by Lewis Sloan
In his chronology of the themes of nature and rurality in American literature, Buell points out how it was D.H. Lawrence who first popularized the image of American writing as a “deviant pursuit by a psychohistorical explanation of the American (male) writer as an escapee from civilisation” (1). This escape from civilisation is characterised by a life in the wilderness, ideally free from the ties of society and with a unity with nature. Buell’s parenthetical gender distinction is significant. The quintessential ‘American frontiersman’ or ‘American Adam’ is found in many works of American literature and indeed in contemporary art today, for example the character of Don Draper in Mad Men (Ryan 1). But what about the ‘American Eve’? What was the frontier experience and the significance of the ‘American Pastoral’ for the female?
An important aspect of the American Adam’s escape from civilisation is his (usually westward-bound) journey toward the ‘wilderness’. In Thoreau’s case, this escape to the wilderness involves an attempt to “live free and uncommitted” within nature (61). This ‘free and uncommitted life’ also involves a lack of commitment to human relationships resulting in a degree of solitude. For Thoreau, he cannot be lonely as he is “a part of nature” (100). This wilderness is in contradistinction with the village life; he states that he chose the plot for his home because of how far it was from the village (59).
These two distinctive worlds are present also in Housekeeping. Once Sylvie becomes the girl’s only guardian, the three live apart from society, which is embodied in the village of Fingerbone. However, I would argue that the level to which Thoreau and the characters in Housekeeping are ‘uncommitted’ to what Ruth dubs the “other world” differs at certain points throughout the texts (Robinson 123).
As Buell notes, long before Thoreau, male narratives of “self-reliant cabin dwelling isolators” are common, whereas “the commonest counterpart narrative of women’s experience” is the story of the “female hermit”. This archetype is usually required to live apart from society due to a scandalous affair that left her pregnant with a child that often died in infancy. To an extent, the character of Sylvie is this ‘female hermit’ that Buell describes, having moved back to her hometown after a marriage to a mysterious Mr. Fisher which the reader is granted limited information about. He goes on to point out that “In adolescence, female protagonists become socialized away from nature, while the male continues to enjoy freer mobility and the option of questing and conquest within nature” (15). Thoreau, in Walden, is this quintessential self-reliant figure who seeks solitude in order to live more ‘deliberately’ (66). But the character of Sylvie cannot be. Throughout the course of the novel, Sylvie is increasingly judged as strange (not least by Lucille) and even dangerous due to the fact that she has not been ‘socialised away from nature’. In fact, she lives comfortably within it. Like the cabin in Walden, her home is overthrown by the elements, with wind, vegetation and flood-water making their way indoors.
Despite his advocacy for solitude, Thoreau himself notes that he is “no hermit” (105). Throughout his time in the woods he has various visitors; from the Canadian wood-chopper, to the children he appreciated for their enthusiasm and innocence. He even admits to finding the gossip he hears in the village entertaining, although he does not remain there for long. He delves in and out of the ‘other world’ of civilisation when he desires, whereas Sylvie remains insular and isolated. I would argue that while Thoreau looks toward the civilised world at certain points, the women in Housekeeping try many times to escape it, but cannot. Buell notes that “the wilderness in American writing serves as a liminal site for male self-fulfillment in recoil from adult responsibility associated with female-dominated culture” (1). For me, however, it is Sylvie that most avidly wishes to recoil from this adult responsibility, as she stands in stark contrast to the perceived ideal womanhood exemplified in the notion of ‘good housekeeping’. Like Thoreau, she desires to live within nature, getting lost among trees, sleeping on park benches and refusing to attach ownership to objects (I’m thinking of the mildly amusing scene in which she steals the rowing boat from a stranger). However, she is not perceived as a great thinker, or an admirable ‘frontierswoman’. This is no social experiment for her. She is the subject of persecution and fear to the people of the ‘other world’, personified by the Sheriff and Lucille’s teacher (whom the girl eventually chooses to live with).
As Sarah D. Hartshorne articulates, the ‘American Adam’ is also present in Housekeeping, albeit briefly, in the form of the Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather (51). However, he is sent right down to the bottom of Fingerbone’s Lake, making clear that this is a story distinctly about the female experience; the experience of the ‘American Eve’ left behind. The ‘American Eve’ who lives within nature, in the case of Sylvie, completely submerges herself (eventually) into the wilderness. In the penultimate chapter of Walden, Thoreau states the date of his departure from the woods; his wilderness. The frontiersman here decides to return to the life of civilisation while the females in Housekeeping take desperate measures to remain separate from the ‘other world’ to which they had already lost Lucille. They burn down their house in a final attempt to live the stripped life Thoreau advocates and continue to drift, entering finally into darkness (a trope that maintains strong links with nature and pastoral imagery throughout the book). For me, the character of Sylvie embodies Thoreau’s philosophy more wholly than he does himself in some ways, choosing complete separation from society (‘civilisation’) while doing so in the face of the unique attitudes toward women at the time.
Buell, Lawrence. “American Pastoral Ideology Reappraised.” American Literary History 1st ser. 1 (1989): 1-29. Web.
Hartshorne, Sarah D. “Lake Fingerbone and Walden Pond: A Commentary on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” Modern Language Studies 20.3 (1990): 50-57. Web.
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980. Print.
Ryan, Maureen. “Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: The Subversive Narrative and the New American Eve.” South Atlantic Review, 56.1 (1991): 79-86. Web.
Thoreau, Henry David, and J. Lyndon Shanley. <i>Walden</i>. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971. Print.
1. Image by Magnus Manske, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden#/media/File:Replica_of_Thoreau%27s_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statue.jpg
2. Image by The American Leadership Forum, http://www.alf-mvc.org/clientuploads/directory/features/Wilderness.jpg