At a Glance

  • Ruth Stone narrates this novel about her coming of age in Fingerbone, Idaho. Quiet, gentle Ruth has suffered many tragedies in her life, including her mother's suicide and her grandmother's death. She finds comfort in the dark and the wild, and while her sister lives a proper life Ruth becomes a drifter with her aunt Sylvie, disdaining the "housekeeping" necessitated by a normal life.
  • Setting plays an important role in Housekeeping. Fingerbone, Idaho is a small town situated near a lake, in which Helen commits suicide. Freight trains often pass through Fingerbone, and the town once saw a spectacular train accident in which Ruth's grandfather was killed. The freight trains and the lake come to symbolize death—and, in their way, escape.
  • In many ways, Housekeeping is a novel about two different lifestyles: conventional life, as represented by Lucille and the residents of Fingerbone, and eccentricity, as represented by Sylvie and Ruth. This dichotomy between stability and drifting forms the central conflict of the novel, as the proper young Lucille pulls away from her less respectable family. In the end, Ruth and Sylvie both reject domesticity in favor of freedom and travel.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Fingerbone, the cold, damp setting of Housekeeping, was the site of a spectacular train derailment years ago, when Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather, Edmund Foster, and his Fireball train plunged off the bridge and sank into the lake. An awareness of the lake and the train’s presence beneath its surface permeates the entire novel. After the accident, other widows left Fingerbone, but the girls’ grandmother remained. As an adult reminiscing about her childhood and the women in her family, Ruth narrates the story in an unusual meditative style; the plot is driven less by character action than by Ruth’s active imagination and emotions. Although it deals with serious subject matter, Housekeeping is a comic novel, and Aunt Sylvie is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary literature.

The action of the story begins when Ruth and Lucille’s mother, Helen, uproots her daughters from their apartment in Seattle, abandons them on their grandmother’s porch, and drives her borrowed car over a cliff into the deepest part of the lake. The girls remain under their grandmother’s care for five years. When she dies, her persnickety sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, move into the old house to watch over the girls. Missing their familiar surroundings in Spokane’s Hartwick Hotel, the old women conspire to persuade Helen’s sister, Sylvie, to take over rearing the girls. Sylvie, a transient, has been away from Fingerbone for sixteen years and has acquired strange habits, such as sleeping on park benches, eating her supper in the dark, and listening for the freight trains that she once rode. Upon Sylvie’s arrival, Lily and Nona flee Fingerbone.

Lucille becomes lonely...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Narrated in the first person by Ruth Stone, Housekeeping examines a world of female relationships and experience. The sisters, mothers, aunts, and other relatives in the novel form a web of female kinship played out against the tensions of poetic vagrancy and stalwart rootedness. Set in the isolated town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Housekeeping reconsiders what it means to inhabit that traditional female space, the home. The book begins with Ruth’s description of how her family ended up in the mountains of Idaho.

Edmund Foster, Ruth’s maternal grandfather, arrived in Fingerbone, a frustrated artist who saw the world in his own way. Although he is never alive in the book, through the house he built, the objects and art that furnish it, even the decision to locate in Fingerbone, Edmund Foster and his choices conspire to define the physical and emotional space of the women in the novel. While working for the railroad, Edmund disappears with an entire train full of passengers in a spectacular derailment into the icy waters of the lake near Fingerbone. His widow, Sylvia, is left with her three daughters in the small town. For five years after Edmund’s death, Sylvia and her daughters Molly, Helen, and Sylvie have lives of self-enclosed contentment. Masculine encroachment, however, claims the young women, one by one—Molly heeding a call from Jesus, Helen marrying Reginald Stone, and Sylvie leaving to visit her married sister and returning only once to her mother’s home to marry Mr. Fisher in the garden. Left alone, Sylvia Foster realizes that she had not taught her daughters to be kind to her.

After her marriage fails, Helen returns with her daughters, Ruth and Lucille, to Sylvia’s house in Fingerbone. Without explanation, Helen leaves the girls with Sylvia and drives the car that she borrowed from a friend in Seattle into the lake that claimed her father. Stunned by this event, Sylvia nevertheless manages to provide a good home for her...

(The entire section is 811 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Housekeeping, Robinson’s protagonists Sylvie and Ruth abandon ownership of one of the objects most closely associated with defining women—the home. Instead of a traditional, functional nuclear family, Robinson presents readers with a family made only of women. Through death, fear, choice, or fate, these women are quite ready either to walk from or at least (even if only for a short while, as in the case of Lucille) to consider rethinking the whole project of “keeping” house. Transience, usually associated with male protagonists, is introduced as a possibility. Ideas about mothering and nurturing are also reexamined in Housekeeping.

For example, the woman who is a childless drifter—Sylvie—is the one most able to “mother” Ruth and Lucille while maintaining a somewhat autonomous existence herself. Judged by conventional middle-class American expectations, however, Sylvie is viewed as a failure at mothering. The women from the town and church visiting with casseroles and inquiries are appalled by what they find to be Sylvie’s mode of acceptable housekeeping. The women call in the authorities in the form of the local sheriff who offers to take Ruth home with him. She refuses, and that night, with Sylvie, burns the house down, aunt and niece almost as one in their actions and intent.

It is when their Adamless Eden is invaded that the pretense of housekeeping, with all of its layers of meaning, totally falls...

(The entire section is 412 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Aldrich, Marcia. “The Poetics of Transience: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” Essays in Literature 5, no. 16 (Spring, 1989): 127-140. An in-depth discussion of the meaning of transience in relation to female choices and as a specifically female experience. This article also discusses mother-daughter relationships in Housekeeping.

Booth, Allyson. “To Capture Absent Bodies: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” Essays in Literature 5, no. 19 (Fall, 1992): 279-290. A provocative study of how metaphors of the body inform the novel. Includes a worthwhile discussion of some of the images and symbols in the book, such as the dresser painted by Edmund and other objects.

Champagne, Rosaria. “Women’s History and Housekeeping: Memory, Representation, and Reinscription.” Women’s Studies 20, no. 3/4 (1992): 321-329. This essay considers how memory functions in the novel, as well as examining competing definitions as to what “good” housekeeping is within the parameters of the work.

Foster, Thomas. “History, Critical Theory, and Women’s Social Practices: Women’s Time and Housekeeping.” Signs 14, no. 11 (1988): 73-99. Applies theories of deconstruction to Housekeeping. Also considers issues of how historical approaches to the public and private spheres of women and their roles are useful in thinking about the novel.

Meese, Elizabeth A. Crossing the Double Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. An excellent study of feminist criticism, lucid and well written. Includes an informative chapter on Housekeeping that views the novel as “A World of Women.”

Saltzman, Arthur M. The Novel in the Balance. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A useful and in-depth look at several modern novels, including Housekeeping. Offers the interesting juxtaposition of Housekeeping with John Hawkes’s Second Skin (1964), Hawkes being one of Robinson’s early mentors.