On The Idea of Home in Housekeeping

Housekeeping is a novel that celebrates the idea of the commonplace, the everyday, and the ordinary, yet somehow it is not a vulgar or an ugly work. Instead, Housekeeping brings to life the experience of solitude, oddity, and simplicity. The novel unfolds slowly, revealing the seasons of life through the eyes of Ruth, the novel’s protagonist, whose names bears allusion to the wonderful biblical fantasy book of Ruth (a personal favorite of mine from the Hebrew Bible). Of course in the Bible, Ruth becomes the grandmother of King David. In the novel, Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, are raised in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho (a town reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s upbringing in Sandpoint, Idaho). They live in a house built by their grandfather that sits beside a vast lake on an orchard. Ruth and Lucille are cared for by a succession of relatives: first their grandmother (who dies), then their babbling great-aunts, and finally their quirky and slightly unstable Aunt Sylvie. In the early chapters, we are offered glimpses into the family’s tragic past -in particular their grandfather’s suicide by driving off a nearby bridge into the lake, and their mother who also abandons the girls and commits suicide.

In Housekeeping, a complex and intriguing plot is sacrificed for lavishly adorned prose. The central image offered in the novel is a complicated mosaic that pieces together the memory and identity of the protagonist as she ‘cleaves’ to her sister and her Aunt Sylvie -‘cleaving’ or ‘clinging’ is a significant metaphor in the Book of Ruth. The novel takes us through a series of moments in Ruth’s life -her scattered upbringing, schooling, a great flood in Fingerbone, the transience of Aunt Sylvie, the angry departure of Lucille, and finally the authorities removing the girls from the care of Sylvie. In the end, Ruth and Sylvie burn down the family home and pledge to live a nomadic life on the road. For them, housekeeping has come to an end and wandering takes precedence. They run across the bridge of Fingerbone while the old family home burns -a home filled with old piled up newspapers, a moldy kitchen, and birds nesting on the second floor. Many years later (at least seven years) we are offered a reflection by Ruth. She has worked many odd-jobs in different cities around the country, from Portland and Seattle to Montana. Sometimes Ruth and Sylvie take the train as it passes through Fingerbone but they do not return home. Sylvie carries with her a newspaper clipping about the night they fled -a search party was formed but never found them. Ruth imagines the life of her sister Lucille -perhaps she has moved onto the family property in Fingerbone, or perhaps she fulfilled her childhood dream and moved to Boston.

Housekeeping contains hundreds of little stories inside it, reminiscent of great literature like John. Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The idea of ‘housekeeping’ in the novel is a meditation on the grounded-ness of people to a particular place with its own unique history and meaning. Is it possible to feel connected to a fixed place without the stability of family? The idea of a home is about something more than a place. There is a tone of haunting somberness throughout the novel, yet it is not terrifying or dreadful. Rather, it makes the novel alluring. In some ways, it is an exploration into uprootedness. Perhaps running way from home is a deep response to the experience of grief.

Marilynne Robinson originally began writing the novel as an examination of Emersonian metaphor, shortly after finishing her dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II. She wrote the novel long-hand over a period of about eighteen months (she found the sound of a typewriter distracting). While I cannot say Marilynne Robinson is my favorite novelist, her entrancing diction and penetrating prose are undeniable. Robinson’s writing contains echoes of the great American transcendentalists: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, and others including Emily Dickinson -she is an American original and well-deserving of recognition.

About The 1982 Pulitzer Prize Decision:
Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, ultimately losing to John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich (Updike’s first of two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels). The other finalist in 1982 was A Flag For Sunrise by Robert Stone, a novel about Americans drawn to Central America on the brink of revolution. The 1982 Fiction Jury consisted of: Margaret Manning (Chair), book editor for the Boston Globe and finalist for the Pulitzer in the field of Criticism in 1985; Julian Moynahan, a literary critic, novelist, and Professor of English at Rutgers University; and N. Scott Momaday, a Professor of English at Stanford University and a Native American Renaissance writer whose novel, House Made of Dawn, won the Pulitzer in 1969.

Housekeeping did win the PEN/Hemingway award for best novel, and it has since been placed on a number of lists of the best novels. Of course, Robinson won the Pulitzer for her second novel Gilead (2004) -feel free to read my reflections on Gilead here. Gilead is the first in a series of novels Robinson wrote about John Ames (a sentimental Iowa pastor) and his family –Gilead was followed by Home (2008), Lila (2014), and Jack (2020). In fact, Housekeeping is Robinson’s only novel that does not focus on the John Ames saga. She has also written voluminous non-fiction essays on topics ranging from predatory fishing and deforestation, to Calvinist theology and nuclear power. In reading a variety of her interviews, particularly her delightful interview in The Paris Review in the Fall of 2008, Marilynne Robinson comes to light as an impressive intellectual force gifted with an extraordinary mind.

Quotations from Housekeeping:
“My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house , my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad , who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place” -opening lines of the novel.

“In a month those flowers would bloom. In a month all dormant life and arrested decay would begin again. In a month she would not mourn, because in that season it had never seemed to her that they were married, she and the silent Methodist Edmund who wore a necktie and suspenders even to hunt wildflowers, and who remembered just where they grew from years to year, and who dipped his handkerchief in a puddle to wrap the stems, and who put out his elbow to help her over the steep and stony places, with a wordless and impersonal courtesy she did not resent because she had never really wished to feel married to anyone” (16-17). Grandmother’s memory of her husband after his suicide.

“So she was borne to the depths, my grandmother, into the undifferentiated past, and her comb had no more of the warmth of a hand about it than Helen of Troy’s would have” (41) -following her dream and news of her grandmother’s death.

“Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere” (62).

“She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished” (160).

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York, Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux under Pan Book Ltd), 1981.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

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