Skip to main content

Robinson, Marilynne 1944(?)-

ROBINSON, Marilynne 1944(?)-

PERSONAL: Born c. 1944, in Sandpoint, ID; married; children: two sons. Education: Brown University, B.A.; University of Washington, M.A., Ph.D.

ADDRESSES: Home—Massachusetts. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 19 Union Square W., New York, NY 10003.

CAREER: Writer.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel, PEN American Center, Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, PEN/Faulkner fiction award nomination, and Pulitzer Prize nomination, all 1982, all for Housekeeping; National Book Critics Circle Award, 2004, PEN/Faulkner Award nomination, 2005, and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2005, all for Gilead.

WRITINGS:

Housekeeping (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981.

Mother Country: Britain, the Nuclear State, and Nuclear Pollution, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.

Puritans and Prigs, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

(Author of introduction) Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Short Stories, Bantam (New York, NY), 2003.

Gilead (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to books, including Christian Scholarship for What?, Calvin College Alumni and Public Relations (Grand Rapids, MI), 2003. Contributor of stories and articles to periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review, Quarto, and Harper's.

ADAPTATIONS: Housekeeping was adapted by Bill Forsyth into a film and released by Columbia in 1987.

SIDELIGHTS: Marilynne Robinson's debut novel Housekeeping earned its author the 1982 Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel, a 1982 Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. It also earned praise from numerous literary critics, such as Marc Granetz, who in the New Republic deemed Housekeeping "a beautiful and unusual novel about transience and durability [that] revolves around familiar objects, details of everyday." Paul Gray in Time remarked of Housekeeping, "This first novel does much more than show promise; it brilliantly portrays the impermanence of all things, especially beauty and happiness, and the struggle to keep what can never be owned." And, in Anatole Broyard's assessment in the New York Times, Housekeeping is "a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself. . . . You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt. . . . Robinson works with light, dark, water, heat, cold, textures, sounds and smells. . . . Though her ambition is tall, she remains down to earth, where the best novels happen."

In Housekeeping, Robinson follows the lives of two adolescent girls through several guardianship changes. The story begins as a woman named Helen returns to her childhood home in Fingerbone, a small community isolated in the mountains of Idaho. With her, she brings her two daughters, Ruth and Lucille, and leaves the girls on the porch of their grandmother's home. Helen then drives her car into the nearby lake, taking her own life in the same place her father drowned years before. After Helen's suicide, Ruth and Lucille fall under the care of their grandmother, who attempts to restore normalcy to their lives through daily routine. As Ruth explains in Housekeeping, "She whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if reenacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again." After Ruth and Lucille's grandmother dies, the girls are cared for by two maiden great-aunts who move in and also try to use unchanging daily routine to provide reassurance and stability in the sisters' lives. But the aunts, set in their habits, cannot adapt to the changing needs of children and so, leaving the girls, they ultimately return to their former residence and the orderly lifestyle that they prefer.

The girls' next guardian is their mother's sister Sylvie, an eccentric drifter whose idea of housekeeping is "a merging of love and squalor," explained Julie Kavanagh in her Times Literary Supplement review of Housekeeping. Characteristic of this merging are Sylvie's collection of scraps, newspapers, and emptied food containers and her willingness to allow the outside to come inside the house in the form of animals and dead leaves. According to Kavanagh, Sylvie's housekeeping habits signify the novel's main theme—"an acceptance of transience, an acceptance which Sylvie embodies."

This acceptance of transience is tied to the idea that "memory and loss can paradoxically be a reminder of an eternal reunion to come," Kavanagh commented. Housekeeping shows one of the girls, Ruth, discovering and adopting Sylvie's way of viewing life and death. She comes to feel, like Sylvie, what she calls "the life of perished things" and to believe that "what perished need not be lost." Suzanne O'Malley reaffirmed this interpretation of Sylvie's perspective in Ms. magazine, stating that the woman's "peculiar brand of housekeeping included letting leaves gather in the corners. Ruth speculates that Sylvie actually took care not to disturb the leaves. . . . The point is not that Sylvie and her nieces lived in squalor—though that may be true enough—but that those who expect the past to leap to life at any minute consider 'accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping.'"

While Ruth accompanies Sylvie in her nighttime boat excursions on the lake where Sylvie's sister and father drowned and watches her strange aunt meditate in the dark on the past and come to terms with change, the other girl, Lucille, becomes increasingly alienated from her sister and aunt. Lucille dislikes being different from other adolescents, wants to fit in, be a part of Fingerbone society, and live a normal life. So she leaves her sister with Sylvie and moves in with one of her school teachers. From this point on, noted Art Seidenbaum in the Los Angeles Times, Sylvie and Ruth become "more like each other, . . . less like their immediate neighbors [and] less like any people who must do rather than drift."

Eventually the residents of Fingerbone decide that Ruth's living with Sylvie is detrimental to the girl, and that they must take Ruth away from her aunt. To prevent this, Ruth and Sylvie burn down their house, leave Fingerbone via the railway bridge over the lake, and take up a life of drifting. The novel's narrative begins to reflect this drifting, mingling the thoughts, dreams, and perceptions of Ruth, the narrator of Housekeeping. As Ruth herself remarks: "I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming." And, according to Le Anne Schreiber in the New York Times Book Review, "these distinctions break down utterly" as Ruth feels the pressure from the town to conform or split from Sylvie. "The controlled lyricism of Ruth's language, which had been anchored in sensuous detail, becomes unmoored." The novel, like Ruth, then becomes "fevered and hallucinatory," concluded Schreiber. Kavanagh similarly noted the change in Housekeeping's style once Ruth and Sylvie decide to leave home: "The previously realistic narrative now begins to mirror the drifters' new freedom and to take the form of arcane, meandering reflections. That the pair have symbolically transcended the mundane by crossing the bridge is reiterated by a free . . . prose-style." Anne Morddel, a contributor to Contemporary Novelists, observed that "Robinson's style itself is evocative of drifting and drifters' tales, with long, often poetic descriptions that suddenly snap back to the original point or deflect to a new, unrelated one."

Several critics considered Housekeeping to be a sort of long prose poem. According to Schreiber, the novel "reads as slowly as poetry—and for the same reason: The language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience." Kavanagh likewise remarked, "It is a complex work, and as such should be read slowly and carefully." But, Kavanagh concluded, "this is not to say that it is impenetrable or over-intense. The author's control of plot, her eye for eccentricity, her clarity, quiet humour and delicate touch, invest the book with a lightness that successfully counterbalances the density of thought." Morddel saw some faults in the novel, such as some angry outbursts from Ruth that seem out of character. However, she emphasized that "these are small flaws in a book that is so rich with thought and feeling that it compels the reader to slow down and truly read."

After Housekeeping Robinson published a couple of nonfiction works, Mother Country: Britain, the Nuclear State, and Nuclear Pollution, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. The former is a passionate denunciation of the British government's management of the Sellafield nuclear processing plant. "The documentation behind the essay is exhaustive; the selective bibliography takes up twenty-two pages," noted Thomas Schaub in a Contemporary Literature profile of Robinson. "Throughout, Robinson's analysis of Sellafield is driven by a twin outrage: not only at the tons of nuclear waste being dumped into the sea each day, but also at the fact that a government which makes claims for the moralism of its acts is superintending this degradation of the earth." Robinson told Schaub the Sellafield situation represents "a profound abuse of the environment in an enormously, densely populated part of the world. And unless everything they've told us about radioactive contamination was some kind of a malicious fairy tale, there can only be very grievous consequences, and nothing was done to make us aware of this at all." She does not spare environmental organizations from her criticism; in her interview with Schaub, she asserted that they have "an enormous amount of information . . . that is never, ever communicated to people in this country." New York Times Book Review contributor Len Ackland, however, found a shortage of useful information in Robinson's book. Her "clear and justified passion unfortunately exceeds the evidence she brings to bear," he wrote, maintaining that "the reader will search in vain for facts" that back up Robinson's arguments. He also thought the author spent too much time on other subjects before dealing with Sellafield; he wished for "a rigorous short essay instead of this lengthy polemic."

Numerous essays on a plethora of topics are collected in Robinson's The Death of Adam. Subjects include theologian John Calvin, the relationship of the McGuffey reader to nineteenth-century American social reform movements, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Robinson calls the essays "contrarian in method and spirit," and defines contrarians as those who realize that both "the prevailing view of things" and the opposite point of view "can be assumed to be wrong." Therefore, "they undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made." In a review for the Christian Century, Kathleen Norris described the collection as "rigorous but invigorating" and "a bracing book of truly contrarian essays." As Norris observed, "With a novelist's sharp eye, Robinson exposes our bland acceptance of capitalist brutalities, our addiction to anxiety, our idolization of success, and our attendant loss of the ability to comprehend the significance of events. . . . While Robinson sometimes rants, as a contrarian is wont to do, her book is large in spirit." Norris particularly praised Robinson's handling of religion: "A rigorous thinker, blessedly conscious of history, Robinson makes a frontal assault on the easy, dismissive stereotypes of religion that abound in our culture." Similarly, Roger Kimball commented in the New York Times Book Review, "One would have to search far and wide to find another contemporary novelist writing articulate essays defending the theology of John Calvin or the moral and social lives of the Puritans. We all know that Puritans were dour, sexhating, joy-abominating folk—except that, as Robinson shows, this widely embraced caricature is a calumny." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted the large role Robinson's essays give to morality and reported that "for the most part her moral integrity is accompanied by an equally rigorous intellectual integrity." Kimball perceived a "current of high moral seriousness" in the book and averred that "one of Robinson's great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity." Norris concluded, "Ideologues of all stripes are likely to be enraged by this book—which seems like poetic justice to me. But if readers are willing to engage a book that may chip away at their ignorance and challenge their most dearly held assumptions and stereotypes, then Robinson's book will do its work."

Robinson's second novel, Gilead, explores the impact of family and generational relationships, somewhat as she does in Housekeeping. As a Library Journal contributor noted, "As his life winds down, Rev. John Adams relates the story of his own father and grandfather, both preachers but one a pacifist and one a gun-toting abolitionist." Robinson carries out her theme in the form of a letter written by seventy-year-old Ames to his own son, and to his namesake, his son's best friend, speaking with wisdom of the holy and mystical links that are forged between fathers and sons. Praising Robinson's long-awaited second novel, Booklist contributor Donna Seaman dubbed Gilead "wonderful, a work of profound beauty and wonder," and added, "Millennia of philosophical musings and a century of American history are refracted through the prism of Robinson's exquisite and uplifting" tale.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 25, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Contemporary Novelists, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Robinson, Marilynne, Housekeeping, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981.

PERIODICALS

American Scholar, winter 1999, review of The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, p. 147.

Booklist, August, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Gilead, p. 1874.

Chicago Tribune Book World, March 15, 1981.

Christian Century, November 18, 1998, p. 1101.

Commonweal, May 22, 1981.

Contemporary Literature, summer, 1994, p. VI.

Critique, spring 1999, "Sheltered Vagrancy in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping," p. 2.

Encounter, May, 1981.

Library Journal, July 15, 2004.

Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1981.

Ms., April, 1981.

Nation, February 7, 1981.

New Republic, February 21, 1981.

New Statesman, March 20, 1981.

New York Times, January 7, 1981; April 6, 1982.

New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1981; February 28, 1982; July 16, 1989, p. 7; February 7, 1999.

Observer (London, England), March 1, 1981.

Publishers Weekly, July 27, 1998, p. 60.

Time, February 2, 1981.

Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 1981; August 13, 1982.*

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Robinson, Marilynne 1944(?)-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Encyclopedia.com. 24 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Robinson, Marilynne 1944(?)-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/robinson-marilynne-1944

"Robinson, Marilynne 1944(?)-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Retrieved September 24, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/robinson-marilynne-1944

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.