In Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, what does the concept of housekeeping mean to Sylvie? To the girls' grandma? To Lucille? Why is the idea of housekeeping such an important one in this book?

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As used in the novel, the term “housekeeping” refers to the physical, psychological, and emotional aspects of creating and maintaining a home. For Lucille and Ruth their circumstance as orphans left them without a home. Their grandmother’s ability to care for them covered the necessities of food and shelter, but...

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As used in the novel, the term “housekeeping” refers to the physical, psychological, and emotional aspects of creating and maintaining a home. For Lucille and Ruth their circumstance as orphans left them without a home. Their grandmother’s ability to care for them covered the necessities of food and shelter, but did not afford the nurturing that they desperately wanted.

While Lucille and Ruth were initially thrilled to have a younger, highly energetic person taking care of them, they soon came to realize that Sylvie’s housekeeping skills were very limited. The girls have to do more than their share of the practical elements of keeping their home. They were not equipped to do such tasks. The allure of Sylvie’s passionate, nonconformist approach begins to wear thin. The girls react in different ways according to their personalities. Lucille needs stability and order, but recognizes that their situation cannot be remedied. Ruth, who is both idealistic and optimistic, feels a deeper emotional connection with Sylvie and will not give up on her. Her optimism blinds her to the potential danger inherent in Sylvie’s brand of neglect. While we cannot know the outcome of their choices, there is a strong likelihood that Sylvie’s illness—her inability to maintain her own psychological house—will have a negative effect on Lucille and Ruth.



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Marilynne Robinson's book Housekeeping examines the central characters' different approaches toward housekeeping.

The grandmother Sylvia Foster, with whom Ruth and Lucille live, endures traumatic experiences by establishing routines and repeating patterns of established behavior. She does so in attempt to protect the kids from pain and suffering. Housekeeping for her is a series of rituals that serve as a defense mechanism.

In contrast, Sylvie opens all the doors and windows to let the air in, refusing to keep them closed and blurring the boundaries that separate the outdoors and the inside. In doing so, she is embracing transience as a way of life.

Conversely, Lucille, who is Sylvie's niece, is a conformist who values stability and tradition and leaves home to pursue this type of life.

The significance of housekeeping in the book has to do with conventional, domestic female roles in the family and in society. This book suggests that we should not become too attached to these roles as a permanent way of life.

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In Robinson's novel, housekeeping means different things to different people. To the unconventional, offbeat Sylvie, a free-spirited drifter who arrives to care for her nieces, conventional middle-class notions of housekeeping don't compute. Sylvie marches to her own beat, caring for the girls in her own, odd way. She buys them pretty, sparkly shoes that fall apart quickly, rather than sturdy, sensible ones. She hoards newspapers and doesn't repair things that begin to fall apart. She doesn't feed the girls a healthy, balanced diet. She does share her senses of joy and sorrow with them. She gives them freedom and, rather than sacrificing her life to them, maintains her autonomy, sometimes wandering away for a long time. Lucille, the younger sister of the narrator, Ruth, comes increasingly to reject and hate Sylvie's erratic housekeeping. She wants a completely conventional life and eventually moves in with a "normal" family. Her notion of housekeeping is akin to what you might see on a 1950s sitcom: orderly and repressed. The girls' religious grandmother, who raises them in the early part of the novel, is also conventional in her housekeeping. Robinson questions conventional norms of housekeeping. While the townspeople eventually try to remove the girls from Sylvie, seeing her as unfit, Robinson shows us a quirky but compelling Sylvie, a woman with parenting deficits but also positive qualities. It is a different form of housekeeping. Lucille's very conventional yearnings, while understandable, seem dull and stifling within the context of the novel. Robinson encourages us to interrogate what a home is and what it means to keep one's house. Sometimes, she suggests, the best way to keep house is to burn the house down.

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