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Deeper Appreciations: "Housekeeping"

Housekeeping: An Aesthetic Appreciation

In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson recounts the story of Ruth, a teenage girl who survives her mother and her grandmother, and who, with the help of her Aunt Sylvie, decides on the path of her future life. Ms. Robinson establishes the fictional Lake Fingerbone at first as the prominent symbol of orthodox society’s demands, and pits her female protagonists – the two sisters Ruth and Lucille and their Aunt Sylvie – in various stances in rejection or acceptance of those demands. She explores the merits and compensations of an unorthodox life, a life outside everyday society, and how it seems naturally to flow from a deep understanding of life’s true issues and consequences. But at the heart of this superb fiction lies a generous and breathtakingly beautiful – in terms of the imagery painted and language used – consideration of the nature of consciousness and authenticity in the modern world. This aesthetic appreciation of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping lacks some of the accoutrements that might qualify it as a scholarly paper, but will I trust provide adequate basis for others to appreciate the author’s boundless artistry.



Briefly: the images we encounter


 

I want to lead off with a brief description of the remarkable images employed here, and point out the contexts in which the author uses them. We learn straight away that Edmund, a man employed by the railroad, perishes in a train derailment some years before the novel’s events. Specifically, this train went off a trestle as it traveled over Lake Fingerbone in Idaho, and fell into the depths of the lake. This accident must have been something horrendous with noise and loss of life, but Ruth, the man’s granddaughter and the book’s first-person narrator, describes it thusly: “Though it was reported in newspapers as far away as Denver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night” (Chapter 1, Location 60). (Locations herein refer to the novel as contained in an Amazon Kindle file. I will provide chapter citations as well for readers without the Kindle. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but I have been in the habit in late years of making purchases in e-reader form for books I want to own.)


Right out of the box the author presents two images which she employs throughout the rest of the narrative: water and darkness.


Water begins its function in Housekeeping as a menace or at least as a hazardous presence. Years after Edmund’s violent death, his daughter Helen takes a neighbor’s advice, borrows the neighbor’s car and drives with her daughters Ruth and Lucille from Seattle to Fingerbone, in Idaho, ostensibly to see her mother. Helen deposits the two girls, then in their early teens, on the front porch at Grandmother’s house, tells them to wait quietly, then calmly proceeds to kill herself by driving the borrowed car off a cliff into the depths of the lake. The lake passively takes the lives of two of our heroine’s forebears and I did think for a time that it was meant to represent society’s demands for orthodoxy, especially as it is required of women. I no longer think that.


Darkness plays another role. Throughout Housekeeping the author explores and explicates the nature of human perception in terms of light and darkness. She also considers the emotional and epistemological implications of what and how we perceive. She takes the example of a house in the evening with the interior lights lit, and reminds us that with the lights on, we only see reflections of ourselves in the window, nothing beyond. However, from a darkened house, we can see out into the evening and no one from outside can see in. We will revisit this image as we go on.


First, however, I want to further elucidate the symbolic functions of water here, because they are so varied and telling. Here is Ms. Robinson in the Chapter 1 introduction to Lake Fingerbone and its multi-faceted character:


At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered, nameless, and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock, and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. Above that the water suspended in the sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.” (Chap 1, Loc 104-107).


In this single brief passage, Ms. Robinson establishes almost an encyclopedic set of characteristics for the Lake. Not only do we see the liquid and vaporous natures of the lake’s waters, but the liquid is further subdivided: we learn of the visible, known part of the lake which rests on the unknowable, pitch black part. The identifiable part is itself divided into the permanent and the temporary. And its vapor is equated with the breath of an animal. The lake suffers during the story, and can knit its surface of ice up when it has been breached. These are clearly living waters for our author, and they pervade every area of the town just as they pervade the book. We see the lake if not anthropomorphized, at least endowed with some attributes of a living creature.


As the story progresses, the two girls, Ruth and Lucille, are left with their grandmother in the town of Fingerbone. The grandmother’s health fails her before very long, and so two great-aunts, Lily and Nona, arrive from Spokane and take over as the girls’ guardians, to the best of their scant abilities. This task intimidates them, and they do what they can to find another to take over the girls’ upbringing. Before this can be effected, however, we learn a little about the two older relatives, and quite a bit more about the nature of water. Apparently this is a difficult winter, with snow cresting over everyone’s head. Water in the form of snow simply crushes a number of homes in Fingerbone. The snow terrifies them. So the girls and the townspeople spend a lot of time on the lake, skating, at least partly because they want to stay out from under threatened roofs. Apparently, the aunts would prefer the terrors of pneumonia to the terrors of a crushing death (Chap 2, Loc 423). In contrast to the liquid lake, which allows you to enter and drown, in its frozen form the lake, at least the visible portion of it, provides pleasure (Loc 424). Ruth and Lucille spend especially plentiful time at the surface of the lake, skating out farther and staying longer than anyone.


Lily and Nona provide, in their relatively feeble way, for the girls’ welfare and upbringing. The girls’ Aunt Sylvie shows up at the door somewhat unexpectedly – they sent a note but doubt Sylvie will see it because they assume she’s moved on to some unknown and unknowable location. Sylvie’s arrival and her assumption of parenting duties begins the process of bifurcating the two girls from each other as each elects what type of life she will lead. Sylvie’s guardianship, while kindly, does not incorporate many orthodox skills or activities. Dinner, when Sylvie makes it, is frequently eggs and bacon. She may sit out near the orchard to enjoy the evening (pronouncing it in three syllables, as though maybe it meant a leveling). It becomes too much for Lucille, as we shall see. This bifurcation progresses over time as the small occurrences build into clear preferences. Lucille’s eventual defection – she is in effect adopted by the high school’s Home Economics teacher – leads to episodes which attract the attention of the authorities, which in their turn conclude that Ruth may well belong in foster care. This neither Ruth nor Sylvie can live with.


The broad gulf between these choices estranges Ruth from Lucille, and poses for the reader the challenge of what to make of this skillful, daedal narrative, particularly because the author comes down so clearly on the perhaps counterintuitive side of the conflict. It is a straightforward plot, but the author arranges it in a highly memorable set of images which help to sharpen distinctions between the sisters Ruth and Lucille, give weight to their choices, and present questions of deepest significance about life, perception, society, and death.


Thematic Principles


As we shall show through extensive quotations and notes, Ms. Robinson posits each of the following:


  • that there is more than one authentic life a woman of that time and place (mid-20th Century Idaho) could lead, but to turn one’s back on the orthodox means leaving society almost completely behind, This announces itself through the text early on, but really only serves as a reflection of the larger spiritual consideration;
  • the deep truths about life are not available to one’s consciousness unless one opens herself to fairly careful and sometimes recondite flights of wit and fancy; and that
  • the implications of our embracing these sometimes outré perceptions include surprising conclusions about death, family, and the necessity (or lack of it) of those objects we once thought gave us “perspective and horizon.”

After Grandmother’s and Edmund’s history, after the bewildering, grief-inducing behavior of Helen (Ruth and Lucille’s mother), after the faltering care of Grandmother, and Lily and Nona, Sylvie arrives in the girls’ lives, and with her, a devastating flood. When the flood hits, the story of Sylvie, Ruth, and Lucille starts. The flood rearranges the world and shows the utter ordinariness of man’s constructs and clutter. I can think of no better way than to quote the ineffable author: “Days of rain at just that time were a disaster. They hastened the melting of the snow but not the thawing of the ground. So at the end of three days the houses and hutches and barns and sheds of Fingerbone were like so many spilled and foundered arks” (Chap 4, Loc 851). The flood submerges the lower floor of Ruth’s home, and many houses in the town completely. The flood does quite a few things. At base, it destroys the town, and in the process of doing that, exposes the town as ordinary, pitifully so: “Much of what Fingerbone had hoarded up was defaced or destroyed outright, but because the hoard was not much to begin with, the loss was not overwhelming” (Chap 4, Loc 868). To press the point home, the author enumerates some truly unremarkable things, hooked rugs, needlepoint ottomans, photo albums. Clearly the author indicates that not much is lost because of this flood. There is no enumeration of injury or death.


But I would like to direct your attention to the more important effects of this flood, the new leaf turned over in the lives of Sylvie, Ruth, and Lucille. It submerges the frozen lake, for one thing, so that Lake Fingerbone’s menace diminishes – it becomes something else suffering in the flood: “Under the weight of the flood water it [the lake] sagged and, being fibrous rather than soft or brittle, wrenched apart, as resistant to breaching as green bones. The afternoon was loud with the miseries of the lake …” (Chap 4, Loc 874). So now, the lake joins the town in suffering, and with its multiple layers, and its breath like a live animal’s, we comprehend it a little more sympathetically; it has graduated from inert hazard to something alive for which we begin to feel an affinity. Further, the flood waters transform the girls’ home into an alien landscape, or maybe a vehicle. Walking through the pantry means fighting the eddies and currents, and all habitation must be done above stairs. At Location 975 (Chapter 4) Sylvie says she had never seen such a dark night. “‘I really never have,’ she said. ‘It’s like the end of the world.’” The three girls listen in the utter dark to the groans of the lake, to the brimming and simmering of the flood waters. In the quiet darkness, nothing is seen, and unless it is heard, it might not exist. And at Location 980, Ruth: “Deprived of all perspective and horizon, I found myself reduced to an intuition, and my sister and my aunt to less than that.” Here we encounter our first intimation of the mystical, other-worldly direction Ruth’s ruminations will take. These ruminations adumbrate later thoughts by putting into our consciousnesses the realization of the pervasive nature of water in life. It can be over-plentiful, and in this Idaho town it proves its capriciousness every year. But water will continue to serve its pivotal function as the themes and their implications become clear.


The town is plunged into darkness, the interior of the house perhaps even darker, and it is a very uncomfortable situation for Lucille, especially. She complains loudly, and Sylvie pats Ruth on the shoulder, thinking she’s patting Lucille. “I’m not Lucille,” says Ruth. Here the girls also have their first variance in how they react. Ruth wants it very clear to Sylvie that she’s not Lucille. The absolute darkness encompasses them; the girls can speak but no one can see anyone. When people make their way around the lower floor, it’s described with a “wash wash wash” as they make their way along. One night Sylvie descends and falls silent as the girls wait upstairs. Lucy complains again, and Ruth decides to search the house for the silent grownup. She wades along the lower floor, holding her arms wide and finds her aunt leaning against the window, very faintly silhouetted. She stands as still as “an effigy” (Chap 4, Loc 1008). Poor Sylvie, in a house whose lower floors are filled with destroying water, yearns for the great Elsewhere. Sylvie is in effect trapped, her lower extremities occupied by the urgent needs of her kin, her head elsewhere, peering into an unknowable universe. And in this image does Ms. Robinson again unite the darkness and the water. Sylvie stands in water up to some level on her legs, and the window to the outside world is at eye level. Here she stands as in the waters of parturition, as birth comes for the next epoch of these women’s lives. (Note here also, that when Sylvie first arrived she sustained the stares of Lily, Nona, Ruth, and Lucy “with the placid modesty of a virgin who has conceived, her happiness was palpable” (Chap 3, Loc 672). The lights are dark at the house, but there is very little to see beyond the window just yet. Just now, the world is dark and its possibilities belong to the imagination.


At the end of the flood rains: “The next day was very fine. The water was so still that the sunken half of the fallen tree was replaced by the mirrored image of the half trunk and limbs that remained above water” (Chap 4, Loc 869). The natural world as we know it is on its side, altered. We see nothing the way we used to. The pervasive water now bathes peoples’ powers of perception. It affects – it disrupts – our brains and our emotions. We see the disorder wrought by the flood, and we see the newness of the world in its wake, or at least the requirement that we look at it with fresh eyes.


I need also to discuss one other incident in which these continuing images tell the story. After power is restored to the town, the girls arrive home one evening and Sylvie is sitting alone in the dark. Ruth and Lucille understand that this means Sylvie feels in some way connected to something “out there” that they do not comprehend.

When we did come home Sylvie would certainly be home, too, enjoying the evening, for so she described her habit of sitting in the dark. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, so soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic” (Chap 6, Loc 1349).

A house, designed to keep out the natural world, is allowed in Sylvie’s administration to let a fair amount, an unorthodox amount, of nature in. Lucille objects to this, strenuously. In Chapter 5, in another kernel of brilliant phrasing and imagery, Ruth makes this statement: “I was content with Sylvie, so it was a surprise to me when I realized that Lucille had begun to regard other people with the calm, horizontal look of settled purpose, with which, from a slowly sinking boat, they might have regarded a not-too-distant shore” (Chap 5, Loc 1273). So as the Chapter 6 episode unfolds, Lucille demonstrates how fed up she is with Sylvie’s approach. Complaining (at Loc 1361) as she scratches her arms, that she must have got into something, Lucille “stood up and pulled the chain of the overhead light. The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness.” The shabby, damaged, aging, or neglected contents of the kitchen glare in the harsh light. “In the light we were startled and uncomfortable. Lucille yanked on the chain again, so hard that the little bell on the end of it struck the ceiling, and then we sat uncomfortably in the exaggerated darkness” (Chap 6, Loc 1374). Lucille then cross examines Sylvie about her husband, in an intense and hostile way. She even says she doubts Sylvie ever had a husband. Sylvie responds serenely, that Lucille must think what she likes. “By that time the crickets in the pantry were singing again, the window was luminous, the battered table and the clutter that lay on it were one chill ultramarine, the clutter of ordinary life on the deck of a drowned ship” (Loc 1386). Yet another brief passage in which our chief images all play a part, and an added extra: the not-even-liminal level of housekeeping chez Sylvie. In this particular episode, Lucille’s hostility is clear, and Sylvie’s tendencies when evening comes, well established. Lucille rebels at the conditions in the home, and is content to just look at a window at night and see herself reflected back. The water image returns, too, in the description of the drowned ship. Sylvie has begun to succeed in bringing the house to the medium which it was designed to keep out – nature. It is almost like a witch’s spell.


Now that the thematic landscape is established


The floodwaters recede after more than a week, exposing the lack of significance of the man-made Fingerbone, and finally relieving the lake of its burden. At Location 1051 (Chap 4), Ruth avers, “Two weeks after the water was gone, people began to believe that our house had not been touched by the flood at all.” Ruth’s family’s “standoffishness” and its exceptional recent history gives it a bad distinction in the town’s eyes. Their view that their house hadn’t been affected by the flood flows from this predisposition. However, houses in general have a special significance in this story, and the fact that this family’s is thought exempt, or apart, is very telling. Houses serve to protect their inhabitants from the elements, barricading the two environments from each other. (However, and critically, the house on Sylvie's watch is allowed to revert to nature, to surrender its boundaries.) Particularly with the interior illuminated, the outside world is not visible. Sylvie does not pursue those activities which solidify a house. She considers a house an encumbrance, a flimsy structure set up to alienate one from her surroundings, and her life. She allows the housekeeping to lapse and the house begins to become one with nature, with that which it was meant to keep out. Sylvie guides the sisters in this direction; one girl accepts the guidance and one does not. This episode further cements Lucille’s approach to life in this family. She begins afterward to insist on the light, on the china, and on meat and potatoes. Sylvie eventually just gives her the grocery money. For her own thin self, “Sylvie stashed saltines in her pockets, which she ate as she walked in the evening, leaving Lucille and me alone in the lighted kitchen with its blind black window” (Chap 6, Loc 1394). Sylvie’s stance leaves Lucille cold and ill at ease. She cannot abide it. She has a familiar, a friend from school, “whom she feared and admired, and through whose eyes she continually imagined she saw. Lucille was galled and wounded by her imagined disapprobation” (Chap 6, Loc 1403). Lucille has opted for a safe, orthodox approach to life. She cares deeply what others think and yearns for anonymity and acceptance, for ordinariness.


Watch Yale Professor Amy Hungerford's lecture on Housekeeping. Here's part 1:




Watch it on Academic Earth

I frequently think Lucille has been set up exclusively to foil Ruth. She wants what the home economics teacher can give her: guidance that consists of living her role in the world, cutting out clothing in patterns, planning meals, keeping house. And this keeping house separates Lucille from the unique vision and and consciousness that is Sylvie's and Ruth's. This need for her peers and their pre-fab existence, their well-worn projects and paths through life, throws Lucille in the way of the blinding light. Her kitchen will always be lit against the dark, her choice will always be ignorance of the world outside. And that level stare of hers, the determined glare at the shore from the occupant of the slowly linking boat, will be satisfied, answered by her jumping from the craft, to the waiting household run by the home economics teacher.


And there it is: Lucille needs the light. Her projects must be those of the herd. These perspectives place Ruth and Lucille into a state of inchoate conflict, and in this context, Ruth and Lucille go to an inlet in the lake to do some fishing. This is the principal event in Chapter 7.


Professor Hungerford, Part 2:



Watch it on Academic Earth



As the summer starts out, Sylvie and Ruth are still Lucille’s refuge, even if they provide her with her worst problems. One day in the warm summer months, the two go to the lakeshore for some fishing and lunch. They stay longer than they expect to, and are caught there when night falls. They stop at a sheltered cove of the lake, a place away from the tides and broad shimmering surface of the lake proper, a place where things “massed and accumulated, as they do in cobwebs or in eaves and unswept corners of a house” (Chap 7, Loc 1529). Darkness falls and both girls are frightened by the prospect of traveling along the shore in the dark. They are forced to stay at the edge of the lake. So they build, or try to build, some shelter for themselves, and accomplish only a weak and random-seeming set of branches and driftwood. In the middle of the night Ruth awakens to absolute darkness. The only things she can perceive are lake sounds, disembodied but nearby. The girls hear creatures approach them in the dark, and Lucille throws stones at the sound. She cannot accept that all her “human boundaries are overrun” (Chap 7, Loc 1554). Ruth on the other hand “let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones” (Loc 1555). Ruth has no boundaries out here by the lake. She lets the sky’s darkness be a continuation of her insides. She sees herself as turned inside out in the utterly black realm. Here, Ruth’s narration contains a key and intriguing discussion of perception, as she comprehends it:

Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they could be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable” (Chap 7, Loc 1556).

Then the author posits for Ruth a contemplation of a relationship with her mother - a supposition that Ruth offers to our imagination that she simply interacted with her mother.

Such details are merely accidental. Who could know but us? And since their thoughts were bent on other ghosts than ours, other darknesses than we had seen, why must we be left, the survivors picking among the flotsam, among the small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter that was all that remained when they vanished, that only catastrophe made notable? (Chap 7, loc 1563)

Thus are the facts reduced for Ruth's and our perception. The author, through Ruth, calls darkness a "solvent," in fact the "only solvent." In darkness does the true nature of our fates become revealed:

While it was dark ... it seemed to me that there need not be relic, remnant, residue, memento, bequest, memory, thought, track or trace, if only darkness could be perfect and permanent. (Chap 7, loc 1565)

Here then, in a timeless, alliterative passage that hearkens to Anglo-Saxon poetry, does Ruth contemplate a perfect, permanent darkness. (And the sisters drift apart: "'It doesn't seem to get any lighter,' I said. 'It will,' Lucille replied." (Loc 1573)) The girls, disheveled and stiff from their night by the lake, see orchard trees, "twisted and crotched and stooped, barren and age-stricken" (Loc 1580). Sylvie smiles to herself as the girls return and brews a concoction she calls "brimstone tea" (Loc 1585).


The passing-away imagery continues: Ruth has returned home, has her tea, and is wrapped up in a blanket. At location 1594: "So this is all death is, I thought." She notices Sylvie's solicitousness, understands Sylvie realizes her state, and feels like laughing. The room begins to fill with strangers, Ruth perceives, and she is powerless to tell Sylvie the spilled tea has made an embarrassing stain in her lap. Location 1600: "I knew that my decay, now obvious and accelerating, should somehow be concealed for decency's sake." Sylvie finally notices Ruth falling out of the chair, and asks if she good sleep. Sylvie says, "'Sleep is best when you're really tired. You don't just sleep. You die'" (loc 1603).


Ruth sees the complete transience of existence. Why should there be any memory of anything that was an illusion to start with? This is more than a thesis on perception. This is a humbling consideration of existence itself. Perfect and permanent darkness is described as a “solvent,” in which those things which trick our senses can be washed away and forgotten. Ruth senses this of herself, and she knows Lucille would reject the idea out of hand. Lucille, unready for such a broad, individualistic, maybe nihilistic, worldview, needs the reassurance of her existence that she can only get from others. Lucille needs the assurance of tomorrow. In Ruth’s view here, tomorrow is the deepest, most ethereal abstract. She has described Sylvie as “inhabiting a millennial present” (Chap 6, Loc 1290), and in light of these insights, Ruth feels the authenticity of Sylvie’s existence. These girls are headed in opposite directions, but open hostilities have not yet begun.


Someone tried to smother her with blankets. Just that following morning, presumably seeking some reassurance out in the light of day, Lucille dresses Ruth up (it did seem like a formal, funereal outfit to me) and they go out. This episode shows the girls’ differences in high relief: Lucille knows how to look like other people, and it makes Ruth self-conscious. Ruth hates these excursions for hair gel and lipstick; today she’s thinking about her mother. She kept waiting for her in her dream, just as she kept waiting that morning on the porch (Chap 7, Loc 1651). She’s been disappointed twice. “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” (Loc 1653). Ruth shows an affinity for the dead mother, or at least an expectation that seeing her is not such a far-fetched idea. Death in Ruth’s view is a simple passage not to be feared, but which unites us with the rest of nature and truth, piety and God.


So the journey of Ruth's apprenticeship proceeds. Ruth hates excursions into the quotidian, home-ec- focused life, and for her part, Lucille hates living with Ruth and Sylvie. Hostilities break into the open and last several days. The “way Ruthie is” is the way Sylvie is, and it makes Lucille nuts, and finally after the school year starts, Lucille moves in with her Home Economics teacher. Then follows a significant episode, which I view as the climax, and it is one that is only possible because Ruth and Sylvie live by themselves now.

Immediately after Lucille’s departure – the next morning – Ruth and Sylvie take a rowboat and go out to another promontory on the lake. As they walk to the shore Ruth thinks, “We are the same. She could as well be my mother. I crouched and slept in her very shape like an unborn child" (Chap 8, Loc 1993). As Sylvie pulls them along with the oars Ruth looks over the side now and then. The upper waters are murky but transparent. “The fragmented image of jonquil sky spilled from top to top of the rounding waves as the shine spills on silk, and gulls sailed up into the very height of the sky … Dawn and its excesses always reminded me of heaven, a place where I have always known I would not be comfortable” (Chap 8, Loc 2054). The dawn sends shafts of light, like an insect stretching itself out of a chrysalis, and Ruth reflects on her grandfather, who is responsible for the family’s moving to this lake, trailing all his unborn children behind him. The birth-language fills this episode up, before and after the visit to the far shore, particularly after. But let us concern ourselves with the visit itself.


Sylvie guides Ruth to the secluded valley, which Ruth finds cold. Not enough sun gets into it, but as the sun does come up, the early dew condenses in the grass and on the stunted trees, creating a magical effect, in which the water appears to be the fruit of the plant. And in this thought lays the first of Ruth’s metaphysical tangents in this remote locale: she imagines, what would bloom in a place like Carthage, where salt had been sown? After talking about a greater need for water in a place that was salt, Ruth observes (Chap 8, Loc 2107):

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 any thing so utterly as when we lack it?

This is a further rumination on perception, on reality, and contains an unorthodox resolution to desire. (Plus, it’s a vivid exegetic passage on my favorite, Keats, and I appreciate it very much.) This dreamlike reflection sets the tone for this visit. Sylvie had guided Ruth to a glen on the pretext of looking for lost or abandoned children. The sought-after children do not materialize, of course, and Ruth in a blind, aimless project, tries to right a ruin - another attempt at shelter by the side of the lake. And here the Sylvie-as-Ruth’s-mother imagery speeds into overdrive. Ruth curls up in the bottom of the boat and the ensuing birth imagery overwhelms us.


Ms. Robinson insists on our seeing this birth, in the form of a seed giving rise to a plant, in fact, but it is only a transitional birth, an intermediate parturition preparing Ruth, and us, for the only one that will count, the one that frees us from earthly bounds and strictures. Ruth's human form is left behind, symbolically, the night she and Lucille return from their adventure by the lake. (She returns to the house and realizes death has no particular terror, and has only an intermediate implication, being a simple step in the middle.) She becomes more expectant of seeing her mother - in some form related to the spiritual - and takes particular pain to establish the context in which perception and imagination and faith are at least as real as what our senses perceive every day. Next she is transformed into a seedling. During this episode she deals with the second spent and useless house by the side of the lake, and it cements for her the knowledge that she is a spiritual, so much more than a corporeal, being.


And she says (loc. 2194), "I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It has no shelter now ..." She equates her late mother, drowned some years before, to music she no longer hears, "that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished" (loc 2198). A distinct, repetitive, almost heavy-handed, series of birth-symbols and comparisons follow this thesis, and Ruth compares even this graphic parturition to that which has gone before:

Then, presumably, would come parturition in some form, though my first birth had hardly deserved that name, and why should I hope for more from the second? The only true birth should be the final one, which would free us from watery darkness, and the thought of water darkness, but could such a birth be imagined? (Chap 8, loc 2231)

Directly on the heels of this statement, which brings us directly into the realm of faith, the author expands her discussion:

What is thought, after all, what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate. The images are the worst of it. It would be terrible to stand outside in the dark and watch a woman in a lighted room studying her face in a window, and throw a stone at her, shattering the glass, and then to watch the window knit itself up again and the bright bits of lip and throat and hair piece themselves seamlessly again into that unknown, indifferent woman. It would be terrible to see a shattered mirror heal to show a dreaming woman tucking up her hair. And there we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement” (Chap 8, Loc 2233).

And this pivotal passage goes on, as the newborn Ruth reflects that water will never be terrible like that: like reflections on water, our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. Lucille insisted on the light during dinner, needing the static, flattering reflection of her life in society. Not so Ruth or Sylvie.


And here, in a display of stunningly imaginative language, our intrepid author unites two parallel images she has weaved form the outset. Remember: Ruth and Lucille walk alongside a moving train, watching  into the lit cars as the passengers are oblivious as the world passes outside their window. Then, conflict arises at the house over visibility to the outside world of an evening: Sylvie enjoys it, Lucille can't abide it.  The author won't have us dwelling on fixed images: our minds don't work that way, and they lead us astray, into areas of falsity and flattery. And: the procession of houses along the way, from poorly-made, to worse-made, to irrelevant: Ruth finally announces she wants not her body. She would be un-housed of it, because it simply separates her from the spiritual path (although she says she never thought she would like being in heaven), which will see her back to her mother. Ruth, guided by Sylvie, joins the timeless procession of spirits, who recognize life, love, desire, the society of one's fellows, for what they are. Respectively, they are transient, everlasting, its own recompense and highly overrated. I'm non-plussed, frankly, by the author's use of the unorthodox, drifting life to symbolize Ruth's unending journey. It's devilishly clever, if you'll forgive the term. It's one of those authorial tricks that make me smile.


In the soaring denouement (for the climax occurs in Ruth's symbolic re-birth, or intermediate birth) Ruth and Sylvie leave behind the mire and the fury, as I've said, by walking the length of the railroad bridge to the other side of the lake, under cover of darkness, escaping Fingerbone, and sliding off the grid. Their drifting life has begun, and they don't know whether they enter the thoughts of Lucille or not.


This is the immortal story of the life and re-birth and anticipated final birth of a young, questing woman. It poses timeless questions of life, perception, reality, family, and the relationship with our spiritual selves. It answers these questions with a beautiful, clever, nearly ineffable construct of images, which open our minds to arcane perceptions and insights. And it does all this while keeping true to human nature and motivation. I'm so pleased and proud that it's considered a masterpiece for its author, Marilynne Robinson, the greatest living American writer.