Wednesday, April 8, 2015


The character of Sylvie is unique among any of the characters we've encountered so far in the sense that she doesn't explore philosophical or coming of age concepts (like Holden, Esther, etc.) but rather embodies some of those concepts herself.

Chapter 8, when Ruth is put in the position to experience Sylvie's world, and the subsequent fallout of that night, forces us to address how we feel about Sylvie--a detached transient-- raising two children. In doing so, Housekeeping forces you to think about your views on the nature of transience in the context of a rather rigidly formed society.

The question of where these transients fit into society, especially into the role of raising kids, is more difficult the more you attack it. On one hand, if children are raised under a strict "Home Ec Teacher" discipline, could this way of life be damaging to those children who are naturally "transient"? And if children are raised under a Sylvie discipline, could this way of life be damaging to those children who will find greatest happiness in order and stability?

Housekeeping might make the case that such questions are irrelevant. Sylvie did, after all, grow to live a transient lifestyle after spending her whole childhood. And Lucille did, after all, escape from Sylvie to find a more stable life. In fact, the grandfather could be another example, running from his childhood stability Iowan homeland. Perhaps, if the nature of transience (or lack of transience) is a natural part of a person (as the novel seems to imply), it doesn't really matter who raises you.

However, someone pointed out in class (I think Coleman) that it's easy to have transient people in a heavily structured world (a world where most people are "stable" or whatever), but it's harder (or impossible) to have structure in a world where most people are transient, because society relies on a vast network of people subscribing to the same set of ideals and such, but transience doesn't. Maybe that's part of where most of our inner uncomfort comes from the idea of Sylvie raising children. But mostly, I think it's because wasps and leaves in the corner and moldy, dripping couches is just kind of gross.

"It's about the immensely resourceful sadness of a certain kind of American, someone who has fallen out of history and is trying to invent a life without assistance of any kind, without even recognizing that there are precedents. It is about a woman who is so far from everyone else that it would be presumptuous to put a name to her frame of mind." -New York Times article on Housekeeping

Does Housekeeping really portray Sylvie (or Sylvie's type of person--a transient) as a sad concept? I suppose the whole letting the soggy couch dry on its own and sweeping leaves into the corner of the house might be there simply to make us go "ARG look at this sad was of living!", but classroom discussion on these subjects was generally much more forgiving and I certainly didn't feel that Housekeeping tried to completely paint transience in a negative light.


  1. I thought that Housekeeping was portraying transience in a pretty positive light, although that might just be based on my own personal feelings on transience, which are positive. I felt like Sylvie's comment about the boat dude giving himself a heart attack was apt, and that there really isn't anything wrong with having leaves just hangin out in your house. I don't know, I guess I just like Sylvie and appreciate her lifestyle, and because of this I think the book likes her too, but there may be more to it than that. After all, Ruth, who eventually writes the book, clearly appreciates her transient lifestyle.

  2. Although from an outside perspective, there may seem to be sadness to transience, and I am sure that there is some truth to that, as there is with every mode of existence. However, I would disagree that it is portrayed as a tragic thing. It really struck us--or maybe just me--that there isn't that much sacrifice involved in choosing transience. At least for Ruth, she does look back and occasionally think about Lucille, but even that is future-oriented (how Lucille might be now etc.) instead of regretting the past. That review makes transience sound like some last resort, or a choice made out of ignorance--not knowing there's another way to do things. And having read this book, I agree with you that this simply isn't the case.

  3. I disagree with the New York Times article; Sylvie didn't seem to a sad person lost in time, she seemed like someone who enjoyed freedom and fluidity in life and did what she wanted. Reading the novel actually gave me a better and more accepting viewpoint on a transient lifestyle than the one I had started out with.

  4. It's interesting that in todays media, this concept of transience and drifting is often portrayed romantically. As in, you have the character who doesn't settle down, just travels doing good and experiencing the world or whatever. Society teases us with this image, which is attractive to many, but in reality I think that a lot of societal pressure goes in the direction of wanting you to stay stable and work a job and not really be a drifter.

  5. It's tricky, because one of the things that most strikes us, early on, about Sylvie is her apparent *happiness*--he seeming immunity to anxiety, stress about the future (or the present), and emotional ties of any kind. But Ruth is indeed a "sad" person, as Sylvie acknowledges--"Of course she's sad. She should be." But the sadness doesn't come *from* her transient lifestyle; it comes from the fact of transience as a part of human life, and all the loss that surrounds her. Ruth's life appears so impermanent and fluid from the start, and she seems to come to accept and make peace with this fact--but that doesn't mean she isn't sad. Like loneliness (Sylvie's comment: "It bothers a lot of people"--but not, implicitly, her), it's something inherent to life, and must be endured. In this novel, transience is seen as a lifestyle that is more closely in touch with these sad and lonely facts about what it is to be human.