7 Laura Barrett, “‘The Ungraspable Phantom of Life’: Incompletion and Abjection in Moby-Dick and Housekeeping”

In “’[T]he ungraspable phantom of life’: Incompletion and Abjection in Moby-Dick and Housekeeping,” Laura Barrett explores yet another dimension of Robinson’s relationship to her nineteenth century precursors and influences. As she notes, Robinson has been open in her admiration for Melville’s novel about Ishmael, Ahab and their hunt for the great white whale, claiming that if Melville could produce a novel focused almost exclusively on male characters that could somehow speak to a reader like herself, then she could write a novel that revolved almost entirely around female characters that was still meaningful for male readers. While others have noted the way in which Ruth’s first words- “My name is Ruth”- deliberately call to mind Ishmael’s famous declaration at the very beginning of his narrative—“Call me Ishmael”-  Barrett goes further in exploring the structural and thematic affinities between Moby Dick and Housekeeping.  Both are philosophical novels that focus on central characters who are orphans and outsiders; both narrators express a profound mistrust of appearances and believe that the “true workings of the world,” to borrow a phrase from Housekeeping, are obscured by the senses. Even more important, however, are Melville and Robinson’s shared concerns with the themes of corporeality and abjection, which Barrett defines as “that which is severed but not forgotten, that which is simultaneously necessarily dismembered and dangerously remembered” (15). In Moby Dick, these two themes come together in the figure of Ahab, who has lost his leg to the great white whale, but also in Ishmael, whose cruel step-mother underscores the absence of his birth mother. In Housekeeping, Ruth is orphaned not once but repeatedly as one care-giver after another dies or disappears. Both Ishmael and Ruth respond to these absences by forming profound almost child-like attachments with others, Queequag for Ishmael, Sylvie for Ruth, but both remain haunted by loss, and these losses compel both characters to mistrust not only human bonds but the human body itself. In fact, as Barrett notes, in both Moby Dick and Housekeeping, [c]orporeality… is tantamount to incompletion, an incompletion generally manifested in the disintegration, mutilation, or failure of bodies… (1). Barrett concludes her essay by focusing attention on the shared epistemological concerns of Melville and Robinson, noting that “the mode of representation that both Ishmael and Ruth employ is an attempt to write the unnameable” (19). Ishmael’s narrative enacts this dilemma through its use of highly detailed verbal pictures of whales to illustrate the inability of those pictures to capture or comprehend the white whale that is the object of his quest, and through its obsessive amassing of quotations, allusions, and references to this opaque and ultimately unreadable object. Likewise, Ruth’s narrative is continually haunted by her memories or imaginative re-creations of not only her mother, but also her grandfather and grandmother and by all the other souls who have perished yet remain alive in her mind.


Barrett, Laura. “’ [T]he ungraspable phantom of life’: Incompletion and Abjection in Moby Dick and Housekeeping.” South Atlantic Review Vol. 73, No. 3 (Summer 2008): 1-22.  https://ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/login?url=https://www.jstor.org/stable/27784793

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