Written in 1980, Housekeeping is Marilynne Robinson's first novel. I absolutely love and adore her Gilead Trilogy, and you can truly see kernels of those three novels here. This is a brief (less than 250 pages), atmospheric novel that envelops you in its quiet, dreamlike, and poetic prose, like a hand-crocheted, infinitely soft blanket.
The narrator of this novel is Ruthie, but we are first introduced to her grandparents and the town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The town is a character in the novel, and the most beautiful and haunting descriptions are of the landscape and the large lake within its borders.
Her grandmother was born and raised in Fingerbone, and her grandfather came to town with the railroad industry. In fact, the railroad bridge that transverses the lake plays a major role in two events which bookend the novel. It is her grandfather, an amateur painter/carpenter, who builds the family home, on a fruit orchard and near the lake. They have three daughters: Molly, Helen and Sylvie, before Ruthie's grandfather passes away suddenly.
As the girls grow up, Lucille begins to challenge Sylvie's lifestyle and distance herself from Ruthie and Sylvie. In one episode, Lucille convinces Ruthie to go with her to meet some girls from their school. When Lucille abandons her for the other girls, Ruthie has the following observation –
Lucille eventually goes so far as to completely move out of their family’s house in order to live with a maiden teacher, Miss Royce. Sylvie's eccentricities amplify, and eventually draw Fingerbone's attention in unwanted ways. There is a confrontation that takes place near the end of the book, and leads to a decision that changes the lives of everyone in Fingerbone forever.
The ethereal way with which Marilynne Robinson describes the surrounds of Fingerbone imbues them with a quiet, palpable power. In this way, her writing is reminiscent of Emerson and Thoreau. Their transcendentalism proposed that the existence and grace of a Supreme Being is evident throughout the natural world. This grace permeates all of Fingerbone, from the way the sunlight passes through curtains, to the ways that the townspeople move to assist one of their own who they see as being in need.
Taking the notion further, one could find shadings of Biblical characters in some of Fingerbone’s residents. Ruthie’s grandfather is a kind of Creator/Adam/Noah-like figure who arrives in Fingerbone from a primitive former life. His house, which is one of the few that escapes the regular flooding that happens in the nearby lake, could be seen as a kind of ark. His plantings of fruit and flower thrive and are seemingly bountiful year after year.
It is interesting to note that the overwhelming majority of characters throughout Housekeeping are female. The patriarchy is practically nonexistent in this novel. The only men who factor into the plot in any meaningful way are Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather and the sheriff of Fingerbone. Combined, their appearances amount to a few pages of text at most. The men of the novel’s women die, leave, or are left. The women in Ruthie’s family make their own lives. They rely on each other, or themselves, for survival. It is the trials, the trivialities, the unusual commonness of their lives that is the focus of the novel. Giving priority to this “everydayness” is quite revolutionary in a work of fiction, and the author uses it to beautiful effect.
A major theme in Housekeeping is quietness. There are many descriptions of how silent Fingerbone becomes at night, or during the winter when snow is falling deep. After Ruthie’s grandfather dies, there is no discussion or mention of him again by her grandmother or any of the other women. When Ruthie’s mother and her two sisters move away, their presence is missed and tolerated stoically. When Lucille decides to move in with her teacher, Sylvie and Ruthie never discuss the arrangement, except to rationalize why not to notify the sheriff of her absence. They both quietly accept it without further concern or consideration. When Sylvie begins to forgo tidying the house, allowing rubbish to collect all over and the windows to break, Ruthie never confronts her about it. She notices, accepts, and says nothing. For the women in this family, it’s as if by keeping silent on the misfortunes and hurt, those negative emotions can pose no threat to the peace of the present. However, by the ways that the characters’ relationships devolve, it seems that perhaps this quiet approach isn’t entirely successful.
Another prominent theme is the struggle between living life according to your ethics, desires, and rules, versus conforming to the norms of others. Ruthie feels a certain similarity to her aunt Sylvie. They don’t put much importance on clothes or personal appearance trends. While Sylvie is described as buying the girls cheap, impractical clothing and accessories, she does so not because they match a fashionable style, but because she appreciates their brief fancifulness. Lucille, on the other hand, develops a sense that her personal identity is closely tied to her being accepted by her peers. She begins to spend more and more time styling her hair, collaborating with her classmates on fabrics and patterns to make their own clothes, and worrying about trying to fit in. She encourages Ruthie to join in her endeavors, but with no success. Because Lucille cannot reconcile her ambitions with the lifestyle of her aunt and, assumedly to her, her sister, she removes herself from their home and their life completely. Ruthie represents a comfort and acceptance of herself as she is in that moment, while Lucille wants to constantly improve, adapt, and accommodate.
While each generation of women in Ruthie’s family “take up housekeeping” in some way they, as women, are not necessarily free to define for themselves what housekeeping looks like. Ruthie’s grandmother starched fabrics, baked cookies, made jams. Sylvie’s desire to breach the divide between nature and the home, to let grace permeate both mutually, causes her to allow windows to break without repair and leave doors open. Things from the woods and the lake gradually make their way inside. Her technique of keeping house is very reminiscent of Thoreau’s exploration of the same in his book Walden. Sylvie’s philosophy goes against what was expected of a female at the time in Fingerbone.
Through the author’s treatment of women as the focus, the story is a response to the patriarchal prominence in American literature. Women are capable of self-sufficiency, of deep thought, and deep appreciation of nature and the world around them. The house they keep is not just a physical structure, but that of their own selves and souls.
In the face of our increasingly busy, disconnected, modern world it would serve us well not to forget the simple, quiet pleasures of nature and the world around us.