My friend John bought me Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping as a birthday present a few years ago. He knew I was a keen reader of feminist literary criticism, so he thought Robinson’s fiction would appeal to me.
Written in 1980 but set in the 1950’s (Robinson doesn‘t provide exact dates, but her society is reminiscent of the 50’s era), Housekeeping tells the story of Ruthie and Lucille, two sisters who are orphaned by their Mother’s suicide and then raised by different female members of their extended family. They ultimately end up with Sylvie, their kind but potentially unstable aunt. The book subtly exposes the limits of female freedom and the unsettling nature of the ideological home.
When I spoke to John about the book at the weekend, I had to admit that it was one of the most depressing things I had ever read, but I couldn’t give a solid reason as to why it had made me feel so low. John & I love to over-analyse books/films/life so naturally, an in-depth discussion followed. We decided that the reason Housekeeping was so disheartening was because it subtly suggested that society (specifically American, 1950’s society, but also society in general) is not willing to accept women who show any signs of eccentricity. The tiny fictional town of Fingerbone deprives Sylvie and Ruthie of a soul. Whilst Sylvie is perhaps not the best guardian for Ruthie (it is hinted that she is borderline mentally ill), she is still the more liberated, better role model for her compared to the other intrusive neighbours of Fingerbone. This is something sister Lucille utterly disagrees with, resulting in her moving out to live with a school teacher, leaving Ruthie feeling even more isolated than she did before.
The effect of Robinson’s writing is like effect of the pebble on her fictional Fingerbone lake; its impact is instant, but its ripples gradually widen and disperse, leaving you quietly humbled but unsettled.
I took hope from this quote though:
“Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them. You simply say, “Here are the perimeters of our attention. If you prowl around under the windows till the crickets go silent, we will pull the shades. If you wish us to suffer your envious curiosity, you must permit us not to notice it.” Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire.”
It reminds me that any social judgement can be faced if you have someone of a similar mindset to face it with.