A House Isn’t A Home: The Horrors of Domesticity in The Haunting of Hill House
True literature has two purposes, the first is to show a reflection of society, and the second is to encourage social change by showing an unflattering reflection. In 1959, Shirley Jackson published her acclaimed novel The Haunting of Hill House, a gothic fiction story revolving an allegedly haunted house. Horror stories are often used as instruments of critique on society and its destructive morals. After looking under the surface of Jackson’s novel, the central theme seems to be based around the domestication of women. The Culture of Domesticity is a term used by researchers to reference the specific value system that emerged and reigned during the nineteenth century. During the Cult of Domesticity, women’s role in society were said to be centered within the home and women were discouraged from pursuing any form of personal growth if it risked outshining their male counterparts. Although the Culture of Domesticity is said to have ended around 1865 along with the Civil War, its lasting misogynistic effects can still be seen within modern society. Within analysis that expands upon the underlying themes of femininity and social defiance presented within The Haunting of Hill House, one can discern that Jackson uses Hill House’s disturbing interpretations of domesticity and nurture along with its effect – or non-effect in some cases – on the novel’s protagonists, as tools to simultaneously promote the opposition to the strict domestic roles that were pushed within society during the 1950s and also critique those who followed them.
In 1966, Barbara Welter, a reputable historian and professor, published her article The Cult of True Womanhood, which described the problematic roles placed on women during the Culture of Domesticity, or “The Cult of True Womanhood” as Welter prefers to phrase it. In her scholarly feature, Welter depicts the values that the Cult of True Womanhood prized the most:The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.While the Cult of Domesticity’s value system held that women who compliantly follow the docile roles placed upon them essentially deserve the most respect, the character dynamics within Jackson’s novel appear to imply the inverse. A direct example of this insinuation within The Haunting of Hill House is the treatment of Mrs. Dudley, who acts as a caretaker of Hill House alongside her husband, Mr. Dudley. Besides her economic class, Mrs. Dudley is the only female character within the novel that seems to check all the boxes in order to be considered a “true woman” in the standards of the Cult of Domesticity. Mrs. Dudley provides all the daily meals for the houseguests, maintains a constant standard of cleanliness in Hill House, and rarely entertains conversations that stray away from her caretaker duties. Although she would be, in most cases, considered the most respectable woman in The Haunting of Hill House, Mrs. Dudley is frequently depicted as unpleasant and distasteful with her blunt attitude. The novel’s four main characters have a clear disfavor for Mrs. Dudley, and it can be said that the number of jokes made about her throughout the book are relatively disrespectful, whether deserving or not, which directly contrasts with the Cult of Domesticity’s belief. The direct contrast seen when Jackson’s Hill House is juxtaposed with the Cult of Domesticity strongly supports my belief that Jackson uses Hill House and its inhabitants as a means to send the message of the need for the obstruction of stereotypical and misogynistic roles.
A large part of the suspense found in The Haunting of Hill House is a result of the way that Hill House consistently reflects domesticity as a frightening and uncomfortable thing. The nursery, a place that usually occupies babies/infants and therefore, is typically accompanied with a theme of innocence, is depicted as awfully unsuitable for children of any sorts: Although the nursery was warm, it smelled musty and close, and the cold crossing the doorway was almost tangible, visible as a barrier which must be crossed in order to get out. Beyond the windows the gray stone of the tower pressed close; inside, the room was dark and the line of nursery animals painted along the wall seemed somehow not at all jolly, but as though they were trapped, or related to the dying deer in the sporting prints of the game room. The nursery, larger than the other bedrooms, had an indefinable air of neglect found nowhere else in Hill House, and it crossed Eleanor’s mind that even Mrs. Dudley’s diligent care might not bring her across that cold barrier any oftener than necessary. The book written by Hugh Crain for his daughter Sophie on moral ethics is disturbing to both the readers and the houseguests for obvious reasons:”See this, though,” Luke said. “He’s burnt away a corner of the page, and here is what he says: ‘Daughter, could you but hear for a moment the agony, the screaming, the dreadful crying out and repentance, of those poor souls condemned to everlasting flame! Could thine eyes be seared, but for an instant, with the red glare of wasteland burning always! Alas, wretched beings, in undying pain! Daughter, your father has this minute touched the corner of his page to his candle, and seen the frail paper shrivel and curl in the flame; consider, Daughter, that the heat of this candle is to the everlasting fires of Hell as a grain of sand to the reaching desert, and, as this paper burns in its slight flame so shall your soul burn forever, in fire a thousandfold more keen.'” Even things as elementary as Hill House’s furniture manages to convey a feeling of twisted nurture:“It’s all so motherly,” Luke said. “Everything so soft. Everything so padded. Great embracing chairs and sofas which turn out to be hard and unwelcome when you sit down, and reject you at once –”Another theme found in the novel that amplifies the idea of domesticity being scary is the belief that Hill House resonates a suffocating maternal tone. In the novel, Dr. Montague says that based on its previous tenants, it must be extremely hard to leave Hill House, which eventually is demonstrated by Eleanor in the last act of the novel.
Hill House’s subtle imprisonment of its guests is in many ways reminiscent of a controlling mother. Eleanor seems to possess a deep hatred towards her deceased mother, painting her as a demanding and selfish woman while she was alive, but ironically finds comfort in the suffocating nature of Hill House that seems to be similar to her mother. As explained by Richard Pascal in his article, Walking Alone Together: Family Monsters in The Haunting of Hill House, the reason that Eleanor finds Hill House both alluring and horrifying “is bound up with the sense that it wishes to envelop her in a maternal embrace so comprehensive that her newly won independence…will be subsumed utterly.” At its core, one of the founding messages that I believe that Jackson is presenting in the novel is that domesticity is something to be feared, partly due to its habit of stripping individuals of anything that makes them unique.As stated before, I believe that Hill House is a device used by Jackson to promote the opposition to societal roles and to disrupt the commonly held belief that only women who fall into the roles placed upon them should be given respect. One way that Jackson demonstrates this is by the respectability politics in The Haunting of Hill House that greatly differ from how they are said to be in the ‘real world.’ For example, Mrs. Dudley, a woman who seemingly fits almost completely into the stereotypical female role, is consistently ostracized while Theodora, a woman that is frequently alluded to being queer, which would go against the heteronormative standards of domesticity, is possibly the most liked figure amongst the group. Another way that Jackson supports my thesis is by the varying effects that the house has on its guests.
Even though the majority of the house’s ‘paranormal’ events occur when the characters are together and rarely transpire for individual experiences, none of the other characters are affected to the same degree as Eleanor. As the novel progresses, Eleanor becomes more and more entranced with the house’s maternal embodiment and eventually, at the climax of the story, runs through the house chasing after a voice that allegedly sounds like her deceased mother. In the last act of the story, Eleanor commits suicide by driving into a tree, assuming that she is indeed dead of course, after being forced to leave Hill House. If she did in fact commit suicide, this could potentially be seen as her attempt at joining Hill House eternally by crossing to the afterlife. When looking at this ending for surface value, it can be said that Eleanor finally succumbing to Hill House and its twisted domestic nature ultimately caused her death. This is why I think Jackson uses Eleanor and her tragic ending as a way to critique all who comply with domesticity’s limitations. This claim can be countered by the fact that Mrs. Dudley, who is even further in the grasps of domesticity, does not appear to be affected by hauntings. However, this this rather represents Jackson’s distaste for those who chose the life of domesticity, like Eleanor, instead of those who are born into it, as Mrs. Dudley most likely was, considering her socioeconomic class.
Shirley Jackson allows The Haunting of Hill House to reach its highest capability by effectively using literary elements in order to disguise an intense political discussion under the appearance of a simple ghost story. Jackson is a direct showcase that feminist movements have no boundaries and can cross into all aspects of culture. The Haunting of Hill House isn’t necessarily an attempt to forcefully shift the world into a dreamscape free of misogynistic views but rather encourages a needed cultural dialogue regarding women and their role in our society.
Jackson, Shirley, 1916-1965. The Haunting of Hill House. New York, N.Y. :Penguin, 1984. Print.
Pascal, Richard. “Walking Alone Together: Family Monsters in The Haunting of HillHouse.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 46, no. 4, 2014, pp. 464–485. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2015384172&site=ehost-live.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2, 1966, pp. 151–174. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2711179.
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