In the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, what is the Sylvie's function? What/who does she represent? What themes does she bring forward? What is her relationship to the girls and the town of Fingerbone?

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Sylvie, Lucille, and Ruth's mysterious young aunt, represents an alternative to conventional housekeeping. Unlike the traditional image of the homemaker, she has never been rooted to a place, to a home, or to possessions. Until she appears to care for Lucille and Ruth, she has been a lonely wanderer, a tramp, anything but a conventional 1950's domestic goddess.

Sylvie is a different kind of goddess. She can't understand how to "housekeep" in the conventional way: she hoards junk, doesn't feed the girls properly, and buys them flimsy shoes covered in sparkles rather than sensible, sturdy oxfords for school. She is a person of whimsy and mystery, like a wood sprite often disappearing, then returning with no explanation. She doesn't fit into society and so represents the "other," the free, generous, misunderstood shadow side too often repressed in the domestic woman.

In an important chapter right after Lucille leaves to live with a conventional family, Sylvie takes Ruth for the first time to her island hideaway. It is a rite of passage, an initiation of Ruth into Sylvie's world of aloneness and austere beauty. Ruth is abandoned all day by Sylvie in a bitterly cold place by a collapsed house, a symbol of an inverted domesticity. There Ruth discovers the loneliness that is part of all existence:

Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise.

After this, Sylvie can burn the house down and take Ruth with her to wander as a fellow traveller, a ghostly opposite of all housekeeping implies. Sylvie offers an alternative to the stifling life of Fingerbone conventionality, but also shows the price a woman pays for independence and freedom.

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Sylvie is an incredibly important and complex character in the novel, not only because of her relationships to the girls, but also because of her eccentricities. Sylvie operates as a "transient," which connects her to the larger themes in the novel. She isn't one to settle down and live a conventional lifestyle. In this way, she can be compared to the grandfather, who dies in a train accident after he left home one day in order to "travel" and explore. This theme of transience is important not only because of the way that Sylvie lives her life, but also because of the emphasis on death and passing in the novel. The girls, Ruth and Lucille, lose every caregiver they ever had: their father, then their mother, followed by their grandmother, and then Nona and Lily. When Sylvie comes along, she is present in their lives, and yet absent at the same time. Her nature as a transient is one of impermanence and constant shifting. Though she offers the girls a connection to their past, and to their mother, she is also increasingly difficult to live with. The girls notice that Sylvie keeps her coat on indoors and she doesn't unpack her belongings for an extended period of time. These aren't her only eccentricities; she also sleeps out on the lawn and then on a park bench in public, and she doesn't turn on the lights for dinner, preferring to sit in the dark. These elements of her character add levels of conflict to her relationship with Lucille and Ruth, and with the town. Lucille, more than Ruth, does not accept Sylvie's oddities and wants her to be a better, more conventional housekeeper. When Sylvie first arrives in town, Lucille becomes angry when Sylvie leaves the house early in the morning and goes to the train station. This is a manifestation of her abandonment issues, as she worries that Sylvie will leave just like their mother did. Sylvie's status as a "transient" and a traveler only further complicates her role in the girls' lives. She is restless and seeks to go out and explore, taking Ruth with her on these adventures into the woods and on train carts. Her actions start to concern the town, and they feel the need to intervene. They don't believe that Sylvie can give Ruth a healthy upbringing, but Ruth seems to enjoy Sylvie's unconventional style. And for her part, Lucille seeks to distance herself from Sylvie's odd lifestyle, and from her sister as a result. What Sylvie brings to the town is change - she shakes up the environment and has lasting effects on all the relationships in the novel.

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