Both Robinson’s Housekeeping and London’s “To Build a Fire” deal with unsuccessful attempts by man to make and keep a home. However, while London’s story is thoroughly pragmatic and condemns man’s foolish attempt to subdue the forces of nature, Robinson’s novel spiritualizes and glorifies the failure to “settle”—the failure to make and keep a house.
London’s short story is an entirely pragmatic tale of man’s attempt to make a place for himself in the world on the most basic level: through surviving. The man in “To Build a Fire” is not, in fact, even attempting to make a home for himself; his struggle is more elemental than that. Rather, he is trying, to use London’s word, to “outwit” nature long enough to survive his solo passage across the Yukon. This man is not where he—or any other man—should be and his struggle to establish himself takes place in the most literal terms possible; while I might say “I’m establishing myself at the moment” referring to the fact that I’d recently bought an apartment in a new neighborhood and was working on creating a new life and home for myself there, for this man, he is very literally fighting to maintain his presence in the face of the might of nature. All that is required in terms of staying power is enough to keep his life anchored in his body; no more. However, man is not meant to be able to exist in conditions such as the ones the man is under. Seventy-five below zero, alone, in the middle of nowhere, man can only survive should he have a whole lot of luck on his side and if he follows a process exactly. London presents this process in the story and indeed pays homage to it in the title. The story is both something of a cautionary tale and a manual: should you one day be in this position, this is what you do and do not do. And since the man in the story is not lucky (he gets his fit wet through no fault of his own) and does not follow the process (he builds the fire in the wrong place), he pays the natural consequences. This is a process governed by inexorable and inescapable forces. Failure is the most likely outcome and when it does come, it is simply that: failure.
Robinson’s Housekeeping, on the other hand, appears to be as far away from the world of “To Build a Fire” as one can get. It deals with the story of two orphaned sisters being brought up by a series of substitute mother figures in a town by the bleak name of Fingerbone in the middle of nowhere, Idaho. However, Housekeeping, too, is a tale of man’s constant struggle to withstand the forces of nature. Fingerbone, which the narrator Ruthie calls a “shallow-rooted” town, must constantly fight its environment: “it flooded yearly, and had burned once. Often enough the lumber mill shut down, or burned down” (178). Stories circulate yearly of families trapped in their houses by intense snowfall surviving off soup made from the tongues of their shoes until they gradually starve, only to be discovered when the snows finally melt. All of this, though, the struggle of the town against nature’s cruel hand, is a larger metaphor for the struggle of Ruthie and her sister, Lucille, to make and keep their own home. Their actual house itself, their grandmother’s house, happens to be much sturdier and better located than many of the other houses in Fingerbone (their second floor escapes the floods), but they still face many obstacles in the keeping of their home: from the actual technical aspects of “housekeeping” (dusting, cleaning, preventing their Aunt Sylvie from using the living room to collet tin cans and newspapers) to the more figurative ones (making sure the girls are not taken from the home by the authorities).
Most of the novel portrays a back-and-forth between the forces of nature and movement (as represented by their Aunt Sylvie, who was a transient by vocation and not necessity before she came to live with them) and the forces of good, orderly, ordinary “housekeeping” (as represented by Lucille and her yearning for “the real world” and normality, represented for her by Boston.) Ruthie is trapped between these two forces and though she would rather not have to choose between them, she is inevitably forced to, at which point she choose Sylvie and a life without home or housekeeping, a life of transience.
The episode around the middle of the novel where Ruthie and Lucille get stuck out by the lake overnight encapsulates the impossibility of constructing a permanent dwelling to shut out the world. They build a “low and slovenly structure” (114) of driftwood, pine branches, and stones, in imitation of a normal home, in which to spend the night, even though the shelter itself is pointless. Lucille even goes so far as to write her name in stones before the door, attempting to claim the spot for herself and thereby subdue it, conquer it. But the attempt is impossible: the roof falls in twice and in the middle of the night Ruthie gives up on attempting to stay within its uncomfortable confines and leaves the house to sit outside in absolute darkness, where she can feel at one with everything around her. Lucille on the other hand “sat… beside [her]…never accepting that all our human boundaries were overrun” (115). Here Robinson, through Ruthie, spiritualizes the failure to keep a house. The boundaries of a house are, for Robinson and Ruthie, ridiculous human limitations which can’t ever be but transient. To let oneself fail in keeping them, to give in to the forces of time and nature is preferable because it allows one to be one with the world. This is why Sylvie does not like sitting in a lighted room, because the light isolates the room from the rest of the world, leaving one isolated and cut off, rather than allowing one to take one’s place as part of a larger whole.
Stylistically, Housekeeping differs greatly from “To Build a Fire” in that it is told with a strange fusion of aestheticism and realism. Whereas “To Build a Fire” is told in straight forward, non-poetic terms and is full of simple and repetitive sentence structures, which do little more than convey the literality of the reality of the situation, Housekeeping’s aesthetic style cannot at all be separated from the content it expresses. Even when London’s style approaches the figurative as with “the thick German socks were like sheaths of iron” (470) or “the wires were down” (472) (comparing his nervous system to a telegraph system), the style is easily separable from its content. London might just have easily have said “his socks were frozen solid” and “his nervous system was no longer functioning.”
Such is not the case in Housekeeping, which not only spiritualizes the idea of failing to build and keep a home, but aestheticizes it. Ruthie is unable, most of the time, to separate dreaming and waking life, her imagination from her experience, and the two bleed together to create an aestheticized world completely incapable of being boiled down to its literal self: “when one is idle and alone, the embarrassments of loneliness are almost endlessly compounded. So I worked till my hair was damp and my hands were galled and tender, with what must have seemed wild hope, or desperation. I began to imagine myself a rescuer. Children had been sleeping in this fallen house…” (168). In that passage, the reality of what she is doing (pulling planks away from a hole) first takes on a spiritual significance (the compounding of embarrassments when alone) and then it blends with an imagined world, which subsumed this reality (the imagined rescue, which she continues for some time). In relating that, there would be no other way to convey everything that happened without the style Robinson uses. This is partially the result of Robinson’s use of a first person narrator as opposed to London’s third person omniscient and impersonal narrator, but on a larger and deeper level it reflects her differing conclusions regarding the failure to resist nature in building and keeping a house.
In aestheticizing that failure, Robinson idealizes it as well, condemning the “normal life” Lucille loves so well. She romanticizes the life of a transient, Sylvie’s life, and leaves reality behind, hopping on a train with Sylvie and Ruthie by the end, whisking them away from a world governed by rules and housekeeping and, above all, limitations. For Robinson, the world of transience is the only way to participate in the “true world” as it is because one is not participating in the creation of artificial borders to isolate oneself from actuality, which is what the creation of a house, a home, a shelter is for her.
London, on the other hand, would find this conclusion utterly ridiculous. For him, nature is a harsh reality. Beautiful, sometimes, perhaps (he does not appear to ignore its beauty in descriptions such as “It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed. North and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save for a dark hair-line that curved and twisted from around the spruce-covered island to the south…” (462), which is full of beauty, though not an overly-aestheticized beauty, in the manner of Ruthie and Robinson, but rather a literal, realistic beauty), but harsh and cruel and relentless all the same. Man’s failure to exist in such conditions is not man’s fault; he just simply isn’t supposed to be able to survive in such conditions and so he should know his place, check his pride, and not try. London’s portrayal of man’s failure to carve out a place for himself in the world is wholly pragmatic, with no larger spiritual ramifications (its only extension being a condemnation of man’s hubris), while for Robinson, the failure is the point. For her, the failure is the necessary precondition to true living. London would worry more about whether one were actually going to be able to be alive to experience that living.