20 December 2009

The Purpose of the Home in Housekeeping

Yeah, essays written for class are boring (poor professors, the only thing worse than writing a paper has got to be reading one), but I'm particularly proud of this one.

I know, I know: I need to start making real achievements.


Arvind Dilawar
American Novel
Professor Aubry
December 20th, 2009

The Purpose of the Home in Housekeeping

"Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother's house," explains Ruth Foster, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping. (3) Though generations of the Foster family have indeed dwelt there, in a way each one lived in a different home. The significance of the place differs from one character to another and transforms over the course of the story. Edmund Foster, Ruth's grandfather, builds the house as a kind of frontier outpost, but beginning with his death and continuing with almost every one that follows, its purpose changes. After Edmund's demise, Ruth's grandmother attempts unsuccessfully to turn her home into a fortress, a barrier to keep the misery of the outside world at bay. After her passing and a brief stint under the hapless care of Ruth's great-aunts, the building passes into Sylvie's hands, where it loses its protective capacity. During this time the dualistic notion of the inside versus the outside that Ruth's grandmother attempted to enforce collapses completely. Ultimately, when Sylvie and Ruth decide to leave Fingerbone, the house is recognized as a storage space, a locker for keeping memories.

The Foster home was built by Edmund and initially embodied his adventurous nature, making it a sort of frontier outpost. Ruth relates that her grandfather "had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave." (3) It was this bleak, completely insular nature of Edmund's childhood residence that drove the man to haphazardly board a train set for "the mountains," then, almost as randomly, to build his dwelling in Fingerbone. (4) The town's brutal climate, Edmund's westward journey, and the home decorated with paintings of exotic locales from travel books, all suggest a sense of adventure. Edmund sought a way out of the routine, away from the tomb-like quality of the place where he had grown up. This same outgoing spirit that inspired the man to pick wild flowers and venture off into the night unbeknownst to his wife was in the walls he put up. And so, somewhat paradoxically, the house was initially established with thoughts of rejecting domestic life. It was more a homestead refusing the quotidian, looking further into the distance. To Edmund, the house is a scope.

When Edmund sails off that bridge, into the depths of the lake, the expectant, intrepid aspect of the house he built drowns with him. As a response to Edmund's death, his widow turns their home into a shelter from the outside world. The space inside becomes quotidian and Ruth's grandmother enjoys it, confusing the routine for impervious stability. She mistakes her daughters' motivations and intentions, thinking, "her girls were quiet ... because the customs and habits of their lives had almost relieved them of the need for speech. ... Molly changed the beds, Sylvie peeled the vegetables, Helen washed the dishes. These things were settled." (15) Unfortunately it becomes clear that things were not settled when Molly, Sylvie, and Helen mature, each one leaving the home and their mother. Still, rather than coming to the understanding that four walls cannot keep out the world, Ruth's grandmother falls into the same pattern when Ruth and her sister Lucille are thrust into her care. Ruth muses that, when caring for them, her grandmother "whited shoes and braided hair and fried chicken and turned back bedclothes ... And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again." (24) Ruth's grandmother clings to the delusion that keeping things inside the home constant will establish a permanent quality to their existence. In this context, the regular duties that housekeeping demands take on an insular, protective quality, as if they were part of a perpetual motion machine that would continue if only left undisturbed, and the walls of the home become a barrier to keep the miserable happenstance and chaotic unpredictability of the outside world at bay. To Ruth's grandmother, the house is a shield.

After a short period under the timid gaze of Ruth's great-aunts, the house and the two children are entrusted to Sylvie. As a drifter, Sylvie does not view the place as a sanctuary, but as just another locale. This is reflected in the lack of housekeeping she performs, and the subsequent transformation of the building is observed by Ruth. When visitors flock to the house after suspicions of Sylvie's neglect fester in Fingerbone, Ruth refutes the guests' disapproving looks by thinking that "the visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider such things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that room a parlor." (180) Just as Sylvie no longer thinks of the living-room as such, neither does she consider the home in a usual fashion. Whereas her mother's life was restricted -- "She had lived her whole life in Fingerbone" (9) -- and her assiduous housekeeping reflected this, Sylvie has traveled the country. She is an transient. She, at least initially, regards the house as she would regard any other place. To her, there is no divide between the unpredictable outside world and the safety of indoors; it is all one scape. The house is as impenetrable and as permanent to her as every other physical object -- that is, it is fragile and ephemeral. To Sylvie, the house is a bower.

Finally, there is the narrator's perspective to consider. As a child living in this house, Ruth is at many times seems to adopt the views of others when considering her home. But toward the novel's conclusion, in the seeming twilight of the building's existence, Ruth's own opinion is easier to infer. When explaining why she and Sylvie chose to burn down the house, Ruth says, "many household things are of purely sentimental value, like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother's girlhood, which was kept in a hatbox on top of the wardrobe, along with my mother's gray purse. In the equal light of disinterested scrutiny such things are not themselves. They are transformed into pure object, and are horrible, and must be burned." (209) It isn't that Ruth and Sylvie wish to destroy the mementos of the past that fill the house. In fact, they seek the exact opposite: to preserve the value of those household objects as more than just that, to preserve their status as memories. They have already made the decision to abandon Fingerbone, but they realize that they "could not leave that house, which was stashed like a brain, a reliquary, like a brain, its relics to be pawed and sorted and parceled out among the needy and the parsimonious of Fingerbone." (209) Once the community realizes they've disappeared, their home's contents will be given out as charity. It isn't that the two are uncharitable, rather, they understand that a tea kettle removed from their home and given to a poor family will be reduced to a just a tea kettle. It will no longer be a reminder of cold mornings together, fighting off the numbness with short, blistering, rejuvenating sips of tea. It will simply be a tool. As Ruth and Sylvie, paradoxically, run away from Fingerbone to preserve their memories and refuse to put down roots so that they may constantly live in the past rather than the present, they similarly refuse to allow the objects that are imbued with the memory of their past to be debased. For this reason, the house becomes a place to keep sentimental valuables. To Ruth, the house is a coffer.

Over the course of Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson explores the significance of the home. Through the novel's characters, readers are offered different perspectives on what a house is: it is a launch pad; it is a fortress; it is just another place; it is museum. Whether the sequence of these viewpoints is indicative of any progressive understanding is unlikely. The arson meant to devour the Foster home and hide Sylvie and Ruth's tracks fails to do so, which may indicate that there is no definite answer; the house continues to stand so the question cannot be put away. But in a novel that is not only filled with shadows and darkness, but delves, revels, celebrates shadows and darkness, not many things seem definite. Robinson expresses an appreciation for the Mystical -- that which cannot be simply known, but must be indeterminately felt -- and in the uncertainty of the home's "true" purpose, she may be relating a larger theme: that many things are unknowable, subjective, amorphous. After all, near the book's conclusion, Ruth is unable to revisit the place, saying, "I pass again and again behind my grandmother's house, and never get off at the station and walk back to see if it is still the same house." (217)


  1. Having not read the book, I feel there's not much I can say. Except perhaps that this is solidly written and about as interesting as a class paper can get. I hate the tell them what you're going to say, say it, then tell them what you've just said framework.