Significance of Place in American Literature

Updated on May 18, 2018
Paul Barrett 96 profile image

Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland majoring in English and History.

Robinson was a genius at using the concepts space and place to tell her story
Robinson was a genius at using the concepts space and place to tell her story | Source

While the physical place of the world is ever constant, the social meaning it has for us is always changing. This article will discuss the idea of place and its significance. This will be regarding both the symbolic and social aspects of place. The two works that will encompass this dicussion are Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Both novels involve characters that have to negotiate their environment in their attempts to be happy. Ben must deal with the intricacies of California life, while still managing his Asian heritage. For Lucille and Ruth, their sense of place, and sense of home become crucial to them, as they struggle to deal with the same four-walled house couple with an ever-changing barrage of people. Ben struggles to find his sense of place as an Asian-American in a society that he feels uncomfortable in, as Lucille and Ruth, due to their unconventional life, attempt to find their place in a society that does not accept them. The two novels involve movement, as the characters lack a strong connection to the place they are, and go looking for it somewhere else. The symbolic aspect of the house, the social aspects of place and the symbolic act of movement are critical elements in these novels.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson explores the importance of the home as a place of both comfort and heartache for its characters. Throughout their lives, while people have left them, to Lucille and Ruth, the only constant has been their home in Fingerbone. The location in Fingerbone provides key metaphors into the lives of the characters and their relationship to place. Fingerbone is an area that is embodied by being the place of buildings, operations and enclosed settlements. Everything about the place of Fingerbone represents all things that the female characters are opposed to. “No one ever came to call”. The family do not associate this place with any warmth, comfort or friendship. The family feel out of place, which is ironic considering the deep connection the family has, to the lake that the town is built on. It is this lake that the other inhabitants can’t cope with, “…the people who had left for higher grounds came back…patting their roofs and peering into their attic windows”. The lake and the house are at constant odds with each other, and their significance in place is best seen through the effects they have on the characters of Sylvie and Helen.

The effect of place on Sylvie and Helen, are crucial in their ultimate fates. Both Helen and Sylvie are affected negatively by the social place of Fingerbone, and cannot reconcile their existence in the house. The house is built by their father Edmund, and the two women must attempt to express their femininity in a patriarchal space. The faults of the house are referenced throughout the book as being because of its maker, Edmund, “but they terminated rather oddly in a hatch or trap door”. The isolated cabin house which in American literature has always signified self-reliance and solitary comfort is reversed in this novel, as the house for Sylvie and Helen is a prison. The house is juxtaposed with the water that creeps near it, the water which, Sylvie and Helen always wish to escape into. Helen quite literally escapes by plunging into the lake, while Sylvie attempts to alter the house and make it a nicer place for her by inviting the water to come in. Eventually like Helen, Sylvie cannot stand this place any longer, symbolically attempting to burn it down. The house leads to both a symbolic, social and literal death of the female characters, as for them this place is a prison that constricts their identity.

Towards the end of the novel, the places that Lucille and Ruth live, have great significance into the characters that they become. Ruth and Sylvie become drifters, and Lucille supposedly becomes settled, living in Boston. Ruth’s inherent lack of a physical home and therefore a social place, is allegorical to her spiritual lack of place, in a world where she like Sylvie is a transient being surrounded by settled mortal people. “…and somehow left the house again before she could run downstairs”. Ruth’s existence in the end turns into a corporeal being, never being stuck to just one place at any time. Her lack of place is what defines her, unlike Lucille who is defined by the place she lives. The place of Fingerbone represents Ruth’s spiritual struggle, between the ordered rigidity of the house, and the freedom of the lake. The house and the lake are the symbolic places which divide Lucille and Ruth, as Lucille by living a traditional life chooses the house as her place, while Ruth living a spiritual live, chooses the lake as hers.

Tomine's Shortcomings provides a window into many different types of place
Tomine's Shortcomings provides a window into many different types of place | Source

The idea of place, and social place in particular, in Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings, is key to the difficulties faced by its main character, Ben. As an Asian-American, Ben feels out of place in society, and his unique attraction to blonde white women, suggests that Ben is not comfortable with his Asian heritage, and the social consequences of it, and so he distances himself through his movies. He is unable to resolve his social place in American society. Thus, through his movie theatre, Ben attempts to escape into the alternate reality of the film. In film where white blonde women are, and he can imagine himself as any race he wants to, “This stuff is…fantasy. It’s supposed to be different from reality”. Ben’s happiness in the symbolic place of film is best illustrated by Tomine through the image of Ben with his eyes glued to the television as Miko urges him to come to bed. Likewise, when Autumn begins working at his film theatre, a white blonde woman, Ben begins to fixate on looking at her through the TV monitors, which is illustrated as being clearly more engaging than his current place. With no social place in America, Ben finds a secure place in fiction.

The visual imagery also shows the importance of place to the characters. The restaurant that Ben and Alice frequent, is from the American chain Crepe Expectations, and the name of this place and the role it plays in the character's lives is allegorical to its name. All the conversations that occur in the restaurant result in negative reactions from Ben, with the drawings depicting Ben as being unhappy, confused or angry while there. This place and its name are symbolic of Ben’s terrible expectations about life in general. When Alice suggests a different restaurant, it signifies a change in the novel where Ben begins to feel more secure in his place as his symbolic fantasy place is slowly becoming his real social place as he feels a connection with Autumn, “Something wrong with the usual place”. Conversely, when Ben is at his lowest following the loss of another blonde-haired white woman, his one social and physical place of refuse is gone, his movie theatre and his fantasies, “Closed for renovation”. Tomine’s illustrations, depict Ben as a character always on edge and never really finding his social or symbolic place.

Miko’s move to New York and Ben’s journey after her signify a key point in the novel as the characters struggle to find their place in the world. Miko is not secure in her social place in California like she is not comfortable in the symbolic place that her relationship with Ben is. While Ben tries to follow her, in New York, Ben once again is out of place and finds nothing but unhappiness. New York has changed the people he knew because they have finally found their social place which he still lacks, “You’re more fun in California”. Ben wishes to escape back to a place of comfort in California, but he fails to realise he has no happy social place there either. At the end of the novel, Miko is secure and happy in her place in New York, while Ben is angry and confused looking out the window of the plane, which represents Ben’s limbo as he is still unable to find his social and symbolic place in the world.

Ultimately, place in both novels, and finding one that suits, signifies the feeling of happiness. The visual imagery shows the importance that place can have in the lives of the characters in Shortcomings, as the pictures and the characters’ feelings intertwine. In Housekeeping, Lucille's traditional, ordered and rigid life is epitomised by her supposed choice of living place, just as Ruth's loose and carefree attitude is seen through her lack of a concrete place to live. Lucille’s place is linked to the structured mortal world, whereas for Ruth, the significance of place for her lies in the spiritual, non-fixed world. From Ben and Miko, to Lucille and Ruth, no characters in either novel begin with a secure sense of place, and all characters ultimately move to find happiness. Miko like Lucille finds happiness in the rigidity of urban life, just as Ruth does in the spiritual life. However, Ben still has not learned to accept that perhaps he cannot find emotional or spiritual happiness if he continues to want the rigidity of California or New York. Place, both in the social and the symbolic, can bring happiness if one remembers to find a compromise between both.

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