In my experience, there are two types of Marilynne Robinson readers: Housekeeping people and Gilead people. Certainly there are those who enjoy all of her work equally. But in general, readers of Robinson lean toward one end of her career or the other, preferring the early novel, Housekeeping, or the later work of the trilogy, Gilead, Home, and now Lila. There are many reasons for this division, not least of which is the strong presence of religion in the later work. My pet theory is that preference often breaks down along secular and religious lines, with Housekeeping people attracted to its “gloomy, Northern paganism,” as one critic has it, while Gilead people enjoy its Christian worldview. This isn’t always the case — Robinson has been awarded across her career by “secular” prize committees — but in my conversations with secular and religious readers, I have often heard discomfort with the “religion” in Gilead or the “almost nihilistic” outlook of Housekeeping.
Because of the 24-year gap between her first two novels, simplistic narratives about Robinson’s career have flourished, none more prevalent than an imagined difference between the early and late work. William Deresiewicz, one of the very few critics to challenge this difference, argued for a thematic continuity between Housekeeping and Home. Both novels, he wrote, are about “existential loneliness,” which is true. Nevertheless, Deresiewicz felt the need to declare his taste: “Robinson’s first work, to my mind, is still her greatest. The novel unfolds as a single thought, impelled by a poetic intensity of language and vision.” Whether on aesthetic or religious grounds, there is a quality to Robinson’s career which presses critics, scholars, students, and fans to choose sides, making it challenging for anyone to come to an equal appreciation of her work, let alone to see her novels as unfolding from a single vision.
The notion that there is indeed profound continuity between the early and late work would require much more space to prove. But let me at least sketch a different perspective on Robinson’s career, one that sees the difference between Housekeeping and the Gilead novels as greatly exaggerated. In this view, Robinson moves from being an author with an odd, two-stage career to an author with deep imaginative habits, one who has worked and re-worked, emphasized and de-emphasized, a single literary vision. Housekeeping is that vision, serving as Robinson’s spiritus mundi, a storage house of symbols, allusions, images, themes, and dramatic situations. From those basic materials, she has built each of her successive novels. Instead of an author who recreated herself late in her career, Robinson is one who has returned and renewed imaginative possibilities already latent within her first book.
Some recurring patterns are fairly obvious, such as Robinson’s penchant for the figure of the outsider. Sylvie in Housekeeping, Jack in Gilead and Home, and Lila in Lila, are all on a quest for home in an alien, often hostile land. The drama of hospitality, whether to accept or reject the stranger, is Robinson’s most persistent theme. And from a variety of angles, each of her novels explores the lonely circumstance of falling outside a community’s ring of sympathy and approbation.
And then there is the Bible, which she has always used to enrich and complicate the meanings of her books. In Housekeeping, the novel her publishers wished to call The Book of Ruth, nearly every page contains a Biblical allusion, just as Lila features extended quotations from Ezekiel and Job. And both novels imagine the resurrection. “Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection,” Ruth thinks, dreaming of her restored mother who “lifted our hair from our napes with her cold hands and gave us strawberries from her purse.” Lila imagines a reunion with her surrogate mother, Doll:
She would tell her, I have married a fine old man. I live in a good house that has plenty of room in it for you, too. You can stay forever, and we’ll work in the garden together. And Doll would laugh and squeeze her hand — ‘It come out right, after all! I ain’t dead and you ain’t in some shack just struggling to get by! I had to leave for a time, but I’m back now, I’m resurrected! I been looking everywhere for you, child!’
Robinson has maintained from the beginning of her career that the authority of the Bible comes from its relation to human experience, not any church dogma about infallibility. Her characters open up the Bible and find a meaningful depiction of life. This humanistic account of Biblical revelation, along with the theme of hospitality, are two broad ways to unify Robinson’s work, though the patterns do not end there.
Reading Lila and Housekeeping side by side reveals the extent to which Robinson continues to work similar literary material, even down to individual images. Here are a few examples:
Standing outside and looking into lighted houses. Here’s Ruth and Lucille walking home in Housekeeping: “We walked the blocks from the lake to our grandmother’s house, jealous to the point of rage of those who were already accustomed to the light and the somnolent warmth of the houses we passed.” And here’s Lila on an evening walk: “When she lived in that town…and she worked in the store, sometimes she would walk out at night, because then you can see into people’s houses.”
Falling houses: Housekeeping: “I had heard of a family who lived some distance to the north of the lake who had been snowed in up to the eaves and whose house began to fall.” And Lila: “‘Boughton’s roof won’t fall because it’s stronger than you think it is.'”
Ghosts: Housekeeping: “I wanted to ask her if she knew what she thought, and if so, what the experience of that sort of knowledge was like, and if not, whether she, too, felt ghostly, as I imagined she must.” And Lila: “If she had been a ghost watching Doane and Marcelle, so close she could have seen the change in their eyes when they looked at each other, it would have been there for sure.”
Mother-daughter union: Housekeeping, where the orphan Ruth is embraced by her spiritual mother, Sylvie: “She opened her coat and closed it around me, bundling me awkwardly against her so that my cheekbone pillowed on her breastbone.” Lila, where the orphan Lila is embraced by her spiritual mother, Doll: “And then she was just sitting there on the steps, wrapped up in the blanket, the town all quiet and the moon staring down at her, and there was Doll with her arms around her, saying, ‘Oh, child, I thought I never was going to find you!’”
Many more examples could be added to this list, but the point is this — that on the granular level of sentence and image, as well as the level of theme, structure, and allusion, Robinson continues to work with material from her initial literary offering. The fact that Lila is full of images she produced 34 years ago, speaks to Robinson’s ongoing artistic and psychological involvement with Housekeeping.
This should provoke us to reconsider her career, to characterize it not as divided, but as strangely, often uncannily unified. It’s worth remembering that Robinson was 37 when Housekeeping was published. She seems to have already possessed a mature imagination, full of the ideas and problems that would animate the rest of her career. If one simply emphasizes the degree of similarity between her early and late work, then there really is no need to choose between Housekeeping and the Gilead novels. They have too much in common, knit together by the same remarkable imagination.