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21 June 2011

I hope everyone got a chance to finish reading this amazing book and the two accompanying lectures (the second quite short) by Professor Hungerford.

I was particularly taken with the poetic quality of this book. The imagery was persistent and resonant. Prof. Hungerford doesn't talk about this, but I was swamped (pun intended) by the repetitive death themes: water, darkness/blackness, silence, and emotional remoteness. Not to mention the fact that it is all placed in the skeletal environs of "Fingerbone" and that the place seems at most to be a place for remnants. I truly wondered if Sylvie and Ruth were really alive at the end of this book, or were ghosts reporting on the events that led to their death.

What did you think?
posted by bearwife 21 June | 11:53
It had never occurred to me that Ruthie and Sylvie are actually dead--there's so much detail about their life after they leave Fingerbone. But someone at MetaFilter suggested that they might be, and I read the book this time with that question in my mind. I can see a couple of things that suggest they might be, or that the book wants to be ambiguous about it. At one point, Ruth says, "Since we're dead, the house would be Lucille's." (not an exact quote). The ending--with Lucille or Ruth sort of imagining Sylvie and Ruth haunting the edge of Lucille's life, being there but not being there--reminds me of all the times that Ruth imagines things she can't know. The passages the professor brought up, for instance, where she imagines her grandmother hanging the clothes, or when she creates this story about how her grandparents went flower-picking. Lucille and Ruth also invent their mother--two different mothers. The stories about Ruthie and Sylvie could be that same kind of imagining--a story full of detail that isn't necessarily a true story.

I was also struck by times in the book when identity is deliberately unclear. When the grandmother's obituary is discussed, there's a line about a photo in the newspaper that includes something like "a man identified as my grandfather," or some other language that struck me--like "they claim this is a photo of my grandfather," which is really different from "this is my grandfather." So who is the grandfather, what can be known about him and his fate? There's this theme of people being unknowable, of disappearing before they can be understood. Which is what Sylvie and Ruth do at the end--they disappear. It would be in keeping with the rest of the book if, even though we get what sounds like a story about what happened to them after that, we weren't expected to really know.

I had forgotten what a drily funny book this is: "All my kin and forebears were people of substantial or remarkable intellect, though somehow none of them prospered in the world." "The restoration of the town was an exemplary community effort in which we had no part." "The losses in hooked and braided rugs and needlepoint footstools will never be reckoned." I really appreciated that this time through.

Finally, what's up with Molly? I always forget there was a third sister, and I'm not sure what purpose she serves. To bring in religion? To be just another disappeared family member? I'm not sure what she adds to the book, and it feels like an off note in an otherwise practically perfect little novel.
posted by not that girl 21 June | 12:16
Interesting question about Molly! I didn't give her much thought but am struck by the discussion of her around page 91 as a "fisher of men," and specifically as someone pulling in apparently dead people and animals (from the "black floor of Fingerbone" among other places.) Even more interesting is that apparently this ascension into Molly's net also brings with it a promise that "everything must finally be made comprehensible." So we find out after death how all the pieces fit together, evidently. And that is also the last mention of Molly. Maybe, again, that is because by the end of the book everyone is dead but Molly, the only one left to make sense of it all.

I think Molly is one more missing person, but the idea with her is that somehow her departure to be a "bookkeeper in a missionary hospital" will allow her later to perform a later role of pulling all the pieces together -- and balancing the books? Is this also related to the functioning of "housekeeping" to which the title of the book refers and which Sylvie takes on just before choosing to flee and burn down the house?

This raises another question for me. I had a terrible time with Robinson's more celebrated second book, Gilead, because not only did I find it slow and repetitive, but the heavy doses of religion were too much for me. This book, on the other hand, conveys a much more critical and less engaged perspective on religion. (E.g., at the end we learn that even the most well meaning Fingerbone citizens, who try to help, are doing so only out of habit, and that only the women try to take on this initially religious chore.) Why is that? Did Robinson's own beliefs change between the two books?
posted by bearwife 21 June | 14:14
I found the idea that Ruth and Sylvie might be dead surprising, I guess since I pretty readily adapted to the idea that Ruth, in her speech, often blurs the boundaries between herself and other people - she speaks what she understands as their truth, rather than facts. I know which line you're thinking of, not that girl, and I read it as, effectively, "since everyone believes that we're dead" (their truth, rather than the facts).

I hadn't really thought much about Molly since I finished reading the book, and I really like your thoughts on her role, bearwife. I had been thinking that she was there largely to provide some background color (in the form of her religious conversion) and to keep the story from being about two generations of strange pairs of sisters. It rings true to me that, even in isolation from the wider community, three sisters would coexist more independently, and splinter from each other more readily, as the dynamic among three people tends to be less stable than between two people. But I had forgotten that she shows up again later like that, and the idea that she would be a spiritual housekeeper of sorts is interesting.

It also occurred to me that Robinson might have wanted set up the Molly/Helen/Sylvie triad as a precursor to the Ruth/Lucille/Sylvie triad (possibly referencing classical female triads like the Fates and the Graces).

I first heard Housekeeping mentioned in a feminist theology class, so I was interested in Hungerford's brief discussion of its reception when it was published as "a novel celebrating the strength and the independence of women." I wouldn't characterize it that way - I think of it as more as giving women's relationships a weight that borders on the tragic. Which I don't think gives it any less weight from a feminist perspective, since how many novels appearing on the same sorts of mainstream literary "best of" lists as Housekeeping have women's relationships at their core and take them that seriously? But Ruth, at least, I do not see as a character who celebrates independence, and the implications of Sylvie's and Lucille's particular sorts of independence are, I think, too complex to be considered celebratory.
posted by EvaDestruction 21 June | 15:19
I think that Sylvie and Ruthie are both dead and alive at the end of the book. As far as Lucille and the town of Fingerbone are concerned, they are dead. Sylvie keeps the news clipping pinned to her lapel: LAKE CLAIMS TWO (pg 213). They walked out on the bridge and fell into the lake, but the bodies were never found. The real Sylvie and Ruth make it across the bridge, hop a train, ride about in an intricate trail to elude discovery (216), and go on living as itinerants. So the two realities, dead and alive, coexist.

Thanks, bearwife, for your thought on why the town is called "Fingerbone." That was bugging me.

By the end of the book, I had forgotten about the third sister/aunt, Molly. Have to pay more attention to that next time around.
posted by Corvid 21 June | 18:37
Some more thoughts: I first read this book in the early 80s, and its outlook has made a greater contribution to my day-to-day well-being than any book on self-improvement, enlightenment or philosophy ever could have done. Until just now, I hadn't re-read the book; it was too important to me and I was afraid it would fail to live up to expectations on re-reading. It didn't fail. If I had to just keep reading one book over and over for the rest of my life, this would be it, and I don't think it would ever fail.

When I first read the book, I was so touched by this passage that I photocopied it at the library, and set it aside as a reading that I would want to have at a memorial service:

"Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, ... .
For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as alike as a thing and its shadow. ...
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, smoothes our hair, and brings us wild strawberries."
(152 - 153)

In the years since first reading this book, my parents have both died, and my formerly successful and active life was derailed by serious chronic illness. It's all OK, because the difference between losing and having is so trivial. Nothing needs to be mourned, and when I mourn, mourning is a celebration.

On re-reading, this book had a wonderful and unexpected effect: it affected my dreams. My dreams were like stories written by Marilynne Robinson--not bad! I'm going to get the audiobook, and play it at night when insomnia is hanging around.

I watched the movie, too -- had to buy a used videotape on eBay. The old format had the grainy look of an impressionist painting, which is perfectly appropriate for this story. Surprisingly, I loved the movie. If someone were to complain that it was too slow, and boring, and nothing happened, or that it couldn't quite convey the poetry and depth of the book, I couldn't argue. But I loved it anyway. Not sure what I would have thought of it if I didn't already have the book in my head, though.

I have mixed feelings about the lectures. There are certainly lots of worthy things to say about a book like this, but this sort of analysis always seems like tearing the petals off a rose to see what makes it beautiful. Or like this Billy Collins poem about torturing a confession of meaning from a poem:

Introduction to Poetry

Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Sorry to go on and on, but I've been a one-woman fan club for this book for almost 30 years.

So, what exactly do you think the title "Housekeeping" means?
posted by Corvid 21 June | 20:20
Great comments, Corvid. And I love that Billy Collins poem -- I like just about everything he writes. I do agree we can pick books to death, and I am also not terribly taken with Hungerford's identity plot analysis of this book, but I did like the way she compared it with The Bluest Eye. (I also compared it in my own mind with The Woman Warrior.)

I highlighted the Carthage passage myself (and note it is closely followed by a portrayal of Lot's wife blooming, though a pillar of salt.) I personally feel that in my own experience, longing is stilled by a deep sense of appreciation of what one has, not imagination so powerful that the thing we want seems to be at hand, but I can see what you and Robinson are getting at. Your story about what this book has meant to you is deeply touching.

About the questions raised so far . . . I did not see this as a feminist novel, but as a novel which is all about women. I can't think of a significant male character. The comic and impotent sheriff, stuffed into his clothes like an over upholstered piece of furniture? The grandfather who derails in his train? The frustrated boat owner, jumping up and down on shore as Sylvie rows away from him? Other than these comic or absent gentlemen, this book is populated solely with women, and men are just not in the picture. And I personally think Robinson understands women much better than men, because her characters in Housekeeping rang much truer to me then the most male personages in Gilead, one of the reasons I quit that book about a quarter of the way into it.

I also think that the word Housekeeping is such an interesting one for the title. There are two big presences in Fingerbone -- the house, and the lake. And to me they seem clearly to stand for life and death. The lake is a place of death, and it periodically swamps the house. The house is where the family is, where the sisters are being raised, where the food is provided, where the life in the novel exists. I think the grandmother and sisters in turn make some effort to keep the house, the life, alive, but are defeated. Helen never tries -- she just leaves the girls and drives into the lake. The grandmother makes a strong effort but is carried away by death. The aunts endeavor to undertake the task briefly, and then Sylvie, who is essentially rootless, is left with the burden. Her most frantic efforts to housekeep -- and Robinson uses the word directly -- are in response to the sheriff's and neighbor's visits, and immediately succeeded by her abandonment of the house with Ruth.

So, what of religion, everyone? Does it play a part in this book? If so, what part?

posted by bearwife 22 June | 11:36
Not to ignore your question about religion, bearwife, but I'd like to talk just a little bit more about Sylvie's housekeeping. I actually had to read the book a second time before I started formulating thoughts about why it was called Housekeeping - the first time, I was too swept up in the language to observe motifs. Sylvie's housekeeping starts much earlier in the novel - Hungerford cites it in Chapter 4 in the main lecture - although it probably isn't recognizable to any of us as housekeeping, Ruth identifies it as such, and does so in my opinion, without irony or mockery. So Ruth and Sylvie consider it "housekeeping" though to Lucille and the rest of the town, it looks like neglect. It highlights their otherness, that they either don't understand how to conform (though the ferocious spate of housecleaning at the end of the book belies this somewhat) or as seems more likely to me, they don't entirely understand the consequences of not conforming (possibly, as Ruth points out, because their family has always stood somewhat apart).

Ruth talks about how ferociously the community as an entity clings to life - to its ridiculous, perilous life in this particular spot on the lake that, due to the spring floods, requires an annual spate of ferocious housekeeping to maintain any kind of "normality". So, bearwife, I think on that level your house=life, lake=death and housekeeping is a way of resisting death works. But I think it's also possible to see Sylvie's housekeeping as making the house more alive, since it allows nature to enter the house in the form of leaves and small animals. But I'm honestly still not sure what I think that Robinson is trying to say about housekeeping through giving the book that title.

Corvid, I also love that passage that you highlighted. It's so beautiful, and so rich with meaning.

(I might have some thoughts on religion later, but for now, lunch break is over.)
posted by EvaDestruction 22 June | 13:08
OK, we have 8 textual clues to the meaning of "Housekeeping" as the book title:

1. As a reference to finding a residence, at page 2:
Helen had set up housekeeping in Seattle with this Stone, whom she had apparently married in Nevada
Is it just me who sees here a pretty obvious suggestion he was a rolling Stone?

2. To tell us about Lily and Nona's arrival:
Lily and Nona were fetched from Spokane and took up housekeeping in Fingerbone, jsut as my grandmother had wished. Their alarm was evident from the first . . . . [after poking the fire, lowering the shades, carting in some flowers and adding water to the vases] [t]hen they still seemed at a loss.

3. After referring to Sylvie carrying a broom but not sweeping up leaves and scraps of paper:
Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie's housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swallows. Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping. [Followed by description of her inept efforts to keep house by exposing it and its contents to water and air.]

4. The kitchen's yellowing, paint chipping, and sootiness is described, followed by:
Most disspiriting, perhaps, was the curtain on Lucille's side of the table, which had been half consumed by fire once when a birthday cake had been set too close to it. Sylvie had beaten out the flames with a back issue of Good Housekeeping, but she had never replaced the curtain.

There were other things about Sylvie's housekeeping that bothered Lucille. For example, Sylvie's room was just as my grandmother had left it, but the closet and the drawers were mostly empty, since Sylvie kept her clothes and even her hairbrush and toothpowder in a cardboard box under the bed. She slept on top of the covers, with a quilt over her, which during the daytime she pushed under the bed also. Such habits . . . were clearly the habits of a transient. They offended Lucille's sense of propriety.

6. After describing the stacks of newspapers and cans in the parlor where the visiting neighbor women come to call and sit on the edge of the couch:
The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider such things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that room a parlor since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobwebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers -- things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

Sylvie realized that her first scheme to keep us together had failed. She had little hope that the hearing . . . would turn out well. Still, she persisted in her housekeeping. She polished the windows, or those that still had panes, and others she covered neatly with tape and brown paper.
[And then she burns just about everything she can find, including the library book Ruth is reading.]

8. And finally, when it is clear to Sylvie and Ruth that they did not want to leave the house to be pawed over and they try to burn it:
For we had to leave. I could not stay, and Sylvie would not stay without me. Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping. Sylvie set fire to the straw of the broom, and held it blazing to the hem of the pantry curtain, and to the fringe of the rug, so there were two good fires, but then we heard a train whistle, and Sylvie said, 'We have to run! Get your coat!'

Again, I tend to think these careful uses of the word "housekeeping" refer, and often with some humor, to the endless and probably futile effort to keep family life and home together, while the forces of transience and restlessness (trains) and death (water, the lake) pull those making the effort away.
posted by bearwife 22 June | 16:38
To me, "housekeeping" seems to describe the ordinary maintenance activities of day-to-day life, how a person keeps their identity intact, or deals with the fact that it's not intact. The grandmother's starched sheets and homemade jam are a form of "housekeeping," as are the neighbors' efforts to preserve their homes against flood, and Lucille's embrace of domesticity and conventional popularity. So is Sylvie's tin can collection, and, I think, Sylvie and Ruth's itinerant end. Burning the house and taking off over the bridge and on the train is the ultimate form of "housekeeping." Thinking about Noah (184) taking apart his house to build an ark, Robinson imagines him thinking that "...a good foundation was worse than useless. A house should have a compass and a keel."

Or maybe not: Ruth says, as they set fire to the house with the straw of the broom, "Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping." (209) But if dry salt = wild strawberries, maybe burning the house = housekeeping?

Religion: do you think that Robinson really chose the name "Ruth" as a deliberate Biblical reference, or just a name with the right sound? Certainly, the surnames seem meaningful: Foster, Fisher, Stone.

Religion is brought up explicitly a few times:

Molly going off to China as a missionary (13, 91).

The grandmother: "And though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldom thought of it, she was a religious woman." (9) Religion here means primarily a belief in being reunited with (an improved version of) family after death.

The church ladies who visit Sylvie hoping to rescue Ruthie from the dangers of Sylvie's nonconformity are acting out of religious habit and impulse (182). They were "obedient to Biblical injunction"; "They had been made to enact the gestures and attitudes of Christian benevolence from young girlhood...."

Religion seems to represent stability for the grandmother; a habit of obedience, good works and enforcement of conformity by the women of the town; and Molly's way to try to find sense in a world full of anomalies (91). There are also references to religion as joyous: Molly's enthusiastic hymns (13) and a description of the town's several churches as ecstatic (182). I don't know how all that fits together, if it does. It seems to be a pretty realistic picture of the different roles of religion in people's lives.

posted by Corvid 22 June | 17:27

Religion: do you think that Robinson really chose the name "Ruth" as a deliberate Biblical reference

After thinking on this quite a bit, no. I normally find Prof. Hungerford's lectures quite persuasive but I can't understand why Ruth would be the ONLY character in the book whose name is Biblically referenced, and I also don't buy that her flight with Sylvie somehow makes her similar to the original Ruth. There just isn't a "thy people shall be my people" dynamic between Ruth and Sylvie. In fact, as we've discussed earlier in this thread, it may be that her departure with Sylvie is really just the end, as in a fatal choice, for both of them.

In general, I didn't see religion, any more than feminism, as a major interest or influence in this book. I agree with you, Corvid, that it is simply normal background for the community and people depicted. Gilead, on the other hand, was suffused with religiosity. And unlike Housekeeping, which seems to me to have a very clear plot and direction, it was a book that didn't seem to have any sense of direction. It is hard to believe the same author wrote both books.
posted by bearwife 23 June | 12:05
I think there's something of a twist on the "thy people shall be my people" thing with Ruth, in that, even more than being family, she and Sylvie are of a kind. She talks a bit about that near the end, how she has a limited amount of time with "normal" people before they recognize that she doesn't really fit in - she never really has. So going with Sylvie took Ruth to a life where her not-fitting-in at least isn't inescapable - there's always another town to go to, and the company of other drifters along the way.

But I agree that it's not the same kind of dynamic in the story of Ruth and Naomi, so I don't think there's a strong argument that Ruth was chosen as a specific Biblical reference. And I agree that religion is more a contextual factor within the book (which is clear in the metaphors: Lot's wife, Noah's ark, fishers of men, etc.), but it's not intrinsic to the plot. There is a certain mysticism to Ruth's experiences of merging of the world around her, and she's clearly had some religious instruction, but she's plainly lacking in interest in formal religion (another mark of an outsider in her community).
posted by EvaDestruction 27 June | 10:45
Thanks EvaDestruction. I love the Marilynn Robinson who wrote this book, could truly do without the one that wrote Gilead, and the way Gilead is soaked in (to me) incomphrensibile religiosity is a big reason for that.

This book, though, is remarkable.
posted by bearwife 27 June | 19:25
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