Housekeeping Analysis

  • 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, leading her to adopt Sylvie's transient lifestyle.
  • Fingerbone, Idaho is a small town situated near a lake. Freight trains often pass through Fingerbone, and the town once witnessed a train accident in which Ruth's grandfather was killed.
  • Housekeeping is a novel about two different lifestyles: conventional stability, as represented by Lucille; and transience, as represented by Sylvie and Ruth. Sylvie and Ruth reject the notion of housekeeping and instead find home in each other.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699

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.

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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 when the spring thaw and heavy rains flood the town. After the waters recede, she tests her new guardian by skipping school and hiding at the lake with Ruth. The girls are stunned to see Sylvie walking out over the lake on the train trestle. Beginning to doubt their aunt’s mental stability, the girls imagine that they will be taken from her care. When they return to school, Lucille feels pressure from the community members, who cannot abide Sylvie’s eccentricities. Caught between her aunt and Fingerbone residents who disapprove of her behavior, Lucille chastises Sylvie for offending her sense of propriety.

One night, the girls go fishing to escape the gaze of the townsfolk. They stay out all night and argue about their mother. Ruth notices a resemblance between Helen and Sylvie, but Lucille insists that Helen was orderly, responsible, and a proper role model, nothing at all like Sylvie, whose accumulating clutter of tin cans and newspapers floods the house. Lucille, who accuses Ruth of preferring Sylvie over their mother, works to improve herself by attending school, associating only with “proper” girls, and dreaming of moving to Boston. Finally, Lucille leaves the house and moves in with Miss Royce, her home economics teacher. That day, Ruth remarks, she lost her sister.

The next morning, Sylvie steals a rowboat and takes Ruth across the lake to a wooded valley. Sylvie, named after mythic wood sprites, disappears in the woods, forcing Ruth to be...

(The entire section contains 2198 words.)

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