Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, is a modern classic written by one of the finest American writers. The novel won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Her eagerly awaited second novel, Gilead, appeared twenty-four years later (in 2004) and won the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and an Ambassador Book Award. Her third novel, Home (2008), was a finalist for the National Book Award. Robinson also is known for her articles, book reviews, interviews, and outstanding nonfiction, including Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989) and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998).

Written in an elegant, lyrical, and evocative style, Robinson’s work explores themes of identity, memory, and language; loss, spiritual yearning, and redemption; and relationships among family, home, culture, and the natural world. Housekeeping first articulated these themes in a singular, memorable voice.

Robinson has recounted the extraordinary origins of Housekeeping in many interviews: While working on her doctoral dissertation about William Shakespeare, she started compiling metaphors to understand the voice she found in nineteenth century American literature. After earning her doctorate in English at the University of Washington in 1977, she saw these fragments as coalescing into something more, and thus began writing Housekeeping. She mentioned the work to a writer friend, who showed it to his agent. The agent offered to represent the work, but he warned that it would be difficult to place. The book was published, yet an editor said it likely would not be reviewed. However, New York Times critic Anatole Broyard reviewed the novel and praised it highly.

Robinson, who was born and raised in Sandpoint, Idaho, drew from her experiences growing up in the U.S. northwest and from her family history in writing Housekeeping. The novel’s summarized plot may read like a puzzling, sad tale, but it is told with a humane, gentle grace that uplifts and affirms life. Housekeeping avoids and challenges stereotypes, convention, black-and-white morality, and sentimentality at every turn, taking readers on a dreamlike, mesmerizing, open-ended, and transformative journey.

Ruth, the story’s narrator, immediately sets the tone for the book: detached, yet compassionate; formal, yet subtly humorous; direct, yet unobtrusive; precise, yet unconventional. She situates readers in an orderly world, identifying the main characters and providing a general chronology of events; she speaks with an almost biblical cadence. As she tells her grandfather’s story, she launches into a beautiful and odd, yet convincing, flight of the imagination. In re-creating her grandfather’s literal and imaginative life in the book’s opening paragraph, and in the tale of his death in a “spectacular” train derailment, Ruth sets the patterns and motifs that will be repeated throughout the novel.

From a gravelike house in the ground, Ruth’s grandfather emerges, leaving the flat and known world for the exhilarating heights and mystical depths of life, by way of mountains, art, stories, and trains. The women he leaves behind, in yet another unusually built house, reenact his journey and the yearning behind it, each in their distinct way. In many ways, their stories tell the classic American story of restless wanderers who settled the West and yet kept moving. This time, however, the wanderers are women, and the men have all disappeared.

The conflict that emerges between Lucille and Sylvie, then Lucille and Ruth, and finally the town and Ruth and Sylvie opposes the order of the stable, dominant culture to the fluctuating, cyclical rhythms of the natural world. Fixed realities become unfixed. People die or disappear unexpectedly and mysteriously, with no explanation. Survivors are left waiting for someone who never comes. Ruth responds by observing the world with a kind of bemused detachment that enables her to articulate the most evanescent experiences. Lucille responds by conforming to the forces of stability and convention, defying transience. Sylvie responds by reversing the common notions of housekeeping, bringing inside what most housekeepers want to keep out, including the elements of nature, and embracing transience.

The novel embraces all its characters and their conflicts with equanimity and acceptance. The way that Ruth narrates the tale shows that she knows how to move between worlds. She recounts events and scenes in precise, clear-eyed detail and seamlessly flows into soaring reveries. The novel transforms literary conventions, such as the coming-of-age tale, or bildungsroman, and the symbolism and metaphors of nineteenth century American Transcendentalism, which were primarily based on male experiences. However, the novel does not simply remake these experiences to fit a feminist model. It opens the world of possibilities, leaving much unsettled and open to question. Ruth says, “I went to the woods for the woods’ own sake,” echoing writer Henry David Thoreau, but, unlike Thoreau, she does not build a systematic project upon that quest. She simply observes the movements of nature from one moment to the next, with no agenda.

Events in the novel unfold through time. They are recounted in an intuitive order, rather than summarized, explained, and ordered chronologically. For example, Ruth gradually shares with the reader her Aunt Sylvie’s eccentricities as a housekeeper, so that each detail emerges as a fresh revelation. The cumulative effect is like the net Ruth imagines her Aunt Molly dropping over the side of the boat, sweeping “the turning world unremarked as a wind in the grass” and gathering the world in a way that “put[s] an end to all anomaly.”

Housekeeping is a subtle, poetic, and unconventional novel that slips under the reader’s skin and finds its way into the heart. It whispers what it means to be human and vulnerable in a world that appears as indifferent, vast, and mysterious as the glacial lake near Fingerbone.

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Critical Context