History and Space in
Contemporary North American Women's Fictions

by Marilynne Robinson

M. Robinson: General Introduction
  1. Born and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, south of Canadian border. 
  2. A two-time Finalist for the National Book Award for her novel

  3. Housekeeping (1983), and her book Mother Country: Britain, the
    Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989)

Her views on the American West and her American predecessors.

  Housekeeping: Plot Summary As a Metafiction (by Angela Wei)

Main Themes:

I. Mothers, (Fathers,) and Daughters; 

"What you choose to do has a shadow of what you choose to forego.

In order to create that feeling of dimensionality, I simply split up one woman and made her into a group of women." (Robinson from the Interview )

Q:      1).  What roles do men play in this novel? 
          2).  How is grandmother's housekeeping presented?   How is she related to her daughters? 
         3).   Ruth and Lucille's "mothers:"  Who take the role of "mothers" to her and Lucille?  How are each of them charcterized? 
         4). Ruth's and Lucille's growth: The story is narrated from Ruth's point of view.   How do they grow apart from each other and why? 

II. Feminine writing and Women's stories: (Reference: Cixous & Kristeva )
Q:   5). Cixous sees in women's writing "the potential to circumvent and reformulate existing structures through the
inclusion of other experience."  How is this done in Housekeeping?   Consider both its narrative style, main focus and "the other women" in it.  (What are the other women's stories that get told in this novel?  Why?)  |
Q: Is there semiotic disposition in this novel?  (ref. The semiotic disposition:

the emergence of the semiotic in the symbolic, or the genotext in the phenotext. 
E.g. rhythm, ambiguity and over-symbolicity, the switches and multiplicity of locutionary position. )

III. Symbolic meanings: Housekeeping vs. the lake and the flood; brightness and darkness; the train

"A lot of the things that are in Housekeeping are preoccupations that emerged from this kind of writing without any specific intentions -- and they were preoccupations I wasn't particularly aware of, like housekeeping, and memory, and place"  (Robinson from the Interview )
Q:  6) What are the different houses we see in this novel?  How are they "kept" differently by different characters?
      7) The setting itself is symbolic: Fingerbone, the lake and the train that goes through the bridge. 
(Ref. Discussion of the lake as a metafictional element )

IV. The West and Transient 

About the American West. "That's the part of the country where I grew up . . . and it's a part of the country that people in general have a very impoverished imagination of." (source)

I-1. Men in the novel -- shy, shown in photos, like to travel; 
1. Grandfather 
  • (1): pp. 3-4 -- his adventure; 
  • (1): pp. 5-6 -- the derailment of the train and his death
  • (2): p. 40 -- his "importance" (the photo)
2. Reginald Stone
  • mentioned on (1) p. 14 (photo); (3) pp. 51-52; 
3. Fisher -- p. 15 not even a photo, no name.  His job is unclear (6) pp. 101-102. 

I-2. Grandmother's housekeeping & love: 
  • grandmother twofold marginalization (the town, how they recognize her death--her insertion into the public sphere pp. 27)
  • after Grandfather's death: (1) p. 11-12; perfect serenity p. 13; 
  • Not really to keep them: 
    • Her feelings about Edmund's death and of his disappearance before his death 10;
    • sense of love after marriage:  (1) p. 12; 
    • the resurrection of the ordinary pp. 15-18 (or strangeness in the ordinary)
  • changes in the daughter pp. 13-15

  • 2nd-time childcare and housekeeping: 
    • as if dreaming, insecure 24-25;  pie for ghost children-- with well-meaning and despair; 26
    • aging p. 26; 

I-3. Ruth and Lucille's "mothers":
  • Helen and her house  see only the tented top 20; string attached to the children 21;
    • Bernice 21-22
  • the two aunts, Lily and Nona: 
    • consensus, habit and familiarity: 30, 32;
    • their dialogue p. 30; 
    • their response to the two girls: unpracticed pats and kisses. (2) p. 29; utter fear of the outside world p. 36; 
    • their views of Sylvie  p. 38 
  • the other 'mothers' --Home Economics teacher; Rosette Brown's mother 104

Sylvie and her housekeeping
  • her transienct actions: Sylvie on the rail 80; 82-83 
  • housekeeping: pp. 85; her ways of buying things 93; evening 99; Sylvie compared with Helen (7) p. 110
  • how she changes her ways of housekeeping after the town's intervention  199

The daughters: 
  • missing the mother: searching and waiting for resurrection like hoboes p. 96, missing the mother p. 121
  • in need of a mother: snow woman 60; 96 
  • schooling  76
  • Lucille vs. Sylvie: questioning her and then defending her p. 57-58; children p. 69 ; dressing 92-94; husband 100-101; 
  • Ruth's differences from Lucille: Lucille's response to the flood p. 66; her response to seeing Sylvie on the bridge 81-82; last summer: different views on going to the woods (6) 98-99; 
  • different views of their "mother" (7) p. 109-110; 
  • Ruth needs Sylvie -- confusing Helen with Sylvie 53; Ruth's fear of separation p. 68; p. 70-71; 106; 109; connect Sylvie with Helen, in front of the mirror 130-131;
  • Lucille's taking action  (7) p. 122 - 
  • Ruth unwilling to follow; finds what she lost in Sylvie's house 124 - 

II. Feminine writing and Women's stories: 
  • Confirmation and a metaphysical examination of what house/home keeping means.
  • Narrative Style: circular, associative and re-visioning 
    • recurrence of her love for Edmund after his death : e.g. the wind passage --  pp.. 16-18; 
    • repetition of the quietness after the daughters' departure  p. 15; repetition of descriptions of grandmother's housekeeping, e.g. 27.
    • the train as a metaphor pp. 53- 
    • The story is told by Ruth--in her attempts to re-construct the past in a sympathetic way (with expressions such as "say" "I have wondered.") e.g. the wind passage; p. 48 about Sylvie ; p. 96 about the hoboes and them
    • Her attempts at reconstruction pp. 53; 91. 
  • Women's stories: 
    • Molly p. 90; Helen, Sylvie, 
    • Bernice's taking care of Ruth and Lucille 21-22;
    • grandmother's mother's story about a woman and ghost children 25-26;
    • Ettie's story about an old lady and her parrot p. 24; 
    • Sylvie's stories: lonely women 66-67; about travelling women: Edith, a woman of substance p. 87; Alma, seeing the sunset 88; the lady who goes to see her cousin being hanged 104

  • grandfather's houses: the stairs p.47; grandfather's wardrobe 89; 
  • the school p. 76
III. Symbolic meanings: Housekeeping vs. the lake and the flood; brightness and darkness; the train 
  • home--togetherness; 
  • forming and/or conforming to habits, patterns and properties 
  • "unhouse me of this flesh" 159

  • Loss and transience: 
  • the lake: like a mysterious dark world with the surface as a breakable boundary p. 7-8; Fingerbone and the lake pp. 4, 9 ; the lake and history p.41 
  • the flood: Fingerbone's hoard destroyed 62-63; The house flowed around us. p. 64; the bushes have moved. p. 65
  • the train -- p. 50; 

    Interconnectedness of the images
     -- images associated with water-- the dear ordinary = image on the water 15; shadow on the water = image in an eye p. 5; grandmother's property --> turns liquid 27; window: warped as water p.86; woman in the mirror = woman in the dream, remembered, and in the lake.  131-32
    -- images associated with the town - light (as opposed to the darkness in Nature and on the lake pp. 34-35)
    -- deep woods associated with old house p. 98
    -- the world's gaze as distorting mirror
  • memory  p. 53; lighted train --> "Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house." (8) p.154

Reconstruction, sense of connectedness

  • fragments to be reconstructed: 92; 
  • what perished need not also be lost 124

IV. The West and Transient: 
the town vs. transients: 
  • Ruth's feelings about the town and the world: the world's gaze (distorting) p. 99
  • the town represented by Rosette Brown's mother (6) pp. 103; 104 
Ruth's growth: 
  • R's silence (does not know what she thinks) 105; Ruth's awkwardness felt very tall 121;her loneliness (after Lucille rejects her) p. 136 
  • Her narration shows how she understands grandmother and Sylvie.  pp. 48-49.
  • Her use of "we" p. 98; Her different interpretation of staying overnight in Nature 116
  • In her narration, she wants to speak to Lucille (174); she speaks to "you" about breaking up a family  p. 190
  • Her gradual understanding and acceptance of transience and death, while trying to connect with the living.
  • Snow Woman 60; 96
  • Her acceptance of darkness as a solvent of everything. 1) The visible is illusive; "...there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, bequest. . . " (116)
  • Her experience of sleep as death 118; --> Her interpretation of her dream of waiting for her mother with confidence. 
  • The perished need not also be lost 124
  • To crave is to have 152;
  • tearing down the house--> willing to un-house herself 158
  • Interview with M. Robinson; Reading Guide
    Plot: 1. grandfather's death --> grandmother's; 2. Lily and Nona's arrival and taking care of Ruth and Sylvie; 3. Sylvie's arrival; 4. the flood; 5. after the flood and Sylvie's housekeeping; 6 . the summer before Lucille changes, her disagreement with Sylvie; 7. summer truancies: spending the night in the woods; Lucille and Ruth taking different direction to search for their "home."   Lucille's departure; 8. the trip to the "place" with a fallen house; 9. the town intervenes and Sylvie tries to reform her ways of housekeeping;  10. burning the books, 11. burning down the house and leaving.