ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 15 - Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Chapter 1. Names and Introductions: My Name is Ruth [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Today I wanted to begin with that question I left you with: What does Housekeeping have to do with the Identity Plot? Did you see elements of the Identity Plot in this novel? Who did and what did you see? Yes. What did you see?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Oh. Now you have to make good. Yeah.
Professor Amy Hungerford: I can come back to you.
Student: Would you?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes, I would. I would be quite happy to do that. Is someone else more ready to say what this novel has to do with the Identity Plot? Yes.
Student: Well, outwardly speaking Ruth struggles with her own identity and how to fit it into societal conceptions of what it means to be a normal person, to have a home and function in society.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely. And what details, for you, most mark that conflict in Ruth? Where do you see that happening?
Student: Well, you see it a lot in her hair and in her dress.
Professor Amy Hungerford: In her hair and her dress. Yes. So, by contrast with Ruth, you see Lucille doing a lot of work on her hair, trying to make clothes, become close with the home economics teacher, chiding Ruth for not looking normal when they walk down the street. So, you really do see it in that dynamic, especially between the two sisters, and, as you say, in clothes and hair. Where else do you see this? That sense of being at odds is one part of it. Where else do you see it? Okay. You’re not talkative today. Let’s try something easier. I’d like to read the first sentence of the novel: “My name is Ruth.” What can we say about that sentence as the opening sentence of a novel? Any thoughts or observations about it? Yes.
Student: It recalls Moby-Dick.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. It absolutely does. And what’s the first line of Moby-Dick?
Students: “Call me Ishmael.”
Professor Amy Hungerford: “Call me–” Oh, in chorus. That was beautiful. So, you may have read Moby-Dick, even if you didn’t read this. So, “call me Ishmael.” Okay. Absolutely. Marilynne Robinson, as is going to emerge in my lecture today, is very much preoccupied with the nineteenth century. She is very interested, especially, in these classic American writers of the American transcendentalist school–and that’s Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau–also very interested in Dickinson, Emily Dickinson. She has a sensibility that maps very closely with theirs, and I’ll get into that towards the end of my lecture today. But, just as a narrative strategy, how is “Call me Ishmael” different from “My name is Ruth”? Anyone have ideas about that? What’s different about those two sentences? Yeah.
Student: Well, “Call me Ishmael” sounds like it’s more of a choice on the character’s part to identify themselves, where Ruth is something that was given to her, and it wasn’t something that she chose for herself.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Very good. Yeah. So, Ishmael says, “Here’s what I want you to call me,” and Ruth says to us, “This is what people do call me.” Yes.
Student: One is interactive and one is declarative?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely. Yes. So the “Call me” implies a “you.” It reaches out of the text and uses that implied second person “you”, “Call me Ishmael.” “My name is Ruth,” simple declarative sentence. It gives you that sense that Ruth is more separate from you, perhaps, as a reader, than Ishmael is. Ishmael wants to enter into dialog with you, wants you to reach out towards him. Ruth offers you herself as something like the objective contemplation of a stranger, as a stranger. That’s what a stranger says to you: “Hi. My name is Amy.” That’s the kind of address a stranger gives you. What else do you notice about those two sentences? Any other differences you can think of, or similarities, even, between the two? What about those names, Ruth and Ishmael? Yes. Is your hand up? Your hand is, yes, dangerously floating. Yes, you.
Student: Both biblical names?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. Absolutely. Both biblical names, and they have certain similarities, too. Yes.
Student: Well, both Ruth and Ishmael were sort of strangers in the cultures that they lived in.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely. Can you explain more about that?
Student: Well, Ishmael was the first son of Abraham, but he was not really brought into the family, and eventually he was left in the wilderness. The story is that from him sprang up the Arabic tribe.
Professor Amy Hungerford: That’s right. So he’s Hagar’s son. He is the son of Abraham’s–or Sarah’s–serving woman. So, Abraham is unable to conceive a child with Sarah, so he sleeps with Hagar and Hagar bears him a son, Ishmael. So, he’s from the family of Abraham, but he is outside that family. Now what about Ruth? Do you want to continue? Yeah.
Student: Ruth married into a Jewish family. She herself was not from a Jewish family. She was from another genetic tribe, but, when her husband died and her father-in-law died, instead of returning to her own people she stayed with her mother-in-law.
Professor Amy Hungerford: That’s right. So she stays with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and they go back to the land of Judah, and there she becomes known as a righteous woman, a humble, loving and righteous woman. She is a daughter to her mother-in-law, Naomi. She in fact stays with Naomi because she loves her, and there is this beautiful line, when Naomi urges her to go back to her own mother and stay in Moab, her own land. She says to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go.” It’s probably a line you’ve heard, and it goes on. It’s a very beautiful–I actually meant to bring my Bible with me but I seem to have forgotten it–a very beautiful line. So, it highlights her faithfulness. It’s faith to Naomi that brings her into the realm of Judah under the protection of the God of the Israelites and causes her to become married to Boaz, who is of a noble family. And Ruth, finally, is the great-grandmother of King David. So, she is an alien, a stranger, who comes into the Israelite fold and ends up being in the lineage of their greatest king. And, in the New Testament, of course, that also means that she is of the House of Jesus, because Jesus is of the House of David. So, in Christian teaching, the story of Ruth is about the foreshadowing of the gentile inclusion of the Jewish redemption. So, the Jewish messiah is the world’s redeemer, and the presence of the alien, the stranger, in his bloodline suggests that expansion of the promise.
So, Ruth is a very important character. She is identified both by her status as a stranger and by her absolute centrality to a strong identity, either as Israelite or as Christian, in these two versions of this story of lineage. It is no accident that this is the name that Robinson has chosen for this character. Lots of elements of that story enter into Ruth’s story. So Ruth, like her namesake, cleaves to a woman relative, and this is Sylvie. She cleaves to and becomes faithful to Sylvie, her aunt, in place of her own mother. So, there is an exchange, as in the biblical story, between the mother that she has lost, in this novel through the mother’s suicide. She is replaced with an aunt. There is also that sense that she follows the aunt into a wandering life. So, in the biblical story, the wandering has a very clear end. It’s a wandering back to the mother-in-law’s land, back to Judah. You will have to think about, as you get to the end of this novel, whether there is an end to the wandering in Housekeeping, or whether it is an unmitigated wandering.
Chapter 2. Crafting Social Worlds: The Communal and the Singular [00:10:09]
Related to that question is another one about narrative, and that is: where does this voice come from? What account of this voice are we given? Who is speaking to us and from what position in the world? This is a question I will get to. By the end of this lecture, we will come to an understanding of that question. So, the biblical reference, as well as the Melvillian reference, suggests wandering. And it suggests a complex picture of identity, and I think that’s what you get in the novel that connects it to the conventions of the Identity Plot. So, there is one element, which is the whole theme of Lucille and Ruth, which I was talking about, coming from your comment. That’s the simple version. There is a more complicated version that I just want to show you on 96, 97. This is when Lucille and Ruth are playing hooky from school. They’ve made their summer very long, starting at March. I don’t recommend this, by the way. And they are walking around by the railroad tracks, and they come upon some hobos. This is the top of 96:
There’s a lovely movement in that passage. So, first she moves from a fantasy that would make the hobos and Lucille and Ruth part of comprehensible wholes, comprehensible social groups, going to identifiable places, moving through spaces that made sense. So, if they were legislators, members of a dance band, or the girls were part of some large family, if they were all on some pleasure craft, it would explain the inappropriateness of their clothes and how they were ruined, if there had been a disaster. All these are ways of imagining a stable and socially legible identity for all the people in the scene, hobos and girls alike. Then it slips into this moment where the difference between Ruth and Lucille and the hobos is insisted upon when she says, “As it was, I thought of telling them that our grandfather still lay in a train that had slid to the lake floor long before we were born.” By turning to the hobos, and in her mind addressing them, she pushes them further away from her and Lucille, and begins to craft a distinction between them. They, Ruth and Lucille, are rooted in Fingerbone by the very weight of their family lying at the bottom of the lake. So, it gives them a rootedness to the place that the hobos can’t claim. The hobos’ transience is highlighted by this imagined address to them.
When she further dreams of the resurrection of the whole train, all the family at the bottom of the lake, it allows her to imagine herself and Lucille in this warm, coherent embrace in a more fulsome way. So, the family, then, isn’t just imagined to distinguish them from the hobos, but to imagine a more fully alive presence to her, a family that will restore her identity and her legibility to herself, not just to the hobos or the town. And I love this repeated structure, verbal structure, “say”: the proposition, “Say that Helen lifted our hair,” a very intimate gesture, “Say that my grandmother pecked our brows with her whiskery lips,” so that it invites us in to the sensual commerce of a family, and that’s what she uses her imagination to do. But then, how it ends, you can’t miss this: “Lucille and I could run off to the woods.” The restoration of the family, the resurrection, is precisely what then will liberate them to do exactly what they’re doing now, running off to the woods, being truant. So, in this beautifully crafted passage, where we see Ruth’s imagination moving from one fantasy to another, you see how the act of trying to restore her own legibility through this narrative, through that repeated “say,” the propositions, finally gets her back to where she was before. So that the restoration of a secure identity in a family is, in fact, what then propels her out, to imagine once again her separateness from it.
So, what Robinson gives us, I think, in this version, not so much in the story of Lucille and Ruth and the difference between the two of them, which parses the problem as being those who conform and can be legible to the world and those who are not and have to be separate from the social world. Lucille goes to the home economics teacher. Ruth goes with Sylvie. That’s a very simple split. This passage, and the way Ruth’s mind works, makes it much more complex, so that it’s the identity that allows for the final alienation. The identity or the security in the family is what allows for the finding of one’s separateness in the woods. So, there are two kinds of identity at issue, the single and the communal, or you could say the contemplative and the social. I think it’s ultimately the contemplative, or the singular person, that interests Robinson even more.
But I will say that in the initial reception of this novel–because the Identity Plot is so fixed in the pattern of literary work in this period and also fixed in the concerns of critics–early readings of this novel really were all about that simpler version of identification. People read this as a feminist novel that was really all about women being liberated from a confining domesticity and finding their individual identity out there in the world some other way, so that housekeeping and its rejection were the major terms of the criticism. And, if you’ve ever seen the film “Thelma and Louise,” you can sort of see the way it chimes with a lot of what was being thought in popular culture on these questions. You can think of Helen sailing off the cliff into the lake, which was seen as empowering, in her car.
Chapter 3. Permeable Identity: Anonymity and Ghostliness [00:20:14]
It did not take long for readers of this novel to abandon that, because of the predominance of the themes that I’m going to talk about next, and that’s the question of: how can you be a coherent person in this world? What does that look like? Ruth is very troubled by this quality. It comes though in tiny ways, like on 78, with other characters. Lucille, we are told, is caught cheating, by her teacher, on a test:
What does it mean to call that instance a violation of her anonymity? Well, what’s imagined here is that two minds, by some mysterious process, sort of melded with one another and produced the same answers, the exact, identical exams. Lucille is so easy with the idea of that kind of melding that she is stunned by being called out, not as a violation of her honor, but as a violation of her anonymity. She wanted to be without name, essentially. That’s what being anonymous means. You’re without a name. You kind of blend in with the crowd. That’s exactly what she was doing when her mind blended with that of the girl in front of her and they produced identical papers. It’s a funny little logic. It’s a tiny detail that you can see, now, “rhyming” with other details in the novel. If you think of the conversation between Lily and Nona, the two maiden aunts that take care of the girls for a while, that funny conversation on page 38, where, essentially, these are two women who have totally melded into each other. They say the same things. Their conversations are just the ritual assurance of a shared thread of thought: “Someone filled the teapot.” [We’re not even told which of them it is, because you can’t even really tell which it is.] “Children are hard for anybody.” “The Hartwick has always kept them out.” “And I understand that.” “I don’t blame them.” “No.” “No.” And it goes on.
These are two people who, like Lucille and the girl in front of her, their minds have melded this time by long habit, by long living together, and by their love for each other. It gets darker, though, on 105. It’s hard, as it turns out, to maintain your separateness, or to maintain a sense that you really are an entity as a person.
This is an instance where what Ruth experiences might be said to be total identity, a very stable identity. She cannot alienate herself from herself to know what she is thinking. So, if you think about that construction, “I don’t know what I think,” it posits an “I” who could know the self. That’s two entities, not one. So, if you don’t know what you think, maybe it’s because there isn’t that objective distance between an “I” and a self. You’re not self-alienated in that way that, remember, Ambrose always is in Lost in the Funhouse. That’s his curse, that he is alienated from himself, and he can never integrate. So, it’s like he’s Lily and Nona in one person, two entities but somehow the same. Ruth, on the other hand, is like an indivisible substance, but because it’s indivisible it seems, the logic here imagines, it’s ghostly. Somehow, it’s like an essence or something unsubstantive, because it doesn’t have that alienation built into it.
How can you exist in the company of other people, if the structure for even knowing oneself doesn’t seem to exist in the mind? There are other manifestations that have more to do with nature, and you can find one of these on 115, 116, the bottom of 116- 15. This is when Lucille and Ruth spend the night outside. It’s one of two very important moments when Ruth spends the night outside. Here’s one with Lucille, and there’ll be one right after the page where I asked you to stop for today, with Sylvie.
So, Ruth feels her boundaries overrun when the content of her mind and the quality of the world become indistinguishable, the darkness in the mind and the body indistinguishable from the darkness outside her. And this is a positive condition for her, insofar as it seems to eliminate the need for things like memories, traces, remnants, that list that we’re given. And I’m going to talk much more about the question of loss on Wednesday. That’s the theme for that lecture on this novel, so I’m going to leave that as something for you to think about: what is the status of loss in the novel? But for now what I want to note is how the overrun boundaries of the self is imagined as redemptive. So, the loss of identity, as against some other outside thing–be it nature, another person, another piece of the community, another group–that is imagined not as a problem but as something to be embraced.
Chapter 4. The “soul all unaccompanied”: Matching Language to Consciousness [00:31:03]
These observations about Ruth’s permeability, and the general permeability of persons one to another, brings us back to that question that I asked a little while ago. Where does Ruth’s voice come from? And here I want to note that language is imagined to be all mixed up with the material of the world. And, if you look on page 85, you can see one example of this. (Oops. Sorry. I think that’s not the– Sorry. Yes, this is the one I want.)
Words are all bound up in the material of the world, the stuff that gathers in the corners of a house. And, moreover, they are words that are very evocative, “Powers Meet,” as if somehow language and leaves meeting in the corner of a house signifies the various powers of the cosmos coming together: “Powers Meet.” “I think of you” and its anonymity, its character as coming from an envelope flap, the kind of piece of paper that travels from one person to another, suggests a communicativeness, a general intent surrounding these pieces of matter, leaves and paper.
So, two things associated with language, the words themselves, and also intention, gather around these debris. If that is true, we might also think of 126, the dictionary full of pressed flowers. This is another beautiful image. So, Lucille has asked Ruth to look up “pinking shears” in the dictionary, because she’s trying to make her dress and she doesn’t know what the pinking shears are that are called for in the pattern. And so she asks Ruth to look it up. Ruth finds, pressed in to old dictionary, flowers that her grandfather has gathered, all filed under their alphabetical name. And, she is much more concerned with the flowers than she is with getting the definition of “pinking shears.” So, here you have two visions of language: one–the “pinking shears,” language, the horde of words–is for identifying things so you can do practical tasks. And, in this case, the practical task is Lucille’s effort to blend in with the town. Ruth’s conception of language is that it is a horde of expressive gems or (Well, that’s not a good way of putting it) it’s a vocabulary of the world that includes not only words but also flowers. And that there are beauties of each, all in their place, in this dictionary.
So, if language comes, almost viscerally, from nature, here we can see exactly how Robinson is in the realm of the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists, and here I’m going to read you a little bit from Emerson’s essay Nature. This is what he says about being in the woods.
So, the transparent eyeball, “I am nothing. I see all,” that is the sense you get of Ruth’s voice, that Ruth’s voice is like the voice of that transparent eyeball. The difference between Emerson’s vision and Robinson’s, I think, is the way Robinson is willing to let the human environment, the built environment, the house, become part and parcel of that woodsy whole that Emerson so wants to immerse himself in. So, the house is opened to leaves; leaves are mixed up with pieces of paper with words. And so, you get that sense of a creation that is saying something to this consciousness, in the same way that Emerson imagines, but it can happen in a house. She embellishes this vision of a speaking, material world.
So, Ruth’s sense of self mirrors that fluidity that you get in the transparent eyeball. There is also something that you can see. (Wait. Hold on. I’m now trying to find the page number that I need. This is 16 through 19. Here it is.) That fluidity of consciousness that the transparent eyeball gives you is beautifully on display in this passage towards the beginning of the novel, when Ruth is thinking about how her grandmother responded to the death of her husband and the departure of her daughters. I’m not going to read this whole thing because it would simply take too long, but I just want to show you what happens over these three pages. So, on the top of 16, this is another one of those hypotheticals:
Did you catch that little transition there, transition from proposition, “Say that this happens, say this is what my grandmother did and saw and smelled,” to a seamless inhabitation through that free, indirect discourse. Ruth enters the mind of her grandmother and starts to inhabit her memories of her husband from long before the time when Ruth was born. We smell the wind, with Ruth, through the grandmother, and we know that it reminds her of the flowers that she and Edmund would pick. And then, you get a long meditation of the most private thoughts that the grandmother has about her husband, and what he’s like in the springtime. And this is at the bottom of 17, and it concludes with this line: “At such times….” She’s just imagined him as a primitive man rather than formal Edmund.
It’s that “soul all unaccompanied” that most concerns Robinson as a writer. And here Ruth imagines a kind of free access to that other soul that is her grandmother. And, if you look in the middle of 18, there is one of these amazing tense shifts. Ruth is going from meditating on her early widowhood as a memory, to a time a little less far back, to the wake of her daughters’ departures, the grandmother’s grief at their departure.
She’s careful to guard their separateness. And then, you get this wonderful meditation–quite mysterious, and I don’t actually have a full account of it–why the grandmother finding the potatoes in the garden comes to be a moment of revelation. Maybe this is something you can think about. Why is it specifically that detail that Robinson chooses to make a moment of epiphany when the grandmother says:
So, in that three-page passage, Ruth’s voice inhabits her grandmother’s mind at widely varied moments in the grandmother’s life: important, extremely intimate moments, even the strange moment of epiphany in the garden. No one is anywhere near or around. It’s a very mysterious kind of epiphany. Who knows, really, what it means? And yet Ruth can tell us about it.
Robinson has described her writerly project as giving us access to the kinds of things that people would say if they could, and I just want to read you this quotation from Robinson: “One of the primary mistakes people make is to take people’s spoken language to be equivalent to the level of their thinking. I think it’s one of the oddest errors.” What she takes herself to be doing is to be providing for Ruth’s mind a language that can match the flexibility of this young person’s consciousness, its range, its permeability, and also in that very supple voice to be her identity, so the voice becomes who Ruth is. So, no matter how far she ranges across her boundaries of person, no matter how indistinct the darkness in her mind is from the darkness outside her body, that voice can still be heard. And it can still be identified as hers, even as it ranges in and out of her grandmother’s thoughts, in and out of Sylvie’s thoughts, in and out of Lucille’s thoughts, in and out of her mother’s thoughts. So that, in the end, is what constitutes something like identity in this novel.
Now, on Wednesday, in the very short time I will have, I’ll talk about what that voice has to do with the question of loss which haunts this novel in every sentence, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, very elegiac sense to this novel. So, I’m going to reconcile this argument that I’ve made today with an analysis of what that is doing in the novel.
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