Main Body

Chapter 4: Christine Caver, “Nothing Left to Lose: Housekeeping’s Strange Freedoms”

Like Kaivola, Christine Caver also questions interpretations of Housekeeping that praise the novel as “a narrative of feminist freedom” (111). In “Nothing Left to Lose: Housekeeping’s Strange Freedoms,” Caver challenges this view and argues instead that Ruth’s story is best read as a trauma narrative. She acknowledges the presence of “feminist markers” in the novel, among the almost exclusive focus on female characters and female experience, the apparent escape of the two central characters, Ruth and Sylvie, from the constraints of patriarchal society, and the blurring of many of the categories that support that society. But Caver rejects the common view of Housekeeping as a feminist novel about the liberation of Ruth and Sylvie from the restrictions of traditional gender roles. “For all its suggestion of freedom from traditional female identities,” she writes, “this narrative is deeply rooted in the trauma of abandonment, which may better explain its characters’ rootlessness and difference than does Robinson’s supposed attempt to compose a ‘feminist fiction and theory’” (113). She goes on to explain the various ways in which the novel conforms to standard patterns found in trauma narratives, beginning with the curious passivity and lack of emotion that is so characteristic of Ruth’s narrative voice, and including the frequent intrusion of traumatic memories in her account of her experiences. Caver focuses on the “claustrophobic” and “suffocating” tone of the novel, and on the challenges Robinson faces in having Ruth narrate her story of loss and abandonment. As psychologists and trauma theorists have noted, trauma silences its victims, rendering them incapable of putting into words the terror and helplessness they feel. It also isolates them from others, who, they fear, will be unable to understand their experiences. Their mother’s suicide has precisely this effect on both Ruth and Lucille. Gradually, however, Lucille breaks free from this isolation, seeking comfort and security in the conventional values that Ruth and Sylvie ultimately reject. In contrast, Ruth remains a victim of trauma, as is evident in the paradoxical nature of her narrative: “she writes her family history by recording sophisticated interior monologues, yet she is barely able to speak to those around her” (116). In choosing a life of loneliness and wandering, however, Ruth is not simply breaking free from the constraints of middle-class life, she is breaking free from all human attachments and all human needs. Viewed from this perspective, the novel’s conclusion entails not an affirmation of feminist principles but a description of its central characters’ social death. “In Housekeeping’s world,” Caver observes, “the alternatives for women who long to escape from an abusive or repressive system are situated somewhere between madness and death. As in the film Thelma and Louise (1991), there is no place of welcome for female buddies who choose to live outside the social law” (114).


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Housekeeping (by Marilynne Robinson) Copyright © by Paul Tyndall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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