Why is Marilynne Robinson's first novel titled Housekeeping and what does it signify in the novel?

Quick answer:

Marilynne Robinson titles her first novel Housekeeping because she is challenging conventional 1950s notions of housekeeping. Housekeeping in the novel refers to the choices people make to either constrain or free their souls.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Robinson's first novel challenges conventional notions of housekeeping, hence the title.

When the normally drifting and transient Sylvie comes to take care of Ruth and Lucille after their mother commits suicide and a series of relatives and caretakers have come and gone, she finally provides them with a stable home, though a very unconventional one. Hers is a whimsical notion of housekeeping that attends more to the creative than the practical. For example, Sylvie buys the girls sparkly but fragile shoes for school, rather than sturdy oxfords. The shoes quickly fall apart, but the girls have their moment of enchantment. Sylvie's housekeeping is also eccentric—she hoards newspapers and cans, for example. Sometimes she disappears for a full day, but she always comes home.

Lucille eventually rejects Sylvie's bizarre notions of housekeeping and finds an ordinary homelife with, significantly, her home economics teacher, the symbol of all that is conventional in homemaking. Ruth, however, follows a more unusual path, becoming a soulmate of Sylvie. After an initiation rowing with Sylvie to an icy location by the lake where she is left to fend for herself, Ruth begins to understand that Sylvie's housekeeping is a form of idiosyncratic independence and spirituality.

Sylvie also practices a form of housekeeping as liberation when she burns the house she and Ruth have been living in down to the ground. This is freeing for them, though their eventually transient path is never depicted as the easier choice.

Robinson shows how soul stifling conventional housekeeping can be and introduces a different concept of it through Sylvie.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial