Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549
The most remarkable feature of Marilynne Robinson’s novel is its lingering, rhythmic language and distinctive style. In Housekeeping, Robinson’s language refreshes her readers’ understanding of reality by making them see the world anew. She transforms the simple metaphors of house, lake, and train into a beautiful meditation on the nature of security, loss, and transiency.
Ruth is a survivor. The first line of Housekeeping—“My name is Ruth.”—echoes the beginning of another survivor’s tale, Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Both novels can be read as Bildungsromans, novels chronicling a young person’s journey from adolescence to maturity. Throughout the novel, Ruth, whose name means sorrow, mourns her mother. The omnipresent lake dredges up the unwelcome changes and dislocations that Helen’s suicide brought upon Ruth and Lucille. Nature itself represents the change and impermanence that Ruth fears. On her outing with Sylvie, Ruth imagines her mother coming back from the lake. She longs for the wholeness that her mother represents. Yet, Ruth acknowledges the futility of her dream and concludes, “It is better to have nothing.”
At a critical moment in their relationship, Ruth and Lucille disagree over memories about their mother. Ruth remembers her as indifferent, while Lucille thinks that she was orderly and sensible—the perfect mother that she wishes Helen had been. Despite Ruth’s vehement objections, Lucille maintains that their mother lost control of the car. These conflicting memories reflect Ruth and Lucille’s strategies for coping with their mother’s suicide and the uncertainties that it creates. Ultimately, Lucille retreats into an established social order, while Ruth drifts with Sylvie between Spokane and Billings. Ruth strains to catch a glimpse of the old house whenever their freight train rattles through Fingerbone.
The novel’s title ironically opposes Sylvie’s transient habits with traditional housekeeping. Good housekeeping means policing boundaries: keeping dirt and trash outside and maintaining order indoors. Sylvie’s transient housekeeping, itself an oxymoron, implies a loss of boundaries between inside and outside. Housekeeping illustrates how a rigidly conformist world often excludes some individuals. Many forgotten transients died when the train derailed. Like Sylvie and other marginalized people, Ruth believes that she is outside ordinary society. While Lucille stays in Fingerbone “stalemating the forces of ruin,” Ruth learns her family’s history from Sylvie and discovers that living takes place in the world outside the confines of houses and Fingerbone. For Ruth, transiency is a means of taking her house with her. Her rite of passage occurs when she crosses the bridge with Sylvie and becomes a transient. Rather than shutting out the world, Ruth embraces it and learns that nature, like a train, can embody both movement and stasis; it changes, yet remains the same.
Housekeeping is also a novel about the West, but it rejects the simplistic cowboy images associated with John Wayne films. Ruth’s story opens with the matriarchal lineage of her family. She blames her grandfather for uprooting her female ancestors and settling in Fingerbone. Yet, it is Edmund’s plunge into the mysterious depths of the lake that allows Ruth’s imagination to wander outside the house. Ruth discovers the natural processes of life, which she later comes to appreciate. Ruth and Sylvie set out for a new territory of female experience.