In Housekeeping (1980), Marilyn Robinson provides a sense of women and the space and the domestic constraints of society. The story crosses several generations of women and their lives in a single house in a town named Fingerbone.
Ruthie is the main protagonist. She is a young woman who grew up in a household of women, beginning with her grandmother, then her great aunts, her aunt, and her only sister. But the house in which they were all trapped in one way or another was built by and for a man. He was a child of the plains who longed for the mountains, and the site of the house was his dream, not theirs. The isolation of the house physically paralleled the emotional isolation of all the characters.
Indeed, the tone of the narration by Ruthie is emotionally flat. Despite the level of tragedy which is continually visited on the family, the language and the flavor of the conversation is highly unemotional and detached. From the perspective of showing an important characteristic of the narrator, her lack of emotion in general, it is rather a boring effect for the reader. It keeps the protagonist distanced from the very audience which should be sympathetic to her.
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The story is a simple downward progression. Ruthie and her sister Louise came to live in the house after first her grandfather died in a train wreck which pitched the train into a local lake, then her mother committed suicide after dropping the girls off with their grandmother. No reason for this action is given, nor do the characters seem to particularly care. Five years later, their grandmother, who had little emotional connection with the girls also died, leaving her two older sisters-in-law in charge. They equally had no idea what to do with young girls.
The first intrusion on the blandness of life was the return of Sylvie, Ruthie's mother's sister who was itinerant and mysterious. Certainly the aunts did not approve of her. But she was a convenience, for when she came the aunts were free to go home and leave matters entirely in her hands. Sylvie is the first person in the novel to show any emotion, and she does show love toward the girls.
Sylvie is the breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant world. But it quickly becomes apparent that she will probably not stay forever. Lucille is a child who is likely to stay put, but Ruthie responds to Sylvie's suppressed wanderlust. At last they have a source of information about their mother, about the larger world. Sylvie was the opposite of the oppressive atmosphere of the town and the house. Both closed in on a person, making them small. But Sylvie had broken away before, and neither the town nor the house had any real power over her.
When spring came shortly after Sylvie's arrival, the town flooded, again cutting the three of them off from other human company and stranding them in the house. With this development, the girls find that they are becoming dependent on Sylvie and for the first time learn that they have something to fear in being separated from her by the state. As always, there is a sense of loss, of the fear of abandonment.
The reaction by the local townspeople to the women revealed much of the character of the family and of themselves. Robinson describes them as standoffish, knowing hardly anyone in town. They were self sufficient to themselves, and the house was a symbol of this. It was built alone on a hill so that it did not suffer as the rest of the town did in times of flood. The townspeople came and made sure they were all right and then left to put the town back in order unaided by Ruthie, Sylvie and Lucille.
The primary social contact for the girls was the school they attended. But even there, they were isolated. Because of some unpleasantness for Lucille in which she was accused of cheating, both girls played hookey for an extended period of time. It was while they were hiding out that they saw Sylvie try to walk across the narrow, dangerous railroad bridge that pned the lake. This was the same bridge where the train derailment which killed their grandfather occurred. As a result, both girls were very fearful of the loss they faced if something happened to her.
It is at this point that housekeeping comes into the plot. Sylvie talked a lot about it and even did some. But she was very eccentric about the meals she prepared and the cleaning that she did. Lucille was not content with Sylvie, but Ruthie was for Ruthie was a kindred spirit. Lucille began to turn her attention to the town and the more conventional life it held out. By summer, it was clear that Lucille's loyalties lay elsewhere.
But for the summer they both stayed out of the house most of the time and hid in the woods. Lucille increasingly found things to dislike about Sylvie, especially her housekeeping which was erratic. She offended Lucille's sense of propriety. By implication, Ruthie lacked one for she and Sylvie seemed to be similar in tastes and goals, or rather lack of goals. Essentially, Sylvie was a transient in the settled world, and Lucille was one who would voluntarily stay put.
With time, the girls began to separate, and there arose an us versus them mentality, with us being Ruthie and Sylvie. Lucille invented a mother who was a meticulous housekeeper and a traditional mother. Ruthie had no such illusions, nor did she care. With time, the house under Sylvie's management became increasingly more disheveled, and full of papers and other rubbish. Ruthie adapted and was comfortable with it, as was Sylvie, but Lucille moved out to pursue a more normal life.
The climactic series of events which ended up tearing the family apart truly was Ruthie's joining Sylvie in an overnight jaunt which started with a stolen rowboat for a chance to look at the train submerged in the lake holding her grandfather's remains and the eventual ride back into town on a freight train. That set the ladies of the town to trying to see that Ruthie did not herself succumb to being a transient. Under the threat of having the state take Ruthie from Sylvie, both decided to flee together. They first tried to burn down the house, but it did not burn. They escaped by walking at night across the railroad bridge, and were subsequently presumed dead. For the rest of their lives they wandered from place to place, rootless. Ruthie took up the life that Sylvie led, and both drifted around, never seeing Lucille again.
There is a great sense of loss and sadness in this book. There is little in the way of close human connection, sympathy, or love. Overall, it is both ghostly and depressing. However, its strength is in the perceptive description of people and places. Robinson is especially vivid with the sense of place, whether of the house or the place in Seattle where the girls lived with their mother before coming to Fingerbone. Her descriptions of people were clear portraits that told as much of their character as their appearance. What the book lacked emotionally was made up in the artistry of the language.
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