Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Below is a post for Michael Clark’s class on the Contemporary American Novel at Portland State, circa 2051. I was still learning about postcolonial theory, so forgive me if my old arguments are sloppy. Have any of you read this book? What are your thoughts? 

In Housekeeping, Ruthie and Sylive’s transience is a rebellion against postcolonial life, conformity and stagnation. Ruthie and Sylvie refuse to be colonized, civilized, normal.

Ruthie and Lucille are two halves of a conflicted whole. Although it seems like Ruthie is the one who is in constant change, it is Lucille who initiates her life to transform. Ironically, Lucille is less inert than Ruthie. She deliberately and methodically changes her life–due to a cynical view of Sylvie and her lifestyle–whereas Ruthie goes with the flow, except when she challenges Sylvie and hides in the orchard (203-207). Lucille’s disillusionment begins when Sylvie finally produces a photo of her uncle, for it only to be a magazine cut-out. The relationship strain between Lucille and Ruthie is apparent when Mr. French tells Ruthie to think for herself and Lucille says, “’She has her own ways’” (134). Lucille furthers her metamorphosis and distances herself from Ruthie at school (136). Lucille eventually leaves the house, without saying goodbye, and moves in with Miss Royce (139-142). This leads to the departure of both Ruthie and Sylvie, and the destruction of the house, another irony since Lucille signifies postcolonial conformity, just as the house does. Therefore, Housekeeping is too complex and contradictory to fit clean in a binary analysis.

However, the Lucille/Ruthie juxtaposition signifies the postcolonial conflict of self/other. Lucille becomes the conformist Westerner, and Ruthie becomes the estranged nomad. In this dichotomy, self is society and other is transience.

As an aside, it’s noteworthy that, although they are just children, neither Lucille nor Ruthie are autonomous. They may have chosen to go with adults (Lucille with Miss Royce, and Ruthie with Sylvie), but they were still reliant on those adults, thus not attaining true independence.

In Housekeeping, transience becomes a metaphor for precolonial nomads (in Idaho, the Shoshoni originated in what is now known as New Mexico and Arizona). A further stretch would be to equate Ruthie and Sylvie with the spirit of precolonized peoples, whereas Lucille, and the entire town of Fingerbone, represent postcolonial living.

The sheriff signifies the winners of colonialism. He warns Sylvie of the hearing, displaying his political power over her. Sylvie cleans the house and turns into a model parent, but then sets fire to the house after Ruthie’s shenanigans in the orchard, witnessed by the sheriff, without even bothering with the hearing (chapter nine). The political pressure is too burdensome, so Sylvie sets the house ablaze, leaving behind ancestral memories and enforced social conformity.

Other elements of Housekeeping also allude to a postcolonial discourse. Sylvie mentioned all the people living on the islands and in the hills (147) as if they were a secret or a disgrace to the town; and the reference in chapter eight to the children, transients and ghosts in the woods; all equating with otherness. Furthermore, the constant referral to ancestors is reminiscent of the same common theme in indigenous spirit systems. Likewise, both bridges and boats are common motifs in indigenous spirit systems, often representing crossing over to another world (the bridge being the journey and the boat as the vehicle of the journeyer). The novel also makes several biblical references, and in terms of postcolonialism, Ruthie fantasizes about going to church with Sylvie in chapter nine; but the house burns and they flee instead.

In the end, Ruthie and Sylvie reject all the trappings of postcolonial living in Fingerbone, and America. Ruthie discloses in the final chapter of the novel that she works every now and again, but remains in flux with Sylvie; they are movement. Therefore, Ruthie and Sylvie are nomadic antiheros fighting the classist conventions of postcolonial society in the Americas.


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