"A regime of small kindnesses": Order, hospitality, and a legacy of narrative styles in Robinson's Housekeeping

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Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping depicts a landscape so regularly flooded that ordinary household management fails, even as the novel is flooded with figurative forms of housekeeping that seem to offer more promising solvents for life's disorders. The apt title of the novel introduces its structuring ambivalence, in connoting both strict household maintenance and a more generous notion of hospitality. That tension between the title's divergent meanings structures Ruth Stone's efforts to assuage her feelings of abandonment, imagining the lost voices of her grandfather, grandmother, mother, and sister as she plucks from memory the shards of a past that might help configure an acceptable future. For Ruth chooses a mixed mode stylistically and narratively, defined by the twin poles of housekeeping, as she grants the guests and strangers of her fragmented life a hospitable hearing, even as she structures her account to ensure a suitable order. Yet even this mixed mode is unavailing in a novel that denies prescriptive responses to vocation, to trauma, to psychology itself. Robinson's narrative of housekeeping begins literally as physical accommodation in creating household order, and ends figuratively by revising and revisioning one's sensibility. Moreover, her novel forms a species of literary housekeeping, in at once revising and responding to a long (largely male) tradition of American canonical texts. What first appears a cluttered style (describing a species of failed housekeeping) emerges as a more comprehensive if also more flexible means for grasping one's past and one's self, even as past and self ever continue to elude that grasp.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)153-180
Number of pages28
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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