Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel, tells the story of teenaged Ruth in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, as she and her sister grow up in their unpredictable aunt Sylvie’s care following their mother’s suicide. In Housekeeping, Ruth develops a complicated relationship between environment and its inhabitants, especially remembering her grandfather’s death and her sister’s pursuit of a more stable life. Most notably, Housekeeping has been read as a feminist novel and for its elliptical, pretty prose. However, the relationship between its characters and the outdoors requires more investigation. Reading Housekeeping alongside Robert Frost’s “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” we expose a sense of personal restlessness struggling for expression in an unsympathetic environment. The tension is sometimes overlooked in works that, at first reading, can seem like simple stories. Together, Housekeeping and Frost’s poem update transcendental views of nature and muddle distinctions between people and nature.
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is the story of its teenaged narrator, Ruth, growing up in the Midwest. Throughout the novel, Ruth lingers on memories of her grandfather’s death after she and her sister, Lucille, are displaced by their mother’s suicide, their grandmother’s death, and their great aunts’ abandonment in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho. They eventually come under the care of Sylvie, their mother’s wayward sister. With Sylvie’s guidance, Ruth develops a complicated and often ambivalent understanding of people’s relationship to their environment, which is progressively revealed. Throughout Housekeeping, nature and domestic areas mix — leaves are in the kitchen, flowers are in a book, a train is in the river. Ruth is restless, and her environment’s encroachment is sometimes frightful, sometimes comforting. Tonally and thematically, we find a similar tension in Robert Frost’s writings. Like Ruth, the speaker in Frost’s poem “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” struggles to find a place amid nature, and both eventually do so by settling on a narrative accounting for their shortcomings and losses.
The Need of Being Versed in Country Things (1920)
The house had gone to bring again 1
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.
The barn opposed across the way, 5
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.
No more it opened with all one end 9
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.
The birds that came to it through the air 13
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been
Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf, 17
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire
For them there was really nothing sad. 21
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.
Disasters happen and haunt. In the Frost’s poem and Housekeeping, constructions fall unspectacularly. The house burns, but from the speaker’s emotional distance, the most striking image is only the sunset colors “again,” late in the evening (Line 1). It is not a frightful conflagration, though one expects the home’s inhabitants were terrified and tearful as they fled. Only the most sober onlooker could write the poem’s stark first stanza, which then compares the remains of the house to a flower to fallen petals (Line 4). Both the similes in the stanza connect to evocative images — the sunset as beautiful; the bare pistil as sad — but, most notably, the images are quotidian.
Ruth first calls her grandfather’s train’s descent into Fingerbone’s lake a “spectacular derailment,” a wonderful phrase and which brings to mind the bright sunset colors from the house fire. But she quickly qualifies the description. “It was not, strictly speaking, spectacular,” she says, “because no one saw it happen” (Housekeeping 5-6).
Again we get the sense of underwhelming ruin, with the horror of death and destruction entirely absent from their appearance in these scenes. All the traumas of Ruth’s life are recounted similarly modestly, including “Sylvie was gone,” (153) “I had no sister after that night,” (140) and, stunningly, “My grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening” (29).
From a reader’s vantage point, it’s tempting to call the speakers detached, but Ruth and the poem’s speaker are strongly invested in the events they describe, despite the ostensible distance. Moreover, detachment’s dichotomy between the speaker and a unified rest of the world doesn’t quite hold up.
The environmental forces that brought down the house and train aren’t portrayed as acting against the speaker. Despite Line 7 saying that, “had it been the will of the wind,” the barn would have burned too, the earth’s powers aren’t anthropomorphized. For the environment to be human, it would need reason, and here, the wind’s so-called will is arbitrary. The wind couldn’t be reasoned with, and the barn did not burn in a lost argument. The earth is extraordinarily powerful but it operates indifferent to human desires or construction. Bearing its absolute powers, the earth quickly reintegrates the man-made objects, with the house’s ashes piling on the ground and the train decomposing in the water. These endings and the maladapted human behavior they entail seem sad but unremarkable.
The barn might’ve burned with the house, but it didn’t, and it stood to “bear forsaken the place’s name” (Line 8). Throughout Housekeeping, Ruth is haunted by her forsakenness. After her mother and grandmother’s deaths, her sister Lucille’s abandonment, expulsion from school, and alienation by community members, Ruth feels the arbitrariness of absence. With lovely wording, she lays out an accommodating ethos:
Need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as
like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly
as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and
savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as
when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole.
For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose,
very craving gives it back to us again (152).
Though in key ways Ruth feels separated from the world, she isn’t detached from it. Like Frost’s speaker, she soberly recounts her disasters, and in her very lack — lack of a grandmother or mother or sister and then an evident lack of emotions accompanying it — resides her deep involvement in what she’s lost. Ruth carefully constructs internal spaces where she recognizes the people she has lost. She tries not to betray the injuries she’s sustained from those deaths and abandonments. As she does so, she cultivates a chasm between how she seems and what she feels. And in this disjunction, Ruth mourns.
Though she professes indistinction between having and not having, by the book’s end, Ruth is forsakenness embodied, like Frost’s barn. She and Sylvie are transients and she sums up how she knows when it’s time to move to a new place:
After a while, when the customers and the waitresses and the dishwasher and the cook have told me, or said in my hearing, so much about themselves that my own silence seems suddenly remarkable, then they begin to suspect me, and it is as if I put a chill on the coffee by serving it. What have I to do with these ceremonies of sustenance, of nurturing? They begin to ask why I do not eat anything myself. It would put meat on your bones, they say. Once they begin to look at me like that, it is best that I leave (214).
Ruth alludes to her philosophy’s incompleteness when she knowingly wonders, “What have I to do with these ceremonies of sustenance, of nurturing?” She understands she isn’t thriving off absences that have taken the place of food and family for her. She’s silent, gaunt, and unsustainably malnourished. “The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted,” (192) she admits, though previously she insisted against needing comfort. However, she avoids confronting this information by leaving town whenever it registers. Avoiding that realization is the final appearance of absence for her.
It’s an adaptation to her concern for “too much dwelling on what has been” (Line 16). Ruth is preoccupied with the losses she’s sustained, but she’s not sure what to do with actual memories. She almost never recalls her mother; she remembers her mother driving and leaving Ruth and Lucille at her grandmother’s, and she recounts her mother’s suicide, but Ruth almost nowhere remembers her mother’s love or precisely what she lost when her mother sailed her car off the cliff. For Ruth, remembering mutates what’s remembered. When neighbors suggested Ruth is taken into child protective services, she loans her attitude toward loss to her aunt.
Sylvie did not want to lose me. She did not want me to grow gigantic and multiple, so that I seemed to fill the whole house, and she did not wish me to turn subtle and miscible, so that I could pass through the membranes that separate dream and dream. She did not wish to remember me. She much preferred my simple, ordinary presence, silent and ungainly though I might be. … If she lost me, I would become extraordinary by my vanishing (195).
Remembering makes people or events seem more significant than when encountered regularly, so it undermines the character it means to preserve. Memory is only “the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it”; (194) remembering is not a recollection of events that exist outside the need to bring them to mind. It differs importantly from experience; we can dwell too much on what has been because we aren’t simply recalling. “There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at the table,” Ruth says. What has been always lacks substance, like Ruth feels she, being simple and silent, lacks the excitement of proper remembrance. “Every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself” (195) and become more of an event than it ever was when alive.
Memories are miscible, or easily mixed. She doesn’t see them concretely, and by the end of Housekeeping, Ruth’s recollections are very malleable. “I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming,” she admits (215). “I know my life would be much different if I could ever say, This I have learned from my senses, while this I have merely imagined” (216). She doesn’t understand the stark division between “what has been” (Line 16) and what never has.
Ruth struggles to apprehend a relationship between herself, Sylvie, Lucille, and the broader natural world. In “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” the speaker tries to grasp his relationship with the phoebes, small birds that weave through his life and nature. The phoebes share traits with Lucille, who “flew out and in” (Line 14) Ruth’s life. Ruth and Lucille were best friends, spending nights outside together and days working on projects. Then Lucille separated herself with a new commitment to schoolwork, appearances, and social life. She made some effort to include Ruth in her interests, as when she asked Ruth to look up “pinking shears” in the dictionary when she was reading instructions to make a new dress. When Ruth got distracted by the pressed flowers her grandfather had filed in the dictionary, the sisters fought and criticized each other (126). It wasn’t long before Lucille moved in with her home economics teacher, and Ruth “had no sister after that night” (140).
Like the speaker and the phoebes, Ruth feels undeniably different from her sister, Fingerbone’s townspeople, and the dictates of dress and taste that preoccupy them. Ruth can’t catch the rhythm of their movements and murmurings, like Frost’s phoebes. When Ruth was expected to be taken in by child services, neighborhood women visited the house, dropping off food in acts of concern, though Ruth was skeptical of their motives.
She felt out of place. Not for her but “for them the lilac renewed its leaf,” “the dry pump flung up an awkward arm,” and “the fence post carried a strand of wire” (Lines 17-19). The world feels made for the phoebes, not the speaker, and for well-adjusted people like Lucille, not Ruth or Sylvie. In a fine statement of Fingerbone’s townspeople’s impulses toward housekeeping, they “rejoice in the nest they keep,” as though, amid the loss that plagues any life, “there is really nothing sad” (Lines 21-22).
Housekeeping ends with Ruth and Sylvie leaving Fingerbone for vagrancy without a word to Lucille. Ruth imagines what it would be like to see her sister again, and they even call an operator and try to reach her, but they’re unsuccessful; she’s likely married and has a different last name, which seems another example of the house-kept life Lucille wanted for herself. Ruth imagines Lucille’s new world, “in Boston,” (where she always wanted to live) “at a table in a restaurant, waiting for a friend, … tastefully dressed — wearing, say, a tweed suit” (218). She’s like the phoebes roosting on the wire, feeling at home even in places that were never meant to be their home. But Ruth, like Frost, is skeptical of this comfortable conclusion. Ruth continues imagining Lucille’s life in the final book’s final sentence:
No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie (219).
Though she looks happy enough, Lucille, like Ruth, still feels the pain of losing her sister, and of course her mother, grandmother, and grandfather too. Neither she nor the phoebes make their homes blithely, as much as they may care for and rejoice in their family and nest and dinner with friends.
But that’s not quite it either. Housekeeping and “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” both end with a surprising negation. Lucille “does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope” for Ruth and Sylvie; Frost implores us to believe and then “not to believe the phoebes wept” (Line 24). It seems to invalidate the argument being built that, despite appearances, feelings of loss haunt all involved.
We don’t know whether the arguments are true, and neither do the speakers. At first, Frost’s speaker seems a bit disparaging of “believing” the phoebes didn’t weep over the burned barn, as it’s a position he says would only be taken by someone who had provincially been versed in country things (Line 23). But the title calls us to the need of being versed in such things, that is, the need to believe the phoebes were unaffected by the barn burning. Ruth seems to patronize onlookers who do not know Lucille’s thoughts, but she’s unsure of them herself. Still, with the book’s final words, Ruth affirms her unconfirmed belief that she and Sylvie remain instrumental for Lucille.
Reading Housekeeping and “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,” we see a complicated picture of the naturalness of submitting to an environment or of raising a family. Truth and belief are muddled, as they seem to evade confirmation from our speakers. For Robinson and Frost, the ideal landscape is neither strictly natural nor the particular combination of nature and a man-made environment they choose to depict. In the novel and poem, the house we must keep and the beliefs we must hold are the ones we receive. No other divisions can confidently be made. In the end, “ready (distinctions) between thinking and dreaming” collapse on themselves in a swirl of negation that leaves only what the speaker chooses to believe, itself “thronged by … absences” of divisions between truth and falsehood.
About the Author
I graduated from the University of South Carolina in May 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, magna cum laude. This essay is part of my Honors College thesis, Marilynne Robinson and the Character of Belief. In it, I examine Robinson’s novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home. I am grateful to Dr. Debra Rae Cohen and Dr. John Muckelbauer for their assistance and encouragement with the thesis and this essay. I am currently an agricultural apprentice at Field Day Family Farm in Louisville, Kentucky.
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980. Print.
Frost, Robert, and John Hollander. Frost: Poems. New York: Knopf, 1997. Print.