. Their destination is an abandoned homestead, which includes a "stunted orchard and lilacs and stone doorstep and fallen house, all white with a brine of frost" (Robinson 151). On her first viewing of the scene, Ruth complains of the cold and her hunger, and wonders "how anyone could have wanted to live here" (151). Sylvie makes it clear by her example that they should wait quietly among some rocks along the shore for several hours until conditions are right for a second approach. When they eventually return to the ruined dwelling, it is as if "the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which before seemed barren and parched as salt" (Robinson 152). As Ruth becomes entranced by this spectacle of beautiful desolation, Sylvie leaves without warning.

At this moment of abandonment (in a text filled with images and thoughts of desertion), the reader is presented with what is perhaps Ruth's most enigmatic and demanding meditation on human needs:

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water--peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing--the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's head is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.(152-53)

Sometimes the passage in a work which strains most unyieldingly against our knowledge or experience of the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053083