Housekeeping in Marilynne robinson’s novel Housekeeping finds its way into every aspect of the book. Not only is it logistically important to the narrative because it is the reason behind the town’s dissatisfaction with Silvie’s situation with Ruth, but it also provides a basis for comparison for every character, since they all approach the subject from different places. Up until Sylvie is introduced, housekeeping is a given. While Sylvie’s complete disregard for housekeeping provides the main conflict in the novel, that wouldn’t be possible if not for how the older characters set the stage. The way the house is presented prior to Sylvie’s introduction creates the world that Sylvie comes in and knocks down literally and figuratively.
Ruth’s grandparents’ house provides the setting for most of the novel. Housekeeping, as it relates to this novel, isn’t simply the actual acts of housework (though those are important too), but the way the house is maintained throughout the years at large and how it comes to represent different things when it is lived in by different people. For Edmund, Ruth’s grandfather, the house represented a rise both financially and physically. He spent his early life living in a sod house, a “subterranean house,” as Ruth describes it. He decides to leave his town and tells the ticket agent that he “wanted to go to the mountains” (4). Tall mountains, of course, would be the exact opposite of his previous underground living situation. Since the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, isn’t quite in the mountains, his two-story house is about as close to a mountain as he got. Adding to that, he wound up back underground, dead and never found in a train at the bottom of the lake. This is an early example of the book’s characters’ inability to find true change. Edmund, being the only male character who spends any significant amount of time at the house, does not partake in literal housekeeping which, at the time of the novel, was traditionally viewed as a role for women. He did, however, build the house and in doing so added his own touches that make his presence felt throughout Ruth’s narration (1). For instance, Ruth’s Grandmother’s room is “three steps lower than the kitchen,” which is at ground level (72). If we assume that Edmund and Sylvia slept in the same room, then the bedroom maintains some of Edmund’s subterranean characteristics. Or, at least, it is consistent with other strange aspects of the house, like the upstairs furniture that he modified the legs of to sit level despite the slant of the floor (89). The few times Ruth mentions him are typically when it relates to something he did to the house.
After Edmund’s death, the house belongs to Ruth’s grandmother, Sylvia. Sylvia’s housekeeping by the time of the novel has become routine, almost robotic. Ruth says of her grandmother “She whited shoes and…turned back bedclothes, and then suddenly feared and remember that the children had somehow disappeared, every one. And she whited shoes… and turned back bedclothes” (25). The housekeeping acts of whiting shoes, turning back beds, etc. are repeated to show how automatic they are for her, only interrupted by a brief moment of lucidity when she thinks of what has happened to her children. Sylvia has no feelings either way about the housekeeping, she just does it. This symbolizes how she acts overall. She doesn’t have a strong or outward personality, at least not that Ruth was ever old enough to see when she was around. She’s almost ephemeral, drifting around until “one winter morning [she] eschewed awakening” (29).
Sylvia’s sisters-in-law Lily and Nona, the only non-blood-related members who “keep” the house, “were fetched from Spokane and took up housekeeping in Fingerbone, just as my grandmother had wished” (29). Notice that the line doesn’t say that their grandmother wished that they took care of the children, but that they “housekeep.” This shows where her priorities lie, or at least how Ruth interprets them. The house and the children’s safety are the same thing to her, explained by how she says “sell the orchards, but keep the house. So long as you look after your health, and own the roof above your head, you’re as safe as anyone can be” (27). Lily and Nona approach housekeeping from an outsider perspective. It’s never really their house and they are alien from it. They consistently want to move back to the apartment at the hotel they had previously lived in, which, fittingly, was “below ground” (33). They do, however, keep up the house as Sylvia wanted.
It isn’t until Sylvie takes over care of the children that housekeeping is seen as something that can simply be ignored. The view of housekeeping as something almost sacred that must be done is the only constant in Ruth and Lucille lives before Sylvie. It is the one thread linking them to a sense of “normalcy,” as the outside world would view it. When Sylvie cuts that thread, Ruth and Lucille are thrust into the real world–one that is as transient and fickle as Sylvie–and they have to decide how they want to cope with that world.
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Picador, 1980. Print.