Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping won the Pen / Hemingway award and continues to receive critical acclaim. Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille. Ruth, the older of the two sisters, narrates the history of the family as well as the history of the various caregivers they have growing up in Fingerbone, a small town with a glacial lake and a harsh climate.
I’ll admit that I began the novel several times before actually finishing it. From talking to folks, it seems that most readers either love Housekeeping, or despise it. My ending repsonse was a luke-warm memory of the depressing, somehow whitewashed, atmosphere of the narrative. I was left unsatisfied (character is almost absent here; at least, interiority, reaction, and analysis (until the very end) are lacking) yet intrigued by the artifice, the form. The narrative here is a beautiful and shiny, even with the desolation and harsh elements portrayed.
Why is this narrative in the first person? The narrative lacks interiority, so why? I think Robinson neglects interiority here as a narrative technique, somehow as an element of minimalism. However, there’s the danger of not having enough from the first person narrator to give momentum to the story. There is a frame of stock situations to the story, situations which seem to have objective truths: grandfather dies in tragic train accident, mother of two young girls commits suicide, house floods, too much snow falls….and I think somehow the artful surfacy narrative is supposed to ultimately bring the reader to a place of not judging the end of the story (Ruth’s fate) by convincing the reader to reject what might seem to be the objective truth. The problem here, for me, is that I’m still not sure if the end of the novel is an actual decision Ruth makes, or if she is a completely passive character who simply gets swept away. (I’m trying not to spoil the end here, in case you haven’t read it.) The bigger problem is that I don’t care all that much about Ruth.
Housekeeping is pretty, artful, and atmospheric. At times it seems Robinson is performing a minimalist exercise, trying to keep the narrator from exhibiting agency, keeping her blended in with everything else, all the physical artifacts and the harsh weather. All of these elements and pieces blend into one and have equal value. But maybe that is what transience is about: all elements of life holding equal value. Maybe that’s how Ruth and Sylvie see the world. In that case, the metaphor is huge.