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).

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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...

(The entire section contains 957 words.)

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