The Dangers Of Blind Optimism In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House
Throughout their young lives, children are taught to branch out, broaden their horizons, follow their dreams, and stay true to themselves. As they grow from adolescents, to teenagers, to adults, life grows more difficult, and challenges grow greater in number. While some are able to combat these grand challenges to follow their dreams, others cannot deal with their problems and struggle to live a fulfilling life. In Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor Vance is a character that struggles to find her place in a world that does not wish to accept her. Through Jackson’s recurring use of many Female gothic tropes such as fear and the many forms it takes, the anxiety of uncertainty, and expectations for femininity, the audience gains an understanding of Eleanor’s true nature as a character that is filled with blind optimism.
Fear is a concept that has haunted humanity ever since the beginning of time. Sometimes, fear is even capable of defining who we are and what actions we take. It is inescapable and each and every person has a different interpretation of what fear means to them. Eleanor Vance and the other characters within Jackson’s novel are no exception to this. While many have tangible and physical phobias such as a fear of spiders or a hear of heights, others have more socially oriented fears such as acceptance by peers. As stated by an article on fear by Psychology Today, “In the past, human ancestors feared immediate danger, from volcano eruptions to hungry predators. Common fears today have more to do with the impression people make and how others’ judgments affect their self-worth, a hyper-focus on self image”. This new age fear is extremely evident in Eleanor’s character throughout The Haunting of Hill House, as she constantly fears the idea of not being accepted by the other temporary Hill House residents she lives among. This fear within Eleanor continuously compounds as her stay in Hill House lengthens. Eleanor however is not the only character who experiences fear during their stay in the large, harrowing house. During the night, each character experiences their own form of fear: Theodora with her blood-soaked clothes and bedroom, Luke being filled with fear as he attempts to be a hero and save Eleanor, and even Doctor Montague who believes “Fear… is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of social patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway” experiences fear from the supernatural forces thrashing on his door. Although Doctor Montague is a man of science and logic, he is also consumed by the irrationality of fear during his stay at the Hill House. He gives in to fear as a result from staying in the mysteriously haunted house even though he can find no scientific explanation for the supernatural happenings he observes. This proves that fear is an inescapable concept in society, and all people are capable of experiencing the horrors it brings. Of all the fears experienced by the inhabitants of Hill House, however, Eleanor is the one that allows her fear to drive her eventual dissolution into insanity. Not only is Eleanor’s fear driven by her fear of not being accepted, it is also strongly driven by her anxiety of uncertainty for her future as a woman.
Dreams and aspirations guide a large portion of the way many people live and act in society today. In Jackson’s novel, Eleanor’s constant day dreaming comes from her anxiety of uncertainty for her future as a woman. As she begins her journey towards Hill House, Eleanor constantly sidetracks herself. She continuously dreams of what her life could be if she didn’t live with her sister, or if she did not have to take care of her mother for most of her young adult life. Eleanor wishes to live in her “magic oleander square” with her “cup of stars”. This constant lack of focus on the task ahead of her proves her desire for something much more than she has. This strong desire for a happier life turns to anxiety as she realizes she has nothing to go back to, and no one who will take her in. Julie Beck from The Atlantic magazine states in her article about anxiety; “Not knowing what to do, not knowing what’s going to happen, not knowing what other people are thinking and feeling — these situations are ripe to breed anxiety in anyone, depending on how well they’re able to tolerate uncertainty”. Beck’s ideas about how uncertainty and anxiety affect one another prove to be evident in Jackson’s character Eleanor especially. Eleanor yearns to have a life that she could live thoroughly and happily, and even attempts to ask Theodora if she can live with her, so she does not have to go back to her unhappy, hellish life living with her sister. Eleanor is a character who longs for her own freedom from her past life, but she is not the only one within the Hill House who longs for change in their own lives. Even Luke and Theodora, two characters who do not have lives nearly as tough as Eleanor’s dream for a better future as well. As they walk across the Hill House grounds, Theodora tells Luke, ‘You [Luke] will probably turn up as an earnest young psychic researcher. And I will be a lady of undeniable gifts but dubious reputation’. Most people have dreams and aspirations, but as life can be unpredictable it can lead to a build up of anxiety. Eleanor’s uncertainty for her future gives plausible reasoning for her end desire to remain at the Hill House, as she was pushed to extremes by not being accepted elsewhere by her peers. Not only is she not able to be accepted completely by those living in Hill House, but also as a woman in her time, Eleanor is prone to face even more challenges in her quest to be free from her troubled and disappointing past.
The mid-20th century was a time of social reform and growth for the world and especially growth for women and feminism. The 1950’s was a period that heavily expected women to conform to their strict gender roles, but it was also a great period of social change and discontent with current expectations. According to the article on women in the early to mid-20th century on encyclopedia. com, “The feminine ideal of the era, which portrayed women as delicate, demure, and silent, confined to a domestic world that cocooned them from the harsh realities of the world”. Eleanor is no exception to the groups of women who had to deal with the harsh realities of the mid-20th century. Eleanor as a young adult was constantly confined to home life. She was always the one tasked with taking care of her mother, a staple belief in the domestic household of the 1950’s. Until Hill House, Eleanor never had a chance to experience the freedom she desired for herself, and because of this, she decided on pursuing the possibility of gaining her freedom at Hill House with Doctor Montague and the rest of the inhabitants. During her drive to Hill House, Eleanor thinks of how she can live her life now that she is free from her mother and her sister and becomes filled with hope and laughter. As she gets farther and farther from home, she thinks “I would never have suspected it of myself, Eleanor thought, laughing still; everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home. ‘In delay there lies no plenty; … present mirth hath present laughter’. With her new-found freedom, Eleanor grows with great amounts of hope and excitement until she grows closer to Hill House. From merely viewing the outside of the large home, Eleanor’s excitement turns to fear and anxiety, but she remains optimistic about her freedom from domesticity. However, as her stay in Hill House continues, Eleanor’s previous domesticity catches up to her and drastically alters her perception of the world around her. The house taunts her domesticity and fills her with fear when it displays on the walls “Help Eleanor come home”. The house does not quit however and plagues her mind with voices that dig deep into her sanity and remove what little of it there is left within. Proving to Eleanor that her desire to escape her domesticity, eventually caused her psychological degradation and ultimately her demise. This, combined with her overwhelming fear and her anxiety of uncertainty, are the sole causes of Eleanor’s destruction as a character.
Eleanor Vance, a troubled yet hopeful gothic character, becomes overwhelmed as she attempts to fight her past for a more promising future. The combination of her harrowing fear of not being accepted, her anxiety of uncertainty for her future, and her desire to escape her oppressive femininity are the very causes of her psychological downfall. The harsh realities of life are difficult to comprehend but having an excess of hope can cause more harm than good. Though being hopeful is not necessarily problematic, too much hope can lead to blind optimism. It is her blind optimism that damages Eleanor’s mental health; as stated by Doctor Clifford Lazarus, “in some circumstances change cannot be achieved, and it is acceptance, not optimism or wishful thinking, that will prevent depression” (Lazarus). Eleanor’s hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties all contribute to her immediate downfall as a character, and by understanding these causes, the audience gains insight to the dangers of blind optimism in their own lives.
- Beck, Julie. “The Personality Trait That Fuels Anxiety. ” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 June 2018, www. theatlantic. com/health/archive/2015/03/how-uncertainty-fuels-anxiety/388066/.
- “Fear. ” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www. psychologytoday. com/us/basics/fear.
- Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Books, 2018.
- Lazarus, Clifford N. “Why Optimism Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health. ” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www. psychologytoday. com/us/blog/think-well/201101/why-optimism-can-be-bad-your-mental-health.
- ‘Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960): Introduction. ‘. “Women in the Early to Mid-20th Century (1900-1960): Introduction. ” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed, Encyclopedia. com, 2019, www. encyclopedia. com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/women-early-mid-20th-century-1900-1960-introduction.
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