Women's History and Housekeeping: Memory, Representation and Reinscription

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,797 words

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[(essay date 1992) In the following essay, Champagne contends that Housekeeping is a feminist postmodern text in which transience and relativity subvert traditional notions of fixity, linearity, and truth.]

This essay examines one important and idealized theme in women's literature in the context of postmodern literature: a woman's relationship with the domestic sphere. In Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (1982), the townspeople of Fingerbone banish Ruth and Sylvie from their family home because they fail to read and follow the social prescriptions for female domesticity; that is, they refuse to read the social text which polices and maintains the boundaries that separate private and public conduct and discourse for women. Sylvie's housekeeping is abysmal, and in her displacement and reinscription of housekeeping, feminist readers can identify the historical burdens that constitute the "crisis" of female representation.1

Fingerbone, the fictionalized place which foregrounds the characters' histories, is overshadowed by the role that the house plays. And houses (and housekeeping), like women's names in the patriarchy, are anonymous and replaceable; nevertheless, they act as vessels for the symbolic meaning that always/already takes on past-tense importance in the face of grief and loss. My first argument in this discussion is that place is always replaceable in women's lives because of the claims that cultural hegemonies have over women's bodies. To that end, I also assert that the category of place privileges male control of women's bodies and minds; after all, it is no coincidence that nature, always "she," becomes that which must be conquered and raped in order to claim one's "rightful place" within culture.2 My second point in this examination is that feminist postmodernity, with its emphasis on fluidity and receptivity, deconstructs traditional debates within the canon of American literature. While mainstream debates waffle between categorizing postmodernity either as a genre or as a period (and in so doing, reify the boundaries of both), feminist postmodernity reveals postmodernism as a practice, and thus as a hermeneutical politics of reading.

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping reacts against idols, notions of fixity, and narrative closure, i.e., "place" as keeper of the literary imagination, whether this takes the form of women who act as spokespeople, preservers of culture, or critics of the cultural imagination.3 Whereas the argument for androgynous vision is relevant to many contemporary feminist texts, the concept is not meaningful to Robinson: in Housekeeping (both the text and the institution) the male principle is expendable.4 In like, Housekeeping avoids the territory of marriage and male/female relationships because these are self-enclosed identities.

The tension between transience and fixity constantly negotiates positions and alliances among Sylvie, Ruth and Lucille. Transience in Housekeeping is that quality which is misunderstood and misrepresented by traditional social values, but is attained by those who have reconstructed (and so, recovered) their own history. Even before Ruth joins Sylvie in a life of transience, she feels comfortable with Sylvie's propensity for wandering:

I was reassured by her [Sylvie's] sleeping on the lawn, and now and then in the car and by...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053085