Disturbance of the epistemological conventions of the marriage plot in Lila
Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo
The relationship between epistemology and power is one that underlies much of the quintessential form of the female Bildungsroman: the marriage plot. Drawing on theorists from Michel Foucault to Miranda Fricker, this essay argues that Robinson’s third Gilead novel, Lila, challenges epistemic injustice, a challenge rooted in the generic conventions of the androcentric American Bildungsroman tradition, as well as the transcendentalist philosophy that informs it. Indeed, this essay reads Lila as a novel primarily about epistemology and power, arguing that the relationship between Lila and Ames dramatises the tension between his recognised, reified form of academic, book-bound learning, and her marginalised, discredited, and life-learnt knowledge. The exchanges they have throughout the novel not only highlight how these forms of knowledge are linked to power, class, and gender, but also question and undermine such a hierarchy.
Marilynne Robinson’s essays and the crisis of mainline Protestantism
This essay examines Robinson’s imagination of American church history and her interventions into current church politics. In her view, recent American church history is defined by the tension between the Protestant mainline and evangelicalism. The two key essays for the expression of this view – “Onward Christian Liberals” and “Credo” – are both defences of liberal Protestantism, with its spirituality of uncertainty and its political emphasis on social justice, and critical of the evangelical focus on personal conversion and neoliberal political associations. In The Death of Adam and, more recently, The Givenness of Things, Robinson worries over ‘the effect of marginalising the liberal churches and elevating fundamentalism to the status of essential Christianity’, curiously blaming the Protestant mainline for the decline of the mainline itself. This essay therefore foregrounds Robinson’s questioning of the relationship between liberal churches and their congregation, asking questions about the history and politics of the American church to shed light on its centrality to Robinson’s political imagination.
Building on the ideas of Jacques Derrida, this essay explores how the unseen haunts the landscape of Robinson’s novels, Gilead and Home, making the reader bear witness to a politics of absence figured as racial. The negotiation between the visible and invisible, the material and the metaphysical enables Robinson to construct a radical reimagining of the history of the Midwestern landscape in her narratives. Drawing on an original, unpublished interview with Robinson, this chapter argues that what is at stake in reimagining the landscape of Iowa in the Civil War from the perspective of those on the cusp of the civil rights movement is the ability to remember and learn from history. For Jack, in particular, the landscape of Gilead is inscribed with his personal hopes and desires for his loved ones writ large in the history of his hometown and region; his alienation is one that stems in part from a struggle to feel at home in a nation that denies them existential value.
These three, short contributions read Marilynne Robinson in her historical and contemporary contexts. Sarah Churchwell considers key concepts of justice and charity in relation to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Richard H. King draws on Robinson’s theological and philosophical ideas – particularly goodness and grace – linking Robinson to fellow Christian writer, Flannery O’Connor. Bridget Bennett finally discusses the home in Home and its varied iterations throughout Robinson’s work.
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.
Enacting feminine alterity in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping
Makayla C. Steiner
Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping is a novel about women that is frequently read as a feminist version of the American male Bildungsroman. Beginning with its very title, it highlights various methods by which feminine alterity may function to welcome the lonely and make the home a place of refuge, while also illuminating its theoretical limits. This essay argues that Robinson’s adult women characters both support and complicate the lived efficacy of feminine alterity as they attempt to create a welcoming home for two young orphans. It also demonstrates how Robinson’s aesthetic is the most successful enactment of feminine alterity because it makes ethical behaviour – what Levinas sometimes calls holiness – possible.
The conclusion briefly focuses on the recurrence of allusions to the Roman legend of Marcus Curtius in a number of plays in the canon as exemplifying Fletcher’s overall approach to classical texts, paradigms, and values as illustrated throughout the book, thereby rehearsing the main claims advanced in the previous chapters. It is argued that Fletcher’s predilection for the writings of the historians of Late Antiquity is decisive in shaping his bleak Roman world. The pessimistic vision of a disoriented imperial Rome that Fletcher offers in his dramatic works brings his Roman plays close to the Trauerspiel as described by Walter Benjamin, especially their grim depiction of a history devoid of purpose and transcendent meaning. Fletcher thus emerges as a more profound historical and political thinker than is traditionally acknowledged in scholarship. The conclusion also explores Fletcher’s irreverent classicism and his penchant for combining classical and contemporary texts and translations – as well as his fondness for using recently published books ¬– and how his approach to classical sources is connected with his broader attitude towards Roman exempla, especially as regards the women of classical antiquity, whose exemplarity he is not inclined to take at face value. Fletcher’s scepticism as to the passivity of the Roman women who populate his plays is also mirrored in his overall rejection of the precepts of stoicism, while his consistent de-solemnizing approach to the classics is even more excitingly exemplified by his treatment of Shakespeare as to all intents and purposes a classic.
This chapter focuses on the contrast between Roman and non-Roman female characters in Fletcher’s Roman plays. The non-Roman women of the canon display superior dynamism, assertiveness, and complexity than the Roman women, who remain dependent on patriarchal values and male gazes, their roles being limited to those of wives, widows, or prostitutes. More than examples of chastity, virtue, or corruption, the non-Roman women instead wield actual power and accomplish actions that have a significant bearing on reality. Such an evident contrast fosters the impression that Fletcher and his collaborators found the women of ancient Rome hardly adequate for the development of their ideal ‘masculine’ female characters. Scepticism about the value system encoded by Roman female models also seeps from the allusions and appeals to Roman paragons that recur so frequently across the Fletcher canon, their largest share pointing to exempla drawn from the history of the Roman Republic and especially to Lucrece and Portia. The negative judgement of the Roman women’s passivity chimes with the canon’s general tendency either to shun or implicitly criticize the tenets of stoicism as they emerge in such plays as The Little French Lawyer, Valentinian, The Captain, and The Loyal Subject. This also reinforces the idea that Fletcher’s engagement with the Roman past may have influenced his thinking and dramatic craft when writing plays not set in ancient Rome. Just as with Fletcher’s choice of sources, which tends to privilege continental Renaissance publications over the classics and suggests little sense of his having found any solemnity in classical texts, these female exempla cannot be followed or adopted solely by virtue of their antiquity. In fact, it is their very antiquity that keeps them firmly stuck in the past, thereby making them unpalatable and hardly viable as guides for the present and the future.
This chapter describes and examines at length the ways in which Fletcher portrays Rome as a corrupted political reality facing irreversible decay, and how he depicts a Rome in crisis and profoundly unsettled by the lack of adequate political leaders and the apparent lack of interest on the part of the gods in human affairs. The only area left to Roman men to prove their virtus is the battlefield, but this emerges as insufficient to offset the violence, the opportunism, and the dejection that exude from the plays, which chimes with the wider scepticism as to the dependability of Roman models and exempla that pervades his canon. In general terms, Fletcher’s Roman plays depict a dissolving Rome that is prey to a deep sense of disorientation; in doing so, they express a pessimistic vision of history and human life, which makes them resemble in some respects the seventeenth-century German Trauerspiel, or mourning play (as opposed to Tragödie), as famously examined by Walter Benjamin. A fresh examination of Fletcher’s depiction of classical history reveals him as a much sharper observer of reality than is usually recognized, not only in the immediacy of the here and now but also in terms of the larger changes and tendencies that are continually at work in history and politics.
The introduction offers some general remarks about John Fletcher’s career and canon, as well as about the reception of the ancient Roman past in the early modern English imagination; it then describes the scope of the book, its aims, and methodology, before illustrating the contents of each chapter. It concludes by arguing that the book seeks to contribute to the fields of Fletcher studies and the reception of classical materials on the early modern stage by offering fresh perspectives on the treatment of source materials in early modern drama, providing correctives to Shakespeare-centric studies of early modern visions of Rome, and intervening in discussions about early modern historiography, gender, collaboration practices, and the overall place of drama within the larger cultural field.