In House Keeping by Marilynne Robinson, the author uses feminist criticism to demonstrate the social construction of a family household that goes against the patriarchal structure or norm of a household. In the novel the main character of Ruthie is telling the story of her and her sister Lucille living at her grandma’s house in Finger bone, Idaho after her mom’s suicide. Right at the start it begins with the death of her grandfather due to a train wreck, then her mother happens to kill herself shortly after going over a cliff after dropping them off at grandma’s.The story takes place in the 1950s and early 1960s and is told from first person point of view. After both of the girls’ mother’s death, the grandma Sylvia becomes their guardian, but eventually becomes ill and dies as well. Their grandmother was prepared for her death and made sure someone would watch over Ruth and Lucille after she was gone. Nona and Miss Royce are introduced in the story and become the girls’ guardians until they no longer feel they can take care of them and send a letter to Sylvie, the girls’ eccentric and unbalanced aunt to come watch them.
Sylvie comes to watch over her nieces and then the household begins to become somewhat chaotic. Ruth bonds well with Sylvie because she is free-spirited, but Lucille, on the other hand, yearns for stability in the household. Lucille wants the household to consist of the normal family viewed in society. Lucille finds refugee in her economics teacher and decides to go live with her, leaving Ruth and Sylvie alone. Shortly, Ruth’s safety is questioned by the courts because of the way Sylvie and her are living. They are both isolated from the outside world alone and without a man as the one in charge.
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Eventually, Sylvie decides to leave Finger bone, Idaho and live on the road again and Ruth decides to go with her. Throughout the novel Ruth and Lucille face several abandonments as they grow up, but still have a home in which housekeeping is done and where a family is created. It may not be the usual household structure but it is a home in which the girls can come to at the end of the day. According to the CBIL, feminist literature also uses a range of different strategies such as psychological strategies that help understand feminist issues better. Ruth
does not mind living in the condition they have been with Sylvie, but Lucille eventually gets tired of it because she feels she will not be accepted in the society that seems normal to her, “I was content with Sylvie, so it was a surprise to me when I realized that Lucille had begun to regard other people with the calm, horizontal look of settled purpose with which, from a slowly sinking boat, she might have regarded a not-too-distant shore” (92). Robinson uses feminism criticism to demonstrate that a home can be created without any male role or the typical normal family.
In this home only women have lived in after the grandfather’s death and they have sustained the house together over the years a way or another. When Ruth and Lucille slept out of the house in the woods, Lucille seeked attention from Sylvie because she felt Sylvie did not put any house rules and it bothered her because she felt she did not have a home when in reality she did, “ She had put two folded quilts on the wood box behind the stove. She wrapped one of them around Lucille and one around me, and we sat down” (118).
Their home was not the regular home but it was because Sylvie would keep them comforted and warm, she showed them love. Robinson adds details like these to the novel to demonstrate that even alone a woman can create a home for two children. Through feminism criticism the young girls also act as a symbol of strength in the novel because so much has happened to them over the years. They have lost everyone who has come into their lives one at a time. The girls are seen as independent, always on their own and taking care of themselves.
They look forward to the future and what lies ahead even though their lives have been filled with death and abandonment. Robinson uses Ruth and Lucille as role models to other women who have dealt with similar events. The girls stick together, but eventually separate also signifying that they make their own life decisions without any male telling them what to do. This novel sets a setting in which no men are present, which was uncommon at the time the story takes place. Men were freer to travel, and roam around, unlike women in which they stayed at home with their children.
A man-less household was far from uncommon, and in the novel Robinson only chose women as the main characters who lived alone. She created only women relationships to demonstrate that women were capable of coexisting with one another without a male. According to the CBIL, feminist critics use images of women to reflect the patriarchal structure by writing literature to achieve equality with men (1548). Robinson chose her protagonist to be the voice of a single woman, a woman in in her 20s looking back on her childhood and reflecting on it, “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…” (3). Ruth’s character dictates the cast and the setting of the story. As Ruth re-enters her childhood, her concerns becomes those of a fatherless girl abandoned by her mother, or in her case a mother who committed suicide to escape her problems in life, “She thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff” (23).
Ruth in the novel has the choice to choose a mother figure in place of the one she has already lost. Ruth begins to bond well with her aunt Sylvie and Sylvie becomes that mother figure for Ruth as it shows that there is no male heroism in the novel, but rather a female hero. The wilderness becomes part of the feminist criticism as Robinson centers the novel on the lake, and the characters spend frequent time in the woods. By putting a female in the lead role, Robinson goes against tradition.
In “Laugh of the Medusa”, Helene is tired of seeing a man’s role in society in which the man tells the woman what to do. She wants women to give themselves their right place in society and become liberated from the restraint, therefore, Robinson like Helene, writes about feminine literature about women and decisions they have to make in a society where usually men made the decisions. The title of the novel is a big deal when viewing the novel through a feminist approach. “Housekeeping” in our culture signifies a clean household.
In the household women take a major role as they are the ones who clean, maintain the home, and stay at home with the kids. The house in the novel portrays a symbolic icon for female cultural existence, yet it is ruined in the novel. Sylvie does not keep the house like a culturally standard female would especially in the 1950s where women did not really work or have much to do. Sylvie keeps the house messy and does not act as a suitable mother would in society, “Yet this was the time that leaves began to gather in the corners.
They were leaves that had been through the winter, some of them worn to a net of veins. ” Yet, according to “Laugh of the Medusa” the best of a woman can only be given from another woman and Sylvie demonstrates the mark she leaves behind in society and the lesson she is teaching the girls about change and subversion against patriarchy. Housekeeping demonstrates that women are no longer the typical housewives and how society must accept that change. Society must move beyond conventional social patterns and the ideal image of a woman.
Robinson changes literature into feminist literature to change the perception of women. In Housekeeping, Ruth, Lucille, and Sylvie portray women who have to make life decisions because of their different lifestyle that goes against the stereotypical household norm. Ruth being the protagonist is portrayed as the main hero because she faces several events in which she faces hard decisions and makes them, even though society is against the choices and lifestyle she is living.
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