My book club held a heated discussion on your book Housekeeping (1980) in May. I confess we were all enraptured by this compelling story of two sisters coming of age in an isolated town while also having to come to terms with loss, transience and domesticity.
The narrator, Ruth, is taken with her younger sister, Lucille, to the small town of Fingerbone, to live with their maternal grandmother. Their father has deserted the family when the two girls were very young, and their mother Helen has committed suicide, driving her car into the town lake where her father had drowned years before. After the death of their grandmother, Ruth and Lucille are briefly raised by two unmarried, elderly great-aunts, and finally by their free-spirited aunt Sylvie, Helen’s younger sister. A former boxcar drifter, Sylvie is full of eccentricities, but tries to commit herself to staying in Fingerbone to keep house for the girls. Gradually, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and the household starts to dissolve into total caos.
Among her many eccentricities, Sylvie rummages trash cans, stacks empty tin cans in the kitchen, and collects old newspapers. Accumulation was for her “the essence of housekeeping”, an effort to artificially create roots through the stacking of objects. And yet she always behaves as if she was about to leave. Perhaps the accumulation serves her as a constant reminder that she must stay. Struggling to come to terms with domesticity, Sylvie efforts of keeping house consist mostly in trying to keep the family together. Here, as in her eccentric housekeeping, she also fails miserably.
The different ways the girls respond to Sylvie’s behavior mirror one of your novel’s main topics: Housekeeping can be read as a story about the different ways in which people cope with loss. The girls’s lives have been shaped by the loss of their father, mother and grandmother, as well as Sylvie’s life has been shaped by the loss of her father (“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it”).
Yearning for conformity and stability, Lucille fights against her sense of loss by leading a conventional life: following the rules gives her a sense of control she couldn’t find otherwise. Ruth, on the other hand, fights the burden of her past by detaching herself from it: she is drawn towards her aunt’s rootlessness and aloofness from ordinary social life (“When did I become so unlike other people? Either it was when I followed Sylvie across the bridge, and the lake claimed us (…).”). This battle over the allegiance to Sylvie is also a struggle between the pressures of social conformity and autonomy, between female domesticity and independence, between society and nature, the house and the wild lake outside.
In contrast with the traditional narratives of search for the father, “Housekeeping” unfolds a search for the mother: “Then there is the matter of my mother’s abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.” Lucille and Ruth have different and sometimes conflicting memories of Helen, and the maternal figure the girls are looking for also differs according to their expectations: as Lucille finds a maternal figure in her home economics teacher, Ruth finds a mother in Sylvie, in the haunting end of chapter eight, which – I guess – we could also read as a birth moment.
By suggesting shelter and domestic order, the title of your book can be, at first sight, deeply misleading. Yours is a novel about the sieve of a house, the total collapse of housekeeping. As Sylvie becomes gradually more eccentric, Ruth’s narrative voice loses bit by bit its cohesiveness and its boundaries, and the small acts of keeping house are no longer able to give the girls any shelter, any sense of normality: the structure provided by housekeeping is a frail one, and habits only prevent us from recognizing the arbitrariness of social rules and the transience of any human connection.
Any attempt to control uncertainty (either through the accumulation of objects, through housekeeping or through conventional social relationships) can only provide the illusion of keeping something that in reality do not let itself be kept. In the face of impermanence, not even the solidity of a house is a consolation: one cannot be sure of his own grasp on reality. While Lucille attempts to defeat loss through rigid domestic order, Sylvie embraces the world’s intrusions: the lake floods into the house; the darkness creeps in at night, as the lights are kept off; animals roam free in the house; the wind is a welcomed visitor bringing dry leaves inside.
Playing with the central idea of housekeeping, your novel conveys the blind spot between the extremes of conformity and nonconformity, community and individual, wildness and civilization, reality and illusion. As the search for the mother, the search of identity is another major theme in the book: Ruth struggles with how to fit it into traditional conceptions of what it means to have a family and to be a “normal”, “functional” woman. The story of the good and the bad sibling — Cain and Abel — runs underneath Ruth and Lucille’s story: the name “Lucille” means light, and refers both to the ideas of revelation and conventionality; “Sylvie”, on the other hand, has sylvan connotations, and reminds us that, upon Sylvie’s arrival, the lake and the woods begin to come indoors; finally, “Ruth” is a reference to the biblical story, in which a widowed woman travels to a strange land with her husband’s mother, and thus represents a bridge between tradition and change.
The novel’s first sentence, “My name is Ruth,” is also telling of this impossible quest for identity. This sentence recalls the opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” While Melville’s sentence implies a “you”, with whom the narrator interacts (“I want you to call me so and so”), Housekeeping’s opening implies a “they”, from whom the narrator detaches herself (“This is how people call me”). Moreover, Ruth and Ishmael are both biblical names of characters who were strangers in the environments they lived in (Ishmael is both inside and outside Abraham’s family, since he is his son, but not Sarah’s son; Ruth is married a Jew, but she herself does not come from a Jewish family).
Ruth’s allegiance to Sylvie, in Housekeeping, also mirrors the story of her biblical namesake: when her husband died, instead of returning to her own people, the biblical Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law, Naomi, purely out of love and faithfulness: “Where you go, I will go.” As the biblical Ruth chooses an uprooted life over the familiarity of her tribe, your Ruth follows Sylvie into a wandering life.
The Melvillian themes of journey and search of identity are reenacted and revised within a female framework. I am aware that you have called your novel “Moby-Jane,” and have once told the Book Review in 1984 that “I must be influenced most deeply by the 19th-century Americans — Dickinson, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson and Poe. Nothing in literature appeals to me more than the rigor with which they fasten on problems of language, of consciousness.”
The Melvillian quest is also a quest for the voice who is speaking to the reader, and that’s also a question about narrative. We follow this voice, “My name is Ruth,” but we don’t actually know where it comes from. It seems to exist outside of time and space. The events take place in an uncertain time, no dates are mentioned. Ruth’s voice blends in with the voices of the characters she describes. Ruth enters the mind of her grandmother and inhabits memories from long before the time when she was born. We smell the lake in springtime, with Ruth, through the grandmother.
This same voice ranges in and out of Sylvie’s and Lucille’s thoughts. In and out, it is set off in unmitigated wandering, and it becomes gradually less coherent, as Ruth’s own identity blends in and loses itself in its rootlessness. Darkness inside and outside become slowly indistinguishable from each other, and this narrative voice becomes more and more permeable: Ruth becomes a spectral presence in the novel, a thin, scattered voice, drowned in water and light. The woods and the lake blend in with the house. And, much like the Melvillian plot itself, the identity quest in Housekeeping knows only one form of redemption: the shattering of the quest itself, the never finding of oneself, the redemptive entanglement.
The lake itself is a major character in the story. It claims the lives of Ruth’s grandfather in the derailing of a train, as well of Ruth’s mother, as she plunges to her watery grave. The lake is where Sylvie and Ruth, in a kind of Baptism, must cross to be able to achieve another life, and come to the other side. No one can escape its waters: the lake comes and finds everyone, it floods the town, enters everyone’s home, and washes away with its wet licking any attempt of keeping the house untouched. It always makes itself felt: the whole town smells of the lake.
My dear, this was such a haunting story, one that starts with death, and moves in and out and forward, through life. Thank you for having written this book: I am sure it will follow me throughout my life, licking me with its lake’s dark, quietly desperate, and lonely waters.
I cannot taste a cup of water but I recall that the eye of the lake is my grandfather’s, and that the lake’s heavy, blind, encumbering waters composed my mother’s limbs and weighted her garments and stopped her breath and stopped her sight. There is remembrance, and communion, altogether human and unhallowed. For 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 out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.
Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes.
– Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
About the book
- Picador, 2004, 219 p.
- First published 1980
- My rating: 5 stars
- PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award (1982)
- PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Nominee (1982)
- National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (1983)
- Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Finalist (1982)
- The film adaptation Housekeeping was released in 1987, directed by Bill Forsyth (IMDb).
- This book was my book club’s choice for May.