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.

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

Thoughts on Years of Grace

YearsOfGrace

I am thoroughly enjoying reading through these early Pulitzer-Prize winners. Margaret Ayer Barnes’s Years of Grace is a delightful novel –it is surprisingly whimsical for a 600-page book, yet it is unfortunately lacking in substance. Margaret Ayer Barnes spends a great deal of time describing the world of little Jane Ward –the books she reads, her friends, family, and dreams- but to what point and purpose? The novel takes place at the end of the 19th century, an age where midwestern towns were growing and developing into prominent centers of commerce. There are four parts in Years of Grace, and each covers a unique timeframe in the main character’s life. We begin with her childhood: Jane Ward is an innocent girl raised in a well-to-do Chicago family. As a young girl, she and a French boy named André fall in love. He proposes marriage but the Ward family prevents their engagement because Jane is a mere “child.” Jane is distraught so her charming father secures Jane entry into Bryn Mawr, a wonderful school for girls where she reads French and Greek and becomes briefly ensconced in the suffragette movement. Consider the following passage about Jane’s trip home for Christmas from college, espousing her newfangled academic ideas:

“At home, in the Christmas holidays, however, listening once more to her mother and Isabel, going out to parties where she tried not to be shy, missing André so dreadfully at every turn that nothing else seemed really to count at all, Jane had realized, of course, that she was all on Miss Thomas’s side. Life must be more important than this, she thought. There must be things for even a woman to o that would be interesting and significant. She had only to look at Flora and Muriel, comparing their dance programs in a dressing-room door, to feel just a little smug and condescending. But back at Bryn Mawr, among the people who had definite plans for concrete accomplishment, she felt again very trivial and purposeless. She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no[t] she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of girl he’d like to be with and talk and love and marry. It was very confusing. At home she felt an infant Susan B. Anthony. She had aired her views on women’s rights with unaccustomed vigor, at the breakfast table, Isabel had derided her.

‘I hope you’re satisfied, John,’ her mother had said. ‘She’s a dreadful little blue-stocking already.’

But her father only laughed. 

‘The blue will come out in the wash,’ he had prophesied cheerfully. ‘I doubt if it’s a fast colour’” (99-100).

However, Jane’s infatuation with progressive feminism is short-lived. When she returns home from Bryn Mawr, now a slightly older woman in her 20s, Jane finds renewed love for her family’s upper-middle class standards and traditions, and she quickly loses her desire to enter the labor market and ‘make something of herself’ as Bryn Mawr had instructed. Jane attends parties and cotillons (Note: a cotillon is a French word for a courtly dance. It refers to parties in which young women, in effect, present themselves to suitors for courtship and eventually marriage). Gradually, Jane is courted by a handsome but slightly aloof man named Stephen Carver. At first she claims not to love him, but as time passes with no other fetching prospects (as well as a surprising letter from André announcing his intent remain in France after all these years) Jane, somewhat reluctantly, decides to marry Stephen.

Next, we encounter Jane many years later with children, struggling to be graceful and honorable in the eyes of her mother-in-law. Amidst this malaise, Jane reconnects with her old college friend, Agnes, who now lives in an apartment in New York alongside her excitable and romantic husband, Jimmy. Agnes is now a playwright and Jimmy is a musician. We take note that Agnes and Jane lead very different lives, but Agnes is happy in her lower class situation and she has one young daughter. As time goes by, Jimmy, Agnes’s husband, falls in love with Jane. He travels frequently to visit her in Chicago, and the crescendo of the novel comes when Jimmy and Jane embrace in her garden under an apple tree. Jane finally professes her love and they make plans to travel the world together, but by morning Jane realizes she cannot be indecent to her husband, Stephen, nor to her good friend, Agnes. Jimmy tries several more times to persuade Jane, but she remains obstinate, so Jimmy runs away sending scant letters here and there. Months later, Jane receives a letter from Jimmy announcing that he has joined the ‘Prussian’ military forces in the war in Europe -a shock! The Prussian/German forces were the enemies of the Western alliance in World War I, the scars of which were only all-too recent. Jimmy continues to profess his love for Jane in his letters, even from the European front. Jane is dismayed and she breaks down in tears at one point when she receives another letter shortly thereafter: Agnes writes that Jimmy has run away to join the enemy German forces, and he has been killed in the Battle of the Marne (September 1914, the battle characterized by the advancing German army into France, and left the French forces retreating back to Paris). Upon learning the news, an emotional Jane travels to New York City to comfort Agnes, who is also distraught, but she is wholly aloof to Jane’s brief affair with her late husband.

Time goes by and the war in Europe drags on. Agnes has found success with her theatrical plays in New York. Jane’s daughter announces an engagement, much like a youthful Jane once did many years prior with her first love, André. Jane’s family now lives in North Chicago in Lakewood, on the cusp of the Skokie Valley. Jane’s father sadly dies in his seventies, and then Stephen’s father dies leaving behind a large inheritance for the family, meanwhile Jane’s daughter becomes embroiled in a torrid affair causing scandal and divorce. She remarries in Paris where, in the end, Jane finally reconnects with her first love, André. He is now an artist and Jane visits his studio, but he seems to have grown into disillusioned man according to Jane. She quickly leaves and returns with Stephen to the United States. Perhaps the old patrician customs of her mother’s generation are, indeed, superior after all.


While I enjoyed the simplicity and surprising pleasantness of Years of Grace, it cannot be denied that Barnes’s characters are wholly wooden and, in the end, nothing really happens in the novel. The one saving grace is Barnes’s carefully crafted prose. Years of Grace is simply a series of glimpses into the life of one woman as she follows the well-tread path from a young romantic, to a college feminist, and finally to a married woman: settled with an acceptable husband, though she strays when she dabbles in a brief but intense affair with her best friend’s husband, and lives to watch her children experience the changing tastes of a new generation. The novel is conservative in tone, albeit envious of the nomadic and adventurous life, yet it neither advocates nor dismisses the life of Jane. She is simply presented to the reader for consideration, or perhaps merely offered up for posterity. Jane exists like a fading glimmer of old Chicago, a time before the war and before the city’s notorious political corruption and crime-spree throughout much of the 20th century.

To conclude on a high note, it is remarkable to note the transformative changes in Chicago during Jane’s lifetime. For example, the Ward family lives on Pine Street, then a humble neighborhood that is gradually expanding and is eventually renamed “Michigan Avenue,” a soon-to-be mecca for skyscrapers, shopping, and fine-dining –today it is known as the “Magnificent Mile.” These changes remind me of Booth Tarkington’s descriptions of Indianapolis in The Magnificent Ambersons, during the late 19th century with the advent of the automobile and the decline of the Gilded Age aristocracy.

Consider Jane’s darkly amusing forecast to her sister, Isabel, about how they will die together in remembrance of the glory days of old Chicago, and their livelihood on Pine Street (before it became Michigan Avenue):

“‘We’ll jump off the Michigan Boulevard bridge together.’ The thought had really caught Jane’s fancy. ‘Some early Spring afternoon, I think, Isabel, when the ice is just out of the river and the first sea-gulls have come and the water’s running very clear and green. We’ll climb upon the parapet together – which will be difficult as we’ll both be a little infirm – and take a last look down the boulevard, thinking of how it was once just Pine Street. We’ll shut our eyes and remember the old square houses and the wide green yards and the elm trees, meeting over the cedar-block pavement. We’ll remember the yellow ice wagons, Isabel, and the Furnesses’ four-in-hand, and the bicycles, and the hurdy-gurdies and our front steps on summer evenings. And then we’ll take hands and say ‘Out, brief candle!’ and jump!'” (458)


About The 1931 Pulitzer Prize Decision
1931 was apparently the first year that the Board considered revising the language of the Pulitzer Prize from the controversial “wholesome” criteria to: “for the best novel published during the year by an American author.” That year, the jury selected three novels for finalists: Margaret Ayer Barnes’s Years of Grace, Elizabeth Maddox Robert’s The Great Meadow, and Dorothy Canfield’s The Deepening Stream. The recommendation letter placed Barnes’s Years of Grace in “first place because of its vivid and interesting presentation of the change in character and mores throughout three generations of an American family.” The Pulitzer committee accepted their recommendation and awarded the prize to Years of Grace while also praising both finalists, as well.

The 1931 Novel Jury was composed of: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine.


Who Is Margaret Ayer Barnes?
Margaret Ayer Barnes (1886-1967) lived a life much like the main character of Years of Grace, Jane Ward. She attended Bryn Mawr College, married a prominent Chicago attorney named Cecil Barnes, and they had three sons together. She worked for several years as the Director of Alumnae at Bryn Mawr, organizing a college program focused on women workers in industry. She began her writing career after a traffic accident in 1926. She was vacationing in France when her limousine was involved in a head-on crash, breaking her skull, ribs, and back. During recovery and afterward she became the author of two notable novels: Years of Grace, which won the Pulitzer, and also Dishonored Lady, which was turned into a successful Hollywood film, but it was then promptly sued out of existence by Barnes and her friend and co-author, Edward Sheldon. In 1936, Barnes was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA. She spent her later years in Cambridge, MA where she died in 1967.


Barnes, Margaret Ayer. Years of Grace. New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931.

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