Psychological Development in Housekeeping and The Other
In the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, two sisters are drawn and held together through traumatic shifts in their caregivers. They value the dependability and mutual benefit offered by each other. In The Other by David Guterson, two “blood brothers” come together over shared interests and loss. They figure that two lonely people are better than one. Yet, on both accounts, the pair fails to withstand the test of time. Similar beginnings lead to disjoint conclusions, with one member of each pair moving away, into transience.
Ruth and Lucille in Robinson’s narrative have a tough life, and strife often tends to bring people together. Following the untimely death of their mother, the two girls are routinely passed from caregiver to caregiver, none of whom met their needs. With no reliable home life to offer support, this duo is pushed to seek comfort and companionship solely in each other. As the girls’ ties to the outside world weaken, their reliance on one another must become stronger. Initially, as they stroll through their small town of Fingerbone, where it is “[their] custom to prowl the dawn of any significant day”, they take in their surroundings and form opinions as though they were one person (Robinson 49). These two interpret their experiences as one strongly bonded unit rather than as two individuals. With such a deep connection, it is strange that Ruth and Lucille end up aspiring to almost polar opposite paths: Ruth leads the stray life of a transient while Lucille pursues conformity to her new middle school acquaintances. When did these two begin to drift apart? Does this separation occur gradually, or all at once?
The same uncertainty exists in John William and Neil’s relationship in Guterson’s story. While these two do not share an innate familial bond, as Lucile and Ruth do, they still belong to a kind of family. Both young men have lived through adolescence without their mothers and have fathers who show little interest in their lives and aspirations. This commonality results in both young men being regularly unsupervised and free to spend their time in each other’s presence. Because of their familiarity with isolation and their surplus of free time, these two bond over long bouts with the wilderness and a common desire “to do battle with suffering itself” (Guterson 5). Because John William is determined and strong willed, Neil routinely finds himself “doing things John William want[s] to do… and not dropp[ing] out along the way” (Guterson 12). When connecting with John William brings him enjoyment or fulfillment instead of harm and condemnation, Neil willingly sticks by his side. As his friend becomes more set in his detrimental ways, however, Neil finds less appeal in involving himself because “in a friendship, you don’t so much change terms as observe terms change” (Guterson 112). In this sense, the relationship at hand in The Other is more passively maintained than the bond between Lucille and Ruth. Either way, both relationships begin to disintegrate when Lucille and John William accept they are drawn to paths that will lead them astray from their once important companionships. Once again it is unclear why these polarizations exist, and the question endures as to whether a spur to new action or simply the pursuit of an existing trajectory took place.
Perhaps one’s psychology is set in stone from an early age: progression through life could be predetermined and free from outside influence. On the other hand, significant life events could also be determinants of an individual’s interior workings. With each as a viable explanation, Ruth and Lucille’s parting could be destiny, or instead, the culmination of numerous events. The sisters face many defining moments together, and though these moments initially are experienced as one, the prose in the novel shifts, and their correspondence deteriorates. This discrepancy between the two grows as they mature, showing that the sisters are developing their own separate ideals. While it was once appropriate to view “Lucille and [Ruth] as a single consciousness”, this strong similarity gives way to each member’s need to prove they are not reliant upon the traits of another (Robinson 98). One clear dispute between the sisters is their evaluation of their ultimate caretaker, Sylvie. What begins as a shared joy at the prospect of being reared by their mother’s sister soon becomes an irreconcilable disagreement between once inseparable parties. Sylvie’s presence is not immediately detested by either sister, but Lucille is significantly less willing to stand for her aunt’s abnormal antics than Ruth is. Lucille’s lack of approval of Sylvie grows clear to Ruth and, even though she is not opposed to her new caretaker, she “finds…advantage in conforming [her] attitudes to” Lucille’s (Robinson 93). Ruth is not willing to allow a divide in her only true relationship, and subdues her own ideals to maintain her sisterhood. This is only a temporary solution to a budding rift, however, as her efforts are contested by Lucille’s tendency to “[see] in everything its potential for invidious change” (Robinson 93). When the two first begin drifting apart, inertia alone is able to hold the relationship somewhat steady. But this tendency to stick to habits is short lived. Each character’s embodiment her respective interests prevails until Ruth sees that “Lucille’s loyalties [are] with the other world” (Robinson 95).
A similar series of events also exists in The Other, when John William and Neil discover that the fruits of individuality triumph over the maintenance of a weakening connection. As mentioned, Neil associates with John William under the notion that it will not remove him from other societal ties. He enjoys John’s company, but won’t compromise himself to keep it. Following a week of isolation in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, Neil feels aligned with John William’s view of the “organized social world as a pathetic illusion” (Guterson 35). With Neil identifying strongly with John William, he becomes momentarily removed from the world. This proves to be a temporary outlook though, and Neil overcomes this sense of futility to pursue an education while furthering his involvement in other social functions, like his budding relationship with Jamie. Neil values conformity, but this does not fully erase the comfort he finds in isolation. Yes, both characters draw great comfort from seclusion, but the reason that this state of being grants Neil gratification is quite different from the reason that it offers comfort to John William. Isolation is not a sustainable solution for Neil, as he “trie[s] to lov[e] [his] solitude” but finds it to be “a futile and self-conscious effort” (Guterson 145). What once came naturally in his friendship turns into something that requires deliberate effort to recreate. John William never transitions from this ideal, however, and this permanence of his character acts as the force that drives him from Neil and all those he once knew. Even more, this intrinsic value removes him so far from humanity that his only tie to society, Neil, “beg[ins] to realize how sad it is to see him…and find him yet again a little more devolved, a little more like one of those hominids [he’d] read about…[John] was so flagrantly absurd, so filthy…that he had to be a figment or a flashback. But he was real…sadly… because he seemed diminished and lacking in his prior fine luster” (Guterson 173). Like his enjoyment of getting stoned or spending endless hours in the woods, the appeal that John William’s sense of detachment and deviance has for Neil gradually erodes. While John is the one to undergo dramatic physical change, perhaps it is the realignment of Neil’s ideals that diminishes this relationship to periodic visits.
As both friends progress, Neil comes to identify a persona in John William that he can no longer relate to. And as Neil becomes more in touch with himself, at the University of Washington and with his fiancé, he learns the shape that he wishes his life and character to take. Likewise, Lucille easily finds a genuine connection with Ruth within the context of their meager living situation. When she is at this point, she is unaware of what more she could aspire towards. However, the inclusion of Sylvie in her life reveals to Lucille the helpless transient that she is destined to become should she passively remain with her sister. Her response is a concentrated effort in the direction of conformity and away from her sister, who is at ease following in her Aunt’s footsteps. These two novels, though unique in a multitude of ways, show that once flourishing companionships are prone to give way to the birth of individual identities. For an individual to actualize his or her true ideals, that individual must take a unique course, even if it results in the loss of someone who is reminiscent of a prior self.
The Fallen House: The Complexities of Human Relationships and Perception of Home regarding the Transitory Life
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson portrays the life of its narrator, Ruthie, alongside her sister Lucille as the two grow from mere children to young women while being surrounded by the confusion of shifting guardians, as well as the influence of transiency. Once the final guardian the girls will encounter together, Sylvie, enters the home Robinson begins to render an increasingly strained relationship between the sisters as Sylvie’s transiency forces a wedge between the two. Ultimately, when Lucille moves out, the ever-so-similar Ruthie and Sylvie are left to be together in a house consumed by the hoarding of everything from newspapers to cats, as the two essentially give up on what most perceive as the normal life. When skipping school and opting for adventure, Ruthie is taken by Sylvie to a secluded area across Fingerbone Lake, where they encounter what is perhaps Robinson’s most powerful symbol, a fallen home in disrepair. This fallen home, along with the thoughts and actions of Ruthie during the scene, emphasize the intricacies of the human relationship as well as the complexities concerning the notion of home when the power of transiency looms ever present.
Upon arrival with Sylvie, Ruthie thinks little of the fallen home simply explaining, “… we came upon the place Sylvie had told me about, stunted orchard and lilacs and stone doorstep and fallen house, all white with a brine of frost” (150). But once left alone, Ruthie begins to reflect the emotions the setting inspires, as she states, “Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if you want, but you need not see them… Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire. I had been, so to speak, turned out of the house now long enough to have observed this in myself” (154). Being in the midst of the fallen home and seeing the abandonment, Ruthie cannot help but reflect upon the loneliness transiency has brought upon her life. This applies specifically to Lucille moving out. Without Lucille, Ruthie is not whole as she no longer contains the comfort and safety she once had prior to Lucille’s exit from the home. Thus, due to the realization initially inspired by the fallen home that loneliness is a feature of transiency, Ruthie has lost the one human relationship she coveted and relied upon most, sisterhood.
Soon after, Ruthie has a riveting moment of rumination, disclosing that, “The stone step was too cold to be sat upon. It seemed at first that there was no comfort for me here at all, so I jammed my hands in my pockets, pressed my elbows to my sides, and cursed Sylvie in my heart, and that was a relief…” (155). With only the stone step remaining intact the fallen home’s portrayal of abandonment leaves Ruthie failing to find comfort in what she has now discovered is the loneliness associated with transiency. In every other case (hoarding, sleeping on the lawn, etc.) Sylvie has been present to essentially justify the transient behavior. Without such influence, Ruthie is lost. However, as Ruthie’s time in the presence of the fallen home continues, and night begins to fall she construes, “I thought, Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, let them come unhouse me of this flesh… It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone…” (159). At last, the reality and allure of independence within transiency has finally overcome Ruthie. She accepts herself as no longer having anything but her independence, with Sylvie as her guide. In her eyes, she is the fallen house, abandoned by the people who once cared for her and left to become ruin. Upon Sylvie’s return, Ruthie explains the comfort she felt recalling: “… more than once she stooped to look into my face. Her expression was intent and absorbed. There was nothing of distance or civility in it. It was as if she was studying her own face in a mirror. I was angry that she had left me for so long… and that by abandoning me she had assumed the power to bestow such a richness of grace. For in fact I wore her coat like beatitude, and her arms around me were as heartening as mercy, and I would say nothing that might make her loosen her grasp or take one step away” (161). Ruthie’s time with the fallen home began with regret and loneliness that her transient tendencies had ruined the only meaningful human relationship she had. Yet this all changes as the day drags on and Robinson begins to subtly hint at the deeper meaning of the fallen home via Ruthie’s enlightenment. Instead of making Ruthie skeptical of her transience, the fallen home becomes an all-encompassing symbol of Ruthie’s lack of necessity for human relationships and thus future transience. Although Ruthie does hold a sense of emptiness without Lucille her relation to the fallen home concerning abandonment leads to the acceptance of both independence as well as transience. Therefore, when Sylvie arrives again, Ruthie has become essentially a new person very alike to Sylvie, finding comfort in her guidance of what will be their new life.
For the girls, as the guardians change the notion of home changes in unison. This is incredibly apparent as Sylvie’s transience leaves much to be desired in terms of the stereotypical home. Ultimately, as explained previously, the sum of Sylvie’s odd behaviors lead to Lucille’s departure in search of what most would deem a normal living situation, leaving Ruthie’s notion of home completely muddled. Again the fallen home is used by Robinson in order to allow Ruthie to clarify a significant aspect of her life. Ruthie begins to dig through the debris of the fallen home because, “When one is idle and alone, the embarrassments of loneliness are almost endlessly compounded” (158). She goes on to explain, “So I worked till my hair was damp and my hands were galled and tender, with what must have seemed wild hope, or desperation. I began to imagine myself a rescuer… Soon I would uncover the rain-stiffened hems of their nightshirts, and their small, bone feet…” (158). Ruthie’s passionate digging is Robinson portraying Ruthie’s utmost desire to find some form of family within the fallen home. Ruthie’s life has been a conglomerate of differing guardians, abandonment by her mother and sister, and in this particular portion of the novel, the summation of her realizing her transient future. Overall this is not a typical notion of the home, as confirmed by Ruthie, delineating, “… the appearance of relative solidity in my grandmother’s house was deceptive… For all the appearance… things gave of substance and solidity, they might be considered a dangerous weight on a frail structure” (159). Although in the literal sense it would be obvious Ruthie is depicting the falling down of her home, this selection has a clear emotional undertone. Just like the fallen home, any home can be destroyed. In Ruthie’s case, “the appearance of solidity” is the perception anyone outside the home may have that the home is emotionally stable. Therefore, such an appearance is “a dangerous weight on a frail structure” due to the fact that Ruthie’s home crumbled around her with every instance of abandonment, change, etc. all contributing to her future transience. As Ruthie concludes, “And despite the stories I made up to myself, I knew there were no children trapped in this meager ruin” (159). By this point, Ruthie has accepted her future transience for what it is. The notion of home will essentially cease to exist, no matter what illusions or fantasies she begins to create.
With all that has happened paired with her general attitude and actions, transience alongside Sylvie is an imminent path for Ruthie. The pairs trip to the fallen home could be seen as the most significant turning point in the novel, Robinson’s tip of the iceberg so to speak. Within the scene, human relationships with regard to transiency are construed in more than one way. On one hand, the fallen home has reminded Ruthie of her loneliness and desire for the sisterhood that she once held near to her heart. On the other hand, as time passes, Ruthie begins to accept her transiency and see herself as the fallen home, an independent being that has been betrayed and forgotten, and in turn, accept transiency as well as Sylvie as a mentor of sorts. Furthermore, the fallen home symbolizes the notion of home within the transients life. Initially, Ruthie digs through the debris, searching for any sign of hope that even when a home has fallen, it can be reconstructed. Ultimately, Ruthie recognizes this as an imaginary narrative, she is becoming transient and the notion of the typical home must cease to be pondered. The fallen home is not simply a ruin on the outskirts of Fingerbone, rather it is a symbol of Ruthie’s awakening.