American Literature, Book review., Books, Eleanor Vance, Family, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Haunted House, History, Horror, Hugh Crain, Literary criticism, Romantic Irony, Shirley Jackson, Sisters, Sophia Crain, The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery, Unreliable Narrator
The reader of Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is more likely to enjoy than to necessarily understand its sumptuous and intricate narrative, which should be ultimately contemplated as a masterpiece of romantic irony. Transparent and synchronised storylines are submerged within the narrative of Eleanor Vance’s visit to Hill House, which upon detection may provide grounds for multiple interpretations of her experience, just as certain optical illusions can portray more than one image at the same time. Rather than clawing at spectres and chasing after any passing theory that is “slipping along” in the direction of the garden, the literary critic, if they wish to master Hill House rather than be mastered by it, should approach the novel with a mind to comprehensively mapping out all of its interpretative possibilities.
To begin with, the motif of two sisters, or two sisterly women, is repeated throughout the novel and virtually copied like a wallpaper pattern. They had already existed at Hill House in the persons of Sophia Crain and her estranged sister, and then in those of Old Miss Crain and her wayward “companion.” Their respective circumstances seem to blankly reflect Eleanor Vance’s “dislike” of her own sister, and in turn mirror Theodora’s flight from her possibly-sisterly flatmate.
Reflecting something of that looming statue of Hugh Crain in the drawing room, Eleanor may seem like a dancer who is constantly seeking a partner, and we even find the sturdy Mrs Montague being roped in to providing another pseudo-sister for Eleanor. Like Eleanor, Mrs Montague may bring her own ghost to the party, or else she contacts some shade of Eleanor’s overheating psyche with her “planchette,” but unlike Eleanor she is blandly at peace with herself. Scorching with a sisterly jealousy at Mrs Montague’s serenity, Eleanor will fume, “impossible, vulgar, possessive woman.” Perhaps we even find Eleanor vying against Mrs Dudley with sisterly malice. Whereas Mrs Dudley’s kitchen is like a central nervous system, with its doors leading to all areas of the house, Eleanor takes this one step further in her conviction that, “I can feel the whole house.”
The duplication of the sister motif grows even more comical when the literary critic Joe Nazare identifies the “two grinning heads” hanging in the nursery as “symbolizing the two sisters.” Our overall impression is of a succession of sisters who all reflect one another, and gradually blend and reform as the shapes in a kaleidoscope. Yet whilst the relationship between Sophia and her sister may correspond with a sisterly hostility between both the Vance sisters and Eleanor/ Theordora, the companion’s neglect of Old Miss Crain prior to her death is equally reflected within Eleanor’s purportedly fatal desertion of her own mother. Eleanor here pales from a quarrelsome sister to a malicious daughter.
Every action at Hill House is determined, by what we cannot say, although were the history of Hill House destined to be inexorably repeated, then it may have first gone a little like this: Hugh Crain and his two children once lived at Hill House, where one of the girls – possibly the sister who was not Sophia – was attacked by her “lecherous” father in the dead of night, with a rapping at her chamber door, whereupon she became his lover. After this attack, some other significant moment involved the pair of them dancing together in the drawing room. It is generally assumed that Sophia inherited the house, merely because her scrapbook ended up there, and one here conforms to the usage of “Sophia” to designate the eldest sister. Sophia, perhaps being the sister who resisted her father (and thereby becoming the recipient of his deranged scrapbook), eventually procured Hill House, whereupon she began the process of dragging her home back to the peace and security of her childhood, before the two sisters were divided over their father’s love.
Six miles away from its neighbours and with opportunities for uninterrupted play within its peaceful grounds, Hill House is already a gigantic nursery which the outside world cannot penetrate. “I have no doubt that two small children could play here,” Dr Montague remarks in the absent manner of a father, “lonely perhaps, but not unhappy.” A village girl was imported as a substitute for the lost sister, but this companion eventually betrayed Sophia, just as her own sister had done, if this time by consorting with a lout from the village.
When the psychic Eleanor arrives at Hill House, she incurs both the amorous advances of Hugh Crain’s ghost and the sisterly affection of Sophia’s spirit. It will be impossible for her to share the love of both these ghosts. When the house is itself dancing, no doubt in memory of that incestuous waltz between father and daughter, and the ghost of Hugh Crain is pounding on the bedroom door, Eleanor finally declares, “I’ll come,” choosing Hugh over Sophia. She resolves, at least internally, that, “It is too much… 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.” Yet this can only rouse the ire of the rejected Sophia – who has been already rejected twice in the same circumstances (firstly by her sister and secondly by her inattentive companion) – and she duly tempts Eleanor into restaging the companion’s suicide, before dispatching her in the same manner as a previously unwanted visitor to Hill House.
Jackson’s description of “whatever walked” – somehow suggesting an ectoplasm in boots – implies the existence of a single ghost, but as children and a dog are variously spotted at large in this house, one may reason that it is haunted by a sort of multifaceted spiritual energy, which incorporates both a father’s incestuous desire and a sister’s alternating love and spite. Doctor Montague may be in this respect right in speculating that the house’s “personality” has been “molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did.”
The literary critic Tricia Lootens reasons that, “Perhaps the greatest horror of Jackson’s haunting is not that the house seduces Eleanor into literally sacrificing herself for the sake of belonging, but that having done so, it still does not let her belong.” But this sacrifice may be equally sheer Thanatos: Eleanor’s personal history already contains some or all of the events which may have occurred at Hill House. The stones that attacked the Vance sisters following their father’s death may hint at some violence within their own family. What one reader may identify as Hugh Crain’s assault upon the bedroom door may in fact echo a similar attack from Eleanor’s own childhood, albeit one which she kids herself into thinking sounds like her mother pounding on the bedroom wall.
On these grounds the reader is entitled to decide that Eleanor is actually being pulled back into events from her own past, perhaps triggered by her sisterly intimacy with Theodora, and unknowingly using telekinesis to drag everybody else along with her delusions. This theory, which functions without the help of any ghost, is supported by the fact that Mrs Montague can only contact Eleanor using her planchette.
Whether the script retells Eleanor’s personal history or that of Hill House, the fact remains that Doctor Montague’s party end up following it. During Eleanor and Theodora’s first meeting, we may already sense that, from the start, their speech is being authored by an external power. They sound like two little girls eagerly chatting, they talk more about their schools than their lives, they are excited by dressing in bright clothes, and Theodora proclaims that they should “go exploring… I want to go outside and roll on the grass.” From the very beginning, we may never glimpse Theodora’s “real” character. If she met another adult in a different house, they would probably discuss contemporary theatre or the latest diet.
The reader who concludes that Eleanor brings her own ghost to the house does not need to explain why the subsequent action centres around her. For such a reader, nothing would have befallen Dr Montague’s party if Eleanor had never arrived. The forlorn doctor would have merely wandered about recording fluctuations in the temperature, no doubt to his inestimable scientific satisfaction. Yet for those readers who believe that Hill House or its ghosts are responsible for the haunting, Eleanor is selected from Dr Montague’s party in a similar manner to that whereby Mrs Hutchinson was chosen for destruction in Jackson’s earlier short story “The Lottery” (1948).
The three “young people” who are candidates for the haunting are together anchored in fantasy, rather than in any modern social obligations. The sort of people who set out for Hill House worrying about their income and expenses, as if it was jury service, would presumably never get there, sending only “clearly manufactured” excuses. Dr. Montague appears to be joined by “guests” rather than paid participants. Luke’s family is so rich that they can afford to leave Hill House abandoned without a tenant, and, with possibly a country house in every state, Luke has never troubled himself to learn the story behind this particular detail of his inheritance. Whether Theodora is a destitute idealist or a wealthy dabbler in the arts is never specified, but she remains as detached from the modern world as her fellow guests.
It is implied that Eleanor is the only one of Dr Montague’s party who has been a working, or at least an exploited, woman and, in this respect, Dr Montague is not quite in charge of “three wilful, spoiled children.” But Eleanor has hitherto cultivated a rich and wild imagination, no doubt to compensate for the tedium of her work. The young people regard themselves as equally carefree, but Eleanor does not reveal the extent of her dependence upon her older sister, a failure to fly the family nest which would conceivably appeal to Sophia’s spirit.
Out in the wider world, Luke and Theodora may be as compromised by bullying relatives, or even as “shy and reserved,” as Eleanor herself. But viewed from Eleanor’s perspective, they seem stronger and happier, rather as older siblings may do to the baby of a family. There is no chance of the childlike Eleanor erring as the companion had done in attracting a local suitor. As Eleanor has the least stake in the outside world, she will be the most at home in Hill House. When Eleanor jokes that, “all three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real,” the doctor tellingly if unwittingly warns that this is, “venturing far too close to the state of mind which would welcome the perils of Hill House with a kind of sisterly embrace.”
Hill House does not only resubmit the past but observe who can stick most closely to the script. The roles may be changed on the spot. Eleanor and Theodora most resemble the original sisters, and so the ghost focuses on them, leaving Luke and the doctor to perform supporting roles. When Luke and Eleanor enjoy a tête-à-tête in the garden, this scene recalls the former companion’s dalliance with the village lout. If Eleanor is being tested, she passes with flying colours, remaining not remotely interested in Luke’s bid to be mothered. One may assume that Luke would be most targeted by Sophia’s malevolence because he is a prospective owner of Hill House, but Luke seems capable of breaking from the script of the haunting, particularly when he saves Eleanor from the tower.
Meanwhile, old Hugh Crain seems to choose his prey based upon how much he can frighten them. Theodora is exhilarated by the first ghostly attack, whilst Luke reasons that, “we were frightened, certainly, and found the experience unpleasant while it was going on, and yet I cannot remember that I felt in any physical danger.” Eleanor acknowledges, “the sense was that it wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house…” The “cold” that they all feel may be that of Hugh Crain’s exploring hands. Dr Montague’s party between them sense that Hill House threatens the integrity of their psyches, and that if one of them weakens, then the rest can be correspondingly strong and sane. It is a moot point whether this involves resisting Hugh Crain or collaborating with him.
Eleanor’s immediate instinct is to share the house: “it would be a pity, she thought grimly, for anyone to get a first look at this house with anything so comforting as a human automobile parked in front of it.” Almost the first thing that Theodora does after meeting Eleanor is to helpfully point out that, “You’re frightened.” Once terrorised, two thirds of the party’s fear is of showing any fear in front of the others. Following the ghost’s first attack, the party “spoke lightly, quickly, and gave one another fast, hidden, little curious glances, each of them wondering what secret terror had been tapped in the others, what changes might show in face or gesture, what unguarded weakness might have opened the way to ruin.” Theodora taunts Eleanor by revealing that, “Nellie here was going to scream.” When Doctor Montague asks, “doesn’t it begin to seem that the intention is, somehow, to separate us?”,” such a separation is ultimately of the sort which, like the proceedings in “The Lottery,” isolate a victim.
Perhaps Eleanor is already doomed when sensing that, “perhaps she was to be allowed to speak occasionally for all of them so that, quieting her, they quieted themselves and could leave the subject behind them; perhaps, vehicle for every kind of fear, she contained enough for all.” Eleanor takes heart from Theodora’s hysteria after her clothes are bloodied, although by now Sophia’s ghost is possibly attempting to separate these close sisters by faking an inappropriately excessive period in Theodora and consigning the younger Eleanor to a corresponding immaturity. Once Eleanor is being subsumed by the house, she weakly claims in desperation that, “”Luke was scared,” as if this might divert Hugh Crain to an alternative prey at the last minute. Without the arrival of the second party, we may be more likely to think that the blood on Theodora’s clothes and the noises in the night were “real.” But the new investigators are hopelessly adult – one is the stuffy aunt from Edwardian comic fiction whilst the other is actually a teacher – and they cannot attract the ghosts away from Eleanor’s plunge into the past.
At the end of the story, Eleanor’s consciousness and the house itself collapse into each other, rather as Poe’s fell into the tarn. The power of Jackson’s creation is such that one reading it carefully will be continually bombarded with further possible explanations. The sudden responsibility of Doctor Montague at the end of the story, for example, may cause the reader to suspect that this apparent buffoon has been all along observing or even cultivating Eleanor’s mental collapse. Perhaps his book receives such a “contemptuous” reception only because it is deemed to be unethical. There may be many more ideas and possibilities to this book, and the reader struggling to make sense of it should be wary of themselves becoming haunted by Hill House.