Marilynne Robinson Robinson, Marilynne (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson

American novelist and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Robinson's novel Housekeeping (1980) through 2000. See also, Marilynne Robinson Criticism.

Housekeeping, Robinson's award-winning debut novel, earned both critical and popular acclaim for its moving depiction of two sisters whose efforts to cope with loss, abandonment, and insecurity illustrates the fragility of human relationships and the transitory nature of the physical world. Set in a remote Idaho community, the novel contrasts the majesty and impermanence of the natural world with human attempts to control uncertainty, particularly through conventional social relationships, notably the family unit, and through the novel's central metaphor of housekeeping. Significant not only for the lyricism of its prose but also for its self-sufficient, eccentric female characters, Housekeeping represents a feminist revision of patriarchal traditions—social, environmental, and literary—that suggests that freedom can be found through nonconformity and transience. In 1982 the novel received the Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel and the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Award, as well as nominations for the PEN/Faulkner fiction award and Pulitzer Prize.

Plot and Major Characters

The narrator of Housekeeping is Ruth Stone, who recounts the story of her difficult youth and adolescence in Fingerbone, a small community isolated in the mountains of Idaho. She begins by recalling the death of her grandfather, Edmund Foster, who perished before she was born when a bridge collapsed and the train he was riding plunged into Fingerbone Lake. Consequently, Ruth's grandmother was left to raise her daughters alone—the remainder of the novel lacks a strong male presence. During Ruth's childhood, her father deserts the family, leaving Ruth, her sister Lucille, and their mother Helen to fend for themselves. Ruth and Lucille are subsequently abandoned by Helen, who leaves the children on her own mother's doorstep and then commits suicide by driving into Fingerbone Lake. The girls' grandmother, Sylvia, attempts to bring normalcy to their lives through a strict household routine. When Sylvia dies, her two spinster sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, take over the girls' care, but are overwhelmed when their own rigid routines are disrupted by the adolescents. Lily and Nona eventually search out and find the girls' aunt, Sylvie Fisher, and compel her to come home to care for her nieces. Sylvie is an unpredictable vagrant who has spent years jumping trains and living on the outskirts of towns with a colorful group of homeless women. Lucille longs for a conventional life and is taken aback by Sylvie's erratic caretaking and housekeeping. Sylvie leaves the doors of the house perpetually open, encouraging the girls to sleep outside and explore the woods. A seminal scene in the novel occurs when Lucille turns on the light during a family meal. Sylvie had argued in the past that she disliked the stark contrast of a dark window against a lighted room, but the presence of the light reveals the complete disarray of Sylvie's homemaking skills, illuminating leaves that have gathered in the corner, piles of old newspapers and cans, and burned curtains hanging on the window that had never been replaced. Lucille eventually grows tired of life with Sylvie and leaves Ruth to live with her home economics teacher. Since Lucille had always spoken for Ruth, her abandonment is especially difficult for her sister. After Lucille's departure, Ruth begins to fully identify with Sylvie, realizing the parallels between their shared transient histories. When their unconventional lifestyle comes to the attention of the townspeople, Sylvie is deemed an unfit guardian by the community, and a hearing is scheduled to decide if Ruth should be taken away from her. The two have become extremely close, however, and refuse to be separated under any circumstance. Rather than permit the dissolution of their makeshift, though functional, family unit, Ruth and Sylvie burn down their house and flee out of the town, escaping across the lake on a railroad bridge. The townspeople—who reject the concept of self-sufficient, ostensibly “homeless” women who can dictate their own destinies—regard Ruth and Sylvie as insane and decide that they must have drowned in the lake.

Major Themes

Housekeeping revolves around the themes of loss, transience, and the social construction of family and domesticity, particularly as it applies to the traditional roles and relationships of women. Loss, which is pervasive in Ruth's life and that of her ill-fated family, is reflected in the series of abandonments and tragedies that define her formative experiences, from the deaths of her grandparents to the rejections of her mother, her sister, and the residents of Fingerbone. The theme of loss is interconnected with a focus on change, the fundamental impermanence of life, and the inevitability of deterioration and death. As a metaphor, housekeeping signifies the futility of human efforts to deny the disruptive power of nature and the tenuous state of human habitation and social order. While Ruth's grandmother and the residents of Fingerbone attempt to defeat loss and decay through rigid housekeeping and domestic order, Sylvie—and eventually Ruth—embrace nature's intrusions: they allow the lake to flood into the house, they keep the lights off at night, and they permit animals and insects to roam free in their home. Ruth's story dramatizes the tensions between civilization and nature, society and the individual, conformity and nonconformity, confinement and freedom, and appearance and reality. In leaving open the doors of her family's house and leading her nieces into the woods, Sylvie shows Ruth the mutability and arbitrariness of social boundaries and how habits prevent one from recognizing that all human beings are, ultimately, transients in life. While the characters' conduct provokes readers into questioning the wisdom of some social conventions, Ruth's descriptions of nature reawaken a sense of the essential mysteriousness of the world. Fingerbone Lake is one of the most conspicuous symbols of nature's transformative power in Housekeeping. The lake claims the lives of Ruth's grandfather and mother, it is where Sylvie takes Ruth to test her readiness to live as a transient, and it is what Ruth and Sylvie must cross to embrace transience and find their freedom. A related tension between tradition and change is also suggested in the novel's allusions to the biblical story of Ruth, in which a woman, widowed and alone, travels to a strange land with her dead husband's mother, representing a gesture of family solidarity and acceptance of her marginality and uncertain fate. Like the biblical Ruth, the Ruth of Housekeeping is left without male relatives, creates a new family unit with other women, and ultimately chooses an uprooted existence over the familiarity of her childhood home. The novel's first sentence, “My name is Ruth,” also alludes to the opening of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which begins, “Call me Ishmael.” In this way, Housekeeping invokes parallels to canonical American literature and, in particular, the themes of wandering and transcendentalism. While the exclusive focus on female—rather than male—protagonists in Housekeeping suggests a feminist revision of the traditional journey motif in American literature, the novel's evocation of nature's sublimity recalls the transcendentalism of nineteenth-century writers such as Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

Critical Reception

Since its publication, Housekeeping has been hailed by reviewers as a profound, engaging narrative whose lyrical prose, quiet humor, and wisdom marked the arrival of a preternaturally talented author. The language and pacing of Robinson's prose has been praised for its precision, restraint, and cumulative power. However, critics have been careful to note that the author's stylistic mastery is primarily derived from its subtlety and economy rather than any self-conscious linguistic pyrotechnics. While most reviewers have lauded Housekeeping's authorial voice, others have found its narrative point of view overly restrictive. Though many scholars initially focused on Robinson's poetic writing style—with some describing the novel as an extended prose poem—subsequent critics have drawn attention to the novel's feminist dimension. In particular, commentators have argued that the theme of transience in Housekeeping is emblematic of female marginality in society and a subversion of patriarchal notions of family, social order, and gender roles. Such reviewers have asserted that the absence of men in the narrative and the focus on women who live on the edge of society serves as a liberationist statement that advocates female self-reliance and independence. In a similar vein, the novel's poetic language and focus on interior experience have been interpreted as analyses of female subjectivity and spiritual evolution. Other critics have read Housekeeping's ambiguity, non-linear plot, and depiction of provisional relationships as a postmodern critique of gender, memory, and language. In addition to such feminist and postmodern themes, reviewers have drawn attention to Robinson's biblical and classical allusions as well as the novel's relationship to the American literary tradition. Many scholars have noted that Housekeeping draws much of its strength and resonance from its adaptation of classic American literary motifs, through which Robinson offers a vital female perspective and an important contribution to contemporary American fiction.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Housekeeping (novel) 1980

Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (essays) 1989

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (essays) 1998

Judith Gies (review date January 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gies, Judith. Review of Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Saturday Review 8, no. 1 (January 1981): 66.

[In the following review, Gies lauds Housekeeping as a “sensuous, funny, and mythic” novel.]

This extraordinary first novel [Housekeeping] is populated by women and by ghosts. It is narrated by Ruth, who grew up with her younger sister Lucille near the shores of a “bitter, moon-pulled lake” under the care of a series of relatives. The circumstances of their childhood are at once familiar and unfamiliar, like a town seen at night from a moving train.

Conventional Lucille, religiously brushing her hair, struggles...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Carolyn Banks (review date 11 January 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banks, Carolyn. “Everything in Its Place.” Washington Post Book World 11, no. 2 (11 January 1981): 3.

[In the following review, Banks praises Housekeeping for its lyrical prose, strong plot, and interesting point of view.]

Paul Valery likened prose to walking, poetry to dancing. Prose, he said, is always going somewhere, while poetry is the end in itself. This novel, Housekeeping, is very definitely going somewhere—that is, has a plot and characters to carry it out. But author Marilynne Robinson uses the language so exquisitely, we would have to say that this book dances all the way.

And I do mean all the way. Every...

(The entire section is 778 words.)

Thomas Foster (essay date autumn 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Foster, Thomas. “History, Critical Theory, and Women's Social Practices: ‘Women's Time’ and Housekeeping.Signs 14, no. 1 (autumn 1988): 73-99.

[In the following essay, Foster examines Julia Kristeva's feminist critique of women's liberation in her essay “Women's Time” and applies Kristeva's theoretical perspective toward a critical analysis of Robinson's Housekeeping.]

The value of the deconstructive critique to feminist theory and the form it should take within a political reading practice continue to be debated by feminist critics.1 However, the relevance of Julia Kristeva's essay “Women's Time” to this debate has not been...

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Anne-Marie Mallon (essay date winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mallon, Anne-Marie. “Sojourning Women: Homelessness and Transcendence in Housekeeping.Critique 30, no. 2 (winter 1989): 95-105.

[In the following essay, Mallon explores the significance of the biblical allusions in Housekeeping, asserting that the novel utilizes homelessness as a metaphor for transcendence.]

When Marilynne Robinson opens her novel Housekeeping with the image of a “spectacular derailment” that sends a sleek, black train plunging into the depths of a lake, thereby abruptly widowing three women in the fictional town of Fingerbone, she is signaling her reader to expect the unexpected in what lies ahead. Surfaces will...

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Marcia Aldrich (essay date spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Aldrich, Marcia. “The Poetics of Transience: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Essays in Literature 16, no. 1 (spring 1989): 127-40.

[In the following essay, Aldrich examines the mother-daughter relationship in Housekeeping, particularly how Sylvie and Ruth evade patriarchal ideologies through language, female relationships, and unconventional actions.]

Yet how could it be otherwise, since the very notion of a self, the very shape of human life stories, has always, from St. Augustine to Freud, been modeled on the man?

Barbara Johnson, “My Monster/My Self”

When we...

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Martha Ravits (essay date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ravits, Martha. “Extending the American Range: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.American Literature 61, no. 4 (December 1989): 644-66.

[In the following essay, Ravits demonstrates how Robinson draws on the American literary tradition in Housekeeping and further extends the tradition by writing from a female perspective.]

In trying to reinvent the American myth to fit female consciousness, the woman writer faces a double task: her work must respond to both the mainstream of native patriarchal literature and to the swelling current of writing—British and American—by and about women.1 This dual artistic legacy creates double...

(The entire section is 8834 words.)

William M. Burke (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Burke, William M. “Border Crossings in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Modern Fiction Studies 37, no. 4 (winter 1991): 716-24.

[In the following essay, Burke contends that Housekeeping may be interpreted as “an unconventional primer on the mystical life,” wherein transience serves as the primary metaphor and Ruth's spiritual preparation is portrayed by the expansion of her consciousness through a series of “social, geographic, and perceptional” border crossings.]

Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping has been drawing the kind of acclaim that may establish it as an American classic.1 Most of the praise for the...

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George Toles (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Toles, George. “‘Sighs Too Deep for Words’: Mysteries of Need in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Arizona Quarterly 47, no. 4 (winter 1991): 137-56.

[In the following essay, Toles addresses problematic aspects of language and artistic expression while examining Robinson's approach toward questions of being, nature, and transcendence in Housekeeping.]

For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent position of repose.


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Maureen Ryan (essay date January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ryan, Maureen. “Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping: The Subversive Narrative and the New American Eve.” South Atlantic Review 56, no. 1 (January 1991): 79-86.

[In the following essay, Ryan argues that Housekeeping subverts the traditional American myth of wandering—as presented by such canonical male writers as Herman Melville and Mark Twain—offering a feminist revision that reflects the difficulties faced by women who attempt to escape traditional roles in patriarchal society.]

When Huck “lights out for the territory ahead of the rest” at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he enacts one of the classic myths of American...

(The entire section is 3339 words.)

Rosaria Champagne (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Champagne, Rosaria. “Women's History and Housekeeping: Memory, Representation and Reinscription.” Women's Studies 20, nos. 3-4 (1992): 321-29.

[In the following essay, Champagne contends that Housekeeping is a feminist postmodern text in which transience and relativity subvert traditional notions of fixity, linearity, and truth.]

This essay examines one important and idealized theme in women's literature in the context of postmodern literature: a woman's relationship with the domestic sphere. In Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (1982), the townspeople of Fingerbone banish Ruth and Sylvie from their family home because they fail to read...

(The entire section is 3745 words.)

Allyson Booth (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Booth, Allyson. “To Caption Absent Bodies: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Essays in Literature 19, no. 2 (fall 1992): 279-90.

[In the following essay, Booth examines the significance of bones, artifacts, and the story of Noah's wife in Housekeeping, arguing that these elements reflect Ruth's attitude toward physicality and her effort to preserve a connection to her deceased and absent loved ones.]

Ruth Stone is abandoned by her mother, tended by her grandmother, and given up as hopelessly eccentric by her sister Lucille. When Ruth and her aunt Sylvie escape the concerned citizens of Fingerbone by crossing a bridge at night, the...

(The entire section is 6187 words.)

Jacqui Smyth (essay date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smyth, Jacqui. “Sheltered Vagrancy in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Critique 40, no. 3 (spring 1999): 281-91.

[In the following essay, Smyth discusses the sociological discovery of female homelessness during the 1980s and contends that Housekeeping reflects a redefinition of the home, wherein traditional domesticity is not merely juxtaposed with vagrancy, but rather shows the home to be a “transient structure” that is neither wholly secure nor permanent.]

Departing from a representation of the silent or inarticulate female vagrant as simply projection or scapegoat, Marilynne Robinson creates in Housekeeping an articulate...

(The entire section is 5496 words.)

Maggie Galehouse (essay date spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Galehouse, Maggie. “Their Own Private Idaho: Transience in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Contemporary Literature 41, no. 1 (spring 2000): 117-37.

[In the following essay, Galehouse examines the portrayal of homes and vagrancy in Housekeeping, drawing attention to how Robinson's narrative and language evoke the social, physical, and temporal conditions of female marginality and transience.]

Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth; And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

John Milton, “Lycidas”

Social circles move too fast for me; my...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Caplan, Brina. “It Is Better to Have Nothing.” Nation 232, no. 5 (7 February 1981): 152.

Caplan praises Robinson's lyrical prose and humor in Housekeeping, but finds shortcomings in the novel's restrictive point of view.

Geyh, Paula H. “Burning Down the House? Domestic Space and Feminine Subjectivity in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.Contemporary Literature 34, no. 1 (spring 1993): 103-23.

Geyh argues that the two sisters in Housekeeping use the act of housekeeping as means to create both symbolic and material boundaries.

King, Kristin. “Resurfacings...

(The entire section is 190 words.)