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Although her first and second novels were separated by two decades, Marilynne Robinson has consistently won effusive critical praise and recognition for her writing. Her novels are distinguished for their meditative tone and their focus on the inner lives of characters, written in the first person. Her narratives address family, small town living, isolation both physical and emotional, and everyday details of life. Robinson has also written several nonfiction works that reflect her concern with truth, sin, and redemption.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Life of Writing
Details of Robinson’s life remain obscure, as most writings about her focus on her writing style rather than her biography. She was born in Sand-point, Idaho, most likely in 1944—the years 1943 and 1947 have also been reported. After graduating from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1962, she attended Pembroke College in Warren, Rhode Island, where she graduated with a degree in history and religion in 1966. In 1977 Robinson received her PhD from the University of Washington.
In 1980 Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping. Dedicated to her husband and children, the book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. Following the publication of her novel, Robinson wrote essays for the Paris Review, New York Times Review of Books, and Harper’s. She also began teaching at various colleges and universities, such as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, and the University of Kent.
Robinson abandoned fiction for two decades, focusing on nonfiction works such as Mother Country (1989), an expose of the nuclear power industry and its opponents, specifically Greenpeace, an organization that successfully sued the British publisher of this book for libel and got the book banned in England. Nonetheless, the book was a National Book Award finalist in the United States. Robinson and her husband divorced, and she eventually joined the faculty of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
In 2004 Robinson returned to fiction with Gilead, an epistolary novel—a story told through letters—that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. In September 2008, Robinson published her third and latest novel, Home, which serves as a sort of companion piece to Gilead. Robinson continues to live and work in Iowa City, Iowa.
Works in Literary Context
In addition to her command of the intricacies of language and texture, Robinson’s fiction is notable for its focus on intergenerational relationships. From the mother-daughter, aunt-niece relationships in Housekeeping to the father-son and multigenerational histories of Gilead and Home, Robinson lays out an examination of how different generations within a family influence each other over time.
All three of Robinson’s novels dwell upon relationships within families, and in particular across generations. The legacies of grandparents and great-grandparents echo down through the years. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces all make efforts to reach out and understand each other. Gilead is dominated by the difficulty in connecting between fathers and sons. Housekeeping examines the effect that different approaches taken by three aunts to the simple act of keeping house affects the lives of the nieces the women have been put in charge of caring for. In both Gilead and Home, the parable of the prodigal son is evoked—a biblical tale in which a son, who has moved away and lived foolishly, returns to the family. These generational conflicts are used as a means to explore the complex inner lives of the characters in all of Robinson’s novels.
Works in Critical Context
With the publication of each of Robinson’s novels, critics have been quick to offer praise for the author’s mastery of prose style, language, landscapes, textures, and characterization. Housekeeping was likened by some to a long prose poem. Robinson was also given kudos for seeing beauty in the commonplace as well as her subtle description of essentially ordinary lives. While many critics noted that Robinson took her time publishing her second novel, Gilead was equally celebrated for its quiet power and its ability to touch on religious issues while remaining engaging as it considered universal ideas about life. When Home was published in 2008, critics, such as A. O. Scott in the New York Times, continued to praise the author’s mastery of language, saying she ”is somehow able to infuse what can sound like dowdy, common words … with a startling measure of their old luster and gravity.” Writing in the New Yorker, James Wood calls Home ”one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times.” Robinson’s nonfiction books have received plaudits as being every bit as passionate and well written as her fiction.
Upon its publication, Gilead received effusive praise from critics. Writing in Booklist, Donna Seaman calls the novel a work of profound beauty and wonder.” New York Times reviewer James Wood calls the book ”a beautiful work—demanding, grave and lucid.” An unnamed critic for Kirkus Reviews notes, Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer.” In her review for Michigan Quarterly Review, Stacy Carson Hubbard stresses that ”Ames’s tale is not so much a celebration of goodness as it is a celebration of complexity and ambiguity.” The novel, she writes, is ”a meditation on the meaning of fatherhood, both literal and figurative.” Hubbard concludes that Robinson’s novel is a remarkable and redemptive” work that invites us, with a kind of understated ecstasy, to contemplate the mysteries of being in the world.”
Thomas Meaney, writing in Commentary, praises the ”masterly control” of the novel’s narrative. Meaney explores Robinson’s handling of the concept of predestination, and he concludes that Gilead . . . argues that, in this world, moral responsibility lies squarely on the individual’s shoulders.” Gerald T. Cobb, writing for the journal America, concludes that Robinson deftly combines the elegiac and the eulogistic into a compelling sense that this minister of a small town has a privileged view of life’s horizons and depths.” Comparing Robinson’s Gilead to other contemporary writing, Scott A. Kaukonen writes in the Missouri Review: ”In a culture where bombast passes for insight and where theological nuance suffers amid sound bites and power politics, Gilead refreshes like water from a deep, cold spring.”
- ”Gilead.” Novels for Students. Edited by Ira Milne. Vol. 24. Detroit: Gale, 2007.
- Morddel, Anne. Robinson, Marilynne.” Contemporary Novelists. Edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. 7th ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001.
- ”Robinson, Marilynne (1943-).” Student Resource Center. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007. ”Robinson, Marilynne (1944(?)).” Major Twenty-First Century Writers. Edited by Tracey Matthews. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
- White, Rosie. Robinson, Marilynne.” Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writings in English. Edited by Lorna Sage, Germaine Greer, and Elaine Showalter. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge, 1999.
- Hubbard, Stacy Carson. ”The Balm in Gilead.” Michigan Quarterly Review 44, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 541-545.
- Kaukonen, Scott A. Review of Gilead. Missouri Review 28, no. 1 (2005): 226-228.
- Scott, A. O. ”Return of the Prodigal Son.” New York Times Online. Retrieved November 30, 2008, from http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/books/ review/Scott-t.html?pagewanted=all. Last updated on September 19, 2008.
- Wood, James. ”The Homecoming.” New Yorker Online. Retrieved November 30, 2008, from http:// www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/ 09/08/080908crbo_books_wood?currentPage=all. Last updated on September 8, 2008.
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