The Haunting of Hill House
How the Opening of ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Projects the Main Themes of the Novel
The opening of The Haunting of Hill House introduces three main elements of the book. In terms of mood, the first paragraph is intentionally vague, with ominous undertones which set the atmosphere for the book. The first line introduces many aspects of the character of Eleanor and the character of the house. A final main element which is introduced is the relationship between Eleanor and the house, though Jackson also uses the opening to gesture towards the significance of other characters to the narrative.
One of the most significant early passages in Jackson’s novel is the following: “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality, even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” This first sentence, which introduces the house as a live organism is followed by “Hill House, not sane,” which relates back to the words “sanely” in the first line. It means that the house has been exposed to more “absolute reality” than a live organism can endure. Jackson personifies the house, “the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the cornice of an eyebrow” and “hiding its blessedly mad face”. The doctor says at one point that it was ‘born bad’ and ‘sad’ from the start, but not evil from the start. This implies how finite the house is, like it has a lifespan. The phrase “for long” is emphasized in the opening paragraph with “it had stood for eight years and might stand for eighty more.” Inside the house, time always plays a pivotal role, where the characters lose track of time, the only structure in their life being the set meal times from Mrs Dudley, which are another extreme. When Luke asks, “But when is Saturday?”, the doctor responds “day after tomorrow. I believe Saturday is the day after tomorrow. We will know of course because she will arrive.” The tricolon of reassurance shows just how unsure he is. Mrs Dudley on the other hand, juxtaposes this by coming in right on the dot, saying “I clear at 2” or similar phrases, short and succinct. For the second part of the ‘eighty years’ quote, the word ‘may’ may refer to the quote “Hill House is not forever, you know.” when Theodora tells Eleanor that Hill House will end, that its life is finite. The other characters even talk about ending it, with Theodora saying, “what fun it would be to watch it burn down”, the previous tenant saying, “it ought to be burned down” and Luke saying, “it’s harder to burn down a house than you think.” The last one shows that it fights it, it doesn’t not give into the flames. Another use of time, or a strange coincidence, is that a book written from Hugh Crain to Sophia was on June 21, 1881 and Eleanor was invited to arrive on June 21, about 80 years later.
Like human senses, the house is ‘watching’ and ‘listening’ at all times, sometimes even moving. In one line, the doctor says “The house. It watches ever move you make.”, showing that they believe it to have sight. For hearing, quotes like “as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they had said” show that they think it’s listening. On top of this, it is not a taboo subject because Dr Montague even says, “Let us exercise great caution in our language.”, making puns about ‘spirits’ forbidden so the house does not unleash itself onto them again. In addition to this, Eleanor thinks that Theodora naming the house is like “telling the house she knows its name, calling the house to tell it where we are”, as if it is “deliberate”. Upon hearing this, due to Theodora’s supposed telepathic skills, she repeats the name thrice, without Eleanor having spoken aloud. For movement, Eleanor says, “Nothing in this house moves until you look away, and then you just catch something from the corner of your eye.” As if to say it does it when no one is paying attention, but it is actually alive all around. Another thing is she feels the cold is alive, and it is very much a part of the house. She describes the physical house as “chillingly wrong in all its dimensions”. Whenever something strange is about to happen, she feels cold, but one time she says the ‘cold chills’ were “like something alive. Like something alive. Yes. Like something alive.” She refers to the cold several times, even the warmth. When she finally feels at home in the house, she feels ‘warm, drowsily, luxuriously warm.” The cold just adds to the ominous spirit of the house. Another thing to add to the cold is the theme of iron. Iron comes up in many forms, like when she thinks whatever hitting the door is “an iron kettle or an iron bar or an iron glove” and that if a spirit was going around the house it would have “iron nerves” and that the stairway to the library was constructed out of iron. The house even has a heart, the nursery. The cold is the main feature of the nursery, colder than ‘11 degrees’ which is what it was in another haunted house, Borley Rectory. It’s described like “the doorway of a tomb” and “the very essence of the tomb”. By calling it the “heart of the house”, it shows the significance of the room while anthropomorphizing the house. The cold here was “almost tangible, visible as a barrier” and “like passing through a wall of ice”. It has an “indefinable air of neglect found nowhere else in Hill House”, like the heart, where love stems from, is being neglected. Back to the cold, the thermometer ‘refused to register any change at all” and they were unable to measure it, like the house is fighting back.
The house’s personality is described as “any of the popular euphemisms for insanity”, showing that it was indeed “not sane”. Nearer the beginning, it is referred to as “a house arrogant and hating” and later “a house arrogant and patient” as if it changes its personality throughout the book. It is also described as “a house without kindness […] not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.” Ironically, Theodora says that “Hill House has been kind to us so far.” and Eleanor embodies lots of hope and hints at love. The doctor even goes as far as to referring to its personality, saying that “the first hint of Hill House in its true personality”. To reinforce this, he talks about it having a “reputation for insistent hospitality”, not letting people go and having “destroyed its people” due to its “ill will”. The narrator adds in some of its moods, like when Luke says “Nothing in it touched, nothing used, nothing here wanted by anyone anymore, just sitting here thinking.” and “Around them the house brooded, settling and stirring with a movement that was almost like a shudder.” Sometimes, the characters reflect emotions onto it like when Eleanor says “It’s not us doing the waiting. It’s the house. I think it’s biding its time.” These moods influence what happens in the scenes, and is a vital part because it makes the reader questions whether the house is in control of the manifestations or not.
In the opening, the narrator says that “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House,” as if talking about its construction. A quote says “which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying to gather into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.” This shows its ability to control, although this is clearly not completely true as Hugh Crain makes allusions to having built the house with intention, in small things like the statue that was made for the tilt of the floor and mentioned in the book he wrote for his daughter. The way Eleanor perceives the tower and veranda also make the house seem like it built itself, calling the veranda “insistent” as it holds the “grotesquely solid” tower in place. One part of the construction which foreshadows the ending is about the “conical wooden roof” which was “gleeful and expectant, awaiting perhaps a slight creature creeping out from the little window onto the slanted roof”. The creature here, refers to Eleanor, who refers to herself and is referred to by others, as a creature frequently. The personification of the roof shows how it is viewed as a live organism.
Eleanor also fits the description of the first line. She is not existing sanely, and Hill House is like her absolute reality. When she dies in the end, she escapes this reality. As the doctor says, once she leaves “she will be herself again”. She realizes that her dreams will follow her anywhere, no matter how long the journey or how many potential ‘lovers’ she may meet. She cannot leave her guilt behind, “fear and guilt are sisters” and they are constantly interchanging for her, turning from one to another. Her not being able to escape the house may be what she fears most, but that is her guilt too. One anecdote from a conversation with Dr Montague is her realization about this, Eleanor says, “She should have gone away. Left the house and run as far as she could go.” He replies, “In effect, she did,” referring to the fact that she died the second she could, which although physically near Hill House, is mentally as distanced as she would ever be able to achieve. Before all of this, she is shown to be sane with her constant fantasies, which are dreams, about the places she might live, the lovers she might meet and the possessions she might own. At one point, this completely shifts with her thinking, “No stone lions for me, no oleanders” and is completely absorbed into the house.
All of this guilt may play into the fact that she is manifesting everything. The pounding on doors resemble her mother pounding on the wall when she failed to respond, the untouchable air of the library and smell only she picks up on may resemble the books she read to her mother and the nursery’s cold spot resembles the baby’s room that she sleeps in at her sister’s house. There are a few signs that point to Eleanor being the one doing it, starting with the fact that she may be a poltergeist. When the doctor mentions poltergeists, he says “They deal entirely with the physical world, they throw stones, they move objects, they smash dishes […] they are destructive, but mindless and will-less; they are merely undirected force; […] they drive out everything else too,” Eleanor reacts to this, “laughter trembled inside Eleanor […] she wanted to sing and to shout”. This shows that she may be the one doing it all, especially since the house has “ill will” and she is “will-less” and the house directs her to do what it does. One key scene is when Theodora’s clothes have blood on them, Theodora explicitly says “I don’t know how you managed it.” and Eleanor never denies it. She replies with part of the song from Twelfth Night, “Every wise man’s son doth know.” Later, Theodora even says “Why? Wasn’t it to be just a little private surprise for me? A secret just for the two of us?” The intention behind it is also clear, so that Eleanor does not have to be jealous of Theodora’s “considerably larger” and “considerably more luxurious” wardrobe. Eleanor thinks to herself in this part that “It must be paint; it’s simply got to be paint; what else could it be?” So deep down, she may know that it’s her blood, and none of the other characters want to question it, but they are aware that she did it all. Even though they determined it’s blood, when she informs the doctor, she refers to it as paint, trying to hide the fact that she actually knows what it was. She even says “someone-something” trying to hide the fact that it was a person, pretending she still believes it could have been a supernatural occurrence, She even thinks “Here lies one, she thought gracefully, whose name was writ in blood” like an allusion to Keats’ tombstone, where it says “water” instead of blood. The meaning there is quite clear, that the water will be fast fading, as will his name. Here, it implies that her name will be long lasting. The quote “sacred pacts are signed in blood” also show that this “sacred pact” may come true and she will eventually find a home, and go home. Another manifestation is the writing in chalk. Luke coincidentally tells a story involving chalk, where he says “the public executioner” would “outline his knife strokes in chalk”. It’s as if it is not concrete, only a trial here, and when written in blood, in the closet, it is then been signed, like when Hugh Crain signed his name in blood, sealing the “sacred pact”. It can also foreshadow that she would be killed, as it is done by an executioner, who did the chalk with the intention of later drawing blood.
The phrase “whatever walked there, walked alone” refers to Eleanor because she arrives and leaves alone, unlike the rest of them. She is also isolated in life, whereas the rest have lives to come out of and return to. The theme of loneliness is prevalent, and Eleanor’s isolation may be why Hill House targets her, and she is always the one being chosen. At first, to stop being lonely, she follows Mrs Dudley to “hurry after anything else alive in this house.” The relationship between Eleanor and the house is best summarized by two phrases. At the start, the phrase is “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills,” and at the end, the phrase changes to “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills,”. This slight change shows Jackson’s clever use of syntax, mimicking the line but the alteration shows exactly what has changed throughout the book. In technical terms, when she leaves by crashing, as mentioned earlier, she leaves as far as mentally possible but not physically. It is therefore not standing by itself, because she is now and forever part of the house. She is part of the “itself” and because it is not referring to a singular object, it is moved. She is sort of separated in the last moment, when she “thought clearly” the questions “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?” Her spirit is separated but she is still united with the house. Before this, she was “driven mad” by the house, and the verb “drive” is emphasized as she drives away, madly, into the tree. Luke describes this perfectly, saying it’s “a mother house” with “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.” In the end, Eleanor thinks “Hill House is not as easy as they are; just by telling me to go away they can’t make me leave, not if Hill House means me to stay. Hill House belongs to me.” Obviously, she leaves, so the house made her feel welcome but did not means for her to stay, because she did leave. It rejected her the second she got comfortable.
One final reference about “belonging” refers to a point Dr Montague made, “she was one of those tenacious, unclever young women who can hold on desperately to what they believe is their own”, like Eleanor who cannot let go of the fact that Hill House is not hers. She is so involved in the house that she even thinks, “Is there still a world somewhere? But as far as I can remember there is no other place than this. I can’t picture any world but Hill House.” It shows how lost she is in the house, something that Dr Montague predicted and warned her about. He realizes early on that she is at one with the house, using her to predict what may happen and pick up on small indicators that he does not perceive. He says, “Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.” She does not take this seriously, and it does catch at her, most evident in the line “how can the others hear the noise when it is coming form inside my head?” She even thinks “Now we are going to have a new noise” and the noise changes, showing her control. After this, it is shown that she is not the house, even though the house is her. When she thinks “Am I doing this? Is that me?” She hears “tiny laughter beyond the door, mocking her”, as if she isn’t in control, she’s just the medium. The voices are not new, she arrives and hears a “sick voice inside her”. During a manifestation, she hears sounds and cannot speak until the sounds cease, as if its her voice in use. She hears a “wild shrieking voice she had never heard before and yet knew she had heard always in her nightmares” followed by a voice she heard “inside and outside her head”. Ultimately she hears a voice and thinks with joy, “None of them heard it, nobody heard it but me”. It shows how she likes the isolation at the end, likes how for once, something is giving her the attention she wants.
Ironically, one of the doctor’s criteria was that none of them had “a clear tendency to take the center of the stage” but Eleanor and Theodora are always competing for it. When she has been completely taken over by the house, she is not in control, thinking “Poor house, I had forgotten Eleanor.” and her “mind supplied her with a reason”. She has disembodied herself and thinks the thoughts of the house. It’s exactly like what she thinks earlier on, “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster.” None of her has been separated, just being controlled. Another point about her and the house is Theodora mentions she mixes up “foolishness and wickedness” but Eleanor always talks about being a fool. This could imply that she is actually being wicked, due to the control the house has on her. Like in one example, she feels like “a damn fool trying to write crazy stuff”, about the notes she has to take on the house, almost like she is being wicked by betraying what the house is giving to her personally. Near the end, she thinks “I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside. I am home. I am home. I am home.” Previously, she has said breaking the spell will result in things “returning to its proper form”, like the silent version mentioned in the opening. Her at home here is the happy fairytale ending she’s been waiting for, finally getting the happiness she wants.
The most repeated part of her fantasy of love is the line from Twelfth Night, “journeys end in lovers meeting”. The journey she takes end with “her destination vague, unimagined, perhaps nonexistent.” It’s vague, because it could be a man or a woman or a house. When thinking about loving Luke and Theodora, she often envisions their homes, Hill House and Theodora’s apartment, finding more comfort in that than the people themselves. Before she makes her choice, Theodora and Luke dispute about her. At one point, Luke and Theodora say “A struggle between good and evil for the soul of Nell. I suppose I will have to be God.” “But of course she cannot trust either of us.” It is implied that they want to take advantage of her, not pursue a romantic relationship but rid her of her virtue. The doctor is reading two books, both about women who fight to keep their virtue by staying away from the pursuits of men. In ‘Pamela’ and ‘Clarissa Harlowe’, the protagonists vaguely resemble Eleanor, alluding to her actions being similar to theirs. Eleanor has never had a conversation with a man, further adding to the image of her virtue. In the book Hugh Crain wrote for his daughter, he says “they lead their child in innocence and righteousness along the fearful narrow path to everlasting bliss and render her up at last to her God a pious and virtuous soul.” The description is similar to Eleanor, and it foreshadows the fact that she will die a ‘virtuous soul’. When Mrs Montague starts to use Planchette, it was ‘insistent about a nun’, and Eleanor is not far off from one. The said nun is also trapped in the walls, like Eleanor trapped in the house possessing her. Considering Planchette only talked about Eleanor, it could add to this. Of course, virtue means more than her virginity, it also refers to her morals. Although a house cannot take her virginity, it can flip her morals, like Hill House does in the end, showing how it wins her over. Also, Planchette says “Home. Want to be home. Waiting. Home. Lost.” And in the end, she stops waiting, is found and goes home, so it may be more accurate than they perceive. As these are all flipped, in a twisted way, so is the ‘nun’ part.
Eleanor thinks “I am learning the pathways of the heart.” This implies that she is learning how to get around the house as she settles in as well as her learning more about love, with the house. The first time she feels possessed is when she says, without meaning to, “I don’t think we could leave if we wanted to.” This to her was a mere thought but she realized upon saying it that it sounds like the house’s insistent hospitality is true, therefore saying it has a personality and is therefore alive. It’s too early on and the others judge her for it so she quickly makes up for it by making a joke. When she first views it in a romantic light, she “wondered if she was the first person ever to find Hill House charming.” Charming is like a word you’d use for a lover, but here she uses it for the house. It goes so far as to make an advance on her, “something almost brushed her face; perhaps there was a tiny sigh against her cheek”. Later it’s “as though the house listened with attention to her words, understanding, cynically agreeing, content to wait.” Someone paying attention to her is all she wants, and the house does just this.
In terms of Eleanor’s own mentality, Eleanor says that she is “always afraid of being alone” and the house resolves this dilemma. The moment we see her giving in is when she says “I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.” Shortly after, the house “rises triumphantly” because it has won her over. While a lot of this is not mentioned in the opening, the key parts are alluded to and built on to form all these major themes showing how important that one paragraph is. It foreshadows much of what happens and the emphasis of ending with nearly the same paragraph shows the delicate craft of Jackson’s writing.
Fear and Insanity Gothic Literature: Why ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and ‘The Little Stranger” Are Not Your Typical Scary Stories
Over the past three decades, films in the genre of horror and suspense have been among the top grossing movies with relation to volume of tickets and amount of movies made. According to a 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology by Dr. Glenn Walters, the three primary factors that make horror films alluring to society are tension, relevance, and unrealism. This alluring effect is also translated in both modern and historic literature through the gothic genre. This genre combines fiction and horror, death, or romance, creating eerie tension and ambiguity for those reading. Shirley Jackson and Sarah Waters are two prominent authors whose works exudes this gothic nature with regards to the plot and characters. The idea of fear vs. insanity is present within both books at all major, comparable points. Although they are contrasted by different story lines, there are a plethora of instances, which expose the similarities within and can be categorized by either fear or insanity.
The colors in both The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger are typically dark and caliginous, and this adds to the gothic effect for the readers. In The Haunting of Hill House, the darkness of the house goes past colors; darkness is in the entire aesthetic. (quote of disproportionate houses and analysis) In addition, the rooms in Hill House have a significant correlation to the aesthetic. Each bedroom in which the characters stay in has a different color associated with it. The room, walls, and furniture in it are all the same color. These colors, while not necessarily dark in shade, prove to play a damaging role in the characters as the conformity of the rooms leads to the submission of Eleanor into the house at the story’s conclusion. In the book’s final pages, Eleanor, at night, while in her room, awakes to find she in no longer fearful of the house and boldly states, “ I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?” (Jackson 183). The color conformity of her room and the house’s aesthetic play a significant role in not only the gothic effect that readers perceive, but goes beyond this and plays a role in her ultimate demise.
In The Little Stranger, the story begins when Dr. Faraday describes Hundreds Hall; the “haunted house” of the story. He describes it in a chilling and thorough fashion that creates a understanding of the house for the reader right from the story’s embarkment. In the opening words of the novel, Dr. Faraday states,
“I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, and the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun… the thrill of the house itself, which came to me from every surface – from the polish on the floor, the patina on wooden chairs and cabinets, the bevel of a looking-glass, the scroll of a frame.”
This description of the house is an effective way of giving the reader a deeper understanding of the setting in which the story will take place. In the quote, Dr. Faraday is recalling the house from when he saw it as a child. Growing up, his mother was a servant at Hundreds Hall, so he spent much time raveling in the house’s glory. The striking details his description includes, particularly the simile of the edging looking like ice, puts a picture of a beautiful mansion in the mind of the reader. This becomes significant when Dr. Faraday sees the house again in present day, and is shocked by how the beauty of the house was replaced with a drab, atramentous skeleton of his previous depiction. The new darkness of the house carries through with the reader and makes the gothic tendencies of the novel even more prominent as new supernatural events and themes begin to unravel.
The role of the aesthetic of the houses in these stories mostly correlates with the feeling of fear within the characters. The Little Stranger begins with descriptions of the downfall of Hundreds Hall. British literary critic Joy Lo Dico writes about the protagonist of the book describing, “He remembers his first visit to Hundreds Hall, when he was a boy, the house was full of Edwardian flourish and his mother was one of the army of serving staff.” For Dr. Faraday, the change from his idea of this prestigious and magnificent house to the drab, dilapidated state to which it has fallen to creates feelings of uneasiness and fear as he is now visiting a place that is so different from his memories. For the rest of the characters who live there, the neglected state and gloomy aesthetic that matched it also correlates to fear as more supernatural events begin to unfold, but never causes psychological demise in the main characters. In The Haunting of Hill House, the house’s aesthetic also causes solely fear in almost all of the main characters. The doctor specifically chose the house because of its run down, “haunted” state so that he could measure its effects, and the other characters soon come to recognize this as well. Eleanor, however, associates more with the insanity of this as she feels she is actually becoming the house the more she recognizes the aesthetic aspects of it, such as her blue room and the disproportionate architecture. She slowly succumbs to the house itself as her sanity wanes and the starting point of this demise is from being surrounded by the haunted aesthetic.
Thematically speaking, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters possess much overlap. The theme of family is one that is seen in both stories. In The Haunting of Hill House, family is explored within the first pages as the reader is introduced to the protagonist, Eleanor, who has just lost her mother. She is not devastated by this loss however, as she came to resent her increasingly needy mother as she grew older. It is later alluded to that she may have chosen to let her mother die after ignoring her demand for medicine in the middle of the night. Eleanor also has a sister with whom she does not get along, and the only mention of her is in the beginning of the story when she patronizingly demands that Eleanor leave their shared car. After coming to Hill House, she befriends Theo and they become good friends. Eleanor, Theo, as well as the two other houseguests, Luke and Dr. Montague create their own sort of family after bonding over the paranormal activities they have to witness and survive together. When one looks further into this dynamic and the history of the house, the theme of family in the story is not comforting, but a source of confinement to the four Hill House guests. Trapped together in the house, they forget the world around them, and struggle to break the cycle of enclousure eventually leading to their psychological demise. The only mentioned character that was able to break this confinement cycle was Hugh Crain, the original house owner whose death generated gossip and rumors. The new found family for Eleanor is what causes her to crash into a bordering the property in the books final chapters, thus taking her life and harrowingly confining her to the Hill House forever.
The family dynamic in The Little Stranger can be most significantly explored in two of the main characters: Dr. Faraday and Caroline. In contrast to the “family” formed by the characters in Hill House, Mrs. Ayres and her children live in their “haunted” home, with Dr. Faraday as a visiting doctor and friend. Dr. Faraday grew up around the Hundreds Hall house as a child as his mother was a servant. He very clearly remembers the wonder and awe he felt when being there, but that feeling vanished as he grew older and revisited the house. Without his mother, Dr. Faraday struggles throughout the story to fit in with the rest of the family group. Unlike Eleanor who is the outsider character in Hill House, he is uncertain of his place in the world. Eleanor finds her place after being with the others in Hill House, but Dr. Faraday grapples with this consistently. Caroline is another character in The Little Stranger who plays a pivotal role in the story’s family theme. Although she is part of the family and house, she feels that the house has immured her childhood, and subtly but increasingly resents her family for this. Despite her wit, she is always pushed aside from attention from her mother or brother. In the end, she takes her life by leaping off the house’s balcony to her death with unclear reasoning as to why she jumped. This theme of family is a key aspect of both stories, especially when examined under fear vs. insanity.
The theme of family parallels a feeling of both fear and insanity in the case of different characters. In The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger, it most significantly effects Eleanor and Dr. Faraday. Both of these characters feel like outcasts at times in their stories. In Eleanor’s case, she has no real family and her friends at Hill House, while initially acting as a positive surrogate family, ultimately contribute to her insanity by the end of the story. Since the house targets her from her first days there, the others bond together in an effort to protect her, but this ultimately makes her feel attacked. By the end of the story, this “family” aspect leads to pure insanity as she wants to go through the house at night waking them to make them scared. She finds a new sense of family with the spirits of the house, and her demise is a result of the familial actions of the others. In The Little Stranger, Dr. Faraday feels a similar outcast feeling. As a child, he felt like he belonged at Hundred’s Hall and would visit with his mother. Now, he visits as a guest for a different family, and always struggles to truly find his place. In this sense, family leads to insanity for him as he struggles throughout the book to interact with the family. Caroline is another example of insanity through family. When Roderick, her brother, starts to have delusions and severe PTSD from the war, she is afraid both for and of him. This concern proves to be detrimental, however, especially with her interactions with Dr. Faraday as she begins to decline throughout the story as she continues to interact with Dr. Faraday and her family and ultimately commits suicide.
Both The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger have sudden, shocking, and ambiguous endings that leave the readers perplexed and interpreting the characters’ actions. Both end with main characters taking their own lives with their mansions seemingly being to blame. Ambiguity in conclusions is not an uncommon trait in gothic stories. The death present in the endings is both a result of comparable psychological demise, but the demise itself is caused from anthitical forces. Eleanor struggles throughout the story to fit in with her newfound group of friends, especially as the house increasingly seems to be “choosing” her. Early into her time at Hill House, the magic realism begins to haunt and torture all of the new inhabitants, but specifically Eleanor. Right from the start, the doctor is concerned and warns his guests saying, “Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you” (Jackson 46). The magic realisms begin soon after, but no one wants to leave. After their first night there, Luke asks all of them to go with him into the hallway. There, they find writing on the wall that says “Help Eleanor come home.” Eleanor is initially anxious and furious at the house for putting attention on her. She is continuously tormented by that same message in various occurrences throughout the book. Surely but slowly, she begins to change. Her changes are subtle at first, but grow in intensity as she starts to form a kind of exclusive bond with Hill House. When Luke responds in a grim tone that, “ We are on a desert island” Eleanor’s response is, “I can’t picture any world but Hill House,” (Jackson 73). She starts to become more and more connected with the house, and as things happen at night that are frightful to the others, she is not scared, but annoyed and bothered by the house. After spending about a week at Hill House, her psyche is wholly damaged and she reaches the point of psychotic break. When walking to a brook with Theo and Luke, she hears her name being called and runs away from them to a clearing. The calling of her name does not frighten her now, however, as the narrator writes “[She] was held tight and safe. It is not cold at all; she thought, “It is not cold. It is not cold at all” She closed her eyes and leaned against the bank and thought, don’t let me go, and then Stay” ( Jackson 204). In this scene of the story, Eleanor stops being frightened by supernatural forces and instead finds comfort in them. She does not want them to stop being with her, and is upset when she realizes that Luke and Theo are not with her. After that incident, in the middle of the night, she takes the house’s role of frightening people when she leaves her room and begins to run through the house, banging on her “families” doors and yelling through the mansion. In the beginning of their stay, they complained of certain freezing spots throughout the house, but after leaving her door, Eleanor describes them as “drowsily, luxuriously warm.” Within minutes, her downfall worsens when she believes her dead mother is in the house and hears a voice calling her name. After following this voice, she begins to bang on doors desperate to find the source, before the narrator writes “Poor House, Eleanor thought, I had forgotten Eleanor, now they will have to open their doors” (Jackson 219). this quote reveals the extent of her damaged psyche. She no longer even realizes who she is and who she is with, and begins to run around the house, childlike, in an effort to escape the others from capturing her. In The Little Stranger there is a similarly ambiguous ending. Throughout the story, Caroline had been consistently overlooked and confused. She was surrounded by big changes in her life, such as her brother getting sick, and meeting Dr. Faraday, whom she has an affectionate relationship with. Her mother’s psychological state is depleting as she begins to believe her dead child is with her again. Caroline is always caught in the middle and by the end, she has some very big decisions that she is not necessarily ready to make. On the day of her mother’s funeral, Caroline decides to sell Hundreds Hall. At this point, she is engaged to Dr. Faraday, who disagrees with this decision and tries to talk her out of it. On the night of her wedding with Dr. Faraday, she falls to her death off of a marble staircase after exclaiming, “You!” The ambiguity in this ending raises a lot of questions for the reader. Some believe that Dr. Faraday was the “you” that she referred to, and others see it as a suicide. This ambiguity leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the mental sanity of not only Caroline, but also Dr. Faraday and offers very few answers for these key questions.
The endings in these stories are a intricate combination of both fear and insanity. In the case of Eleanor, her ending signifies insanity, but this demise is fueled by the fear of the others in the house. The commination of the house “choosing” her and her feeling ostracized leads to her final break at the end in which her final act of both creating fear in the others throughout the house and fear after new final act of suicide. They are all so shocked and frightened by what they see that they simply return home and try to forget what they witnessed. In the case of Caroline, the ambiguous ending has an effect of insanity on Dr. Faraday. He was set to marry her, and has to live with the fact that she suddenly took her own life. While it could be blamed on him, the damage it had on his psyche causes him to still visit even three years later to try and find what her last sight was that drove her to jump. He is both fearful of what it is and going insane from not knowing.
The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger are two prominent gothic novels that may seem very different on a surface level, but can be quite comparable with regards to perpetual descriptions of house aesthetics, central themes, and ambiguous endings. The idea of fear vs. Insanity can be examined in all of these ideas. The house aesthetic and colors mostly correlate fear within the readers. They lead to uneasy feelings and by having the appearance of a “haunted house” he characters are fearful when magic realism begins to occur. In The Haunting of Hill House, the house creates fear in all characters except Eleanor. In Eleanor’s case, the aesthetic leads to demise as she feels she is becoming one with the house. When examining the theme of family, the main characters from each story affiliate more strongly with insanity. In Eleanor’s case, the house “targeting” her causes the others concern for her to feel like attacks, and she retreats to her own psyche and her demise begins from there. In Dr. Faraday’s case, he similarly feels outcasted and out of place now working for a house he used to visit and love. For Caroline, her insanity begins when her brother, struggling from PTSD, begins to exhibit symptoms that were mistaken from mental issues. That type of complex issue within her family confuses her, and she eventually demises to the point of suicide. The endings of each story are ambiguous, and can ben seen with both aspects of fear and insanity. Both stories end in tragedy as the main characters take their own life after a psychological downfall throughout the books. The Haunting of Hill House and The Little Stranger are two acclaimed works of gothic literature. While they follow very different story lines, after reading, one can see the plethora of similarities within. These similarities can coincide with the idea of fear vs. insanity in all aspects on these stories. Society continues to be enthralled with works such as these as a multitude of new horror and gothic books and movies become released in present day, and these works of literature and the ideas they inspire will continue to cultivate for future time.
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.