Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is a book about choice, loss, transience and blurred boundaries. Through literary criticisms, we see three different opinions on the novel, which helps the reader to think more deeply about the novel. When reading these criticisms, it is easy to relate to one article more than the others. After reading three articles by Ravits, Kaivola and Smyth, I agree with Kaivola’s point on the novel, Housekeeping.
In Extending the American Range: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Martha Ravits discusses that Ruth fits within a larger, already accepted grand scheme of literature. The already accepted literature consists of males being the protagonists, having a problem and solving it, therefore becoming the hero. Ravits compares Ruth’s family history to characters such as Huck Finn, Isaac McCaslin and Ishmael. These characters "undertook the struggle for maturity by choosing surrogate fathers" (Ravits 648) while Ruth is a girl who must ultimately choose a mother figure in place of the one she once lost. Ravits summarizes Housekeeping in terms of wilderness and her relationship with Sylvie. "Ruth adopts her aunt Sylvia as mentor and substitute mother in much the same way that the developing male in American fiction has taken an outcast as father-figure to facilitate his struggle for maturity" (Ravits 659). Ravits’ main point is that an author can take any aspect of typical male heroism in a novel and apply it to women. The wilderness is a theme in this novel. One may not think that wilderness would have a major role in a predominately female novel, but Robinson changes that. This book is centered around the lake, and the characters spend multiple times in the woods. The article talks about the typical male hero and that Ruth can be identified as this hero. Ravits compares Housekeeping to already accepted, good literature. She discusses that by putting a female in the role, it changes tradition. Robinson goes beyond ordinary literature and writes a novel about women and the decisions they must make. Ravits also considers the title of the novel, and what it means in our culture. She says that a house is "a major icon of female cultural existence" (662) and that it is destroyed in this novel. This is because Sylvie does not keep house like a culturally acceptable female would. The house is messy and she does not act as a typical mother would in our society. Basically, to Ravits, Housekeeping demonstrates "the urge to move beyond conventional social patterns" (666).
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Karen Kaivola has a different take on Housekeeping. She looks at this novel in terms of women and their role in society, but differently than Ravits does. She thinks that the novel is written for the reader to sympathize with Ruth and Sylvie. She also discusses the view that feminists may have on the novel. She says that some may like it, but to many it is very unclear. Housekeeping does not necessarily show a strong side of women that feminists would identify with. However, Kaivola thinks that one person may read and interpret this novel unlike the next. It can be looked at from many points of view, depending on who the reader may sympathize with, or the beliefs that one may have. "We need to make distinctions to construct meaning" (Kaivola 675). She is saying that we need to identify with one character, or have a certain perspective in our heads as we read in order to read a book and interpret it with meaning. Kaivola says that Housekeeping challenges this statement because Ruth and Sylvie are the opposite of culturally acceptable females and it challenges the reader to think from their point of view. In this thought, she discusses Ruth’s choice to follow Sylvie, unlike her sister and how readers are supposed to react to that. Kaivola knows that the reader must decide on their own whether or not it was a good decision because of the way the choice is represented in the novel.
Like Ravits, Kaivola thinks that "Housekeeping challenges conventional female roles by representing the repetitive nature of keeping house as an ultimately futile attempt to create order out of an ever-threatening chaos" (Kaivola 677). Sylvie has a less constrained life and can be more identified with Ruth’s grandfather. However, Kaivola discusses that Ruth does separate herself from Sylvie at one point of the novel. When Sylvie leaves her, Ruth is able to feel anger, and realizes that they are not identical beings. However, this takes Ruth into the idea of blurred boundaries, how she is never clear if she is dreaming, or remembering correctly. Ruth never completely becomes her own person. She has a desire to live her life to the fullest, but she never can achieve this. A life with blurred boundaries is characterized by "uncertainty, loss, and pain" (Kaivola 688).
Jacqui Smyth interprets Housekeeping as a novel which ultimately comes back to the idea of "home" and "house" and the understanding of it. She says that home is the norm and it defines everything else in life. This is the opposition to what we expect so it is seen as a negative in our society. She talks about the transience of Sylvie and how Ruth becomes a product of her transience. She talks about the home and how Edmund built is to be, and what it has become from Sylvie living in it. Since it was unfinished to begin with, it was like Sylvie was supposed to end up living in it. "The house is transient itself" (Smyth 285). There is no order, it has never been finished being built in places, and external forces have altered the house. "The town’s inability to tolerate transience ironically forces Ruth and Sylvie into becoming transients" (Smyth 289). After leaving Fingerbone, they have nowhere that they belong because they have no "home."
In looking at these three articles, I agree the most with Kaivola’s argument. First, I think that when reading this novel, the reader feels sympathetic to Ruth and Lucille. They have had a life of loss and when having to choose whether to stay with Sylvie or not, they must make a difficult decision. It is hard for the reader to choose whether or not they think Ruth’s decision is a smart one, because the reader’s feelings get involved. I agree that the reader must make distinctions to construct meaning, and it is hard to do this in Housekeeping because of the blurred boundaries. Moreover, it is questionable whether Ruth even makes the choice- or does she go with Sylvie because she is the stronger personality and Ruth needs somebody who will tell her what to do and make decisions for her for the rest of her life. Ruth is not an individual and it is too hard for her to become one. Even when she is grown up, she is still dreaming about her life and what she would like it to be, even though it will never happen. After she leaves Fingerbone, she tries to develop herself, but ends up waiting tables and imagining the life of Lucille. I agree with Kaivola in the sense that a feminist may not enjoy this book. I do not think that Ruth is looked at as a hero in this novel. She can’t make decisions, and runs away with Sylvie instead of standing up to what she believes in- because she doesn’t really believe in anything.
I agree that Housekeeping challenges the role of conventional females. However, unlike Ravits, I do not think that Ruth and Sylvie play the role of the hero. Some may think that leaving and starting their own lives may be considered heroic, but in my eyes, they do not do anything to earn the name of a hero. They do not accomplish anything in their lives, and Ruth will die dreaming. However, while they are not heroes to me, I understand what Kaivola says about women who are socially constrained to housekeeping and accomplish nothing in their lives. Sylvie does not care about materials such as the house and would rather do her own thing. However, this is not socially accepted and that is why this novel challenges female conventions.
Housekeeping really demonstrates feelings of loss and pain, but shows readers life away from the norm. I think the book gets the reader thinking about family, and is great for enjoyment.
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