Robinson’s triumphs of style
in Marilynne Robinson
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Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction essays have sometimes been criticised for their doctrinaire certainty, as a juridical lexis and distinctly latinate syntax precipitate rhetorical closures at the expense of even-handedness. Yet, Robinson’s fiction adopts an entirely different register, in which highly stylised and visionary passages reveal coherences as much aesthetic as conceptual. This essay argues that the patterns of sense and suggestion in her novels emerge from the dense poetic textures of her prose. In this way, Robinson’s prose is ‘poetic’ not only in the vaguer senses of conjuring vivid images, or being pleasing to the ear. Housekeeping, for example, has several pivotal scenes in audible metrical cadences, lending a suppressed emotive charge to ostensibly routine occurrences. These local effects have broader implications for the structure of Robinson’s works. As this essay argues, rhythm, both at the level of the sentence, and in episodic narrative patterns, is central to Robinson’s fiction, as she shows how whole lives can be shaped by a simple object, a casual gesture, or a turn of phrase.

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