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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

"What Are All These Fragments For, If Not to Be Knit Up Finally?"

Ruth, the narrator of Marilynn Robinson's 1980 novel, Housekeeping, asks this question years after she leaves Fishbone, a remote Northwestern town, located on a mysterious, glacial lake. The novel is wondrous, beautiful, and impossible to "teach" from my experience years ago in a course I offered on three Robinson novels. Then, the author had not written Lila about a transient, in which she evokes earlier memories of Housekeeping's characters, Ruth and Sylvie.

After the first class, sensing disturbance in many students, I asked them to write down questions. Here are a few of my written responses, given in class the following week.


Mental stability of Sylvie? Should she have been allowed to "take" Ruth? Would that be allowed today? Am I being too realistically narrow-minded? On a literal level, Sylvie and Ruth leave Fishbone because the court ruling will be against continuance of their 'family'. Please note that Ruth freely follows Sylvie across the bridge; that subsequent actions reflect their mutual fear that Ruth "could be taken" away. If a reader only knows "home" and "housekeeping," is it understandable to react with alarm to a story about transience, or as you say with a narrow mind?


Why did Sylvie leave Ruth in that strange valley for so long? Does the experience serve as Ruth's initiation, as a test to see if she can live the life of a transient? What if a life born of stillness and receptivity like Sylvie's is an authentic life? Ruth, writing the novel years later, says: "Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings." And later she writes, "If appearance is only a trick of the nerves, and apparition is only a lesser trick of the nerves, a less perfect illusion, then this expectation, this sense of a presence unperceived, was not particularly illusory as things in this world go." This difficult and rewarding novel requires slow, careful, repeated reading.


What is autobiographical in Housekeeping? What role does the setting play? If set in New York City or in the South, how would the book change? Robinson uses a place from her 'sensate' childhood in Idaho, especially a real glacial lake. I see Fingerbone Lake as a character and, without it, there is no novel. A writer like Robinson wants to avoid falsity with language; and I cannot imagine her using a setting not deeply rooted in her being. Besides the Northwest, she knows the Midwest after decades of teaching in Iowa. Nothing I have read about Robinson suggests the characters are autobiographical, in the sense of being based on real persons. Yet everything this brilliant writer has experienced or read goes into her fiction. Images combine, take new forms, breach consciousness; and Housekeeping depends on that glacial lake and its mythological waters.


What is Robinson's theme in Housekeeping? The way literature is generally taught in school is through an academic paradigm, which requires a pithy statement of a novel's theme for an essay or exam. Yet ironically, once a single, clarifying idea is stamped on a complex work of literature, the work can be dismissed, even forgotten, whereas the literary experience ought to keep working on the reader's psyche. Poet John Keats cautioned to be faithful to mystery, that all the rest is perjury. In other words, students of literature are too often asked to perjure themselves by pretending to understand what they might not understand and "to sum it all up" succinctly through abstraction in a theme.


What will happen to Ruth in the future? At last sight of her, she is immersed in the life Sylvie has made acceptable to her. How mature is she really? Can Ruth be viewed as an artist, as possessing a kind of alchemy, which has allowed her to transform loss into creative vision and enabled her to convert a painful experience (the absence of maternal and paternal love) into a written memory? She asks a question: "What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?"

Housekeeping is her answer. Ruth is her voice. Her voice is her identity. And the voice telling the story, to my ear, is a mature voice. Her "permeability" to nature, to the reality behind appearance, has given her access to creative powers, possibly to mystical vision. This contrasts with Ruth's younger sister, Lucille, in Fishbone or elsewhere, "in a fury of righteousness", cleansing and polishing, believing in accumulation & housekeeping, "stalemating forces of ruin."


What does the "sacramental quality of experience" mean? A question for next Monday, which Reverend John Ames will address through his father's "ashy piece of bread" in Gilead, awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Literature.



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