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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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 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 self-reliant. She rejoins Ruth, and that night they row under the trestle and wait for the trains to pass. Ruth thinks about the train derailment and her drowned mother under the lake’s smooth surface. They stay on the lake overnight and catch a freight train back into Fingerbone the next morning.

Unable to tolerate Ruth’s acceptance of Sylvie, the pious citizens of Fingerbone believe that they must rescue the girl and bring her back into their ordinary society. The sheriff announces plans for a custody hearing. Frightened, Sylvie begins traditional housekeeping—cleaning up the parlor, burning old magazines—but her last-ditch effort is too late. To avoid being separated, Ruth and Sylvie put “an end to housekeeping” by setting fire to the house and leaving Fingerbone. They escape across the railroad trestle over the lake and drift on freight trains for many years. When Ruth tells her story, she recalls the headline of the local newspaper when they left Fingerbone—“LAKE CLAIMS TWO.” The citizens of Fingerbone, including Lucille, presumed that they had drowned.

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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 granddaughters for the next five years. When Sylvia dies, her unmarried sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona Foster, come to care for the girls, but they are ill-prepared for parenting and constantly fearful of imagined disasters. By the end of the first two chapters, all biological mothers are dead and all fathers are absent. Sylvie, contacted by letter, arrives to care for Ruth and Lucille and free the unhappy Foster sisters. Sylvie, who has been living as a vagrant, is poised to take up both housekeeping and mothering.

Sylvie’s notions about homemaking are unconventional, and after the girls discover that their aunt can add little to their store of information about their mother, Ruth and Lucille themselves begin a slow drift away from the society of Fingerbone. Frightened at the direction that their lives seem to be taking, Lucille attempts various schemes—such as dressmaking—to get back to a more mainstream lifestyle. Sylvie continues to inhabit her own world, occasionally including Ruth in some of her ventures, and the two grow closer. As Ruth and Sylvie become more alike, Lucille becomes determined to reenter what she considers the “real world.” After several attempts to include Ruth in her plans, Lucille finally gives up and parts from her sister, though not without reluctance. Lucille cannot and will not live in Sylvie’s dreams, and she moves in with her home economics teacher, Miss Royce.

After Lucille leaves, Sylvie takes Ruth on a journey onto the islands in the lake outside Fingerbone. Stealing a leaky rowboat, the two row over to a mysterious valley of abandoned and decaying houses, where Sylvie proposes they “watch for the children.” Sylvie suddenly leaves Ruth in the cool, misty valley in a test or initiation into the world of transience to which Sylvie wishes to return. Left alone to muse over the unfamiliar landscape and her own losses, Ruth comes to terms somewhat with the loss of her mother, Helen. Cradled in the folds of the long coat that Sylvie wears, Ruth is reborn as a child of her mysteriously returned aunt.

The two return to Fingerbone by boat and freight train, where they are spotted by several townspeople. As a result, the sheriff comes to the house—the only living male to breach their space—to warn Sylvie that she cannot continue to care for Ruth in such a haphazard manner. Sylvie tries to conform to the notions of the town and its church women, but she is not able to persuade them of any change in her ability to “keep house.” Thus, Ruth and Sylvie abandon housekeeping and any notion of permanence by setting fire to the house and fleeing Fingerbone by crossing the train trestle spanning the lake. The book ends with Ruth imaging Lucille in Boston waiting for them and the others who will not come and who are known only by their absence.

Context

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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 apart. Robinson’s point seems to be that women are certainly capable of making and inhabiting their own niches which do not have to be part of the patriarchal structure and that women are capable of walking away and abandoning that which has imprisoned them. Unlike previous female protagonists, Sylvie and Ruth do not suffer the traditional literary endings of marriage, madness, or death. Instead, like Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim, they “light out for the territory.” The choice is not without danger, but it is preferable to the slow suffocation offered by maintaining the fictions of housekeeping. As portrayed by Robinson, transience by choice is a poetic and viable alternative.

Winner of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel and the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Housekeeping also received nominations for the Pen/Faulkner fiction award and for a Pulitzer Prize. Robinson’s evocative prose and persistent yet gentle characters combine to question the value of an enterprise supposedly entrenched within the cultural myths surrounding women.

Bibliography

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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.

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