The Absolute Reality In The Haunting Of Hill House By Shirley Jackson
Reality as we see it, is what you make of it. “Reality” has always been perceived to be the harsh truth of life that society tends to overlook. Reality, in the Haunting of Hill House, is deemed to be the ineffable “absolute reality” that is unbearable to society. As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, absolute reality is the “ultimate reality as it is in itself unaffected by the perception or knowledge of any finite being”. First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House explores this idea of absolute reality as the characters of the novel come to face with in Hill House in a depiction of the Female Gothic. Shirley Jackson’s interest in reports of a house from a 19th century group of “psychic researchers” of which she concluded as a “story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and background” led to her creation of the novel. Through various characters in the novel, Jackson propels the idea that in the face of absolute reality, one’s inability to rationalize and explain away the ineffable ultimately drives one to become misguided.
In Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, Jackson employs concepts of the ineffable through the characters Dr. Montague, Theodora, and Eleanor illustrating ultimately one’s mental deterioration as a result of absolute reality. The ineffable, is the unexplained absolute reality that when one comes to face, ultimately drives one to madness. Dr. Montague is one character who is able to escape this consequential mental state. Dr. Montague, a “doctor of philosophy” has “taken his degree in anthropology” wants to investigate that which science has shunned, the supernatural. Dr. Montague’s point of interest is evidence of the supernatural manifestations that occur in the isolated home of Hill House. Being a man of science and factual evidence, Jackson characterizes Dr. Montague as a very rational man that contrasts the dreamy-like idea of the supernatural. She describes Dr. Montague as someone who “hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education” when doing his research (Jackson 1). With his scientist mentality, Dr. Montague’s skepticism allows his state of mind to remain in the real world. As a result, Dr. Montague is able to avoid the mental deterioration offered in the face of absolute reality due to the fact that he “interprets all events with more comforting interpretations of the supernatural”. Dr. Montague’s factual and scientific personality makes him a man who must rationalize every concept in order to accept it. Even in his research of the supernatural in Hill House must he find “definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as ‘haunted’”. When facing the supernatural, Dr. Montague’s approach is that of one who tries to define physical concepts. His ability to explain away the ineffable through his rationalization prevents him from going mad. Ultimately, this enables him to be “protected against the house’s power as a window into unbearable reality by his rather ironic ability to categorize the power, itself, as itself ineffable”. Dr. Montague explains the supernatural as it is: an occurrence in which it’s ineffability explains itself. This alone is valid enough for Dr. Montague to accept as a rationalization. Hill House, the window to “absolute reality”, manifests supernatural occurences in which Dr. Montague interprets with an inaccurate rationalization of the ineffable, that which allows him to accept the occurrence as it is. As a result, his judgement protects him from going mentally mad in the face of “absolute reality” that drives Hill House mad.
In contrast, characters Theodora and Eleanor, are not as enabled to produce self-protective rationalizations that create inaccurate delusions making absolute reality more comfortable. Theodora, becomes self-deluded as an effect of exposure to the ineffable. In one instance, Theodora and Eleanor make an outing to the woods leading them deep into the forest encountering something supernatural. Initially shocked and frightened, they freeze and watch “something unseen move slowly across the bright green hill, chilling the sunlight and the dancing little brook”. Theodora and Eleanor see something here however initially cannot truly make out what appears to be. Jackson utilizes paradoxical ideas of “chilling the sunlight” and “dancing little brook” to emphasize the impossibility of the supernatural. Suddenly, when in the face of absolute reality, Theodora attempts to explain the ineffable as it becomes too much for her to bear. Theodora rationalizes that what they had seen “was a rabbit, it went over the hill and out of sight”. By creating misguided self-delusions, Theodora creates a more comfortable explanation to the ineffable. Her attempt to evade the horror of absolute reality is contrasted by Eleanors succession in doing so. However, Eleanor in this case succeeds in doing so not by self-deluded rationalization, but simply because she “couldn’t see it”. In contrast, Theodora perceives the horror of the ineffable “unfiltered by the protection of ‘dreams,’ and has to turn to the protection offered by language instead” (Wilson). Theodora, when in the face of absolute reality, becomes overwhelmed by the unbearable ultimately causing her to become misguided by self-delusions. When trying to recount the encounter, Theodora closes her eyes in which she faces the unbearable reality which she then “laughed in a little continuing to cry, laughing on and on thinly, and said through her laughter, ‘ I looked back-I went and looked behind us…’”, the ultimate illustration of becoming misguided when brought to absolute reality. In this moment, it is clear that Theodora sees something in the sense of supernatural context, however such exposure is more than she can bear. Here, we can say that Theodora has come to terms with absolute reality and as a result, becomes self-deluded and thus misguided. Furthermore, Theodora’s character of a self-deluded female is in itself an element of the American Gothic contrasted by the mentally stable male character Dr. Montague. The idea of classical American Gothic as defined by Davidson is transformed by Jackson’s character Eleanor.
Eleanor, the dreamer, plays the ultimate victim to absolute reality. Absolute reality in which is too much for one to bear, ultimately drives Eleanor mad. Eleanor, emerging from a place of hopelessness, seeks happiness in her new comings. Her state of hopelessness “was owing largely to the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother” leaving her with the “inability to face strong sunlight without blinking” (Jackson 10). Eleanor herself claims that “she could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life” (Jackson 10). Eleanor who feels as if half her life had been wasted as her mother’s caretaker, seeks new beginning’s in Hill House. Upon her arrival, Eleanor encounters feelings of acceptance by the others she has met in her first socializing experiences. However, overtime through various supernatural manifestations, she becomes detached and isolated as she accepts the ineffability of Hill House. In one of these supernatural manifestations, Eleanor and Theodora travel into the woods encounting a ghostly family having a picnic. Confronted with a glimpse of absolute reality, their outlook on reality become negative as “the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else”. Jackson’s utilization of the lack of color illustrates Eleanor’s approach to the ultimate ineffable moment, the absolute reality in which Jackson alludes to in the novel’s opening lines. Eleanor in contrast to Theodora, is able to make sense with the picnic encounter as she accepts it as a picnic. She is the truest and most earnest character who is unable to look away from absolute reality. Through such awareness she gains in this engagement with the supernatural, Eleanor is further driven into madness. Eleanor eventually completely becomes deranged and misguided as she becomes one with the house. Throughout the house, “from a great distance, it seemed, she could watch these people [in the house] and listen to them” and furthermore “she could even hear, with her new awareness of the house, the dust drifting gently in the attics, the wood aging” and so on. In her union with the house, she is able feel and hear throughout the house. In this act of acceptance, Eleanor, who is either unwilling or unable to look away from this absolute reality offered by the house, becomes misguided and ultimately mad. Rather than creating self-delusions of rationalizations of the ineffable, Eleanor faces absolute reality daringly. As a consequence, “in the world of Hill House, the effects of trauma are inescapable – and they’re impervious to reason, logic, or science” (Bernstein). However, through this mental acceptance of the supernatural and mental deterioration, Eleanor becomes “free” and removed from the social constructions of the environment. “Despite this drastic and tragic exchange, however, a strange liberty is associated with her [Eleanor’s] situation”. This illustration of freedom from her confinement of the house reflects the transformation of the American Gothic to Female Gothic.
In Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, the idea that when facing absolute reality or engagement with the supernatural, one’s inability to rationalize and explain away the ineffable will ultimately drive one mad is illustrated through characters Dr. Montague, Theodora, and Eleanor. Dr. Montague, who evades the horror of the supernatural through invalid rationalization contrasts Eleanor whom comes to face with absolute reality accepting it as it is. Additionally, Theodora is able to cope due to her self-deluded rationalization through language as absolute reality is more than she can bear. Without the ability to explain away the ineffable or invalidly rationalize, characters are ultimately driven mad. Similarly, modern day society deals with the prevalent issue of facing reality. Due to society’s continuous self-delusional rationalizations of issues that are hard to bear, the world is driven into chaos. Although the world continues to try to bring order by explaining away the unbearable, the world must come to terms with facing the issues as it is in itself “reality”.
- Bernstein, Arielle. “How The Haunting of Hill House Conveys the Horror of Family.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Oct. 2018, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/oct/26/haunting-hill-house-netflix-family-horror.
- Davison, Carol Margaret. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies Journal, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 16 Aug. 2010, file:///C:/Users/tiffa/Downloads/davison%20%3B%20haunted%20house%20haunted%20heroine%20(1).pdf.
- Wilson, Michael T. “‘Absolute Reality’ and the Role of the Ineffable in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Wiley Periodical Inc., 15 Mar. 2015, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jpcu.12237.
- ‘Absolute reality.’ Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 8 May 2011.
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