Study Guide

Housekeeping

by Marilynne Robinson

Housekeeping Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Ruth and her sister Lucille grew up together as orphans, first under the care of their grandmother, Sylvia Foster. They were then cared for, briefly, by their two unmarried great-aunts, Lily and Nona Foster. Finally, their mother’s younger sister, Sylvie Fisher, took them in after Lily and Nana could not handle caring for them. The girls were raised—by these different women—in the house built by Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather, Edmund Foster. Longing for the mountains, Edmund had taken a train west to Fingerbone, Idaho, worked for the railroad, and prospered. He died in a train derailment on the bridge that crosses Fingerbone’s large glacial lake.

Ruth tells the following story about her family: Her newly widowed grandmother stays in Fingerbone and raises Molly, Helen, and Sylvie. After five years of quiet, orderly routine, the girls leave home. Molly goes to China as a missionary; Helen elopes with Reginald Stone to Seattle, becomes a single mother, and raises Ruth and Lucille with the help of a neighbor; and Sylvie marries a man named Fisher and becomes a drifter.

More than seven years later, Helen returns to Fingerbone with Ruth and Lucille, leaves them on their grandmother’s front porch, drives a borrowed Ford into the lake, and drowns. Grandmother Sylvia cares for the girls for five years before dying. Her unmarried sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, come to care for the girls, but are overwhelmed. They send for Sylvie, the girls’ aunt, and flee when she arrives.

One week later, Fingerbone has a massive flood, and the waters reach the Fisher house. The extended family lives on the second floor for several days. Conflicts surface, as Lucille desires order, answers, and a conventional life and Sylvie desires a transient and unconventional life.

Lucille is falsely accused of cheating on a test at school and stays home “sick” for one week. When Sylvie writes a note to the school explaining that Lucille always feels better by midmorning, Lucille and Ruth keep the letter and spend the next week “playing hooky” at the lake. One day, they see their aunt walk onto the bridge. They fear that she is going to commit suicide. Although reassured by their aunt that she is not going to kill herself, they...

(The entire section is 924 words.)

Housekeeping Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

The narrator, a young woman named Ruth, recounts the family history which led to her living with her sister, Lucille, under the care of her Aunt Sylvie. Ruth and Lucille’s family hailed from a Midwestern town named Fingerbone, adjacent to a lake of considerable size. Their grandfather, Edmund, was an employee of the railroad who married Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother. Edmund worked his way up in the railroad industry over the years until his untimely death in a rail accident. One evening, the locomotive on which Edmund was working had slipped off of the tracks on the bridge crossing over the giant lake near Fingerbone. The accident happened in the middle of the night, so no one was quite sure where in the wintry lake the train had landed. Two men standing at the back of the train had escaped with their lives, but the rest went under the water with the train and never came out. That night and the following morning, numerous efforts were made by divers to rescue people from the train, but only a few odd pieces of debris turned up.

Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother raised her three teenage daughters (including the girls’ mother, Helen) for the next five years. Once Helen and her sisters came of age, they left the homestead. One sister, Molly, became a missionary and left for San Francisco; Helen eloped with a man named Reginald (Ruth and Lucille’s father), much to her mother’s chagrin; Sylvie also married, but did so at home in Fingerbone. Ruth has almost no memory of her father; she relies on a few photographs her mother has. While Helen worked, a neighbor named Bernice often looked after Ruth and Lucille. One week, Helen borrows Lucille’s car and drives the girls to Fingerbone. Knowing her mother will not be at home, Lucille leaves the girls and their luggage on their grandmother’s porch, along with some snacks to eat. Helen then drives away to a cliff overlooking the lake; she drives off the cliff into the lake, leaving her daughters in the care of their grandmother.

Their grandmother (who, like their aunt, was also named Sylvia) dutifully cared for the girls, even though she seemed all too aware of the fact that she had been down the road of motherhood before, and her offspring had abandoned her. In consideration of her advanced years, Sylvia talked with her granddaughters about what would become of the m when she passed away. Sylvia intended for her two younger sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, to come and live in her house to watch after the girls.

Chapter 2 Summary

Five years later, Sylvia (the elder) dies and her plan finally comes to fruition. One morning, Lucille and Ruth go into their grandmother’s room and are unable to wake her. Soon after, their grandmother’s sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, arrive to live with and take care of the girls. The two are a pair of blue-haired, squat old ladies prone to having private conversations that are audible to the whole house because they are both hearing impaired. When they first arrive, they both seem quite nervous and are unsure how to behave around Lucille and Ruth. That night, the older women talk about their sister-in-law and how young she was to have died (at aged seventy-six). They note that Ruth and Lucille are attractive enough, but pale in comparison to their grandmother. They also wonder why all of Sylvia’s children turned out so poorly, especially the itinerant Sylvie, whom they haven’t been able to reach to inform her of her mother’s passing.

Since it is the middle of winter, the lake in Fingerbone freezes into solid ice, and the girls revel in ice skating there. Other people from the town skate or bring sleds to enjoy some outdoor activity. When Lucille and Ruth arrive home after dark one night, Lily and Nona admonish them for their tardiness. They remind the girls that the town is perilous for them because of the absence of street lights and the bitter, bitter cold. Ruth notes that Lily and Nona thrive on repetition and structure; thus, their transition to living in their sister-in-law’s house has been difficult.

Following the skating incident, the old women have more late-night chats about the girls’ future. They dream of taking the girls back to where they used to live, but doubt they will be accepted. Suddenly, the two become much more interested in tracking down Sylvie. They express concern that Sylvie might accidentally find out about her mother from the papers, so they compose a letter to send to her despite not having her address. Fortunately, Sylvie sends a note to her mother (whom she does not is dead) providing her new address. Eventually, Lily and Nona are convinced that Sylvie would be a much better fit for taking care of Ruth and Lucille. As with all of their chats, this one is overheard by Lucille and Ruth. To them, their aunt is a mysterious and intriguing figure. Both of them argue about what she will look like and whether or not she will resemble their mother.

Chapter 3 Summary

The great aunts carefully construct a letter to Sylvie asking her consider coming to Fingerbone to spend some time with the girls. Though they are anxious for Sylvie to stay on, they try to present their plan as merely hypothetical. After weeks of no contact from Sylvie, Lily and Nona begin to fret about the possibility that Sylvie might say no, or never respond at all. Unexpectedly, Sylvie knocks at the door and the old women let her in, clucking and fussing over her. Sylvie is in her mid-30s and is inadequately dressed for the harsh winter weather. Sylvie eats some eggs as the aunts loudly discuss their approval of her as though no one in the room could overhear them. Lucille and Ruth help their aunt take her belongings to her room. She promises to get them some kind of present and then bids them good night.

Lucille and Ruth are used to having the house to themselves in the mornings, so they are surprised to find their aunt sitting at the kitchen table in the dark in her rain coat. She jokes about her preference for the dark, and then makes the girls’ breakfast. Ignoring an agreed-upon gradual protocol, Lucille bluntly asks Sylvie about their mother. Sylvie offers a few details, but nothing along the lines of a complete picture of their mother. Sylvie makes it clear that she and Helen had very limited contact after Helen got married. The girls also ask about their father, and Sylvie has even less information about him. Ruth remembers her father’s disappearance and Bernice delivering to Helen a letter from him. When she thought she was alone, Helen tore up the letter (envelope included) without opening it. She explains to the girls that it is for the best. The girls are now doubly frustrated because Sylvie’s estrangement from her sister means she won’t be able to shed any light on their father’s whereabouts.

Sylvie abruptly announces she’s headed downtown for some errands, and Lucille thinks Sylvie is going to sneak off on the train. The girls throw on their winter gear over their nightgowns follow Sylvie downtown. After watching her throw some ice at a clutch of noisy, mangy dogs, they see Sylvie go to the train station. When they confront her about what appears to be her departure, she insists that she simply came in to the station because it was warm. She then tells them that she’s decided to stay, and buys them a snack. She takes them home, and the great aunts fuss about their collective disappearance. Nevertheless, the two old women pack up their things, and are picked up at the end of the day to be taken back to their home. Sylvie has been left in charge of Ruth and Lucille.

Chapter 4 Summary

Within a week of the transfer of Lucille and Ruth’s guardianship from Lily and Nona to Sylvie, Fingerbone receives an unusually large amount of rain. The problem this presents for the community is that the winter temperatures have prevented the ground from thawing, so the rain begins to flood all of the homes and buildings. This flooding has long been a problem for the community, but the house in which Sylvie, Lucille and Ruth live has never been damaged by it due to its high altitude. Unfortunately, the persistence of the rain leaves the house flooded for the first time. Lucille, Ruth and Sylvie begin wearing wading boots when they are downstairs, and their every movement sends ripples and waves throughout the house. From their...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

Lucille and Ruth have always gone largely unnoticed at the secondary school they attend. They are quiet, present no disciplinary issues, and earn grades neither too high nor too low to attract the attention of the faculty. Lucille begins trying to avoid school by pretending to be sick, which Sylvie allows. When Lucille is finally sent to school again the following week, she brings a note Sylvie wrote explaining her absence. In it, Sylvie accurately describes the vagueness of Lucille’s “symptoms,” as well as their brevity and lack of severity. Lucille fears the school will know she faked and decides to skip school. Ruth decides to skip with her, and the two spend their days down by the water, waiting to be caught.

...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

As winter ends and spring sets in, Lucille and Ruth began skipping school again. They make a pretense of walking in the direction of school at the appropriate time, even though Sylvie seems aware of their deceit. When inquiries from the school ask after Ruth and Lucille, Sylvie simply explains that the absences are attributed to Ruth’s adolescent developments. Ironically, Sylvie is not altogether wrong; Ruth notices her sister’s figure changing along with her moodiness. Ruth herself notices no such development of her own and continues to feel tall and gangly. At night, the girls return to find their aunt sitting in the dark, as is her custom. On one of these evenings, Lucille impertinently asks Sylvie about her husband’s...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

During the summer, the girls’ lack of structure under Sylvie’s supervision worsens. One evening, Lucille and Ruth stray too far into the woods and get lost. They end up building a ramshackle fort and sleeping outdoors surrounded by wild animals and all of the elements. When they finally get home, bedraggled and exhausted, Sylvie acts as if there is nothing unusual about their disappearance. This seems to enrage Lucille even more than usual, and she storms off to her room. After dozing fitfully, Ruth goes to see Lucille, who insists that they dress up and go into town. Lucille is particularly fussy about Ruth’s choice in clothing, and the two finally head off to town. Lucille becomes increasingly exasperated by Ruth’s...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Well before dawn the next morning, Sylvie wakes Ruth from a dead sleep and rushes her out the door. Sylvie has already packed a lunch, and practically forces breakfast onto Ruth. The two make their way in the dark down to the water where Sylvie insists there is a boat that she has been borrowing. When the boat is not in the place where she expects it, Sylvie explains that the boat is often moved to a different place. She finds it buried under some tree branches and ignores Ruth’s concerns that it belongs to someone else who doesn’t want her to use it. Sylvie hurries Ruth into the boat, pushes off, and begins rowing just as a man appears headed toward the shore. The man shouts at Sylvie and throws rocks at the boat while Sylvie...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Following their outdoor adventures, Sylvie and Ruth begin to receive numerous visitors at the house, starting with the sheriff. The sheriff is a nice man, who seems initially embarrassed to be bothering them. The sheriff’s visits are also supplemented by ones from ladies from town. Ruth recognizes the essentially Christian culture of Fingerbone and ascribes theses visits as being motivated by a need to do good. The women who visit come bearing food and often promise to have their husbands come and make some repairs around the house. They do their best to disguise their horror at the condition of the house. Numerous windows are missing window panes, and the parlor is filled with the newspapers and cans that Sylvie collects. The...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Ruth imagines an alternate reality in which her mother did not commit suicide. In this version of her life, Helen and the girls visit with their grandmother and then drive back home. As the girls grow older, they notice their mother’s oddness and it brings them closer. Ruth knows that such a reality would deprive them of knowing how their mother struggled; how she came close to suicide and decided against it for their sake. In reality, Helen was distant and distracted the day she dropped the girls off on Sylvia’s porch. Looking back, Ruth can see in her mother the odd calm of someone who has resolved to end her life. Even at her young age, Ruth understands that some of what makes memories of her mother special to her is that...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

When the sheriff leaves, Sylvie and Ruth realize the reality of the situation: Sylvie will lose Ruth and possibly they house as well. Unable to face that inevitability, they decide to burn the house down. The task proves more difficult than they first thought, because every time they start a fire it fizzles out because the house is so damp. Eventually, Ruth and Sylvie get a few fires going and flee, knowing that the fire will soon attract the attention of the rest of the town. Racing through the dark, Sylvie tells Ruth that they will jump on a train headed out of town before the fire is discovered. Unfortunately, they are too late and miss the last train leaving Fingerbone.

Sylvie knows that they have few options...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear