The opening lines to Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping famously locate the novel in two literary genealogies. Evoking the opener of Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and invoking the Biblical figure of companionship, the narrator asserts, “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” (3). Patterned on marriage, affective labor, and a young woman’s coming-of-age, this matrilineage also locates Housekeeping in a literary genealogy that has gone unremarked in the tremendous scholarship on Robinson’s novel: the sentimental tradition. Given what we know about sentimentalism—its associations with femininity, the female bildungsroman, and American women writers, for example—this critical oversight is notable. And yet, of course, given what we think we know about sentimentalism—its associations with hyperbolic emotion, formal cliché, and nineteenth-century literature, for instance—this oversight is unsurprising.
Recognizing Housekeeping as a sentimental novel requires us to think differently about the sentimental mode. The opening lines, for example, foreground behavior, physicality, and truncated connection, rather than interiority, emotionality, and enduring union. The tone is not hyperbolic, effusive, or even particularly emotional. Only “fled” reminds us that this narrative evinces felt experience; the prior language seems unaffected—meaning untouched or unmoved. But “fled” alters the sentences’ force, inducing a shift from dispassionate recitation to something like melancholic incantation. My hesitancy in categorizing this tone reflects Robinson’s affective register, which oscillates between detachment and attachment, dispassion and strong feeling, while also remaining remarkably consistent. This rendering of human consciousness might also be described as “unaffected”—in this case meaning genuine, sincere, free from affectation or artificiality. Balancing candor and neutrality, “unaffected” exemplifies the modes of attention and embodiment Ruth cultivates as she comes into adulthood. The term’s synthesis of evaluation and impartiality similarly characterizes Robinson’s stylistic practices and their lyrical attunement to the paradoxes of being. Housekeeping, then, is distinctly sentimental—distinct in the ways it tracks back to the origins of this storied literary mode and distinct in the ways it challenges us to recognize sentimentalism differently going forward.
As I have suggested elsewhere, “sentimentalism” can be defined across its multinational, multi-centuried contexts as the literary mode whose conventions emphasize feeling as a primary source of knowledge, meaning, and interpersonal connection.  Housekeeping renovates this capacious mode. Robinson’s title announces her reclaiming of nineteenth-century American sentimental thematics like domesticity, femininity, and their associated structures of meaning (e.g., family, community, religion, morality). At the same time, her stylistic practice revivifies earlier European notions of sentimentalism, particularly Friedrich Schiller’s theory of the sentimental as modern consciousness’s self-witnessing emotional experience. Yet, for reasons I explore, scholars have distanced Robinson’s work from this vexed aesthetic category, aligning Housekeeping instead with romanticism and other male-identified strains of the American canon (e.g., transcendentalism, the bildungsroman). 
In what follows, I reframe Housekeeping as a work of “postmodern sentimentalism”—a late-twentieth-century mode that remodels the artistic commitments and cultural concerns associated with this literary practice. Doing so, I argue, allows us to rethink Robinson’s relation to American literary history, and to reevaluate critical narratives about sentimentalism’s fate in the second half of the twentieth century. This reading extends the discussions of sentimental aesthetics in twentieth-century America developed by critics like Lauren Berlant, Jessica Burstein, and Susan Edmunds. As Housekeeping demonstrates, sentimental affect does not wane in the postmodern era, nor does its literary proxy dissipate into hackneyed cliché. Rather, the sentimental mode evolves in tandem with discourses of femininity and artistic practice. I begin with a brief overview of this historical career, from Schiller’s Enlightenment theory to subsequent American iterations of the literary mode. I then explore how Robinson’s novel engages and departs from sentimental precedent, first in terms of narratives of femininity and then those of sensibility.
Ultimately, I argue that Housekeeping establishes feeling as a central truth of existence at the same time as it highlights the estrangement of interpersonal relation, the indeterminacy of embodied experience, and the vacuum of epistemological endeavor. The novel thereby renews Schiller’s concept of sentimental elegy even as it articulates a postmodern sensibility: self-referentially recycling historical literary themes and styles, Robinson rejects the possibility of universal truth in art and highlights the enduring transience and infinite contingency of consciousness and human history. Her melancholic mode endorses these unpredictable itineraries and mourns their inherent losses. Such combinations distinguish Robinson’s idiosyncratic contribution to both postmodern and sentimental traditions.
True Feeling in Literary Form
Sentimentalism is frequently understood to establish and sustain oppositions: virtue and vice, public and private, male and female, sincerity and deception. Housekeeping, in contrast, has been widely recognized for invoking conventional opposites, such as attachment and loss, or connection and abandonment, only to elaborate their surprising proximities. These paired concepts are continually revealed not only to be co-created but also coexistent. Robinson’s goal is not to plumb the logical fallacies of our efforts to distinguish self and other, or absence and presence. Rather she suggests that what often strikes us as difference may not be so, if we recognize that the world’s temporal and material contours are ultimately unknowable. Robinson’s sentimental project thus invites us to accept comprehensive uncertainty, with compassion for our desire for it to be otherwise. As Ruth asks, “What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” (92) Robinson advances this project at the level of style as much as narrative content. Ruth’s rhetorical question sutures a desire for totality to a self-conscious uncertainty. Robinson’s preference for simile rather than metaphor, as Amy Hungerford observes, “maintains difference within the embrace of kinship” (120). Engaging intuitive continuity to yoke together conceptual opposites, Housekeeping’s unaffected aesthetic operates as at once a literary style and a lived disposition.
As I have already signaled, the term “unaffected” itself instantiates this fusion of apparent unlikeness. Its primary meaning—“not adopted or assumed”—describes “real, genuine” “qualities, feelings,” “simple, natural” “style or discourse,” and “conduct, bearing” “free from affectation” (“Unaffected”). Its secondary meaning—“not affected or influenced in mind or feeling; untouched, unmoved”—describes emotional distance and cognitive remove, though it shares the primary meaning’s emphasis on communicative transparency and authenticity (“Unaffected”). This definitional conflict—free and natural or detached and dissociated—echoes one of the tensions in the scholarship on Robinson’s novel, which has been alternately read as a story of feminist triumph (Champagne, Foster, Friedman, Geyh, Kaivola, Meese, Ryan, Smyth) and of traumatic dissolution (Caver, Hedrick, McDermott, Mattessich, Ravits). Robinson’s unaffected mode supports these divergent readings by drawing out their shared interest in questions of experiencing and representing authentic feeling. Housekeeping affirms an affective equivalent of negative capability: the novel embraces seeming contradiction and opacity as the most natural embodied experience, and proffers this more oblique, ambivalent mode as an authentic form of late-twentieth-century literary expression. The definitional tension within the term “unaffected” thus captures Robinson’s intervention in a central concern of the sentimental mode: what is the relationship between true feeling and aesthetic form?
This concern, which animates much of sentimentalism’s critical history, dates back to one of the earliest theorizations of the sentimental mode. Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” distinguishes its titular categories on this basis, holding “naïve” synonymous with “truth” and “nature,” “sentimental” synonymous with “modern” and “imitative.” Naïve poets, Schiller proposes, embody holistic human nature; their literature seamlessly expresses this unified, non-reflexive experience. Modern subjects, however, are internally fragmented and self-conscious; they can only experience the abstract idea—not the immediate feeling—of an undifferentiated nature. Sentimental literature betrays this “reflective understanding” and is “the result of the endeavor, even under the conditions of reflection, to recover the naive perception according to the contents” (emphasis in original). The sentimental mode attempts to revivify natural feeling, while also registering the impossibility of accomplishing this aesthetic ideal. Nature, by contrast, continues to produce coherent, authentically natural aesthetic forms:
What would even a plain flower, a spring, a mossy stone, the chirping of birds, the buzzing of bees, etc., have in itself so charming to us? … It is not these objects, it is an idea represented through them, which we love in them. We love in them the quietly working life, the calm effects from out itself, existence under its own laws, the inner necessity, the eternal unity within itself.
They are what we were; they are what we ought to become once more. …[H]ence, they fill us with a certain melancholy. (emphasis in original)
Natural forms reveal what the modern subject lacks and desires—the “unity” we can only wish to approximate in our embodied experience and in the art we create from this seat of self-consciousness. Feeling natural is always already not natural feeling.
Schiller’s sentimental literature is mimetic and performative without being formulaic or derivative; it captures and evokes authentic modern feeling by interrogating the limitations of the same. “The sentimental poet,” Schiller insists, is “always concerned with two conflicting conceptions and feelings, with reality as limit and with his idea as the infinite, and the mixed feeling, which he arouses, will always testify to this two-fold source.” Schiller’s three categories of sentimental poetry—satire, elegy, and idyl—differ according to how the poet navigates this internal conflict, how he relates “nature to art and the ideal to the real.” In sentimental elegy, idealized lost nature serves a consciously symbolic function: “The experiences of a particular loss have become extended into the idea of universal transitoriness.” Sentimental elegy mourns the modern subject’s inability to simply be natural—a standard that, through reading sentimental literature, the subject recognizes as an impossible ideal.
As sentimental form migrates to different national contexts over the next several centuries, its relationship to true feeling begins to shift. By the turn of the eighteenth century in Europe, John Mullan notes, sentimental literature connotes “indulgence in superficial emotion” (236). Nineteenth-century Americanists including Ann Douglas, Jane Tompkins, and June Howard agree that sentimental texts of the period rely on “established convention to evoke emotion,” though they famously diverge in their assessments of the honesty and authenticity of these affective conventions (Howard 62). Whether we interpret nineteenth-century sentimental renderings of feeling to be earnest and unmagnified or strategic and hyperbolic, these diagnoses capture a cultural premium placed on sentiment-as-honesty, which remains as salient as—and arguably undergirds—the sentimental mode’s ongoing association with the Cult of True Womanhood and its cardinal virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness. Scholarship on Housekeeping reflects the novel’s engagement with this gendered cultural legacy in all but name. Critics have been particularly interested in Robinson’s treatments of domesticity (Geyh, Mitchell, Wilson) and piety (Barrett, Handley, Hungerford, King). They have likewise chronicled the novel’s sentimental education: “Robinson’s narrative of housekeeping begins literally as physical accommodation in creating household order, and ends figuratively by revising and revisioning one’s sensibility” (Mitchell 153). This intermingling of behavioral and psychic discipline is one of Robinson’s chief amendments to the eighteenth and nineteenth century concerns over representing feeling and being in literary form.
These discourses about truth and feeling are further destabilized in the postmodern era in which Robinson’s novel emerges. Frederic Jameson’s well-known diagnosis of the “waning of affect” in late capitalist production and Lauren Berlant’s seminal study of “the unfinished business of sentimentality” in twentieth-century America each render sentimental feeling—if not all intense emotion—as a site of nostalgia and ambivalence, whose purchase on the present lies interrogating how such feelings harbor historical untruths and false promises. Adam Kelly observes the belated nature of Lionel Trilling’s 1972 study Sincerity and Authenticity, which counterposes sincerity’s “congruence of avowal and actual feeling” with authenticity’s conception of “truth as something inward, personal, and hidden” (Kelly 132). In Trilling’s analysis, sincerity reigned supreme “in Western culture for some four hundred years,” only to be usurped by the modernist and New Critical faith in authenticity. As Kelly notes, however, irony, poststructuralism, and postmodernism rejected “the surface/depth model of the self assumed by both sincerity and authenticity,” replacing this paradigm with “the privilege afforded to the inaugurating powers of capital, technology, culture, and especially language” (133). The shift from truth-of-self to truth-of-language undergirds Robinson’s postmodern sentimentalism as much as it defines the styles of Kelly’s cohort of “New Sincerity” practitioners (e.g., David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Michael Chabon), who likewise locate truth in language’s imperfect transmissions and in the uncertain exchange between reader and writer. Robinson plumbs such cynical premises for their possibilities, pursuing the limits of language and narrative form to pursue the corollary limits of cognition and embodiment.
But where do we locate feeling in postmodernism, if not the self? Pansy Duncan has recently unpacked “the almost axiomatic equation of flatness and emotionlessness” that has followed Jameson’s diagnosis (205). Duncan connects this conceptual progenitor to the turn to “a mobile, surface-oriented affect” in discussions of late-twentieth-century culture and generatively rethinks this “feeling theory” to reconsider “the riot of texture” in films like David Cronenberg’s 1996 Crash (206). I work in a parallel vein, reading Housekeeping adjacent to, rather than through, familiar emotional paradigms that Robinson’s text signals more than performs. In Housekeeping, emotion works primarily via readerly association rather than characterized feeling. Ruth rarely reports intense feeling, let alone what she terms “strong emotion” (195). Rather, as in her opening lines, her feeling manifests indirectly, largely in retrospect, and moderated and modulated from the get-go. Robinson thus both rewrites the teleology of her protagonist’s sentimental education and charts a different affective course for the reader. In each case, Housekeeping revises the sentimental novel’s more familiar, linear enterprise of gendered socialization in “right feeling” into a more recursive, unpredictable process of sensory attunement.
Housekeeping may be “one of the least anthropocentric US novels of the last half century,” but the novel firmly resides in individual subjectivity (Chodat 328). One of the key ways that Robinson dramatizes the power of the natural world over human activity is by privileging the diffuseness of human feeling over socially codified structures of emotion (e.g., joy, anger, shock, disgust). Housekeeping rejects emotion’s coherent affective and sensory content and privileges a fluid mode of feeling not organized into durable, putatively universal linguistic containers. Robinson thus reconfigures sentimental commitments to the veracity of the minded-body; her postmodern sentimentalism locates the greatest faith in the potentially idiosyncratic feelings articulated and elicited by language itself. Housekeeping’s most sentimental investment is also its most postmodern one.
Sentimental Strangers: Housekeeping’s Narratives of Femininity
The building referenced in Housekeeping’s title is arguably more house than home: a structure that regularly asserts its own agency as three generations of the Stone family come and go from its domain. The opening chapter summarizes these physical and interpersonal displacements, and so remodels the narrative expectations as well as the domestic foundation of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel. At seemingly every turn, the Stone family contravenes sentimental standards of intentional self-fashioning. These impulsive itineraries begin with Ruth’s maternal grandfather, who happens into a railroad job en route West and alights in the fictitious Pacific Northwestern town of Fingerbone, where he haphazardly constructs the eccentric house before drowning in a train wreck in the lake that abuts the town. Ruth’s grandmother finishes raising their three daughters apparently out of habit, without any clear thought to their future or hers. Her daughters’ development is so unanticipated as to occur in a single sentence: “One year my grandmother had three quiet daughters and the next year the house was empty” (15). One sister, Molly, becomes a Christian missionary in China, another, Sylvie, disappears into life as a transient, and Ruth’s mother Helen relocates to Seattle, where she marries and has two daughters of her own. When Ruth is five and her sister Lucille is seven, Helen borrows a neighbor’s car, drives to Fingerbone, leaves her daughters and a box of graham crackers on the front porch of the house, and then drives off a cliff and into the same lake that holds her father’s body.
This sequence of events may not sound much like the premise for a sentimental novel, but this opening salvo reproduces a conventional nineteenth-century sentimental trope. Like The Lamplighter’s Gertrude Flint (1854), The Wide, Wide World’s Ellen Montgomery (1850), and many other sentimental protagonists, Ruth and Lucille Stone are orphaned young and thrust into a world devoid of traditional family structure. The plot that typically ensues from this seat of vulnerability involves moral education, emotional discipline, and the willful pursuit of pious virtue—efforts rewarded by a conclusive marriage, which signals domestic security and communal belonging. Housekeeping’s young women undergo alternate processes of self-formation. As they interact with the series of caretakers enumerated in Ruth’s opening lines—first their grandmother, then their maiden aunts, and then finally the “unredeemed transient” Sylvie—the care taken for the house and the two girls becomes increasingly abstract (177). Lucille elects to move in with the high school’s home economics teacher, while Ruth begins wandering with Sylvie. When townspeople express concern for Ruth’s welfare, she and Sylvie, afraid of being legally separated, abandon the house and Fingerbone, becoming transients together. At the end of the novel, Ruth imagines her sister’s trajectory, envisioning Lucille married with children and living in the family house. While Lucille’s known choices support the logic of such a conventional sentimental end, Ruth’s narrative arc owes more to the notion of a sentimental education. Her storyline of evolving embodied knowledge hinges on cultivating a particular and idealized sensibility—one that yields its own form of interpersonal union and an alternate sense of worldly belonging. The sisters’ storylines thus divorce an assumption of femininity from a refining of sensibility, proof that these components of the sentimental tradition no longer accord.
At the same time as Ruth retrospectively chronicles this coming-of-age, however, her narrative voice remains static, or at least consistent across the novel. She is a focalizing protagonist who does not display character development. Housekeeping thus performs and undermines the modes of interiority and authority associated with nineteenth-century sentimentalism. Ruth’s hypothetical narratives and conditional statements about her lived experience are punctuated by disembodied aphorisms like “Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy” (73). Even when the narration describes psychological facts, it does so without being interiorized; Ruth supplies information rather than manifesting sensorial data or thought-events: “I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. … That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different. And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention” (166). This combination of circumspect personhood and compassionate impersonality flirts with objectivity and omniscience. As a result, Kristin King observes, Ruth’s “self-assured voice speak[s] with all the prophetic splendor of American transcendentalism and the Bible” (566). This authoritative first-person perspective has inspired the interpretation that Ruth narrates from beyond the grave—a conjecture to which Robinson has lent credence (Mitchell 179). But it’s impossible to determine how Robinson’s narrator knows what she seems to know. This uncertain vantage point supports the novel’s anti-didactic sentimental mode, relocating its direct and intimate address from a “Dear Reader” position of moral high ground to a sympathetic sharing of self-consciously delimited wisdom.
Robinson likewise remodels the social and emotional workings of sentimental femininity. In Housekeeping, this conventional paradigm fails to produce its usual ends. Indeed, it tends to yield the near opposite of historical expectations. Domesticity occasions mundane routine, not social progress. Piety begets competitiveness, not compassion. Romantic love and marriage produce basic worldly affiliation, not transcendent spiritual union. Motherhood engenders recursive performance not personal fulfillment. And throughout, intimate relations are shot through with loneliness and isolation. As Jessica Burstein observes, the sentimental mode is not nearly as “agglutinative” or connective as critics have commonly thought; rather, “the sentimental reveals a complex but at base dissociative dynamic” (229). Housekeeping dramatizes a postmodern version of these solitary underpinnings.
Ruth’s grandmother Sylvia would seem to be the perfect foil for unconventional sentimental femininity. She is a “religious woman” of unspoken and “seldom thought” faith, who “had always known a thousand ways to circle [her daughters] all around with what much have seemed like grace” (9, 11). She is the only significant character who remains married and raises children in a traditional family structure. Yet her experience of love, marriage, and childrearing resonates with that of each of her daughters who literally, if not legally, separate from their tangential husbands and resist the confines of domestic life. “When she had been married a little while, she concluded that love was half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate” (12). Her husband’s death “seem[s] a kind of defection, not altogether unanticipated. … [S]ometimes for whole days he would walk around singing to himself in a thin voice and speak to her and his children as a very civil man would speak to strangers” (10). Sylvia does not “resent” her husband’s distance and distraction “because she had never really wanted to feel married to anyone”; indeed, she “loved him best as a soul all unaccompanied, like her own” (17). Abstract proximity likewise characterizes Sylvia’s experience of childrearing and domesticity. She “perform[s] the rituals of the ordinary,” striving “to be what she seemed to be so that her children would never be startled or surprised” (16, 19). Years later, she “re-enact[s] the commonplace” with Ruth and Lucille “like someone reliving a long day in a dream” (25, 24). So too does Sylvia approach death as a material—rather than spiritual—adaptation. “When [she and her dead husband] were reunited, she hoped he would be changed, substantially changed, but she did not set her heart on it” (10). None of these external circumstances alter her basic experience, “that sharp loneliness she had felt every long evening since she was a child” (18). For Sylvia, as for her progeny, intimacy translates to immediate distance and detached togetherness, individual experience sutured by the contrasting “seamless[ness]” of “the dear ordinary” (15).
Robinson revises the subjective collapse often projected by the sentimental mode, in which the body yields so much information that it enables not just emotional transparency but also affective contagion and coherent communication. In Housekeeping, such interpersonal connections are only ever partial. For roughly the first half of the book, Ruth and Lucille operate as a narratological as well as linguistic unit. After finding Sylvie standing on the bridge leading out of Fingerbone with unclear (potentially suicidal) intent, “we were very upset … At the time we did not put this thought into words. It existed between us as a sort of undifferentiated attentiveness” (82). Shared thought, however, does not legislate shared feeling. “In recollection,” Ruth continues, “I feel no reluctance to speak of Lucille and myself as almost a single consciousness even through the course of that summer, though often enough she was restless and morose” (98). Robinson thus shifts the onus of shared consciousness to physical and psychological experience; emotional separation is a given. As Lucille comes of age, “her tense and passionate campaign to naturalize herself” to “the other world” divides the sisters’ attention in keeping with their distinct dispositions (95). Increasingly described as “passionate,” Lucille’s strong feeling aligns her with more traditional femininity as well as differentiates her from Ruth’s experiential neutrality. Lucille forgives Sylvie’s absent husband only by projecting a tragic narrative—a man “[dead] or disappeared in the war,” a widow “deranged by grief” (102). When Sylvie disrupts this fantasy, Lucille “regarded Sylvie with sympathy, but no mercy, and no tolerance” (105). Eventually, the girls’ internal mothers are wholly different people, satisfying their increasingly divergent emotional needs (109). Though she notes the intolerance embedded in standard sentimentality, Robinson does not endorse one sister’s model as better than the other’s. The divergence in these modes of being simply underscores the impermanence of two peoples’ experiential intersection.
Robinson thus reconfigures sentimental sensibility to incorporate estrangement. In the second half of the novel, Sylvie and Ruth become the new “us”—“almost a single person,” whose “measure of intimacy” lies in the freedom to forget one another’s familiar presence (209, 195). Echoing the model produced by Sylvia and her husband Edmund, this shared sensibility acknowledges the unbreachable individuality at relation’s core rather than defending against this existential reality. In an extended metaphor for such relation, Robinson repeatedly describes a lighted window, on either side of which people cannot see in or out. In the final pages, Ruth imagines Lucille’s daughters “look[ing] at the black window to find out what their mother seems to see there, and they see their own faces and a face so like their mother’s, so rapt and full of tender watching, that only Lucille could think the face was mine” (218). Being inside or out, with intimate others or not, does not matter: the girls only see a face that resembles their mother’s; their mother’s interiority remains opaque; Lucille, meanwhile, thinks of Ruth—or so Ruth fantasizes. Intimate solitude is universal. Some people are simply more aware of this reality—or less defended against it—than others. “Once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery” (157). Such a sentimental sensibility extends beyond traditional structures of kin as well as gender. We are all intimately estranged from one another.
Feeling, Thought, Water: Housekeeping’s Modes of Sensibility
Housekeeping equally reconfigures the sentimental mode’s emphasis on the meaningful interchange between external event and embodied experience. The feeling body still focalizes the novel, but an individual’s somatic and cognitive processes correspond less clearly to exterior outcomes and perhaps never enact change in the outer world. If anything, the outer world acts upon the body more than vice versa, reversing nineteenth-century sentimentalism’s essential continuity between inner life and external circumstance. Robinson’s inversion echoes Schiller’s paradigm of sentimental feeling, yet she crucially dismantles his hierarchies of nature and art, the ideal and the real. In leveling such conceptual fields, Robinson’s sentimentalism aims to reconceptualize individual experience, rather than to inscribe her protagonist into a desired mode of being or to invite the reader to do the same. Her theorization of sensibility keeps sociality at arm’s length, rather than seeking to adjust the subject to the social. This focus on interiority for interiority’s sake allows Robinson to illuminate the continuities between visceral phenomena like sensation, emotion, and intuition, and cognitive phenomena like memory, imagination, and dreaming, without dwelling on their different means to social ends. For Robinson, the self-sameness of these embodied processes makes their internal itineraries as indeterminate as their bearing on the rest of the world—an experiential reality that is at once individually liberating and socially constrained.
Decoupling the standard sentimental linkage of phenomenology and epistemology, Housekeeping’s account of the body affirms embodied experience on its own terms. Ruth’s attunement to the “modest transformations of the ordinary” catalogues a narrow bandwidth of low-intensity physical and emotional sensation: contentment, enjoyment, pleasure, embarrassment, discomfort, disquiet, indifference (112). The novel’s modulated, moderated tone magnifies the report of more intense feeling, or what Ruth calls “strong emotion” (195). Yet even when Ruth flags the presence of anger or rage, the retrospective narrative stance enables an even-keeled tone. This affective consistency at the level of prose resonates with the continuity of embodied experience expressed at the level of narrative. When Sylvie observes, “You’re so quiet, it’s hard to know what you think,” Ruth replies:
‘I suppose I don’t know what I think.’ This confession embarrassed me. It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible—incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. But my allusion to this feeling of ghostliness sounded peculiar, and sweat started all over my body, convicting me on the spot of gross corporeality. (105–06)
Ruth tracks from immediate emotional sensation (embarrassment) to recurrent emotional framework (terror and comfort) to felt abstraction (ghostliness) to physiological response (sweat). This trajectory echoes an intuitive slippage demonstrated elsewhere in Ruth’s synesthetic descriptions and pronouncements like “I knew why Sylvie felt there were children in the woods. I felt so, too, though I did not think so” (154). Feeling is more certain, Ruth asserts, because its vagaries need not translate to epistemological claims: “Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation” (217). Feeling offers an experience at once more contingent and yet more certain than that of logical, language-laden enterprises like thought and speech.
As in nineteenth-century sentimentalism, this perspective on sensory experience renders feeling a valid form of information. But whereas in the historical model, sensation, emotion, and intuition lead to moral and religious truths, in Housekeeping embodied experience remains indeterminate and incommunicable. Intuition affords the limit case for this model. As “one sense is a shield for the others,” intuition kicks in when the traditional five senses fail: in a dark room, “deprived of all perspective and horizon, I found myself reduced to an intuition, and my sister and my aunt to something less than that” (86, 70). Intuition’s value comes from its supply of feeling in the absence of other sensory data. In the moonlight, “we would feel our proximity with our finer senses. As, for example, one of two, lying still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake” (100). Intuition provides otherwise-lacking information. It also yields the information of lack: “For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. … [W]hen do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?” (152). In Robinson’s sentimental mode, sensory knowledge turns back toward the self, not out to the world. This redirected epistemic flow enables a self-compensation, which represents the senses’ highest experience as well as their greatest—if inherently impoverished—reward.
Imagination functions in a similar fashion as intuition, filling in the gaps of other cognitive frameworks in a manner no more or less reliable than memory or observation. “Since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary,” imagination often yields more coherent experiences than more direct encounters with external stimuli, as when Ruth describes events that preceded her birth (53). “The wreck of my grandfather’s train is more vivid in my mind than it would have been if I had seen it (for the mind’s eye is not utterly baffled by darkness)” (150). Ruth narrates many such uncanny experiences: “Sylvie began to blur the memory of my mother, and then to displace it. Soon it was Sylvie who would look up startled, regarding me from a vantage of memory in which she had no place” (53). The thoughts of waking life are likewise synonymous with dreaming. “I remember [a woman glimpsed on a train] neither less nor differently than I remember others I have known better, and indeed I dream of her, and the dream is very like the event itself” (55). This awareness of cognition’s essential coherence reassures neither characters nor reader, however, but remains consistently disorienting. “I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming. I know my life would be much different if I could ever say, This I have learned from my senses, while that I have merely imagined” (215–16). When it comes to the merits of this sensibility, Robinson again highlights difference without sanction: “If appearance is only a trick of the nerves, and apparition is only a lesser trick of the nerves, a less perfect illusion, then this expectation, this sense of a presence unperceived, was not particularly illusory as things in this world go. The thought comforted me. … [I]t is probably as well to be undeceived, though perhaps it is not” (122). If we do not choose our modes of awareness, Robinson suggests, our best option is to accept such processes with self-compassion.
The processes of Robinson’s minded body point back to organic matter more than out toward social systems of belief and regulation. Ever attentive to “the correspondence between the space within the circle of my skull and the space around me,” Ruth recognizes that “Lucille would tell this story differently. She would say that I fell asleep, but I did not. I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked” by sensory data (198, 116). Ruth further meditates on this elemental perspective on being, “What is thought, after all, what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate? … And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. … [And w]ater is almost nothing, after all” (162–4). This non-epiphanic mode replaces sentimentalism’s traditional bursts of introspective clarity with paratactical observations that apprehend what is simply present and true. For Robinson (and contra Schiller), thought and feeling are not just our nature—they are nature.
Robinson’s consistent leveling of difference extends to sentimental chronology. Housekeeping exchanges sentimentalism’s traditional investment in “temporal triumph” via corporeal discipline and emotional regulation for Sylvie’s “millennial present” (Schuller 180; Robinson 94). Put differently, nineteenth-century sentimentalism seeks to organize future progress; postmodern sentimentalism seeks to cope with life’s inevitable cyclicality. Such a sentimental mode endeavors to account for the ways loss transcends the sensible, as in Ruth’s experience of her mother as “a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished” (160). In Robinson’s postmodern sentimentalism, the unknown and unknowable engender embodied experience as much as the other way around.
“The life of perished things”: Housekeeping’s Postmodern Sentimental Elegy
“The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return” (Robinson 192). Animated by a perpetual mourning of cumulative loss, Housekeeping revivifies Schiller’s concept of a literary form that renders “the experiences of a particular loss … extended into the idea of universal transitoriness” (Schiller). But Housekeeping is not simply a novel of mourning. It is also, like Schiller’s sentimental elegy, imbued with a hope that, as Ruth says more than once, “the world will be made whole” (152). This amalgam of experiential fragmentation and anticipated unification embraces what the postmodern subject is frequently seen to reject or at least critique: the potency of interpersonal connection, the veracity of subjective feeling, and the totalizing impulse of epistemology. For if Housekeeping highlights the essential estrangement of human relation and empties out the knowledge value of thought and feeling, it nonetheless proposes selfhood, subjective truth, and human relation as enterprises worthy of devotion. Robinson thus reorients the conventional stance of postmodern skepticism, reconfiguring this disposition to produce an optimistically melancholy faith.
Housekeeping contrasts its preferred modality to the destructive, anti-aesthetic qualities of postmodern sensibilities like clinical detachment and materialist deconstruction. Prior to their departure from Fingerbone, Ruth and Sylvie start a fire in the house. “For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams, and many household things are of purely sentimental value, like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother’s girlhood, which was kept in a hatbox on top of the wardrobe, along with my mother’s gray purse. In the equal light of disinterested scrutiny such things are not themselves. They are transformed into pure object, and are horrible, and must be burned” (209). Robinson thus draws an affective axis with “pure sentiment” at one extreme node, “pure object” at the other. Pure sentiment embodies subjective, emotional value, in which an individual’s idea entirely creates the object. Pure object represents disinterested, impersonal materiality, which equally transforms the “thing” into something “not itself.” Sentiment’s interested, unequal comprehension enables beauty and care; the alternative to such attachment is simply “horrible.”
Housekeeping’s most sentimentally-invested object is ultimately narrative itself. This sustaining container of individual feeling and communicative impulse appears metonymically in the story; its proxies include one of the novel’s most-discussed images, Molly’s net, and one of its little-discussed images, Sylvie’s coat. Both of these embedded narratives knit stories of loss, experiential contradiction, and unmet desire into physical vessels that seek to comfort others via subjective meaning. Born of compassion and grace, these vessels also explicitly locate Robinson’s novel in the long tradition of narratives about faith: Sylvie’s coat evokes Joseph’s many-colored garment; Molly’s net explicitly alludes to the Bible’s “fishers of men” (91). This “net would sweep the turning world unremarked as a wind in the grass … such a net, such a harvesting, would put an end to all anomaly, … till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole” (91–2). Sylvie’s “curative and elegiac” coat is an experiential, embodied, individual alternative to this comprehensive vision (160). Having “abandoned” Ruth during one of their expeditions, Sylvie returns and “bundl[es]” Ruth in her coat, whose pleasing scent, “like cedar pitch or incense,” produces its poignant healing powers (161). At first, Sylvie encircles the young girl within the coat, and then, without “ask[ing] pardon or explain[ing],” puts it on Ruth, whose anger dissipates as “I wore her coat like beatitude, and her arms around me were as heartening as mercy, and I would say nothing that might make her loosen her grasp or take one step away” (161). Like the net, the coat affords a symbolic response to the human desire for universal comprehension. Akin to the minded-body’s capacity to absorb and preserve, narrative can contain without resolution.
Robinson’s postmodern sentimentalism thus affirms narrative, like nature, as a form that engenders beauty, care, and generosity because of its fleeting, subjective, delimited quality. Again, this paradigm reverses the conventional order of things. Of life and loss: “It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. … Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things” (124). Of memory and futurity: “Perhaps memory is the seat not only of prophecy but of miracle as well” (196). Ruth’s fantasy of Molly’s net is likewise born out of perceptions that are valid but not exclusive: “It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or it was from watching gnats sail out of the grass, or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law” (92). Even natural law is a matter of narrative and orientation. For Robinson’s postmodern subject, recognizing such contingencies does not diminish narrative into symbolic discourse or evacuate language of its connective impulse. Rather, this perspective engenders the faith expressed by Housekeeping’s famous closing lines, in which Ruth imagines Lucille sitting alone at a Boston restaurant. “No one watching this woman … could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie” (219). This sequence of negations, conditionals, and paradoxes underscores the desire to locate oneself in a history of unfolding experience and identifies this urge as the most natural of human enterprises. Or, as Lee Clark Mitchell summarizes, “All the conclusion attests is that we always live in an indeterminate realm of conjecture and possibility” (176). Endorsing the infinite contingency of human experience, Robinson also affirms the melancholic knowledge that our narratives will always fall short of their redemptive impulses. Postmodern sentimentalism finds its purchase in creating as well as circulating such unaffected communication.
 See “Feeling Hard-Boiled.” Chandler has also recently highlighted continuities in the sentimental mode in eighteenth- to twentieth-century European and American thought and media.
 A small but growing body of scholarship has begun to consider Robinson’s other novels in terms of sentimentalism; see Ellis and Griffis. Studies in a related vein explore her express interest in “felt experience” in her non-fiction; see, for example, Allen and Gonzalez.
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Image credit: Cropped “Friedrich Schiller.” from Frank M. Rafik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.