Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Keepers of the House is divided into four sections and an epilogue. Abigail’s point of view dominates three of the sections: the first, the fourth, and the epilogue. The inner chapters, told by Abigail through the consciousness of William and Margaret, provide the poetic base for the novel, for the force that leads William to Margaret and Margaret to William, shaping their destinies and those of their children and the children of their children, is strong enough to transform a chance meeting into a necessity and every coincidence into part of a pattern of ultimate destruction.

As Abigail tells the reader, her memory goes back well beyond her birth. The house in which she lives was built by generations of her family. The stories that are a part of her heritage become stories that surround her, figures of people who parade in front of her. Abigail is able to speak through the minds of William and Mary because these stories form a ring around her and become so much a part of her that they constitute a portion of her own consciousness.

The Howland story starts in 1800, when the first William Howland finds a place to settle. Succeeding generations, each with a William Howland, add to the house and acquire more land and more wealth. The first William is killed in an Indian raid, and his sons avenge his death with even greater violence. One Howland is married and dies in the Civil War. Abigail’s grandfather, however, is not a violent man. He slaughters animals for food but never kills wild things, although hunting is part of the way of life of the area. William knows the kind of woman he should marry to bear his children, and when he finds an appropriate girl, he courts and marries her within...

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The Keepers of the House Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Shirley Ann Grau rejects the idea that she is a feminist and likewise abhors the appellations of “Southern” and “female”—the former term carrying with it a set of assumptions she does not totally accept and the latter term being, she believes, disparaging and limiting. She is a writer, she maintains, who is not limited by subject matter or by the assumptions of other people. Some of the strongest characters she has created are women, but some of the more fascinating characters she has created are men.

Probably, the novel of Grau’s that is most concerned with women’s role in society is her second, The House on Coliseum Street, which was published in 1961. The protagonist of the novel, Joan Mitchell, involves herself with a professor at the university she attends. When she becomes pregnant, her mother acts with dispatch to arrange an abortion and thus put everything back together, but events act on Joan in a different way. She responds not only to the abortion but also the sterility and lack of commitment in the world around her, and she enters into a kind of psychotic disassociation that leads her to lie about her consensual relationship with the professor, thus causing his dismissal.

In The Keepers of the House, Grau measures the history of the Howland family in terms of fathers and sons, a patriarchal lineage that shows no evidence of breaking down until a decade after this novel was written. The taking of the...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

The Keepers of the House Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Berland, Alwyn. “The Fiction of Shirley Ann Grau.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 6 (Summer, 1963): 78-84. A dated but interesting perspective.

Gossett, Louise Y. Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965. Gossett traces the motif of violence (which can be found in Caldwell, Faulkner, and Wolfe) in several later Southern writers, including Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, and Shirley Ann Grau, among others. Among such writers, themes of loneliness, exploitation, and the inability to escape the past have accompanied new literary approaches. Gossett sees the violence in Grau’s work (including the violence of natural setting and human isolation) as a denial of the romantic notion that “the elemental man is a free agent protected by his environment.”

Kissel, Susan S. Moving On: The Heroines of Shirley Ann Grau, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1996. This critical analysis of Grau, Tyler, and Godwin reveals how the work of Kate Chopin, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and other southern women writers has influenced each author. Also discusses the tendencies in Grau’s work to carry on the tradition of the father.

Martin, Linda Wagner. “Shirley Ann Grau’s Wise Fictions.” In...

(The entire section is 601 words.)