NEA Big Read


by Marilynne Robinson

I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.

  1. Why might Marilynne Robinson have titled her first novel Housekeeping? What does housekeeping mean in the context of the novel?
  2. Since Housekeeping is narrated by Ruth, everything we know is filtered through her perspective. Do you believe she is a reliable narrator? How might the story be different if told from another character's point of view?
  3. Robinson thinks of the novel as set in the 1950s. What indications are there of this?
  4. How does the town of Fingerbone shape the novel's characters? How does the house itself affect Ruthie and Lucille? Consider the influence of your own hometown and childhood home on the person you've become.
  5. What similarities exist among the three generations of Foster women? What kind of generational patterns can you identify in your own family?
  6. After Nona and Lily leave, Ruthie has frequent nightmares that she and Lucille are taken away from Sylvie. How do these—and her other dreams of trains and bridges—foreshadow the future?
  7. In the beginning of Chapter 6, Ruthie muses, "Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection." What does she mean by this, and how does this suggest a theme of the novel?
  8. How do Sylvie's housekeeping habits compare those of her mother and the great-aunts? How do Lucille's personal habits compare with Ruthie's?
  9. Robinson says that when writing Housekeeping, water was on her mind as "a very good metaphor for consciousness, for the artificial accidental surface of consciousness and then everything behind and beyond it." How does this apply to the novel, especially with respect to Sylvie?
  10. Why does Lucille leave the house to live in her home economics teacher's spare bedroom?
  11. If you were the child-welfare officer or sheriff, what would you have done with Ruthie and Lucille? How would you defend your decision?
  12. At the end of the novel, why do Sylvie and Ruthie take such an extreme step?
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