The Unreal Mode: Housekeeping and We Have Always Lived in the Castle
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.
So begins Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson's 1980 classic. These opening lines contain Biblical resonance -- in the name Ruth and the listing of generations -- and evoke tangled family structures, both of which are important to the novel as a whole. But what came to mind when I recently read these lines for the first time was the opening paragraph to Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which begins with "My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance" and ends with "Everyone else in my family is dead." The similarities go deeper than semantics. Both novels involve a close relationship between sisters isolated by tragedies that haunt the rooms in which they live. The primary conflicts of the novels come about in part because one sister is drawn toward the outside world while the other remains enmeshed in the private world they previously shared. Both novels end with a rupture between the outside world and the private world. And, in both, the unreal blows in through the back door to scatter leaves and dirt across the narrative's floor.
In previous months, I have brought up the concept of genre as a fuzzy set, with a central point surrounded by hundreds or thousands of texts whose connections to the genre are increasingly blurred. The idea of the fuzzy set comes from the opening chapter of Brian Attebery's Strategies of Fantasy, where he considers possible definitions of fantasy -- as formula, as mode, and finally as genre. All three definitions include fiction that doesn't accept consensus reality as a given, but their boundaries differ. If you define fantasy as a formula, holding only those works that combine predictable plot and character elements, then neither Housekeeping nor We Have Always Lived in the Castle would belong. If you define it as the fuzzy set of genre, Housekeeping might be a distant relative while We Have Always Lived in the Castle fits into one of those blurred boundary lands. But both books clearly belong to the idea of fantasy as mode: they include "a subversive treatment of established orders of society and thought" and play with "the indeterminacy of meaning." In other words, they both play with our accepted ideas of reality.
In Jackson's novel, the unreal appears in the form of Mary Katherine's various rituals and spells enacted to protect the Blackwood mansion and land from invasion by the nearby villagers. She buries jewelry and nails books to trees -- and when those protections fall apart, an outsider comes in. This isn't a flashy impossibility and, in fact, it would be easy to maintain the belief that Mary Katherine's rituals and spells are nothing but superstition. But because Mary Katherine is our narrator, Jackson invites us directly into a committed belief in the power of her spells.
Similarly, Ruth's perspective and narration in Housekeeping are what place an emphasis on the unreal. Ruth is always on the verge of an encounter with ghosts. Within the first six pages, we are introduced to the train derailing that will haunt the remaining 213 pages: a train, crossing the bridge into the town of Fingerbone, goes over the side and into the lake. Three items are recovered from the train and two people survive, but all the rest -- people, train, and possessions -- remain somewhere under the water. The deaths haunt the town as a massive tragedy will, but they also have a palpable presence. When Ruth is near the lake or on it, she always seems to be seconds away from dead hands grabbing her.
Of course, those dead hands never do grab her ankle. If there is a hard line between the real and the unreal, then Mary Katherine lives firmly on one side of it while Ruth is constantly nosing up to the line and not quite crossing. It's Ruth's aunt Sylvie who is truly Mary Katherine's counterpart within Housekeeping. Sylvie lives comfortably outside the real, happily piling up magazines, newspapers, cans, and paper bags with the idea that this is what one does when keeping house, confident as well that there are spirit children in an abandoned house across the lake. This is the primary difference between the two novels: whereas We Have Always Lived in the Castle commits to a strange, unreal perspective on the world, Housekeeping provides a narrator, Ruth, who is pulled toward the real world by her sister and toward an unreal world by her aunt and by family history. Ruth and the reader shift back and forth between these worlds until the end.
There are a million and one things that fantasy can do, whether we are talking about it as a formula, a genre, or a mode. One of those is to take the unreal on its own terms -- not to dismiss the unreal, but instead allow it to coexist with and even slide into the carefully delineated box that holds what we label as real. Another of the million and one things that fantasy can do is to present multiple realities, even contradictory realities, without insisting that the author or the reader determine which one is the true reality. To place Housekeeping within the fantasy mode isn't to say that it must be read as a fantasy text or that the unreal in its pages must be accepted. But reading the novel through this lens -- accepting each reality as it comes -- allows us to enter more fully into Sylvie's and Ruth's views of the events, to live close to their skins and to experience, with them, the horror of invasion at the end as the outside world comes crashing in.
Housekeeping shares this ending with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. An uneasy tension between realities culminates in an ultimate separation. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle the house is boarded up, the sisters alone inside, witches eating from the offerings left on their porch. In Housekeeping, the house is destroyed and Sylvie and Ruth run into a life of transience, leaving Lucille to grow up in the normal world. They are presumed dead, lost to the lake along with the other dead. In one novel witches and in the other ghosts, but in both, no matter the perspective of the reader, the characters have run willingly into the arms of the unreal.