The female orphan and an ecofeminist ethic-of-care in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Lila
in Marilynne Robinson
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This essay considers how Robinson uses the figure of the orphan to explore the tension between American self-reliance and a feminist ethic-of-care. It argues that in repositioning the concept of care outside of the home, Robinson rewrites the terms of domesticity in order to embrace the idea of the interdependence of the human and natural worlds. Despite being separate works written 30 years apart, Housekeeping and Lila call for a comparative reading because of their central female protagonists and their shared thematic concern with women’s transience. In both novels there is a strong link between the orphan's isolation and the natural world, as Robinson explores an Emersonian model of self-reliance, of finding an individual, nonconformist connection to the American landscape. Indeed, through her use of the female orphan trope, Robinson asks whether it is possible to reconcile the separation of the landscape from the American home: to maintain a solitary connection to nature, while also embracing the relationships of care central to domesticity. Like the nineteenth-century women writers before her, she both challenges the domestic ideal and extends its message of interdependence, framing this within the contemporary context of environmentalism.

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