The Exploration of a Transient Identity

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The Exploration of a Transient Identity
Themes such as isolation and transience are vividly portrayed through the characters present in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The novel follows the lives of sisters Ruth and Lucille Stone, whose father deserts their family too early for them to remember and whose mother commits suicide around six years later. The sister were neglected in their childhood, the family that surrounded them did not want to care for them and they became isolated from any support system beyond whatever adult could be persuaded to look after them. When Ruth and Lucille aunt Sylvie returns to Fingerbone, Idaho to look after the sisters, she presents an unfamiliar lifestyle that ultimately changes their relationship as well as their standards of living. Ruth’s transformation from a dependent sister to a transient separates her from important people in her life like her sister Lucille. The isolation that surrounds the sisters and Sylvie leads Ruth to a transient life, yet pushes Lucille away toward a life with the community. Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience. Ruth and Lucille were initially extremely dependent on each other because throughout their upbringing the family and people that took care of them slowly die off. After leaving Ruth and Lucille at their grandmother’s, their mother, Helen, drives her car over a cliff into the lake to her death. Ruth and Lucille’s Grandmother raises them, but due to old age and the loss of so many loved ones, she often seems too distracted to really see them. After their grandmother’s death, the grandmother’s sister-in-law’s attempts to provide care for them, yet they quickly calls Sylvie, Helen’s youngest sister, to come and tend to Ruth and Lucille. Sylvie is always walking and looking down and to one side as if listening to a soft-spoken conversation no one else can hear, is mild-mannered and without malice, but she lacks a sense of what is appropriate in society. In the beginning of Housekeeping, Robinson describes Ruth and Lucille’s relationship as sisters like a bond that could not be broken. Ruth is a close and cautious observer. For most of her life she and Lucille, existed in a state of watchful anxiety, knowing they were unwanted burdens in the care of a depressed mother, elderly grandmother, and hysterical aunts. Ruth lives mainly in her imagination with her sister as her only friend. Lucille is, from an early age, more assertive than her older sister, but until Sylvie takes over care of them, the two initially are united in an effort to survive. Lucille approaches adolescence at the same time that Sylvie turns their daily life into a downward spiral of disorganization. While Ruth exhibits a need to join with others, rather than detailing her individual experiences, Ruth refers to everything in agreement with Lucille. There is no individual self, according to Ruth. Ruth then exposes this by saying, “We – in recollection I feel no reluctance to speak of Lucille and myself almost as a single consciousness . . .” (Robinson 98). However, despite their changing circumstances, Ruth continues to refuse to define herself as a separate, independent person – apart from Lucille. Ruth, due to her own actions, becomes invisible throughout the novel by her inability to determine her own thoughts, her dependence upon other characters, and ultimately, through the social death she creates for herself. The first indication of a separation between the tightly bonded sisters is during the week of Sylvie’s first arrival. After three days of snowmelt and four days of solid rain the town of Fingerbone was suffering major consequences from a flood. Although, their house was high up on the ground, the flooding affected the lower level of the house causing Ruth, Lucille, and Sylvie to stay marooned in the upstairs. Maureen Ryan writes, “although Lucille wants...
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