The Haunting of Hill House, Page 2Shirley Jackson
Eleanor arrives at Hill House flush with dreams of liberation only to find herself irrevocably trapped in that embrace. She has defied her sister’s authority in taking the family car, and for a few brief hours, before she arrives at Hill House, she is a quintessential American, savoring the bliss of the open road. The car, at last, “belonged entirely to her, a little contained world all her own”; the drive is a “passage of moments, each one new, carrying her along with them, taking her down a path of incredible novelty to a new place.” She might stop anywhere at random, or she might “never leave the road at all, but just hurry on and on until the wheels of the car were worn to nothing and she had come to the end of the world.” She stops in a restaurant for lunch and silently cheers on a little girl who refuses to drink milk out of an ordinary glass instead of her favorite “cup of stars.”
Along the way Eleanor weaves the landmarks she sees into a running fantasy life that, besides a kind of smothered rage, we soon recognize to be one of her chief traits. She sees a pair of stone lions and imagines herself the chatelaine of a fine house, respected in the town, sipping elderberry wine, looked after by “a little dainty old lady.” A stand of oleander trees prompts a fairy tale reverie in which Eleanor plays a long-lost princess, returned at last to the grief-stricken queen and greeted by feasting and the advent of a prince. Finally and most alluring, there is a little cottage, “buried in a garden,” where she imagines living all alone, behind a wall of roses and more oleanders, where “no one would ever find me.”
Fragments of these fantasies appear in the lies Eleanor will later tell Theo about her little apartment in the city, like the pieces of everyday life that turn up in dreams. Eleanor’s fantasies serve as a bulwark against the actuality of her life, the grim years she spent at the beck and call of a failing, miserable mother and later, at her sister’s house, the sad cot in the baby’s room. Even after her mother’s death, Eleanor has been relegated to the nursery, bossed around and kept on a short leash. Her identification with the likes of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty makes a certain sense; she’s had an unloving family who consigned her to menial labor and refused to let her grow up. Eleanor is drifting in and out of a dream state even before she arrives at Hill House, endlessly taking apart and reassembling bits of fantasy and experience to fashion the imagined life she hopes eventually to live.
Eleanor may be excessively dreamy, but she doesn’t start out mad. Dreaming, the opening lines of the novel explain, is exactly what keeps someone from going crazy. Dreams shelter even the primitive minds of larks and katydids from those “conditions of absolute reality” that would drive any “live organism” insane. Hill House is “not sane,” as the narrator informs us, so presumably it is not only alive but existing under conditions of absolute reality—a strange assertion to make about a house, especially a haunted one. Although Eleanor’s experiences at Hill House will be both bizarre and fantastic, and she will eventually become deranged enough to deliberately drive her car into a tree, what she is headed toward is not delusion but a collision with this “absolute reality.” Hill House will force her to acknowledge that she will never be free, that her dreams of leaving her corrosive past and her family behind are illusions, that wherever she goes she will only find the same hell she was running away from. Escape is a mirage. This is the real horror of Hill House.
Jackson knits the circular nightmare of Eleanor’s story using interlocking patterns of doubles and reversals. Eleanor’s naive hope is that at Hill House she’ll find companionship to replace the family she’s abandoned. The morning after the first disturbances, she arrives downstairs to breakfast with the other three researchers believing (or wanting to believe) that they “had come through the darkness of one night, they had met morning in Hill House, and they were a family, greeting one another with easy informality and going to the chairs they had used last night at dinner, their own places at the table.”
The Haunting of Hill House is laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women. The Crain sisters who quarrel bitterly over Hill House mirror Eleanor and her sister, Carrie, fighting about who gets to use the car bought with their dead mother’s money. In Theo, at first, Eleanor seems to see the possibility of a “good” sister to make up for the selfish, controlling real one. The two women latch onto each other from the moment they meet with the extravagant, superficial devotion of newly acquainted schoolgirls, swapping tales of adolescent humiliations and planning picnics. Throughout, they get along best when playing tag and lolling around their rooms like sorority girls. When the friendship goes bad, as such relationships often do, they can turn spectacularly cruel.
Eleanor’s crush on Luke is rather half-heartedly conveyed by Jackson; it doesn’t even seem to convince Eleanor herself. During their only conversation alone together (her only conversation alone with any man, Eleanor notes), she concludes that he’s “selfish,” and even worse, “not very interesting.” Robert Wise’s fine 1963 film version of the novel, The Haunting (skip the awful 1999 remake), transfers Eleanor’s affections to a glamorized Dr. Montague, a shrewd choice. But giving Eleanor a more plausible, Oedipal love object diverts attention from the novel’s most charged and significant relationship, that between Eleanor and Theo. There’s a small murkiness in this otherwise fiercely lucid book, around the matter of romantic love. Theo’s sexuality is ambiguous; she lives with a “friend” to whom she is not married and whose gender remains coyly unspecified. At times, Eleanor’s crush on Luke seems like Jackson’s way of asserting that her attachment to Theo isn’t erotic, and Theo’s possible lesbianism is a way to state that her rivalry with Eleanor isn’t over Luke.
At any rate, Eleanor’s dilemmas are those of a prepubescent child, not an adult woman; sexuality requires an autonomy and a self-knowledge she hasn’t got yet. Romance rarely figures in the fantasy lives she imagines for herself. Jackson seemed to see sex as an uninteresting distraction from earlier, more fundamental questions of identity. In a rambling, unsent letter to Howard Nemerov, she complained about a British academic who claimed to have detected “lesbian” themes in her first novel:I am writing about ambivalence but it is an ambivalence of the spirit, or the mind, not the sex. . . . It is not a he or a she but the demon in the mind, and that demon finds guilts where it can and uses them and runs mad with laughing when it triumphs; it is the demon which is fear. . . . We are afraid of being someone else and doing the things someone else wants us to do and of being taken and used by someone else, some other guilt-ridden conscience that lives on and on in our minds, something we build ourselves and never recognize, but this is fear, not a named sin. Then it is fear itself, fear of self that I am writing about . . . fear and guilt and their destruction of identity.
This fear of guilt, of being commandeered by another consciousness and of the “destruction of identity,” is what Eleanor confronts in Hill House. “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster” she thinks when she’s just arrived, “and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.” Later, this engulfing menace comes into finer focus. Recoiling from the charnel stench of the library—something only Eleanor can smell—she presses herself to the wall and murmurs, “ ‘My mother—’ . . . not knowing what she wanted to tell them.” Eleanor brings up her mother, often in half-conscious exclamations, when the subject is prohibitions and obligations, the impropriety of women in slacks or of leaving dirty dinner dishes out all night. But the specter of Eleanor’s mother also arises when Theo paints Eleanor’s toenails (“I hate having things done to me. . . . I don’t like to feel helpless. . . . My mother—”), in the pounding on the walls, and in the forlorn messages that Mrs. Montague receives through the Ouija-like planchette. The spirit, calling itself “Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell,” laments that it is a “Child” and what it wants is “Home” and “Mother,” but that both are “Lost. Lost. Lost. Lost.”
When Eleanor finally agrees to surrender to Hill House, to bury herself in its “fold
s of velvet and tassels and purple plush,” it is her mother she goes chasing (“You’re here somewhere”) through the dark halls and up the treacherous library ladder. The “lovers meeting” she has spent the whole novel humming about materializes as a return to the womb that is also a grave. To anyone who has, like Jackson, labored mightily to transcend her parents’ mistakes and shortcomings, the horror underlying Eleanor’s full-circle journey is real as well as ghostly. It is the recognition that the harder you try to escape the emotional dynamics of your family of origin, the more likely you are to duplicate them. It feels like fate, like doom, but is it?
Is Eleanor the victim of Hill House or of herself? She would certainly call it the former, but self-knowledge is not her forte. One evening, the four researchers discuss the roots of fear, the other three come up with viable theories: what we really fear is ourselves, or seeing ourselves clearly, or, as Theo most astutely puts it, “of knowing what we really want.” “I am always afraid of being alone,” Eleanor offers, an astonishing remark, considering how many of her fantasies involve solitude and seclusion.
Eleanor’s insight into other people is no better than her grasp of her own nature. If she listened more carefully, with less of the self-absorption and hunger for attention that she’s so quick to spot and condemn in the others, she would see that her three companions have had no better luck with families than she has had. “I never had a mother,” Luke tells her, a lament that both Eleanor and Theo regard as the hackneyed confidence of a seducer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (Later, Luke’s observation that Hill House is “a mother house. . . . 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,” suggests he knows whereof he speaks.) From one of her passing jokes, we know that Theo spent vacations at her empty boarding school. The doctor is married (to a silly, domineering woman), but his family is also missing something; he hasn’t had the chance, he explains, to test the soporific effects of Richardson’s Pamela on small children.
For a while, these four people manage to cobble together a kind of mock romance of family life: Luke, Theo, and Eleanor roll around on the grass eating wild strawberries while Dr. Montague beams down on them in fond amusement. This is just a game, though, like the excruciatingly arch banter about bullfighters, courtesans, and disguised princesses they indulge in on the first night. Only Eleanor, not surprisingly, can’t tell that it’s not real. Theo, the one person in Hill House who offers Eleanor the difficult prospect of connection, is a flawed and prickly customer, to be sure, but she’s also the one who shows her the most tender concern. When the entity haunting Hill House offers Eleanor a cold, false, phantom hand to hold, it is disguised as Theo’s hand. The friction between the two women flares when Eleanor envies Theo’s looks and freedom of manner (the first dig between them is Eleanor’s sniping at Theo’s appetite) or when Theo tries to coax Eleanor out of her shell or, most explosively, when she suggests that Eleanor might own some responsibility for what’s happening. Theo’s implication that Eleanor is not really the meek creature she appears to be may be what terrifies and infuriates Eleanor most; perhaps they both suspect that the most fearsome beast lurking in Hill House is Eleanor’s stifled rage at her mother, her sister, her life, her self.
In the strangest of the novel’s ghostly manifestations, Theo and Eleanor quarrel over Luke and stalk out of the house together into the night. Between them lies a knot of anger and pain but also genuine intimacy; they are acutely aware of each other: “Each knew, almost within a breath, what the other was thinking and wanting to say; each of them almost wept for the other.” Eleanor has somehow blundered to the brink of a relationship in which she might learn to accommodate someone else’s imperfections without hating her. At this moment, the world around the two women begins to change, the moonlit patterns of dark and light reverse themselves like a photographic negative: the path becomes dark and the surrounding trees and bushes white. “Now I am really afraid.” Eleanor thinks, in “words of fire.” Something moves almost imperceptibly around them in the “blackness and whiteness and evil luminous glow.” Then the path ends and the two women are confronted with a hallucinatory Technicolor vision of a garden in which delighted children play with a puppy while a mother and father watch affectionately from a checked picnic blanket spread on the grass. Then Theo looks over her shoulder, sees something unspeakable (she never describes it) and screams “Run!”
The scene is extraordinary, in part because whatever Theo sees while looking over her shoulder remains the one significant Hill House manifestation that Eleanor never witnesses. (There is the phantom dog that lures Dr. Montague and Luke out of the house on the night of the first manifestation, but that’s just a decoy.) The two women stand, briefly suspended between a mirage of the familial idyll they have all pined for and whatever monstrous thing has driven them to it. Only Theo dares to look back.
Later, after Eleanor has been broken by the house, she insists that she will go home with Theodora. She will live near Theo and shop with her every day for the talismans of Eleanor’s fantasy life: gold-rimmed dishes, a white cat, the cup of stars. Theo’s flat rejection of this scenario doesn’t seem to faze Eleanor at all. “Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” Theo asks brutally, eliciting only the mild, self-pitying reply, “I’ve never been wanted anywhere.” No doubt on some level Eleanor never really believes she’ll leave the house with Theo, who is, for better or worse, her only real friend; the whole plan smacks of a last jaunt through the dream world that has comforted Eleanor all her life. She has begun a negotiation with the absolute reality of her own isolation, and the slow process of dissolving into the fabric of Hill House.
The novel ends with the same lines that open it, closing the circle: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.
There is a moment in the car, the last moment, when Eleanor questions her choice, but it comes too late. If it is Eleanor who now walks in Hill House, then she has arrived at something not too far from her dream of living in the little cottage behind the barricade of poisonous oleander. She walks alone, and that, as Theo would probably point out, is the fate that she most feared and most desired.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Jackson, Shirley. Come Along With Me. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
———. Life Among the Savages. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
———. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction. New York: Bantam Classics, 1981.
Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson . New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1988.
The Haunting of Hill House
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, 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.
Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. It had cost him a good deal, in money and pride, since he was not a begging man, to rent Hill House for three months,
but he expected absolutely to be compensated for his pains by the sensation following upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as “haunted.” He had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life. When he heard of Hill House he had been at first doubtful, then hopeful, then indefatigable; he was not the man to let go of Hill House once he had found it.
Dr. Montague’s intentions with regard to Hill House derived from the methods of the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters; he was going to go and live in Hill House and see what happened there. It was his intention, at first, to follow the example of the anonymous Lady who went to stay at Ballechin House and ran a summer-long house party for skeptics and believers, with croquet and ghost-watching as the outstanding attractions, but skeptics, believers, and good croquet players are harder to come by today; Dr. Montague was forced to engage assistants. Perhaps the leisurely ways of Victorian life lent themselves more agreeably to the devices of psychic investigation, or perhaps the painstaking documentation of phenomena has largely gone out as a means of determining actuality; at any rate, Dr. Montague had not only to engage assistants but to search for them.
Because he thought of himself as careful and conscientious, he spent considerable time looking for his assistants. He combed the records of the psychic societies, the back files of sensational newspapers, the reports of parapsychologists, and assembled a list of names of people who had, in one way or another, at one time or another, no matter how briefly or dubiously, been involved in abnormal events. From his list he first eliminated the names of people who were dead. When he had then crossed off the names of those who seemed to him publicity-seekers, of subnormal intelligence, or unsuitable because of a clear tendency to take the center of the stage, he had a list of perhaps a dozen names. Each of these people, then, received a letter from Dr. Montague extending an invitation to spend all or part of a summer at a comfortable country house, old, but perfectly equipped with plumbing, electricity, central heating, and clean mattresses. The purpose of their stay, the letters stated clearly, was to observe and explore the various unsavory stories which had been circulated about the house for most of its eighty years of existence. Dr. Montague’s letters did not say openly that Hill House was haunted, because Dr. Montague was a man of science and until he had actually experienced a psychic manifestation in Hill House he would not trust his luck too far. Consequently his letters had a certain ambiguous dignity calculated to catch at the imagination of a very special sort of reader. To his dozen letters, Dr. Montague had four replies, the other eight or so candidates having presumably moved and left no forwarding address, or possibly having lost interest in the supernormal, or even, perhaps, never having existed at all. To the four who replied, Dr. Montague wrote again, naming a specific day when the house would be officially regarded as ready for occupancy, and enclosing detailed directions for reaching it, since, as he was forced to explain, information about finding the house was extremely difficult to get, particularly from the rural community which surrounded it. On the day before he was to leave for Hill House, Dr. Montague was persuaded to take into his select company a representative of the family who owned the house, and a telegram arrived from one of his candidates, backing out with a clearly manufactured excuse. Another never came or wrote, perhaps because of some pressing personal problem which had intervened. The other two came.