A Family Novel - Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson



For our discussion of a Family Novel we will be discussing Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

In my preparation I have gathered the following material to enhance our discussion.

Marilynne Robinson was born in 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho where her family had lived for four generations. Housekeeping, published in 1980, is her debut novel. After a twenty-four year gap she published her second novel, Gilead, she has since written two other novels; Home and Lila, these three are considered the Gilead trilogy. She has also written numerous non-fiction works, as well as essays and articles. She is the recipient of many awards throughout her career. President Obama considers her one of his favorite authors. Housekeeping was adapted to film in a 1987 movie staring Christine Lahti. 


Discussion Questions

(discussion questions provided by the publisher)

  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?


Housekeeping was selected for the NEA Big Read program as such their website has a plethora of resources including discussion questions, historical and literary context and an audio guide. I highly recommend this as a resource.

obama_1-110515 (1).jpg




In September of 2015 President Obama sat down for a conversation with Marilynne Robinson, it was published in the New York Review of Books in two parts. the transcripts can be read here: 

Part One and Part Two

or you can listen to the audio here:

Audio Part One and Audio Part Two

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it?
— Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


 The Paris Review's Art of Fiction series is one of my favorite resources, here is Marilynne Robinson from 2008

The New York Times review of Housekeeping from January 7, 1981


Other Works

by Marilynne Robinson