Alienation And Isolation In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House

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Haunted residences are a ubiquitous trope in Gothic literature, from the imposing castles of 18th century English tales towards the unwelcoming haunted houses of 20th century American novels. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which Stephen King heralded as one of “the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years”, four characters travel to a supposedly haunted Hill House in order to scientifically prove the existence of the supernatural. Out of these four characters, one is a scientist (Dr John Montague), another is the heir to Hill House (Luke Sanderson) and two have previous experiences with supernatural events (Theodora and Eleanor Vance). As a place of terror and unfamiliar domesticity, Hill House does not employ exterior causes of horror, but rather reflects the inner workings of its inhabitants. Eleanor is the self-centred protagonist, an immature and vulnerable recluse living in a world where a woman’s worth is determined by her marital status and domestic life. She falls victim to the ambiguous ‘haunting’ – whether it is all Eleanor’s delusions or actual supernatural manifestations remains unclear. Hill House takes advantage of her precarious psychological state by becoming her materialized subconsciousness and allowing her to attempt and fail to create meaningful relationships. The house represents the highlighted shortcomings of Eleanor, who requires the others’ acceptance and friendship in order to develop her self-worth. In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson does not use the Gothic trope of the haunted house only to frighten her audience, but rather utilizes it to explore the effects of failed interpersonal dynamics on the emotionally stunted Eleanor. The uncanny events that unravel accentuate the “darker aspects of everyday life”, and reflect Eleanor herself, who is finally “seeing [herself] clearly and without disguise”. Her inability to create an identity and be integrated into a social group, along with her poor self-esteem lead to her untimely death, which Eleanor views as the only act she has ever done of her own free will. Eleanor Vance is the perfect ‘victim’ for Hill House and all that is symbolises – the possibility of supernatural phenomena and contact with spirits of the deceased – largely due to her emotional underdevelopment and lack of self-worth, which are a result of her not developing meaningful relationships leading to her adulthood.

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The family as present in Gothic writing, observes Briggs, is perceived as “a source of danger, even as a model of false consciousness”. This is also true in The Haunting of Hill House, as Eleanor is traumatised by the lack of intimacy with her family, especially with her mother, who exploits her. As such, she becomes haunted by the ghosts of her subconscious, eventually even being in physical danger. Despite being a character in absentia, Eleanor’s mother is a central part of understanding Eleanor’s oppression. The authoritarian nature of the mother-daughter relationship as reflected in the novel is shaped by Shirley Jackson’s relationship with her own mother, Geraldine. Jackson was also abused by her mother, who disliked her from birth and was critical of her obesity. It comes at no surprise that in the novel Eleanor regards her mother with contempt and animosity, after spending most of her adult life caring for her ailing mother, who abuses her emotionally with “small guilts and small reproaches”. Despite this, Eleanor feels responsible for the death of her mother due to not waking up in order to answer her calls for help in her final hours. According to Rubenstein, her mother’s death weighs heavily on Eleanor’s subconsciousness, becoming “a haunting presence” that hinders her personal development and her finding her own identity. Thus, Eleanor develops an “existential homelessness” and is unable to prevent herself from feeling completely lost. The only aspect of her relationship with her mother that Eleanor enjoys is the fact that she must read love stories. Thus, Eleanor develops romantic, “compulsive fantasies” of a home with stone lions and oleanders in the front, these fantasies being trapped into her own mind, unable to be shared with others. These escapist fantasies permit Eleanor to avoid her feeling of self-estrangement, represented by “the terror and rage that women experience within patriarchal social arrangements”, the feeling of not belonging to your own social group. Similarly, Eleanor is a 32-year-old woman with no family, friends or place of her own in a society that views women’s only worth as being housewives. Not only is Eleanor a victim of her mother’s mistreatment, she also lacks a proper support system in order to develop emotionally in the form of other family members. Her sister’s attitude reflects her mother’s. She patronizes Eleanor by refusing to allow her to borrow the car they bought together, which generates an inferiority complex that will affect her relationships at Hill House. She often calls herself a baby and her preferred nicknames, Nell and Nellie, reflect this tendency of self-infantilization: “You are a very silly baby, Eleanor, she told herself, as she did every morning”.

Meanwhile, her relationship with her father is non-existent, the only mention of him being his death, which triggers Eleanor’s ‘poltergeist’ incident – “showers of stones had fallen on their house” – and leads to her going to Hill House, where she meets the others. The four individuals that come together to Hill House form a makeshift broken ‘family’ for Eleanor, where each person tries – and fails – to fulfil their role. Eleanor deteriorates these relationships on her own subconsciously by projecting. She erroneously believes that she belongs in this micro-society merely due to sharing the experience of Hill House: “I am one of them; I belong”. Dr Montague is a parody of the patriarch, a seemingly exemplary father figure who, underneath his academic formality, is a submissive husband and a failed philosopher. He aims to obtain authority in a field that is considered irrational – supernatural events – but ultimately fails: “he hoped to borrow an air of […] scholarly authority, from his education”. Despite being the most knowledgeable and teaching the others about the history of Hill House, he is unable to protect Eleanor from harm and from herself. His conservative, patriarchal views on morality and sexuality, as reflected in his reading Pamela, Virtue Rewarded, pose as a stark contrast to his relationship with his wife, who joins Hill House in the latter half of the novel and takes charge of the ‘experiment’. His scientific mind is undermined by her occult views, and his submission to an authoritarian female figure, such as his wife, can also be argued as the reason for him failing Eleanor. He attempts to save her and his own endangered reputation by sending her back to her sister after she climbs the frail stairs in the library, but Eleanor herself rejects his authority: she argues against being sent away and her suicide can be regarded as an act of defiance that causes his failed study and retirement. Luke Sanderson, the heir to Hill House and a thief, is the other male figure in Eleanor’s new life, to whom she applies great expectations which he cannot live up to – she imagines him as her romantic knight in shining armour. Even before arriving at Hill House, Eleanor daydreams about meeting a handsome man and falling deeply in love. Her first thought when seeing Luke is the lyric “Journeys end in lovers meeting”, which becomes Eleanor’s leitmotif. Her desire for love and acceptance leads her to attempt to recreate her love stories with Luke: “these are the silent pathways of the heart”. However, Eleanor becomes bored with him when she is no longer blinded by wishful thinking, calling him “a parrot”, “selfish”, “not very interesting”, even “a coward”. Ultimately, Luke truly is her saviour – risking his life to help her down the stairs in the library, but she is already corrupted by Hill House at that point and she cannot see the truth. The other female participant in Dr Montague’s experiment is Theodora, who Eleanor develops conflicting feelings for due to seeing her as a replacement for her mother.

Theodora is Eleanor’s social counterpart, an independent and confident woman who refuses to disclose her last name. Eleanor and Theodora are the first to arrive at Hill House. In less than a half an hour, Eleanor regards Theodora as “close and vital”. Theodora is initially fond of Eleanor and says she is her “cousin” or “twin”, but she eventually rejects her. Eleanor becomes jealous of Theodora being in the centre of attention, her feelings devolving into violent hatred: “I would like to hit her with a stick, Eleanor though, looking down on Theodora’s head beside her chair; I would like to batter her with rocks. […] I hate her, […] she sickens me; she is all washed and clean and wearing my red sweater […] I would like to watch her dying”. However, Eleanor’s hatred dissolves into delusion when she decides to follow Theodora home, as a means of finding her own. When an exasperated Theodora questions her decision, Eleanor claims that “[she has] never been wanted anywhere”. Being strangers in a new place, the characters can become whatever they desire, as Hill House allows them to create complementary ‘alternate lives’ that suit their personalities, to don masks and become an actual ‘cast of characters’: Theodora’s confidence makes her a princess, Luke’s boldness – a bullfighter, Dr Montague’s inquisitiveness – a pilgrim. Eleanor’s choice of ‘alternate identity, that of a courtesan, is certainly ironic considering her lack of interaction with males prior to Luke. Eleanor, however, takes this play-pretend even further, actively lying about her real life: she tells the others that she owns an apartment by herself in order not to be regarded as a failure in this micro-society’s eyes. Her lies are eventually uncovered, and she is shunned. Eleanor’s lack of identity isolates her from the others, who become easily irritated by her. Despite this, she begins imagining a future with Theodora, one where she finally belongs. Thus, Eleanor is giving up her previous impossible aspirations (her romantic fantasies) for other unattainable delusions, which she eventually realizes, consolidating the house’s hold on her. During Eleanor’s attempts to integrate herself into this micro-community, she experiences Hill House as a place where unnatural events and supernatural phenomena happen as a reflection of her repressed self. In Gothic tradition, Brooks acknowledges that the haunted castle “realizes an architectural approximation of the Freudian model of the mind, particularly the traps laid for the conscious by the unconscious and the repressed”. Here, Hill House is a 20th century mansion, a continuation of the Gothic castle, where the odd architecture – slanted stairs and askew corners – appears normal at first, analogous to how Eleanor herself appears functional, but beneath the surface she is a deeply damaged character. According to Rubenstein, Eleanor is imprisoned in a house that mirrors her troubled fantasies, thus displaying her “experience of entrapment and longing for protection”. As a repressed individual, her subconscious guilt regarding the death of her mother and her self-esteem issues manifest themselves in the form of hauntings, where Hill House “constitutes a stark replica of the departed parent and of her callously selfish behaviour”, concurs Cavallaro. The doors that continuously close show her incapability of connection and of familiarizing herself with other people and with a new potential ‘home’. The supernatural phenomena in the novel – the ‘uncanny’ hauntings – can be interpreted both as literal manifestations of Eleanor’s subconscious and as foreshadowing for her death. All instances of hauntings are Eleanor exteriorising her subconscious insecurities, fears and paranoia. Rubenstein proposes that her troubled relationship with her mother causes her to search for a “home”, creating anxieties that coincide with the “fear of self”. The ‘uncanny’, as defined by Freud, represents the “class of the terrifying which leads back to something known to us, once very familiar”. Here, the four protagonists try to domesticate Hill House and familiarize themselves with it, but they unanimously fail.

Whenever they come close to making Hill house ‘home’, something terrifying happens, always related to Eleanor. For instance, Theodora decides to paint Eleanor’s toenails red – a colour associated with repressed desires – which Eleanor’s mother would not approve of. Akin to how Eleanor ignored her mother’s call for help before her death, so did the others overlook Eleanor’s signs of distress. Omens of her despair manifest twice by the literalization of the idiom ‘the writing on the wall’: once, in the parlour, where they consider it a farce; and the second time, in Theodora’s room, “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR written in shaky red letters”, a clear throwback to the nail polish incident. Eleanor does not only impose personal meaning onto current events, but also on past ones. Eleanor interprets the knocking on the walls of Hill House as her mother calling for her, as she called before her death. Additionally, when hearing the story of the companion, she emphasizes with her and compares herself to her: while the companion was haunted by the sister, Eleanor is haunted by her mother. Furthermore, Dr Montague’s choice of words when describing the companion can also be applied to Eleanor, foreshadowing her own demise: “she was one of those tenacious, unclever young women who can hold on desperately to what they believe is their own but cannot withstand, mentally, a constant nagging persecution. […] the poor girl was hated to death”. After failing to create meaningful relationships with the other characters, Eleanor claims that she made a home out of Hill House by ‘breaking its spell’: I am home, she though, and stopped in wonder at the though. I am home, I am home […] “Hill House belongs to me”. This desperation for Hill House to be hers, for her to own it can be traced back to what Downey explains as “the irresistible lure of home”, where a person would be safe and self-determined, due to the contemporary ideology that these come automatically along with owning a home. Eleanor views suicide as the only act she can commit of her own will in order not to lose Hill House, when it serves instead as the ultimate loss of identity. This euphoric statement of individuality, claims Downey, marks her suicide as ambiguous enough to be interpreted in both ways, but her depressing realization at the end does not seem hopeful, rather subverting her free will: “I am really doing it, she though, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself. In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”. For the first time, Eleanor sees herself for who she really is: she has never been in control and she depends on the others to save her. Instead of rebelling against social customs, which Briggs considers a key Gothic trope, Rubenstein remarks that Eleanor submits to “maternal domination” and is consumed by it. This “suicidal sacrifice”, however, does not have any positive consequences for Eleanor.

As the fundamental assertion of Eleanor’s isolation from the other characters and from the world itself, we have the passage that is repeated both at the beginning of the novel and at the end: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of hill house, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” As a part of the opening lines, this passage can be interpreted as a frightening warning for what follows, whereas at the end it represents the tragic conclusion to Eleanor’s futile attempt to fit in. Downey suggests this symmetry shows that Eleanor’s suicide is in vain, due to the house remaining in the exact condition from the beginning. Thus, her desire to belong has not been fulfilled and she is rejected by her only feasible home – Hill House. By creating a socially underdeveloped character in The Haunting of Hill House in the form of Eleanor Vance, Shirley Jackson explores how a damaged individual reacts to social interactions against the backdrop of a Gothic haunted house. Eleanor is not only a reflection of Jackson’s own issues in relation to her mother, but also an example of a disastrous ending for a woman under pressure to conform to parental and societal standards. She cannot conduct herself properly in such situations, thus deteriorating her possible relationships on her own. Eleanor undermines the authority of others, all while setting up unrealistic expectations of how they should behave. Unable to separate femininity from her mother’s abuse, she defies the other females in her life, developing unhealthy dependent relationships. Eleanor is more vulnerable to hauntings than the others as a result of being an outcast her entire life. Jackson uses the haunted houses as a reflection of the repressed self, where the lack of identity and of a ‘home’ expose the character’s subconscious. By making the hauntings literal manifestations of Eleanor’s repressed feelings, Jackson associates the architecture of Hill House to the Freudian model of the mind. Eleanor’s inability to overcome her shortcomings and her failure to connect lead to her suicide, which she views as an act of stating her own individuality, even though, in the end, she loses the identity she craved when she loses her life.

References:

  1. Briggs, J. (2012) ‘The Ghost Story’. in A New Companion to the Gothic. ed by Punter, D. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 176-185. Brooks, P. (1995) ‘The Melodramatic Imagination’. in The Melodramatic Imagination. Baltimore: Yale University Press, 1-24. Cavallaro, D. (2002) ‘Haunting Settings’. in The Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror and Fear. London: Continuum, 85-94. Downey, D. (2014) ‘Not a Refuge Yet: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Hauntings’. in A Companion to American Gothic. ed. by Crow, C. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 290-302. Freud, S. (1919) The ‘Uncanny’. [online] available from: http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf [3 Apr. 2019].
  2. Jackson, S. (2018) The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Books. King, S. (1987) ‘Horror Fiction’. in Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley,152-228. Oppenheimer, J. (1988) Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: Fawcett Columbine. cited in Rubenstein, R. (1996) ‘House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and Female Gothic’. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15, 309–331. [online] available from https://doi.org/10.2307/464139 [3 Apr. 2019].
  3. Rubenstein, R. (1996) ‘House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and Female Gothic’. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15, 309–331. [online] available from https://doi.org/10.2307/464139 [3 Apr. 2019].
  4. Williams, A. (2019) ‘The Female Plot of Gothic Fiction’. in: Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 135-140.
01 February 2021

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