Friday, March 6, 2009

Women's space and housekeping (Marilynne Robinson)

A friend told me that Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson was "strange but beautiful", and she was right. I also found it much more disturbing than I had anticipated!

Housekeeping is about two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who grow up with their grandmother and then with their aunt, Sylvie. A lot of the book is about the house that they grow up in, how it is kept, and how it changes. While their grandmother is caring for them, the house is almost like a little fortress, well kept, clearly demarcated as a separate space from the outside world. There is a clear line between the house's private space and the outside, public space.

Then when their aunt Sylvie arrives, everything starts to change. Sylvie treats the outside world as if she has a right to make use of it. She naps on park benches, she jumps on trains to go for rides. She does not believe in maintaining a separation between inside and outside spaces. When it is dark outside in the evening, she lets it be dark inside, and the girls eat their dinner in darkness. When leaves fall outside, Sylvie lets leaves blow in and gather in the corners of the house, too. Furniture is moved outside and left in the orchard. The house is no longer a separate, private, domesticated, cozy space.

Since Sylvie does not keep her house "properly" - i.e. as a separate, domesticated space, the kind of space that a woman who knows her place ought to keep - she is regarded as crazy by the townspeople. And her two nieces, Ruth and Lucille, are forced to choose between the "proper" type of housekeeping, in which women know their place and create a domesticated environment for themselves (and are regarded as sane), and Sylvie's type of housekeeping, in which women are free to blend private and public spaces and make use of both as they please (and are regarded as crazy).

As the girls make their choice, the reader is forced to either support or reject it - and this is what disturbed me about the book. Because both options available seemed to be so sad. At first glance, conventional housekeeping seems the safer, happier option for the girls - but then the book touches on so many of the inhibiting aspects of conventional housekeeping. On the other hand, the act of breaking with conventional housekeeping seems to bring a lot of sadness too, as social norms and bonds are broken.

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