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Chapter 8: Paul Tyndall and Fred Ribkoff, “Lss, Longing and the Optative Mode in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping”

In the final selection in this volume, entitled “Loss, Longing, and the Optative Mode in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” my colleague Fred Ribkoff and I examine Robinson’s use of a stylistic and rhetorical device that we refer to as the optative mode. This term is used by Andrew H. Miller to describe a “mode of constrastive and counterfactual self-reflection” that that may be discerned in many modern and contemporary novels and poems, ranging from Henry James’ The Ambassadors and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. We liken the device to the optative mood in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, which is a specific verb tense that was reserved in these languages for the expression of dreams and desires. In Housekeeping, however, the optative mode “is less a grammatical function than a narrative and stylistic device . . . , [which] frequently takes the form of a hypothetical or conjectural statement, often beginning with the phrase ‘Say that,” as in “Say that my mother was as tall as a man,” or with the verb ‘imagine,’ as in ‘Imagine a Carthage sown with salt’” (88). Drawing upon trauma theory and psychoanalytic approaches to the novel, we examine Robinson’s use of this inherently speculative mode of discourse, arguing that it is through her use of the optative mode that Ruth is able not simply to narrate her story of loss and mourning, but to understand it, and to come to terms with grief and loneliness . . . “(88).  We follow Burke and others in seeing Sylvie as Ruth’s spiritual guide in this process, and we also agree with Caver that Housekeeping is among other things a trauma narrative. However, we challenge the notion that the novel’s conclusion describes Ruth and Sylvie’s “social death.” In burning down the family home and crossing the bridge that spans Lake Fingerbone, the pair are turning away from the middle-class comforts and values of their neighbours and embarking instead upon a life of wandering and rootlessness. The novel’s final pages suggest that through her continued use of what we are calling the optative mode Ruth will remain attached to the past and to her estranged sister Lucille even though she may never see her again. In the final optative passages in her narrative, Ruth has no choice but to imagine her estranged sister’s life, first in Fingerbone, then in Boston, while admitting that she and Sylvie have no place in that life. “We are nowhere in Boston,” she observes, “and the perimeters of our wandering are nowhere” (218-9). Yet it is clear that just as Lucille’s absence makes her a vital presence in Ruth’s thoughts and feelings, so too will Ruth and Sylvie remain a living presence in her own life, regardless of their absence. “Ruth resorts to the optative mode,” we argue, “not simply to explain her experiences but to understand them. And it is by imagining what might have been that she comes to terms with what has happened” (101-2).






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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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