Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

As soon as we have our first experiences with the stage—waiting to go on for a piano recital or a nerve-wracking regional spelling bee—we learn the backstage rule of thumb that teachers and other official adults-in-charge have screeched for years: If you can see people in the audience, they can see you too. With little children, however, keeping away from the glow of those footlights is a tricky proposition; they all want to see, and although they may not be aware of it, their main goal is often to be seen themselves. As for the adults in the audience? Although they may be glad that their children are obeying, it is that lone excited child waving frantically to Mom and Dad whom they’ll all remember. And for those children too meek or too compliant to make their faces known? Well, the audience won’t see what they’re doing until they come on at the appointed time, in the appointed fashion.

In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel, the author writes, “Appearance paints itself on bright and sliding surfaces, for example, memory and dream.” We may think that we’re fully aware of everyone around us, but there are probably two types of people: Those who want to be seen and those who do not. Is it the people who don’t seem to care about “appearances” who cause us so much angst?

At the novel’s center is an exploration of what it means to reject one lifestyle for another, more socially acceptable, one. In other words, choosing a life trajectory that appears to embody “betterment” over one that appears stagnant. Ruth and Lucille, two sisters orphaned after their mother makes a dramatic exit from earth, live first with their maternal grandmother, then two great-aunts, and finally, their eccentric Aunt Sylvie. This aunt, who left the small community of Fingerbone as a young adult, is a quiet and hard-to-figure-out woman who sticks out in the town in which she was raised. She “always walked with her head down, to one side, with an abstracted and considering expression, as if someone were speaking to her in a soft voice.” Sylvie claims to still be married, but has no idea where her husband is. She prefers to eat in the dark. She takes long walks outside at odd hours to just sit and ponder.

Private Eyes: They're Watching You
Private Eyes: They’re Watching You

Not surprisingly, Sylvie doesn’t care much about appearances. The idea of “appearance” and “being seen” saturates this carefully worded book. Toward the beginning of their time with Sylvie, both sisters relish time in the woods, squirreled away from the spotlight of their small town, where their family’s numerous plights cause scrutiny: “It is accurate to say that Lucille went to the woods with me to escape observation. I myself felt the gaze of the world as a distorting mirror that squashed her plump and stretched me narrow,” according to Ruth. But a divergence soon occurs, and Lucille starts to care a great deal about appearance; Ruth, like Sylvie, does not. “In spring I had begun to sense that Lucille’s loyalties were with the other world,” Ruth reflects. “At times like this I was increasingly struck by Lucille’s ability to look the way one was supposed to look.” Lucille works at sewing new dresses for her wardrobe in an attempt to blend in, but when she is concerned about her sewing progress and requests her sister’s help, Ruth, instead, is concerned with some old flowers she finds pressed between the pages of a dictionary. Lucille’s distressed pleas to her sister include, “‘We have to improve ourselves!’…‘Starting right now!’” This is desperation. Stagnation—remaining in her current situation—will break her.

When Lucille finally abandons her aunt and sister to live a more conventional life under the roof of her Home Ec teacher, this division between one sister who tries to fit into society but ultimately rejects it, and one sister who wholeheartedly runs from a life that thumbs its nose at “acceptable” society, becomes complete and maybe final. One exchange between the sisters goes like this:

“’I know you can’t help the way you are.’” I [Ruth] thought about that. ‘I know that you can’t help the way you are, either,’ I said. Lucille looked at me evenly. ‘I don’t have to,’ she said. ‘I’m not like that.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Like Sylvie.’”

She knows that if she truly wants to “move on,” Lucille must appear to be doing something. Otherwise, everyone will continue to associate her with her sister—and even worse, her eccentric aunt.

Niaqornat, Greenland
Niaqornat, Greenland, © Dogwoof

As fate would have it, I had just finished Housekeeping when I watched Village at the End of the World, a 2013 documentary that explores life in Niaqornat, a village of 59 people in Northwest Greenland.

The documentary follows the villagers as they make plans to re-open their shuttered fish factory in an attempt to remain economically sustainable and competitive in a modern world. (Make no mistake: Despite the slower and simpler way of life in this roadless village where the one person who can drive operates the forklift and where bucket toilets serve its residents, modern personal technology prevails.) It also follows the story of Lars, the only teenager in Niaqornat, as he struggles with his future. He does not want to be a hunter/fisherman and tells the camera, “I need to change my surroundings a little. I can’t stay in one place. [I need to] experience new things. I need to travel away from the village to move on.” He seems to be echoing the stance of those in the more populous areas of Greenland who claim if “[you] move to towns, [you’ll] be happier.” Lars spends a lot of time fiddling around with Google Earth (he enjoys “traveling to” New York City) and has Facebook friends from Denmark, Mexico, and America. His grandparents, who have raised him, encourage this personal growth and development. As far as the viewer knows, there is no strife between his village of birth and his dreams. Yet he desires to leave.

Village at the End of the World can be viewed as an exploration of the different journeys we all take in an attempt to move forward from a stagnant existence. Lars, of course, embraces this attitude in an obvious fashion—and in a way that many of us would see as the clear or “correct” trajectory. University education? Yes! Twenty-first-century job? Yes!

Housekeeping‘s Lucille, like Lars from Greenland, is compelled by some unknown innate disposition to push herself out of the world that she has been raised in and into a new one that others probably deem the “right” path. Just as Lucille states, the sisters are of two different worlds; they are two related people who somehow are wired completely differently. Robinson gives these words to Ruth: “When did I become so unlike other people? Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us, or it was when my mother left me waiting for her, and established in me the habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain. Or it was at my conception.”

Which Way?
Which Way?

We all do what we need to do to continue moving instead of stagnating. It’s better to keep running with the treadmill than falling off, right? The problem is when we assume everyone’s programmed to point their treadmills in the same direction.

Village throws an interesting wrench in this notion that we can only run one direction toward a fulfilling life. One of the film’s most prominent subjects is Ilannguaq, who moves from Southern Greenland to be with his girlfriend, whom he met online: Here is someone who has chosen to move to Niaqornat when many people would ask, “Why?” If we’re going to view his life through the lens of a typical Westerner, Ilannguaq moves from a more conventional place to a location where his opportunities for “betterment” are limited. After all, for five years, he is the sewage and refuse collector (“the Village clock”). Someone has forfeited being “seen” and “progressing” in life to do that? When love is the motivator, the answer in this case is a resounding “yes.” Ilannguaq demonstrates that personal progress doesn’t have to follow the trajectory that society encourages us to follow.

Perhaps the problem is that we often see decision-making as a movement away from something, when the more positive way to look at choices is as movement toward something. We view a seemingly mentally and emotionally unstable Aunt Sylvie as someone to forsake, just as there would be those who undoubtedly see Niaqornat as a place that needs to be thrust into a perceived version of the 21st century.

Back to Housekeeping: Ultimately, Sylvie and Ruth do move on to a new life, but it is in a different fashion than Lucille’s progression. And very importantly, it is unseen. “For we had to leave. I could not stay, and Sylvie would not stay without me. Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping,” narrates Ruth. According to Ruth, she and Sylvie “had become conscious of Fingerbone all around [them], if not watching, then certainly aware of everything [they] did.” And so their journey to something “better” is done privately. As for the villagers of Niaqornat, they move toward continued sustainability in their beloved home, as they are able to strike a mutually acceptable deal with Royal Greenland. Will outsiders see how diligently they moved toward their goal? Probably not; they may choose to see only a “primitive” village.

We prefer to see physical and dramatic movement as the key to “betterment,” when movement toward something can be subtle and internal, and sometimes completely invisible to others. Humans are fixated on the visual, and Robinson knows that humans’ compulsions and innate desires might not be visible, but they are what inexplicably propel us.

We are so quick to bandy around the term “betterment” when talking about social policy, personal improvement, and most importantly, others’ lives. Is our frustration with others simply a result of not seeing their movement?

{You can watch the official trailer Village at the End of the World here:}

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