Main Body

In the first selection, entitled “Border Crossings in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” William M. Burke describes the novel as “an unconventional primer on the mystical life, in which the basic accomplishment for both the protagonist, Ruth, and the reader is the expansion of consciousness through a series of border crossings –social, geographic, and perceptual.” Burke examines two competing impulses in the Foster family, as portrayed in Ruth’s narrative, one towards rootedness and domesticity, the other towards transience and “the shifting margins of experience.”  Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother Sylvia Foster embodies the first tendency. For the Grandmother, as Burke notes, “the rooted and the circumscribed life produces the ‘resurrection of the ordinary’ . . .  as life passes through its cycles, and nature brings daily its ‘familiar strangeness.’”  The girls’ grandfather, Edmund Foster, embodies the opposing trait or tendency. It is his wanderlust that first brought the family to the shores of Lake Fingerbone, and as “a trainman he is the prototype for the family tendency toward rootlessness” (717). The conflict between these two tendencies is most evident in the rift that develops between Ruth and Lucille over Sylvie’s role in their lives, with Lucille aligning herself with her grandmother’s conventional, middle class values while Ruth follows both Sylvie and her grandfather’s example by embracing transience. Burke also draws attention to the epistemological dimensions of Robinson’s novel, noting that for Ruth “the shifting margins of the physical world serve warning that the visible world falsely signifies reality” (720). As Ruth herself remarks, “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true working” (116). As surrogate mother and spiritual guide, Sylvie “educates Ruth . . .  in the hard disciplines of instability, loneliness, uncertainty and change –the necessary conditions for seeing the true workings of the world” (721). In choosing transience over rootedness, a life of wandering over the comforts of home, Ruth aligns herself with the world of memory and desire. By burning down the family home and crossing the same bridge that had claimed the life of their grandfather Edmund Foster, Ruth and Sylvie are crossing from the world of appearances into a quasi-mystical realm where Ruth hopes to be reunited with her mother and her grandfather and all those other souls who now inhabit the depths of Lake Fingerbone.


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Housekeeping (by Marilynne Robinson) Copyright © by Paul Tyndall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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