Marilynne Robinson (nѐe Summers) was born on November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho. The town, located on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille and surrounded by the Bitterroot mountain range and the Kaniska and Coeur d’Alene National Forests, is the geographical inspiration for the fictional town of Fingerbone, the setting of Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping (1980).  After graduating from high school in nearby Coeur d’Alene in 1962, she attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she studied literature, religion and creative writing, including a course in fiction writing taught by the novelist John Hawkes.  Upon completion of her B.A. in 1966, she enrolled in the graduate program in English at the University of Washington in Seattle, completing a Ph.D. in 1977, with a dissertation on Shakespeare’s early history plays. Over the years, she has taught and/or served as writer- in-residence at a variety of universities, including the Universitѐ de Haute Bretagne in France, the University of Kent in England, Amherst College, and the Universities of Alabama and Massachusetts. From 1991 until her retirement in 2016, she was a regular faculty member in the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.  In addition to Housekeeping, Robinson has published three other critically acclaimed novels that together form a trilogy:  the Pulitzer-prize winning Gilead, first published in 2004, followed by Home in 2008, and Lila in 2014. She has also published several works of non-fiction, including  a book-length critique of the nuclear power industry in England entitled Mother Country (1989) and five collections of essays focused on her readings in literature, theology and American intellectual history: The Death of Adam: Essays On Modern Thought (1998), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), The Givenness of Things (2016), and, most recently, What Are We Doing Here? (2018).

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the recipient of the Pen/Hemingway Award for best first novel, Housekeeping remains one of the most mature and accomplished debuts in contemporary American fiction. Those reviewing the novel at the time of its original publication praised its then unknown author for her command of language.  As Le Anne Schreiber wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “Marilynne Robinson has written a first novel that one reads as slowly as poetry—and for the same reason: The language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one does not want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience” (14). Anatole Broyard, also writing in the New York Times, observed:

Here’s a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself. It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions and achieved a kind of transfiguration. You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt. (n.p.)

Subsequent critics have echoed this praise but broadened its reach to focus on the novel’s rich and allusive texture and its resonant relation to a wide range of classic and contemporary works of American fiction. Thus, Housekeeping has been likened to novels as diverse as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, as well as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, E. Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News and Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye.  The novel is taught regularly in colleges and universities across the English-speaking world not only in courses on American literature and contemporary fiction but also in Women’s Studies, Psychology, Philosophy and Religion programs. In recent years, it has twice been named one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and it has served as the inspiration for a highly praised film adaptation by the Scottish director Bill Forsyth.[1]  Finally, Housekeeping has been the subject of more than seventy  scholarly articles, published in academic journals and monographs, ranging from American Literature and Modern Fiction Studies to Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Literature, Religion and Literature and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, as well as numerous Master’s and doctoral dissertations, and this number continues to grow.

Set in the fictional town of Fingerbone in northern Idaho in the 1950s, Housekeeping tells the story of two young girls, Ruth and Lucille Stone, who are orphaned at an early age after their mother deposits them on their grandmother’s doorstep and then drives her borrowed car into the same lake that had claimed the life of her father and the girls’ grandfather years earlier. As Ruth, the narrator of the novel, informs us early on in her narrative, she and her sister are raised by their grandmother until “one winter morning [she] eschewed awakening” (29). They are then briefly cared for by their elderly great aunts Lily and Nona Foster, who within weeks of arriving feel overwhelmed by the isolation of the small town and by the responsibility of looking after two young girls, and soon write to the girls’ itinerant aunt Sylvie requesting that she return to Fingerbone to look after her young nieces. The novel focuses on the relationship that forms between Sylvie, Ruth and Lucille, and on the growing differences between the two girls. At first, they are simply grateful to have someone to look after them after having experienced so many losses in their young lives. Gradually, however, Sylvie’s eccentricities and her unconventional behaviour drives a wedge between the two girls. Lucille, the more conservative and conventional of the two sisters, longs for a normal childhood, and is frustrated and embarrassed by her aunt, especially after discovering her asleep on a park bench in broad daylight in the middle of town. Ruth is less concerned with appearances and less attracted to the proprieties of middle-class life. She is also more dependent on her aunt, whom she comes to see as a surrogate mother. When Lucille leaves home to live with the local home economics teacher, Sylvie and Ruth are left alone until the townspeople become aware that Sylvie is initiating her impressionable niece into a life of transience, at which time they threaten to take Ruth away from her aunt. The two respond by setting fire to the family home and crossing the bridge over the lake and disappearing into legend. In fact, the townspeople believe that Sylvie and Ruth have perished in trying to make this dangerous crossing, and more than one commentator on the novel has come to the same conclusion, suggesting that Ruth is a ghost narrating her story from the grave, while others believe the novel describes the social death of the young girl.

Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping has been described as a coming of age story, a trauma narrative, an “extended prose poem in the form of a novel,” and a “primer on the mystical life.” [2] Whatever the differences among these diverse interpretations, virtually all commentators agree it is a rich and challenging novel that both requires and rewards our careful attention.  In an interview with Thomas Schaub, Robinson states that she wrote Housekeeping as an experiment, with no idea of ever seeing the book published. “What I was doing . . . was writing little bits of narrative because I was working on a dissertation and wanted to still see what I could write (233). Specifically, she claims to have wanted to write a novel that would “galvanize all the resources that novels have, the first being language, what language sounds like and how it’s able to create simulations of experience in the reader . . . (235). Robinson’s love and command of language are evident on virtually every page of the novel.

In fact, it is this aspect of Housekeeping that has led many readers to liken it to poetry. The comments of the English novelist Doris Lessing in her review of the novel are typical of the response of many readers. “I found myself reading slowly and then more slowly—This is not a novel to be hurried through for every sentence is a delight.”[3] But this attention to language is not without its challenges for the reader. To begin with, Robinson often seems more interested in language and the various ways it may be used to convey the subtle movements of Ruth’s mind than she is in plot or the more mundane expository details of setting or characterization.  This is not to suggest that the novel lacks a clear plot or a strong sense of character or place. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The characters of Ruth, Lucille and Sylvie are clearly drawn, as is the town of Fingerbone. Furthermore, there is a clear straightforward plot that runs throughout the novel. But this plot is frequently subordinated to long lyrical, philosophical passages that may on a first reading seem to have little direct connection to the forward movement of Ruth’s narrative. Yet a more careful reading of the novel reveals that even the tiniest detail in these digressions is integral to our understanding of Ruth’s character and to the emotional, psychological and spiritual growth that she experiences over the course of the novel.

For example, in a chapter recounting the first days after Aunt Sylvie’s return to Fingerbone to look after the girls, Ruth describes her and Lucille’s futile efforts to build a snow man that would survive “the three days of brilliant sunshine and four of balmy rain” that announced the arrival of spring:

. . . We put one big ball of snow on top of another, and carved them down with kitchen spoons till we made a figure of a woman in a long dress, her arms folded. It was Lucille’s idea that she should look to the side, and while I knelt and whittled folds into her skirt, Lucille stood on the kitchen stool and molded her chin and nose and her hair. It happened that I swept her skirt a little back from her hip, and that her arms were folded on her breasts. It was mere accident—the snow was firmer here and softer there, and in some places we had to pat clean snow over old black leaves that had been rolled up into the snowballs we made her from—but her shape became a posture. And while in any particular she seemed crude and lopsided, altogether her figure suggested a woman standing in a cold wind. It seemed that we had conjured a presence . . . (60-1).

Eventually, as the days grow milder, Ruth describes the collapse of this figure one feature at a time, until finally “she was a dog-yellowed stump in which neither of us would admit any interest” (61).

Having taught Housekeeping many times over the years, both to first-year students and to more experienced readers in upper-level courses, I can attest to the fact that those reading the novel for the first time often experience frustration at the slow pace of Ruth’s narrative precisely because of this sort of digression. Conditioned by more conventional, plot-driven novels, they are anxious to find out what happens next and puzzled or annoyed that Robinson has Ruth devoted so much attention to such seemingly inconsequential details. Yet, as becomes evident on a more careful reading of Ruth’s narrative, there is a point to this detour or digression that has little to do with the plot per se or even with the establishment of verisimilitude. In fact, the passage quoted above is one of many in which Ruth unconsciously reveals her and her sister’s desire for a maternal presence in their lives. It is significant therefore that the snow man becomes a snow woman and then “a shape” that assumes “a posture” before it is described as a “a woman standing in the wind” and finally “a presence.” Like their mother Helen, their grandmother Sylvia Foster, and their great aunts Lily and Nona Foster, this maternal presence is destined to disappear, leaving them alone with their thoughts and their fears of abandonment.  Moreover, the image of the snow woman appears later in the novel as well in a passage in which Ruth describes her thoughts and feelings after she is left alone in the woods by her aunt Sylvie. Reflecting on her loneliness and the remoteness of her surroundings, Ruth muses, “If there had been snow I would have made a statue, a woman to stand along the path, among the trees (153).  In other words, there are few if any accidental details in Robinson’s novel; each word or image is carefully chosen for its emotional effect and its insight into the characters of Ruth, Lucille and Sylvie.

Housekeeping challenges readers in other ways as well. As many critics have pointed out, Robinson’s prose style is rich in echoes of and allusions to other books and other writers. For instance, even the first sentence in the novel– the simple declaration “My name is Ruth”–contains two significant allusions: the first to the Book of Ruth from the Hebrew Bible; the second to Melville’s Moby Dick, which begins with an equally resonant first sentence —“Call me Ishmael.” Just as Melville has deliberately chosen to identify the narrator and protagonist of his novel with the wayward son of Abraham and Hagar, both the name of Robinson’s narrator /protagonist and the basic structure of her narrative deliberately call to mind the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. Like her Biblical namesake, Ruth Stone chooses exile with a surrogate mother over the security of a settled life in her homeland; and like the Ruth of the Hebrew Bible, she is unwavering in her commitment to this figure. Indeed, the Biblical figure’s words to her mother-in-law are embodied in Ruth’s attachment to Sylvie: “Whither thou goest, I shall go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge” (The Book of Ruth 1: 16).  In fact, Biblical allusions and echoes recur throughout Housekeeping, ranging from the flood that occurs in Fingerbone shortly after Sylvie’s arrival to Ruth’s references to Lot’s wife, Barabbas, Lazarus, and to the theme of resurrection that runs like an ostinato pattern throughout the novel.  Once again, these echoes are far from accidental. As Robinson has stated repeatedly in interviews over the years, she grew up reading the Bible and nineteenth century American literature, and both her prose style and her formal and thematic preoccupations have been profoundly influenced by these two literary traditions.

Finally, Housekeeping challenges its readers not only through its reliance on lengthy poetic and philosophical passages that demand us to attend to metaphor and imagery as carefully as we do plot and characterization, or even through its extensive use of allusion and intertextuality to develop many of its central themes; it also challenges us by encouraging us to re-think some of our most basic assumptions about the relation of the individual to society, and about the relationship between the world of appearances and an alternate reality that lies beneath the material or phenomenal world. Indeed, Ruth’s narrative forces us to reconsider our most basic assumptions about the institutions of family and home, and about their opposites, solitude and homelessness. Most of us are brought up to seek the former and to fear the latter.  As Sylvia Foster, the girls’ grandmother and the voice of conventional wisdom in the novel, tells her granddaughters shortly before she dies, “So long as you look after your health, and own the roof over your head, you’re as safe as anyone can be . . . “ (27). In Housekeeping, however, Robinson turns this idea on its head, suggesting in a variety of ways, and through a variety of metaphors, that homelessness is the essential condition of being human. As Anne-Marie Mallon notes, “homelessness is not only the primary condition of the novel, but also becomes Robinson’s metaphor for transcendence” (96).

In fact, for Ruth, and for Sylvie, who is her teacher or spiritual guide throughout the novel, transcendence entails not only the abandonment of home and the material and emotional comforts associated with it, but also the abnegation of the self and of the concept of an embodied identity. In one of the most memorable passages in the novel, Ruth voices this desire as she sits alone in the woods on a cold, winter morning reflecting on loss and loneliness: “Let them unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone, and I would rather be with them, if only to see them, even if they turned away from me. . . (159). Here the body is regarded as the soul’s material shelter, but like the material world itself, it is less real than the ideal world of dreams and desire. What Ruth longs for at this moment is a shaking off of this corporeal shelter so that she might be reunited with her mother, her grandmother and even her grandfather in a life after death.

The essays in this casebook have been chosen to introduce students and general readers to the critical commentary that Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping has inspired since it was first published almost forty years ago, and to provide a wide variety of contexts for reading this rich and challenging novel. While there is a clear consensus that it is one of the most brilliant debut novel’s in contemporary fiction, this selection highlights that Housekeeping may be read in many different ways and from a variety of critical and theoretical perspectives. I have limited the selections to what I believe are the most interesting, insightful and accessible interpretations of the novel, reflecting the diverse critical and theoretical perspectives that have been brought to bear on the book.  For those readers interested in learning more about the growing body of criticism devoted to Housekeeping, I have included a list of further readings at the end of this volume.

Paul Tyndall, Ph.D.
Department of English
Kwantlen Polytechnic University
Surrey, B.C. Canada

Works Cited


Broyard, Anatole. “Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.”  Books of the Times. New York Times. Jan. 7, 1981: sec. C.

Lessing, Doris. “Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” The Observer. Dec. 6, 1981. p. 25.

Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. Toronto: Harper Perennial Canada, 2004.

Schaub, Thomas. “An Interview with Marilynne Robinson.” Contemporary Literature XXXV 2 (1994): 231-50.

Schrieber, Le Anne. “ Pleasure and Loss: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.”  New York Times. Feb. 8, 1981, p. 14.

[1] Time Magazine’s All Time 100 Novels as chosen by critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo. Jan. 7, 2010; The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels written in English as chosen by Robert McCrum. Aug. 17, 2015.

[2] These descriptions appear in the essays by Millard, Caver, Rosowski and Burke respectively, which appear in this casebook or are included in the suggestions for further reading.

[3] See Doris Lessing, “Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” The Observer 6 Dec. 1981, p.25.


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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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