Kathryn Dean, English Literature major and senior, presented her senior thesis “Objects Behaving Badly: Transcendence through “Things” in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.” Her project focuses on the things in the book, large or small and how they serve as mechanisms for Ruth, the protagonist of the novel to maintain her own system of objects and identity.
Dean began with an overview of the plot her novel, which features a family of mostly women, including two sisters, Ruth and Lucille and their grandmother, and then their transient aunt Sylvie. Ruth is much more concerned with the objects than her sister. Dean described three binaries which the objects, by extension Ruth, can transcend: natural and artificial, domestic and wild, and public and private. Dean also talked about three objects: the category of small objects, the house of the novel, and the train, which she characterized as a ghost of the novel, always present and absent.
The smaller objects directly connect Ruth to her ancestral past because they are frequently objects from Ruth’s grandfather, the late patriarch of the family, who had a similar reverence for objects. One example is a dictionary of pressed flowers. Ruth and Lucille are using the dictionary as it should be used, to look up works, when Ruth discovers flowers pressed between the pages. Lucille becomes annoyed with the lack of function of the dictionary and crushes the flowers, showing the distinction between the sisters’ interest in objects. The artifice of the dictionary and the nature of the flowers are at odds in Lucille’s mind, but Ruth unites them.
Dean excels at explaining scenes in the novel while analyzing them. While she described the house within the novel, it immediately became clear that house crossed the boundary of being a functional and nonfunctional space. The house includes stairs leading nowhere, and Sylvie, the transient aunt, often leaves doors and windows open, allowed the public, wild spaces to invade the private, domestic home. Speaking to the lack of function of the home, Lucille, annoyed with Sylvie and Ruth’s lack of reverence for domesticity, goes to live with her home economics teacher.
Dean humorously also pointed out that the house can’t even be destroyed correctly, as when Ruth and Sylvie try to burn down the house, it doesn’t quite burn down all the way. After they attempt to burn the home down, Ruth and Sylvie transcend a new boundary by acting like the train, the largest object in the book. When they leave the town, the pair takes the train bridge. The train most directly crosses the boundaries in the novel. It is directly compared to natural elements, like a weasel, when Ruth tells a story of the train crashing off of the bridge. The train also represents a public and private space, that anyone can be on it, and while it as walls, it is moving from place to place. The train is also a technology on the way out of transporting people as trains would eventually carry more and more freight (objects) as cars became more popular.
When Ruth and Sylvie cross over the train bridge, they take on the characteristics of the objects, they are actually avoiding objectification by creating their own system of identification for themselves and the objects around them. Dean integrated literary theory, including Thing Theory by Bill Brown and The System of Objects by Jean Baudrillard, with careful analysis of passages of description in the novel to produce a dynamic research project.