Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and I’m stunned.  The title is simple enough, but the subject matter is expansive, haunting, and unresolvable. Yes, from the title, you could assume it’s about family, and true, we have the story about two sisters Ruth and Lucille abandoned by their mother Helen. After leaving her two young daughters with their belongings at her mother’s home in the remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Helen goes out and drives her car off the cliff.

The book won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for Best First Novel in 1980, and nominated for a Pulitzer that same year.

It’s about sisterhood, how Ruth and Lucille grow up first under the care of their aloof grandmother, then after her death, their two grand aunts, who can’t wait for a younger person to raise these children. So, finally, their mother’s younger sister Sylvie, the estranged daughter of their grandmother, the aunt they have never known, comes back home to Fingerbone to take care of them.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson

So yes, we can expect some dysfunctional upbringing. But that’s not it. Robinson’s narratives are lyrical, internal, thought-provoking and poignant. Rather than making a social comment on a dysfunctional family, it searches deep into the human condition.

It’s about loneliness, that haunting, inconsolable feeling that can drive one off the cliff of sanity. It’s about survival, how being constrained by such loneliness, one can still go on, striving to find some meaning in blood and kin, facing others during the day and oneself in the deep darkness of the night.

It’s also about personhood, how you might think after such a childhood experience, the two sisters would have clung to each other in an inseparable bond, and yet, one can still escape to another life by squeezing out of the relational cocoon.

And it points to the larger scheme of things, that all are transient, however static we may feel about our situations. No matter how well a housekeeping job we do to keep up an orderly life or fulfill expectations, we cannot ignore our inner chamber. We’re all a diaspora of transient humanity longing for home.

So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us… Sylvie was an unredeemed transient, and she was making a transient of me.

I read Gilead years ago. I don’t know why I’ve waited until now to savour Robinson’s other fictional works. Housekeeping is hauntingly true and intellectually satisfying. I know this is a book I need to reread many times in order to grasp all that the author is saying… if I can ever do that, gleaning all that Robinson had meant to say. So many thoughts in just 219 pages.

Many images from other books and movies conjured up in my mind as I was reading: the movies Thelma and LouiseStand By Me, and Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. And Chapter 10, where Robinson puts the story in the context of Biblical allusions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life came to mind. But of course, those are merely images, or interactive memories. What draws my attention page after page is  the voice of Robinson’s narrator Ruth, and her heart-wrenching and yet unsentimental storytelling.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published by Faber and Faber, London. Third Edition, 2005. 219 pages.

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Related Post:

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Dances With Words (where there’s a short write-up on Gilead)

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Tree Of Life Movie Review

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In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own


 A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.