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Chapter 3: Karen Kaviola, “The Pleasure and Perils of Merging: Female Subjectivity in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping”

In “The Pleasures and Perils of Merging: Female Subjectivity in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” Karen Kaivola attempts to balance these views by examining the ways in which Ruth’s narrative “supports responses both amenable and antithetical to feminism”(672). Kaivola acknowledges that, on the surface, Robinson’s novel seems to privilege Ruth and Sylvie’s transient lifestyle and their unconventional values and behavior over the more conventional lifestyle and values of Lucille, the home economics teacher Miss Royce, and the good women of Fingerbone. But she also notes that in its indeterminacy in blurring the boundaries between the internal and the external, the self and the other, Housekeeping elides questions that are crucial to many feminist readers, most notably concerning the complex relationship of female subjectivity, embodiment and sexuality. But for Kaivola, it is precisely this indeterminacy that makes Housekeeping such a challenging and rewarding text. Rather than fault Robinson for failing to adhere to the central tenets of contemporary feminist theory, she claims that “Housekeeping challenges the theoretical perspectives critics have imposed on it,” arguing that, given the novel’s commitment to inclusiveness, it is “not reducible to these theoretical perspectives, based as they are on the very exclusions and distinctions it refuses”(674). Thus, she focuses on the challenges readers face, regardless of their theoretical convictions, when confronted with the complexities and the contradictions in the text.  Chief among these is Robinson’s representation of Ruth. On the one hand, as readers, we are encouraged to identify with her desire for a surrogate mother to fill the void left by her own mother’s suicide, and with her equally understandable desire to escape from the conservatism and conventional morality of Fingerbone.  On the other hand, the alternatives to Fingerbone, and Ruth’s embrace of loneliness and a life of wandering or transience pose challenges that are not easily overlooked. As Kaivola puts it, “Ruth occupies a position few, if any readers, share”(682). Even more problematic is Ruth’s renunciation of the body, which as Kaivola and others have noted, is closely linked to her desire to merge her identity and her subjectivity both with Sylvie and with the natural world around her. While it is possible to see this merging of self and other as a positive goal, signalling psychological and spiritual fulfillment, it is equally possible to see it as a sort of death wish. Kaivola herself stresses that the positive and negative implications of Ruth’s desire for self expansion/abnegation cannot be separated. Thus, she concludes that “Robinson does not offer a new and politically promising female subjectivity.” Rather what she offers readers, according to Kaivola, is a novel that foregrounds both the pleasures and the perils of such a merging.


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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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