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.
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.
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.