Transcendence in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping Essay

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Transcendence in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

William H. Burke suggests that transience in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is a type of pilgrimage, and that “the rigors and self-denials of the transient life are necessary spiritual conditioning for the valued crossing from the experience of a world of loss and fragmentation to the perception of a world that is whole and complete” (717). The world of reality in Housekeeping is one “fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows” (Robinson 50). Many of the characters that precede Ruth in the narrative rebel against something in this world that is not right. Edmund Foster, her grandfather, escapes by train to the Midwest and his house is
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Nor will they, like Edmund and Helen, submit to a premature death in the water; instead they pursue a spiritual transience that will lead them to an earthly state of transcendent grace.

The thoughts and emotions that occur in connection with water are triggered by the lake, and they help Ruth choose transience over any other form of existence. When water floods Fingerbone, the boundaries are overrun, exposing the impermanence of the physical world, and the world’s own natural push towards transience. Water shifts the margins, warning us that the visible world only shows us part of the whole--or perhaps even a mere reflection of a false reality. After the fantastic train wreck in which Ruth’s grandfather perished, the lake sealed itself over in ice, changing boundaries again, while it concealed, like a secret, the last traces of the victims with the illusion of its calm surface. The lake, a source of beauty and darkness, life and death, is “the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains” (172). Water carries the symbolic possibility for rebirth– the flood causes the graves in the town cemetery to sink, “so that they looked a little like…empty bellies," suggesting that the dead were born into the receding waters (62). As water and death are so pre-eminent in Sylvie’s consciousness, in dream, she teaches Ruth to dance underwater, to live a life of transience to be
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