The Facade of Reality in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping
By Lauren Newman
In his "Ode on Melancholy," John Keats examines the idea that one can only experience true pain if he has experienced true happiness. Real sadness comes from contrast, from knowing the opposite. This notion of contrasts pervades Marilynne Robinson's entire novel. For Ruth and Lucille, their childhoods are dictated by what they have lost--by the absence of their mother, by the impermanence of their situation. Of course, implied in this loss is an initial possession. It is this cycle of loss and reclamation that ultimately connects Sylvie with the women of Fingerbone. Each of Robinson's characters struggles with the absence of loved ones. Each of her characters, in fact, deals with her loss by creating her own, new reality--a reality that fills the void with order (in Lucille's case), with piousness (for the women of Fingerbone), and with fantasy (when it comes to Ruth and Sylvie). Although they have chosen different manners to combat their sadness, each woman relies on a fictional world to help her cope. In the end, the women of Fingerbone reprove Sylvie, her lifestyle, and her parenting techniques not because she is a transient and therefore different and possibly threatening, but because she is just like them.
By the end of the novel, Ruth all but declares that Fingerbone-the world-is made up of ghosts. Ruth, like Sylvie, accepts this idea and lives her life accordingly, moving from town to town before anyone she encounters has a chance to connect to her, offering her “ceremonies of sustenance, of nurturing” (Robinson 214). Lucille and the women of Fingerbone cannot live this way. Instead of accepting their loneliness and living lives of obvious fantasy, these women choose to believe that there is meaning and order in the world. As Ruth explains, however, the women of Fingerbone and Lucille consume themselves with order and religious zeal only to escape what they know to be true, that “[t]he world is full of trouble. Yes it is” (Robinson 186). Ruth's “saviors” fear Sylvie's lifestyle and attempt to destroy her influence over Ruth because they see themselves in her evanescence and in her misery: “[s]o the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us. And so it was important to the town to believe that [Ruth] should be rescued, and that rescue was possible” (Robinson 178).
When the women of Fingerbone visit Sylvie and Ruth, it is only for a moment that they unveil the appearances that they have worked so hard to maintain. They finally admit that “[f]amilies are a sorrow” (Robinson 186), that “[if] you can keep [your loved ones] its bad enough, but if you lose them-” (Robinson 186). Like Ruth and Sylvie, these women are plagued with the losses of family members and friends; in order to cope with the sadness, they create a new reality for themselves in which order and activity and the salvation of others supplant what has been lost for them. Their lives become mere images of living, and they become almost infatuated with appearances-with the ability to seem better off than they really are. When one of the women remarks to Sylvie that Ruth “looks so sad” (Robinson 185), she is quickly silenced when Sylvie retorts: “Well, she is sad. […] She should be sad. […] I don't mean she should be, but, you know, who wouldn't be” (Robinson 185)? To this, the women have no response. They are clearly looking for excuses, for Sylvie's take on how Ruth really is not sad, how it just seems like she is. But Sylvie, a social outcast in Fingerbone, does not respond appropriately to the women's superficial inquiries. Similarly, Sylvie does not appear to know what to do with the abundance casseroles and coffee cakes and knitted clothing that these ostensibly pious women have brought to her as offerings. To save a child with pastries and socks is perhaps not only absurd, but insulting, belittling: “If the mountain that stood up behind Fingerbone were Vesuvius, and if one night it drowned the place in stone, and the few survivors and the curious came to view the flood and assess the damage, and to clean the mess away with dynamite and picks, they would find petrified pies and the fossils of casseroles, and be mocked by appearances” (Robinson 183). These appearances, however, are what sustain the women of Fingerbone. The women are correct in assuming that Ruth's “social graces were eroding away, and that soon [she] would feel ill at ease in a cleanly house with glass in its windows--[she] would be lost to ordinary society” (Robinson 183). The fear is that soon Ruth “would be a ghost” (Robinson 183), living an existence completely outside the realm of reality. What the women of Fingerbone do not-or cannot-admit is that they have detached themselves just as much from reality. They have created a world of appearances and falsehoods--of magical casseroles. They have become what they fear most deeply: ghosts.
When Lucille begins to “see the light” (as Robinson so blatantly suggests with her name), she abandons her older sister for a life of normalcy. Lucille's new life becomes consumed with appearances, with an almost saddening attempt to convince herself that she can be normal and happy if she simply says she is so. To Mr. French, Lucille contends that her “attitude has changed” (Robinson 135). Once Lucille becomes one of the girls who eats her lunch in the Home Economics room, it becomes clear to Ruth that “Lucille would soon be gone. She was intent upon it” (Robinson 134). Lucille begins reading Wuthering Heights and National Geographic and “anything else she took to be improving” (Robinson 132). She even goes so far as to move in with Miss Royce, the Home Economics teacher, in an attempt to separate herself from her eccentric aunt and directionless sister. But while Lucille can physically remove herself from her surroundings to focus on dressmaking and “womanly” things (to begin patching up her fragmented existence piece by piece), she can never truly remove herself from her past. And so, while Lucille may appear content and unharmed (somewhere far away from Fingerbone, perhaps Boston), this façade will only be an image of the true Lucille. No one “could know how her thoughts are thronged by [Ruth and Sylvie's] absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for [Ruth] and Sylvie” (Robinson 219).
Of course, the reader's perception of Lucille is entirely based on Ruth's portrayal. Ruth admits that she “imagined that Lucille might have begun to write down her thoughts [in her journal], and [she] even began to imagine what they might be” (Robinson 133). The reader's view of Lucille, thus, is molded completely by Ruth's imagination, by her own (slightly paranoid) take on Lucille's comments and actions. By the end of the novel, Ruth goes so far as to admit that she has “never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming” (Robinson 215). Can Ruth, therefore, ever be trusted as a reliable source? Ruth, after all, admits that “Lucille would tell [a] story differently” (Robinson 116). But the reader only acquires one perspective, the story of a girl who believes that “[e]verything that falls upon the eye is an apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings” (Robinson 116).
Yet even before Lucille deserts Ruth, Ruth provides the reader with glimpses into Lucille's psyche that leads the reader to believe that Ruth is at least a somewhat reliable narrator. Ruth explains that, to Lucille, their mother “was orderly, vigorous, and sensible, a widow […] who was killed in an accident” (Robinson 109). On the contrary, Ruth contends that “My mother presided over a life so strictly simple and circumscribed that it could not have made any significant demands on her attention. […] She was the abandoner, and not the one abandoned” (Robinson 109). This disparity in opinion proves not only that a memory is subjective, but, more importantly, that it is the memory of the thing (of Helen in this case) that dominates the senses. The image, the memory, the absence of the thing takes place of the thing itself. And when this happens, as it does for Lucille and Ruth when it comes to their mother, the memory transforms itself into reality. As Ruth contends: “[t]he wreck of [her] grandfather's train is more vivid in [her] memory than it would have been if [she] had seen it (for the mind's eye is not utterly baffled by darkness)” (Robinson 166). Of course, Ruth had not truly witnessed her grandfather's death. But if she can see it-if in Ruth's reality she holds an image of her grandfather and of the train and of the lake-then who can say that, to Ruth, that image does not exist?
Ruth's obsession with appearances-with this “trick of the nerves” (Robinson 122), this “conspiracy of the senses” (Robinson 131)-is founded in her fear of whether or not she truly exists. Ruth reflects on the idea that when she “did not move or speak, there was no proof that [she was] there at all” (Robinson 70). At first it seems as though this realization startles Ruth. She looks at first to “the mirroring waters [to offer] proof of their own significance” (Robinson 73). Like the other inhabitants of Fingerbone, Ruth initially envisions herself as a reflection. For most, and certainly Lucille and Ruth's “saviors,” self-image is entirely contingent upon others' perception. Robinson invokes the image of the mirror repeatedly throughout the novel to highlight the idea that the people of Fingerbone are merely images of themselves, reflections of how others perceive them. At first, Ruth herself “felt the gaze of the world as a distorting mirror that squashed [Lucille] plump and stretched [herself] narrow” (Robinson 99). Robinson uses Lily and Nona, the farcical sisters who attempt to care for Ruth and Lucille for a short time, to further demonstrate the ridiculousness and pointlessness of seeing oneself only through a mirror. The two women speak to each other in a series of repetitions: “A pity!” (Robinson 30) one says. “A pity, a pity!” (Robinson 30) the other replies. “But Sylvia had a harder life” (Robinson 30) one says. “Much harder” (Robinson 30) the other replies. “Much harder” (Robinson 30) the first agrees. Lily and Nona continue on like this for pages, regurgitating the other's words, mirroring the other until both characters fade into one moronic persona.
With Sylvie's influence, Ruth begins to remove herself from the world of Fingerbone. Ruth gradually enters Sylvie's world in which illusion and reality become almost entirely indistinguishable. One of the reader's first experiences with Sylvie comes with Sylvie's description of a woman she had met on a bus. After telling Lucille and Ruth her story about this woman and her four children and their troubles, Sylvie ultimately explains that she is not sure whether “there really were any children” (Robinson 67). Sylvie does not “really know that she did. [She] just met her on the bus” (Robinson 67). The veracity of the story, to Sylvie, is but a minor detail. Her story is about family and loneliness, and the fact that it may never have happened holds little weight to a woman living in an illusion. With this anecdote and Sylvie's general resistance to any conventional acceptance of reality, Ruth begins to see the world in a similar fashion to her aunt. She begins to understand the world as a place that one creates for him or herself. Reality becomes inconsequential. In fact, as Ruth ultimately realizes, “[f]act explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation” (Robinson 217). It is not long after Sylvie's arrival that Ruth starts to see her world as a place defined as much by illusion as by reality. When Ruth and Lucille would awaken in the night to the sounds of something unidentifiable, they could never agree the next morning on what they had heard: “But as surely as [they would try] to stay awake to know for certain whether [Sylvie] sang, or wept, or left the house, [they] fell asleep and dreamed that she did” (Robinson 83). Lucille and Ruth's perceptions of their aunt, therefore, rely solely on the images (real or not) that they have of Sylvie. If Sylvie had never awoken in the night to sing or leave the house, but Ruth and Lucille believe that she had, then the girls' memories hold just as much validity as the objective truth. For Lucille and Ruth have created their own Sylvie--a Sylvie that the women of Fingerbone do not imagine, and, as evident from Lucille's escape, a Sylvie that differs greatly even between the two sisters.
Before Sylvie and Ruth become close, Ruth plays into her aunt's disregard for practical matters. When Ruth and Lucille would skip school together, only “[a]s a courtesy to Sylvie [would they] put on [their] clothes every morning and walk a block in the direction of school” (Robinson 95). The significance of this minor deception is that Ruth quickly learns from her aunt that reality is what one makes of it. The reality for Sylvie is that Ruth and Lucille go to school everyday. Similarly, although slightly more disturbingly, the reality for Sylvie (Ruth soon discovers) is that sometimes, on her adventures, Sylvie thinks she sees smoke and “now and then [she's] sure there are children around [her]. [She] can practically hear them” (Robinson 148). Sylvie can admit that she probably sounds crazy, but the images she sees are so real that she “tried to catch one once […] Not, you know, trap it, but lure it out with marshmallows so [she] could see it” (Robinson 148). The allure of Sylvie's kind of life--an existence that relies as much on apparitions as reality--captivates Ruth. It can be argued, however, that Ruth has no choice but to enter this world of illusion.
Ruth so desperately needs to create her own reality (one that does not involve being passed from Foster to Foster) that she clings to Sylvie, molding her aunt into her lost mother. Walking down the shore after Helen, Ruth thought: “We are the same. She could as well be my mother. I crouched and slept in her very shape like an unborn child” (Robinson 145). Sylvie, too, seeks a replacement for her lost Helen. She explains to the women of Fingerbone that Ruth is “like another sister to me. She's her mother all over again” (Robinson 182). By the end of the novel, as Sylvie and Ruth attempt to burn down their Fingerbone home, Ruth proclaims that “that night we [Sylvie and Ruth] were almost a single person” (Robinson 209). From this point on, Sylvie and Ruth live lives entirely without connection to others. In fact, “Sylvie has, pinned to the underside of her right lapel, a newspaper clipping with the heading, Lake Claims Two” (Robinson 213). No one, including Lucille, knows that Sylvie and Ruth have survived. They spend the rest of their lives (as they arguably spent the beginning) as ghosts, drifting in and out of towns before they are ever discovered. Ruth remarks that, as a waitress in a diner, customers will “begin to ask why [she does] not eat anything [her]self. It would put meat on [her] bones, they say. Once they being to look at [her] like that, it is best that [she] leave” (Robinson 214). Ruth describes herself as nothing more than a skeleton. “Since [Sylvie and I] are dead” (Robinson 217), Ruth reports, their house would belong to Lucille. Lucille, of course, will feel the absence of Ruth and Helen, but she, like the rest of the world, will believe they no longer exist. And perhaps they do not.
The conclusion of Housekeeping questions whether or not Ruth and Sylvie actually live on. In the physical sense, it is clear that they do. But as Ruth has become Sylvie's Helen (a replacement of her sister) and as Sylvie has become Ruth's Helen (a replacement of her mother), one must wonder what happens when two people remove themselves entirely from society only to exist as each other's mirror image. If self-image is a reflection of how other people see you, then what happens when society is taken out of the equation? More importantly, what happens when that self-image is the same reflection staring right back at you? The reality that Ruth and Sylvie seem to have created for themselves is steeped so much in illusion that the two lose themselves altogether, morphing instead into an image of their respective Helens.
By fabricating their own worlds of order and supposed normalcy, Lucille and the women of Fingerbone prove just how similar they are to Ruth and Sylvie. These characters differ most notably when it comes to Ruth and Sylvie's ultimate decision that “[i]t is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing” (Robinson 159). Robinson's other characters cannot accept this depressing result. They prefer to pack their voids with appearances rather than let them sit, unfilled. It is this nothingness that frightens Lucille and the women of Fingerbone most, because they have devoted their lives to weeding out the trash from what is meaningful--to marking a clear contrast between what is good and what is bad, what is important and what is inconsequential. To succumb to nothingness means giving up a world of contrasts and admitting that appearances--that their new personal realities-have made their lives only an image, a reflection, of life.
© Lauren Newman