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Chapter 6: Maggie Galehouse, “Their Own Private Idaho: Transience in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping”

In “Their Own Private Idaho: Transience in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,” Maggie Galehouse approaches the novel from yet another perspective, situating it within the contexts of the contemporary critical discourse on homelessness and Emersonian Romanticism.  As Galehouse notes, “the standard social text for vagrants . . . is almost always written from the vantage point of recuperation: How can people be housed? ask newspaper articles, case studies, and sociological surveys” (118). In the real as opposed to a fictional world, homelessness is associated with poverty, addiction, mental illness, spousal abuse, etc. In those rare instances when it is romanticized, as in the case of the mythical hobos of the Depression era, the subject is typically male and his wanderlust is regarded as a heroic refusal of regimented factory work in favor of seasonal agricultural jobs. Female hoboes, on the other hand, are rarely romanticized or idealized. Instead, they are regarded as a threat to the status quo “by reminding the non-transient population that women can and do exist outside the polarities of prostitution and domesticity . . . “(125). While acknowledging that Housekeeping is a work of fiction and not a “sociohistorical document,” Galehouse argues that Robinson has subtly refashioned “the standard associations of the transient or hobo” [by portraying] drifting as a kind of liberation . . . a casting-off of unnecessary objects and social responsibilities “(119). Like others, she describes Sylvie’s peculiar form of housekeeping as “a perversion of the ordinary” (128), focussing on the ways in which Sylvie’s laissez faire attitude toward keeping house results in a blurring of the boundaries between inside and outside, self and nature. “If the aim of housekeeping is to create an ordered universe where the objects associated with living are kept tidied and in their place by routine and discipline,” she writes, “then Sylvie undermines it by her inability (or refusal) to register internal or external boundaries” (130). For Galehouse, this character trait is related directly to Robinson’s reading of nineteenth-century American literature.  As she notes, “Robinson shares with the American Romantics –Emerson especially–a reverence for the land and its spiritual, restorative qualities” (130).  Like Emerson, she views nature as a force that is capable of evoking expanded forms of consciousness, and like Emerson, she clearly believes that to attain these altered forms of consciousness, one must turn away from the demands of society and immerse oneself instead in the natural environment.  Whereas Emerson views nature as subordinate to the will of man, Robinson regards it as a “protean force” which ultimately cannot be contained. As Galehouse notes, “Robinson revises Emerson’s notion of the dominion of man in her presentation of Sylvie, who is conducted by nature as often as she conducts it” (131).



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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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