[(essay date January 1991) In the following essay, Ryan argues that Housekeeping subverts the traditional American myth of wandering--as presented by such canonical male writers as Herman Melville and Mark Twain--offering a feminist revision that reflects the difficulties faced by women who attempt to escape traditional roles in patriarchal society.]
When Huck "lights out for the territory ahead of the rest" at the end of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he enacts one of the classic myths of American literature. Confronted with the frontier and the illimitable possibilities for self-development and success that open spaces imply, the male American hero, long recognized as the "American Adam," is "an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own inherent and unique resources" (Lewis 5). At the end of Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson's first novel, on a Melvillean "dark and clouded night," Ruth, the young narrator, and her aunt Sylvie set fire to the family home and start off across the long railroad bridge that no one has ever crossed, to return to Sylvie's life of transciency. "'It's not the worst thing, Ruthie, drifting,'" she says, "'You'll see'" (Housekeeping 210).
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, two sisters who, after their mother's suicide, are cared for by a succession of female relatives, finally and most unconventionally by their mother's youngest sister, Sylvie, a wanderer who returns home to attend to her nieces with a peculiar notion of housekeeping. Sylvie's unorthodox mothering--fanciful, impractical clothes; late-night suppers in the dark; a house overrun with newspapers, small animals, and leaves--inspires the conventional Lucille to abandon aunt and sister for a more traditional life with the Home Economics teacher and eventually induces the townspeople to attempt to remove Ruthie from her aunt's iconoclastic care. It is the threat of separation that forces the pair across the bridge. "It is a terrible thing to break up a family," Ruthie offers as explanation for their flight from civilization; her statement is as well Robinson's articulation of her deviation from the myth of the unencumbered American hero. Her female hero is very much entangled with history, ancestry, the inheritances of family and race; she is an individual standing, not alone, but together, with an aunt who is also mother and sister, and with whom she affirms the bonds of family.
Housekeeping is a complex, often amorphous novel about appearance and reality, mutability, and memory and the past. It lends itself to--and has yielded--a variety of critical explications, ranging from Thomas Foster's reading of it as a representation of Julia Kristeva's theory of women's time, to Elizabeth Meese's deconstruction of the novel as Robinson's attempt to explore the creation of an individual and communal female self, to Gunilla Florby's consideration of the author's use of the "machine in the garden" theme. In short, Housekeeping is not simply Robinson's engagement...