Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587
Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical first novel is concerned with mothering, female space, and cultural myths concerning mothering and family. The book suggests that in rejecting conventional norms of “housekeeping,” women might gain autonomy, by embracing the transience of persons, events, and even memory rather than futile attempts at permanence. These themes are underscored by Robinson’s major metaphor, water.
Water in its many forms flows throughout the work. The lake, for example, is the repository of the town’s major event—the derailment of the Fireball—and of several Foster family members, including Edmund, Helen, and supposedly, Sylvie and Ruth. Like memory, the lake swallows up whole that which enters it, and surprising artifacts emerge—such as the suitcase, the seat cushion, and the cabbage—as the only tangible evidence of an event such as the derailment. Also, like memory, the boundaries of the lake are unreliable. Every spring, parts of the lake long forgotten rise up from the earth and flood Fingerbone, including the Fosters’ orchard and house. Water inhabits the house and takes it over. Sylvie and Ruth row across the water to “watch for children” and, at the end of the novel, must cross the bridge over the lake to escape the confines of Fingerbone. Water appears in the forms of snow, ice, rain, mist, and frost throughout Housekeeping.
The Foster family home is another important element in the book. Its location on the edge of a town that itself is at the edge of a lake follows the Foster family tradition of being on the edge or fringe of things. Also, being close to the edge of town makes the house easier for Sylvie and Ruth to abandon. The presence of light and dark both within and without the house is noteworthy, as are the windows of the house. Ruth “spends too much time looking out of windows,” which can be either mirrors or barriers to the world of possibilities. When Sylvie does attempt to “keep house,” she does so by opening doors and windows to let the air in, and it does not occur to Sylvie to close either, so much of the outdoors comes indoors. When the house burns and Ruth and Sylvie escape across the bridge, the windows shatter with loud retorts. Lucille, who turns on the lights in the darkened house, also abandons “keeping house” in the sense that she leaves the Foster home. She moves in with her home economics teacher, however, and presumably will be adequately trained in the proper ways to keep house and shut windows at appropriate times.
The importance of names is constant throughout the novel. Ruth and Lucille are cared for by a series of “Foster” mothers until they are able to act on their own (Lucille to leave for a conventional life and Ruth to drift). Sylvie’s married last name is Fisher, suggesting her connections to water, drifting, and perhaps Christ (in that she redeems Ruth). Helen, whose name suggests the mythical Helen of Troy, marries Reginald Stone, and like a stone, sinks to the bottom of the lake. Ruth’s name—which she announces with a Melvillian directness (“My name is Ruth”) in the first sentence of the book—has obvious biblical implications, while Lucille’s name is never shortened. The name Sylvia brings to mind both a “sylph,” a slender, graceful young woman, and “sylvan,” one who frequents groves or woods. Even the name of the town, Fingerbone, has implications suggesting its insignificance and something perhaps not worth keeping.