Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Resurfacings of 'The Deeps': Semiotic Balance in Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Resurfacings of 'The Deeps': Semiotic Balance in Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping.'

Article excerpt

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping has been claimed as a feminist work on the grounds that it rejects a symbolic, patriarchal order and the primacy of male characters.(1) But the novel's feminist charge resides equally in the tension it sustains between symbolic and semiotic realms. Ruth's disappearing act over a bridge whose underwater movements recall the rhythm of her mother's life enacts a semiotic escape from the tradition-bound world of Fingerbone that wants to keep her safely indoors.(2) This gesture is balanced, however, by her equally important strategy of maintaining an authorial symbolic presence. It is as if she disappears in order to tell her story. The fact that she is still speaking at the end, and that she speaks throughout on the double levels of seeking plain truth and a restored past all the while insisting there is only the arbitrary play of surfaces and present moments--that thought and language and being bear the same relationship to the unrecoverable past "as reflections do to the water they ride upon, and in the same way they are arbitrary, or merely given" (p. 166)--reveals that she has mastered rather than abandoned a symbolic order.

Ruth's affinity for the semiotic "life of perished things" brings her, like her Aunt Sylvie, to appropriate the symbolic for her own ends. Thomas Foster describes Sylvie as Kristeva's third generation of the women's movement: a synthesis of the first generation's appropriation of masculine terms and subjectivity (Helen) and the second generation's rejection of male models (the sisters' return to the grandmother's care).(3) This very good argument relies, however, on a distorting simplification of characters who are themselves composed of multiple gestures of appropriation and rejection of the symbolic order. The grandmother, for instance, is drawn to both semiotic and symbolic orders (see note 19), as is Ruth.(4) Rather than concentrate on the characters, I look at the narrative that generates and is generated by Ruth to see the movement by which either/or alternatives make way for sustained tension and interaction. Ruth uses language to register the semiotic not just as a marginal disruption to an established symbolic order but as the heart of the creative/ narrative process: "The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted" (p. 192). Her polyphonic narrative conveys the authorities of myth, history, family lore and plain fact but perpetually disrupts each position it assumes with a welling up of a semiotic narrative. This narrative of desire, or the longing to recover undifferentiated wholeness through the very medium that, paradoxically, signals its loss, leads to a liberating flux of identity and vision. The gawky female narrator who walks one step behind her kempt sister in full view of Fingerbone, or speechlessly in the shadow of her dishevelled aunt as they veer off to the woods, takes comfort in losing herself in the landscape and being so absorbed in Sylvie's dreams that the boundaries between self and other disintegrate. But she is also the self-assured voice speaking from somewhere beyond the bridge with all the prophetic splendor of American transcendentalism and the Bible.(5) What is finally most liberating about Housekeeping is not its supposed rejection of a symbolic order, the act of burning the house and disappearing into the night, where the movie ends, but its reclaiming of the symbolic order from a place outside. Ruth's voice circles back, recrosses the bridge, restores the burned house, and reclaims Lucille by reimagining her through all the things she is not doing while she waits for the return of the transients. The desire for freedom and a new form of identity based on mergings rather than distinctions is not a question, finally, of separateness or conformity but of maintaining a disruptive presence within, of laying claim to both the semiotic realm of the pre-Oedipal mother and the symbolic realm of language that registers that energy. …

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