Themes in “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson

Introduction

Housekeeping is a novel written by Marilynne Robinson and first published in 1980. It is a story of two orphan girls who decide to break away from the static and sleepy existence within a remote town in Idaho, and are met with a dangerous lack of understanding from fellow townsfolk, who declare their seemingly irrational actions as insane, and assume they must have drowned in a lake. It is one of the author’s finest works, a testament to her imagination and talent as a writer.

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It is a story filled with colorful and alluring metaphors, which make the entire book compelling to read. Almost every line in the novel can be used both in and out of context, as the manner of writing is strangely musical and melodious, making it pleasant and interesting to read. The number of possible interpretations, the literary talent of the author, and the themes touched upon in the novel make it one of the contemporary classics for many generations to come.

Plot Summary

The girls are looked after by their grandmother Sylvia Foster. These orphans are Ruth and Lucille – two sisters that grew up together without parents. The sisters’ childhood had many tragic moments. Their father abandoned them when they were still very young. Their mother then committed suicide by driving into a lake. After the passing of their grandmother, the girls are constantly moving from one relative to another. The first ones to supervise them are their unmarried great-aunts – Lily and Nona Foster. They could not proceed with their caretaking, so the girls are taken under the supervision of the younger sister of their mother (Sylvie Fisher).

All of the events take place in the house that was built by their grandfather, Edmund Foster. The man worked for the railroad and lived happily, but his life ended in a train derailment that took place on the bridge over the large glacial lake near Fingerbone. The orphans’ mother and aunts took different paths after they were raised in this house.

One week after Ruth tells the story of her family, Fingerbone is overwhelmed by a great flood. The waters eventually reach the Fisher house. For a while, everyone has to take shelter on the second floor of the house. As the relatives remain together in one relatively small place, conflicts begin to occur. However, the most extraordinary thing happens when Sylvie tells a story about a girl whose mother was taken by the court. Naturally, the girls are frightened by the possibility of losing Sylvie.

Their fears are then manifested when Sylvie goes downstairs and stops responding when called and does not come back. Terrified of what might have happened, Ruth goes downstairs to fetch her. After finding Sylvie, the girl takes her upstairs where the aunt picks up her playing cards as if nothing had happened.

The flood seems to be a catalyst that begins to distance Ruth, Lucille, and their aunt, Sylvie. Although receding waters appear to be a good sign, and the town starts to regain order once again, Ruth’s and Lucille’s life becomes gradually worse with every passing day. Lucille is accused of cheating in school (falsely); she then pretends to be ill, and Sylvie writes a note claiming that she did not take Lucille to a doctor because the girl did not seem ill. Both girls then decide to stay away from school for a week. Naturally, Sylvie does not know about that.

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The girls begin to walk around the lake just down the path near their house. They play truants for a whole week until they see that Sylvie is talking to some homeless people camping near the lake. The girls meet Sylvie and tell her that they have not been to school for a week, and this is taken note of without any particular interest. Lucille and Ruth then go to school, but they do not have any notes that would explain their absence. However, the girls find out that nobody even noticed that they were absent.

Although both girls find their aunt’s housekeeping eccentric, they view it in different ways. Eccentric housekeeping is manifested in Sylvie’s insisting that the family should eat in the dark. Ruth is the one to accept these odd habits of her aunt, but Lucille does not want to tolerate such behavior and, thus, begins to rebel. The girls avoid school for some time as the weather becomes warmer but eventually return to their studies. Lucille decides that the two of them should not be cloistered up and reaches out to other girls in the school. However, Ruth is left to herself – feeling alone and abandoned. Prolonged moments of Lucille’s absence are taking their toll on Sylvie that becomes more and more silent.

One of the days, Lucille’s rebellion reaches its peak, and she moves to her Home Economics teacher (Miss Royce). The woman is then so moved by the girl’s trouble that she proceeds with her adoption. Needless to say, Ruth does not take it lightly. After all, the only person that was there for her is not with her anymore. After some time, Lucille tells Ruth that she does not need to stay with Sylvie, but Ruth would hear none of it. She values the integrity of the family, saying that “Families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs of all these sorrows and sit on the porch and sing them on mild evenings” (Robinson 186).

Later, Sylvie tries to change the way she acts to prevent neighbors and the sheriff from taking away Ruth (he tries to persuade Ruth to stay with him and his wife). Sylvie burns her collection of magazines and newspapers late in the night. After the sheriff leaves for the last time, Ruth and Sylvie decide to burn their home and leave the city via the railroad bridge. Ruth later claims it to be an event that changed her life. Ever since then, the two have lived on the road.

Soon enough, Ruth is viewed as an outsider and someone who does not fit into the world of ordinary people. Occasionally, she takes up the job of a waitress or a clerk. Ruth and Sylvie sometimes talk about seeing Lucille again, but Ruth knows they would never do that.

Plot Themes

Both Housekeeping and Gilead have a central theme of creation. Although Gilead explores creation from the standpoint of everything that is created out of nothing, Housekeeping is more centered on the doctrine of the fall. References to Genesis are easily found within Housekeeping. For example, the flood is one of the driving forces for developing the plot and is mentioned on multiple occasions (Robinson 36, 47, 48). The author describes creation outside of ideas of sin or the fall indicating that both terms are inapplicable. Robinson also focuses on what it means to inhabit the world and how it is perceived. These creation-related themes are, therefore, closely connected to ideas of existentialism.

However, it is also evident that one of the predominant themes of Housekeeping is isolation. Isolation comes in many forms throughout the novel. This theme is mainly explored through Ruth’s narrative as Lucille eventually finds a way out of isolation. Both girls find themselves isolated from everyone surrounding them. First, their father abandons them; then, their mother commits suicide. Their relatives seem to be reluctant about taking care of the girls as almost every member of the girls’ family eventually gives up on trying to do so. Although Sylvia tries to take care of the girls, she is another one who falls under the influence of this “force of isolation” that separates Ruth and Lucille from everyone around them.

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The flood that invades the city adds up to this feeling of loneliness that both Ruth and Lucille are already experiencing. In the world of Housekeeping, this flood is not just an ordinary one. Rather, it is a metaphor for the forces that prevent the girls from becoming one with the society and their relatives. It becomes progressively hard to cope with a lonely existence that the girls are succumbed to, and both girls find their own ways to deal with this problem.

Lucile tries to find shelter and make new friends so as not to feel alone and isolated. Ruth, however, accepts her nature and states that she had become an outsider, someone that cannot exist within the world in its current state. It is, thus, a tragedy for both characters. Although Lucille had found means to push her feeling of isolation somewhere far away, she cannot fully accept herself which leads to her living in denial, and Ruth has to live a life of being unwanted and unaccepted.

It is up to the reader to decide whether or not one of these ways of coping with isolation is better than another one. However, it may also be assumed that each of these paths is flawed in some manner though still being a way to resolve the problem.

The theme of isolation flows out of another central theme of this novel: the feeling of loss and how different people deal with it. A loss is something that both girls experienced very early in their life. Losing both their parents, they have been left alone and stricken with tragedy from a young age. The grief that Ruth and Lucille’s experience pushes them to find different mechanisms of eliminating this disturbing sensation. As they did with isolation, both girls have found their own way of dealing with this problem.

The author describes both denial and acceptance through Ruth and Lucille. While some people try to forget the cause of their grief, others try to accept this feeling and themselves. Naturally, none of these solutions will ensure that a person is fully recovered from their loss.

However, the author does not only use the girls to convey this theme of loss and grief and the consequences of damaging events. The girls’ grandmother, Sylvia, follows the first path of trying to forget. She simply does not mention her husband; she does not speak of him at all. Ruth and Lucille’s mother, in turn, deals with her tragedy in the most tragic way possible: she commits suicide. The girls are then left with only questions about who their mother was. They never even had an opportunity to know her or to be loved by her. Sylvia then decides to deal with the loss of her middle daughter in the same fashion she deals with the loss of her husband – she does not speak of her nor does she try to explain to the girls why their mother left them.

Conclusion

Overall, Housekeeping is filled with existential themes that are mainly tragic in tone and explore feelings of isolation, grief, loneliness, and inability to accept loss or even oneself. The author uses a number of plot devices and characters to explore these themes creating an image of emotional numbness and conflicts. Ruth and Lucille are essentially contrasted to each other to convey the idea of conflicting means of coping with both existence and the tragedy of losing a parent, family member, and friend.

While Ruth tends to be more of an outsider and someone that simply accepts themselves, Lucille tries to rebel against her environment and find ways to change her life. The best conclusion is provided by the author herself when she describes how the paths of the girls will never meet again, and how Lucille “does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope” to meet her sister again (Robinson 219). The girls’ paths are too different, much like the paths of people trying to deal with their existential problems.

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Work Cited

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. Picador, 2004.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, March 23). Themes in “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/themes-in-housekeeping-by-marilynne-robinson/

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"Themes in “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson." StudyCorgi, 23 Mar. 2021, studycorgi.com/themes-in-housekeeping-by-marilynne-robinson/.

1. StudyCorgi. "Themes in “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson." March 23, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/themes-in-housekeeping-by-marilynne-robinson/.


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