Do you know of the Crypt-Keeper? He was a character developed for EC Comics's Tales from the Crypt and would later appear in the HBO television series based on the 50s comic series. Since each issue of the comic told a unique and separate story, the Crypt-Keeper, as the series's host, acted as its unifying element. He introduced each story and even appeared in a few himself.
Why bring up this bit of pop-culture trivia? Two reasons: first, we desperately wanted to link to this YouTube montage of the Crypt-Keeper; and second, because like the Crypt-Keeper, Shirley Jackson mixes her horror with a little bit of comedy for flavor in The Haunting of Hill House. The tone of each offers an excellent example of what we'd call black or gallows humor.
Oh, sure, there are differences between the two. The Crypt-Keeper is a kitschy character, and his humor relies on puns that fall under the "so bad they're good" category ("It just goes to show you: be careful what you axe for Christmas, you might just get it. Hehehehe."). In contrast, Jackson's humor is a cocktail mixed with equal parts wry and dry. Here, Dr. Montague provides the perfect example:
"Gossip says she hanged herself form the turret on the tower, but when you have a house like Hill House with a tower and a turret, gossip would hardly allow you to hang yourself anywhere else." (3.136)
Delicious, right? On the surface, Montague tells a horrible tale about a woman who hanged herself, but there's that dry humor underlining his words. Montague's little aside about how gossip works is the perfect little detail, and we laugh because—if you'll pardon the cliché—it's true.
In terms of horror, Tales from the Crypt leaned heavily on blood-and-guts and the monsters-jumping-out-of-closets variety of thrills. Jackson's terror comes from the violence hidden beneath the surface, the things you hear and feel but never see:
The cold troubled [Eleanor] even more than the sounds; even Theodora's warm robe was useless against the icy little curls of fingers on her back. (4.269)
It's hard to show terror in a single example—without the build-up and pay-off and such—but you can see Jackson's horrific tone at work here. The origins of the sounds remain undefined, and the icy cold is personified as the "curls of fingers on her back," though it's not specifically a ghost or anything supernatural. It's what Jackson leaves out that truly scares.
Before we leave this subject, a quick note: Jackson doesn't keep the black humor tone going throughout the whole novel. Sometimes her horror is pure and raw, without an ounce of comedy to mitigate it. At other times, the comedy comes to the forefront, while the horror bides its time, clinging silently to Hill House's dark corners. Sometimes you can scream and laugh during the exact same scene, and either response would be appropriate.
That makes Jackson just like a—you guessed it—literary Crypt-Keeper.
But hold on. Dr. Montague says there are no secret chambers in Hill House (3.64), and as we learn throughout the novel, it's not much of a place for oubliettes, secret passages, and foreboding lightning either. Then what makes this novel a Gothic one? Answer: just about everything else.
Traditionally, Gothic literature takes places in a medieval castle, preferably one that's in a state of decay and inhabited by all manner of otherworld citizenry. The genre had evolved, though, as all genres do, and today this genre label can be used to define any work dripping with a "brooding atmosphere of gloom and terror, represent[ing] events that are uncanny or macabre or melodramatically violent, and often deal[ing] with aberrant psychological states" (source). Sounds like Hill House to us.
The place certainly looks the part, with its "towers and turrets and buttresses and wooden lace on them, even sometimes Gothic spires and gargoyles" (1.129). It embodies the atmosphere of the Gothic, too. Gloom and terror fill the halls of Hill House like a midnight mist, and all manner of uncanny shenanigans happen there. The characters—Eleanor, in particular—must confront their own psychological states. In fact, it could be argued that these psychological states are more to blame than Hill House itself for the macabre and melodramatic story.
But the Gothic goes beyond setting. Jackson's characters play off the traditional roles of the Gothic novel:
Hill House isn't copying and pasting these traditional Gothic roles. It's playing off them, tweaking them, and reimagining them to meet its own thematic and storytelling goals.
The Haunting of Hill House is also a family drama because it's a dramatic tale that centers on the family. So, yeah, moving on.
But wait. Eleanor's family only appears in the first chapter. Mrs. Montague shows up toward the novel's conclusion, and Mrs. Sanderson is mentioned a couple of times, but, all in all, family is hard to find in this novel. Okay, so blood-and-kin family isn't represented much in the story, but our quartet of ghostbusters form a type of surrogate family within Hill House.
Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke all take on the roles of children, and Dr. Montague plays the father figure here. A scene perfectly illustrating this occurs in Chapter 5, when the childish trio suggest playing hide-and-seek, and Dr. Montague tells them not to wander around too much, even calling them a "pack of children" (5.36-43). The drama between these four plays out much as it would in a family drama, and the pseudo-family relationships connect intricately with Eleanor's quest to find a home occupied by people she can care about and who care for her.
The inclusion of actual family members, such as Eleanor's mother and Mrs. Montague, only adds to the family drama. It's like family drama squared.
This novel is also a coming-of-age story—kind of, sort of. Sticking with the traditional isn't exactly what Hill House is about, so unsurprisingly, a traditional coming-of-age story—you know, the type where a character undergoes a series of trails and, by completing them, transgresses the boundary between childhood and adulthood—will not be found in these pages.
Instead, we have Eleanor, and Eleanor is thirty-two. She's spent her life caring for her mother and "[w]ithout ever wanting to become reserved and shy," she has found herself unable to communicate with other people "without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words" (1.5). So, rather than a coming-of-age story, Eleanor's tale is more a coming-into-age story. She's trying to make up for lost time, trying to find that life she wanted but never achieved. And by life, we mean home, friends, a place where she truly belongs, and maybe a lover or two.
Does she succeed? Does she come into her age and find her home? That's ultimately up to the reader to decide. But whether she succeeds or not, we don't think it changes the fact that The Haunting of Hill House is about coming of age.
Finally, something easy we can talk about regarding The Haunting of Hill House. This title is straightforward and simple: there's a haunting, it takes place at Hill House, and you'll have to read the story to find out more. Done, done, and done.
Then again… maybe it's not so simple. We know the title looks straightforward, but like all things in this novel, the simplicity throws you off guard. What's the problem? Believe it or not, it's that teeny-tiny preposition of.
That pesky little of makes what should be a read-it-and-move-on title something in need of a good pondering. Why? Because, like so many other words in the English language, of has a lot of definitions.
Let's take a look at of's first definition. The dictionary tells us that word may be used with a "gerund to link it with a following noun that is either the subject or the object of the verb embedded in the gerund" (source). If you remember your mid-school grammar lessons, then you'll remember that the difference between a subject and an object in a sentence lies in its relation to the verb. Subjects perform the verby action while objects have that action performed on them.
We have two different ways of reading the title based on this definition. If Hill House is the subject of the preposition, then it's the one performing the action, the haunting. So that title would mean something like: "Big Bad House Plays Some Crazy Pranks on Some Ghost Hunters."
But if Hill House is the object of the preposition, then it's having the haunting performed on it. That title would mean something like: "Big Bad Crazy Person Does Some Weird Stuff in an Old House."
Depending on how you read the title, Hill House could be the haunter, but it could also be the haunted.
So which is it? That depends on what you think is actually going on in Hill House. Is Eleanor the victim of a wicked haunting? If so, then Hill House is the haunter. Is Eleanor psychologically distressed, and it's all in her head? If so, then the haunter is Eleanor and her telekinetic abilities.
We have to really dive into the novel's nuances before we can decide exactly what the title means. But even then, the point may be to leave open both possibilities. One of the great things about this novel is that things could really go either way: maybe the house is haunted, or maybe Eleanor is haunted psychologically. Or both.
But that's just one definition of of. There are many more. Consider: the preposition of can be "used to indicate possession, origin, or association." If we read the of with this definition in mind, then the title says the haunting originates from Hill House but isn't necessarily an action of Hill House. In other words, the haunting is something Hill House owns, like a car or bureau, but not something it does. What do you do with a definition like that? Is it the result of a ghost that somehow belongs to the house? Something else? How does that change your understanding of the novel?
So much for the easy way out.
Welcome to the end of the novel. Whew, what a trip. Now that we've arrived, we have to ask ourselves the question all readers must ponder upon turning to that final, blank page: why did the story end here? What is so special that this spot marks our destination?
In the case of The Haunting of Hill House, the end can be summarized as follows: we are told the fates of the survivors and then glimpse the return of the threat or evil force. Sound familiar? If it does, it's because this final stop is the same one used in countless horror books and films. Here are just a few of the horror tales that end with this formula:
Odd, isn't it? Hill House broke so many rules and did away with so much convention. Why at the end does it suddenly play toward the old cliché? Does it? Let's find out.
The first half of the last paragraph gives us the fates of the survivors. Everyone but the recently deceased Eleanor leaves Hill House and goes his or her own way. Theodora's roommate welcomes her back with open arms, Luke lives it up abroad in Paris (always Paris), and Dr. Montague abandons his research after his article is not so kindly rejected by the scholarly world.
They all go back to their lives, and with the exception of that crushing intellectual blow to Dr. Montague, we get no information suggesting they are worse off then when they came to Hill House. They're safe and sound. This part of the formula, it seems, remains true to form.
Now we come the second part of the classic horror story ending: the return of the threat or the evil force. Like Jason leaping from the lake, this part is meant to offer the audience one last scare at the story's end, something to leave them shivering as they leave the theater or rest their books on their nightstands.
The second half of the last paragraph upholds this tradition but also tweaks it. Here's a quick refresher:
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. (9.116)
What we have here is a nearly word-for-word reprise of the novel's opening. So, on the one hand, we have the return of the threat, a classic horror cliché. The evil of Hill House that opened the novel returns—in a very literal sense—at the novel's end. On the other hand, the ending reworks the return of the evil to serve a very different purpose. It's far more than an elaborate "Boo!"
The similarity of the opening and ending passages gives the novel a sense of circularity. The evil of Hill House doesn't just return; it's an evil that can't be defeated or satisfied even for a moment. It never ends.
The never-ending quality of Hill House's evil doesn't just pop up at the novel's conclusion, either. It's been foreshadowed throughout the story. Here are a couple of the hints we get (there are more):
How you read the novel will depend on what you think this never-ending evil truly is. Is it the malevolent force of Hill House itself? Is it the madness-inducing qualities of its architecture? Is it the terrors faced by women living through the stifling home life of the 1950s? Your answers to these questions will change the nature of whatever you think it is walking alone in those final words.
In some stories, you might be able to give the setting a passing glance and be done with it. This play is set in an apartment? Great. Frame some family pictures on the wall and move on. But in The Haunting of Hill House, the issue is super important, since the setting—one Hill House by name—is practically a character. So how about we stop gawking at the entrance and we take a look inside? Strap on your proton packs and proceed.
But Hill House is more than something that just looks like it belongs in a horror story. Its features seem to come from every horror story ever written, and its architecture is meant to invoke the long, terrifying history of Gothic literature at first glance.
When Eleanor first drives up to the mansion, she notices the "towers and turrets and buttresses and wooden lace on them, even sometimes Gothic spires and gargoyles" (1.129). Anybody who's familiar with the medieval, decaying architecture of Ann Radcliffe or even the American Gothic of William Faulkner will be right at home here.
But the evil of Hill House runs deeper than just its ability to refer the literature of the past. It seems to personify evil with its features. As Eleanor says:
Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. (2.1)
Hill House's features seem to be an embodiment of evil. The house doesn't look the way it does just because of a trick of the light from a full moon, or because of an off-glance coming from just the right angle. No matter how you look at Hill House, the place strikes your primal instinct to run away and never look back. The place just looks plain wrong.
But looks can be deceiving, right? As we dig deeper into Hill House, a question begins to form, one that isn't answered in the text but is super important for a reader to consider. That question is: is Hill House haunted?
We know. It seems weird. The story is called The Haunting of Hill House, after all (check out our "What's Up with the Title?" section for more on this deceptively simple title), but there are several hints that things might not be as they seem. Here are a few examples:
It's just possible that there are no ghosts in Hill House at all. Well, no ghosts in the traditional sense, anyway—you know, spirits of the long dead returning to haunt the living, either out of pure malice or to accomplish some goal left unfinished in life. Something is definitely happening in Hill House. The question is what.
Now, that's a question we can't answer. Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but the book is mum on the whole what's really happening front. We do have some theories though. Four of them, actually:
Theory 1: Hill House isn't haunted, but the mansion itself is paranormal, alive, and totally evil. We're led to believe this theory because in many passages, the house becomes personified. Take a look at this quote, for instance: "[T]he house steadied and located them, […], and the center of consciousness was somehow the small space where they stood" (3.16). We don't know how the place became sentient or evil, but the idea that it might be alive freaks us out.
Theory 2: It's all in the crazy crania of our beloved ghost hunters. Yep, everything that happens may just be a hallucination. You know, subterranean waters and the like could responsible. What leads us to consider this theory is that sometimes characters will see or hear things the others cannot, and characters like Mrs. Montague and Mrs. Dudley appear to encounter no spectral manifestations. Ah, but how can more than one person have the same delusion? Is it a folie à deux? Guess it would be folie à quatre in this case…
Theory 3: Eleanor herself causes all the manifestations, thanks to some latent telekinetic powers. These powers were mostly dormant before coming to Hill House, but they sprang to life thanks to the guilt Eleanor feels over her mother's death—and thanks to the Hill House's power of suggestion. We do know that the planchette picks up a message for Nell, and Mrs. Montague suggests that Eleanor is perhaps "more receptive psychically than [she] realize[s]" (7.141). Also, Eleanor's history with the rocks pelting her childhood home and her claim that she knows nothing both suggest she's not being completely honest about the incident (3.107).
Theory 4: Eleanor is somehow, maybe even without her own knowledge, deliberately causing at least some of the manifestations, perhaps to keep the others' attention on her at all times. We don't know how she can pull it off, but it's just possible that she's more responsible for things that she claims to be.
And those are our theories. Did you see anything you liked, or have come up with another theory?
By why are there so many possibilities? Why not just come out and say, "Hey, we discovered the cause of Hill House's evil, and it is…"?
Well, we have a theory about that too, but fret not; it's only one theory this time. We think that Hill House is a sort of horrific Rorschach test. A real Rorschach test consists of a series of inkblots psychologists show patients. The patients tell the psychologist what they see in the pictures, and different responses get different diagnoses.
We say the horrors of Hill House are a giant inkblot because the characters all seem to see something different in its manifestations. Eleanor finds a place she can all a home, Theodora a place to have an adventure away from home, and Dr. Montague a place to gain necessary evidence for his research. Mrs. Montague seems to find the mansion a place to live out her Gothic literature fantasies. Even Mrs. Dudley sees something different from what the others see. For her, Hill House is just a place in need of some good tidy housekeeping.
What do you see in the ink?
The Haunting of Hill House is a horror of a novel, but unlike some literary masterpieces, the horrors here are not to be found in difficult, cursed prose.
Jackson's writing style can be a little fancy. She writes some pretty elaborate sentences, with intricate twists and turns. Some of them go on for a long time. Look at this one:
The pounding had stopped, as though it had proved ineffectual, and there was now a swift movement up and down the hall, as of an animal pacing back and forth with unbelievable impatience, watching first one door and then another, alert for movement inside […] (7.188)
We even cut that one short.
But you'll notice the words in our example aren't that complex, despite being so descriptive. Plus, Jackson is a master at her craft, so a reader has to go out of his or her way to notice the sentences becoming long in the ink. If you just let the flow take you, you'll find an easygoing, conversational novel.
The themes are about as difficult as the writing style. There are a lot of them, and what the novel is trying to say with them can be pretty ambiguous. But "ambiguous" and "difficult" are not the same thing here. It's ambiguous whether or not Theodora and Eleanor are sexually attracted to one another, for example, but it's not too difficult to see that ambiguity at play. Like, we know there's something between them (that's easy to figure out), but just what that something isn't so clear (that's harder to figure out).
Hill House can be a terrifying place, but the scares come from the chilling atmosphere, the unstable characters, and the macabre mysteries—not from the challenge of reading it.
Jackson's a smart person. You don't write some of the most beloved and critically respected literature of the 20th century if you're a dunce. But she's not one of those annoyingly intelligent writers, showing off her knowhow every time she puts word to page. Instead, her writing style shows off her intelligence naturally and treats the reader like a friend sitting with her 'round the campfire, listening intently as she spins one excellently crafted ghost story.
Don't believe us? Think all great literature has to be stuffy and boring and weighted down with multisyllabic words only an English professor can appreciate? Fair enough, but give us a chance to plead our case:
"Bang" is the best word for it; it sounds like something children do, not mothers knocking against the wall for help, and anyway Luke and the doctor are there; is this what they mean by cold chills going up and down your back? Because it is not pleasant; it starts in your stomach and goes in waves around and up and down again like something alive. Like something alive. Yes. Like something alive. (4.255)
That first sentence sure runs long—forty-three words to be precise—and it takes one smart writer to construct such a long sentence that doesn't lose the audience's attention. Yet Jackson writes even larger sentences time and time again. As a reader, you really have to sit and look for them if you want to catch her in the act. They flow so naturally.
But Jackson's writing style is also conversational. She uses everyday words to get across her point, so the reader doesn't become intimidated by her diction. She uses fragments—like those at the end of the example—to give the novel a more realistic vibe (we don't always think or speak in full sentences, do we?). She also draws from common experience. For instance, when she says that the banging in the house "sound like something children do," any reader can appreciate what she means. The sound of children banging things is more or less universal.
And that's why we compare Jackson's writing style to the style of an intelligent fireside story. It's intelligently crafted, but it feels completely natural, almost off the cuff, like she's spinning this yarn right before our eyes.
Stones: the natural homewrecker. At least, that's the case in Hill House. As a symbol, the stone makes an appearance every time someone needs to take a potshot at a house, glass or otherwise.
Stones first appear when Dr. Montague learns of Eleanor's history. During her childhood, an unexplained incident occurred, during which stones rained upon her house for three days. At first this seems like an oddball origin story, but then rocks begin appearing all over the novel.
Theodora recounts a time she threw a brick (the brick here being the stone's second-rate cousin) through a greenhouse roof and loved the sound of the crash made so much that she did it again (3.106). Dr. Montague even discusses the tendency of poltergeists to attack homes with stones: "[T]hey throw stones, they move objects, [and] they smash dishes" (5.32).
There's a pattern here. Stones are used to attack houses, and houses in this novel often symbolize the family. The stone, in turn, becomes a symbol for someone or something that wishes to attack the family. It comes full circle when Eleanor gets mad at Theodora—her "cousin" (2.148) and the closest thing she has to a familial bond. As Theo lies by the fire, Eleanor thinks to herself how she would "like to batter her with rocks" (5.158). She doesn't do it, but the urge is clearly to destroy the home Eleanor has built with her fellow ghost hunters.
You know how some symbols take on a life of their own, and you can't even see the object without thinking of what it symbolizes? For example, the dove symbolizes peace and love, while the snake always gets a bad rap as a symbol of evil and sin. This novel takes one of those overworked symbols—the car—and does something wonderfully different with it.
Usually, when you think of a car and the open road, you think of freedom. It's just you riding along in your automobile, your baby beside you at the wheel, and you've got the ability to go wherever the road takes you.
Not in Hill House, ladies and gents. The car in this novel is often a symbol of confinement, not freedom.
When Eleanor takes to the open road, she thinks about how free she has finally become, and she imagines that she now has the ability to do anything she wants. But does she? After all, she's following Dr. Montague's instructions to Hill House; she's not really going there on her own. At one point, she thinks "[s]he might pull her car to the side of the highway—although that was not allowed, she told herself; she would be punished if she really did" (1.49). The car is only as free as the person driving it.
The car appears once more at the novel's conclusion when Eleanor uses it to off herself. The question of freedom and confinement isn't so much answered here as it is reiterated. As Eleanor drives toward the tree that'll kill her, she thinks: "I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me" (9.114). Whether or not you feel Eleanor has finally found freedom with her car will depend on how you feel about her relationship with Hill House. It could be that she's simply following a new set of instructions, right?
By the way, "Freedom and Confinement" just happens to be one of our themes for The Haunting of Hill House. Feel free to hop on over there if you want to read more.
Despite the fact that it's an important symbol in the novel, the cup of stars never actually appears in it. Not once.
Eleanor first hears the cup of stars mentioned by a mother at a country restaurant. The mother's little girl refuses to drink her milk from any cup that isn't her cup of stars. The mother tries to convince her daughter to drink her milk from another glass, and Eleanor thinks:
Don't do it, […]; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don't do it. (1.61)
The cup of stars is the girl's test, and it represents for Eleanor her ability to be her own person, to want the things she wants, and, perhaps most importantly, to do these things against her mother's wishes.
As the story progresses, the cup of stars appears several times in Eleanor's fantasy home—you know, the one she tells Theodora she has but has really just made up. The cup's appearance in her make-believe home suggests Eleanor's desire to obtain what the little girl had: individuality, independence, and freedom from what others desire her to be.
Of course, the irony of Eleanor's desire is that it eventually turns on her. When Eleanor asks Theodora if they can move in together, Theodora rejects the offer, not caring about her friend's desires or needs. Theodora, it seems, has her own cup of stars, and she hasn't offered Eleanor any.
We don't know whether or not Shirley Jackson was familiar with the Taoist symbol of the yin-yang, but we do know this symbol perfectly illustrates the novel's relationship with opposites. Opposites appear all over the novel, usually in conflict with each other. Each time, the opposites are connected: there's a little piece of one opposite in the other. Here are a few examples of what we mean:
Did you find any opposites we missed? Do they contain a piece of their significant other tucked away within them?
You probably noticed Eleanor saying Journeys end in lovers meeting all the time in the novel. Like all the time. Despite her fondness for the saying, Eleanor is not the first literary character to utter those words. In fact, the passage had been around for over 350 years before Jackson penned the story of Eleanor's frightful vacation.
Who wrote the words that will forever echo throughout the halls of Hill House? Who else? The Bard himself, one William Shakespeare.
The quotes comes from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Before we get into the actual reference though, let's back up and have a quick refresher course on the play itself.
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in 1601, making the play one of his mid-to-late comedies (source). This means that it was written around the same time as Hamlet, All's Well That Ends Well, and Othello, putting it in league with some AAA-grade material, though to be fair, what would Shakespeare's lowest grade material be? A-? B++?
The story tells the tale of a girl named Viola who is shipwrecked and separated from her brother Sebastian. She washes ashore in Illyria and does what any poor, lost soul would do: she dresses up as like a dude, calls herself Cesario, and finds work in the service of Duke Orsino. We've all been there, right?
But this is a Shakespeare comedy, so matters must be complicated—er, more complicated. Orsino falls in love with Lady Olivia and uses Viola/Cesario as a go-between like he's some twitterpated middle-schooler. Olivia falls for Viola, instead, thinking she's a he. When Sebastian drops in later, not dead and looking every bit like his cross-dressed sibling, he only adds to the madness.
Oh, and did we mention that a couple of drunk nobles trick a walking, talking stick-in-the-mud named Malvolio into thinking that Olivia has the hots for him? Because that happens, too.
Let's talk about that quote. The line Journeys end in lovers meeting is spoken by a character named Feste. Actually, he sings the line as entertainment for a couple of drunken noblemen. Why sing? Because Feste is Twelfth Night's clown or fool character, and his role in the play is to be the court jester for Lady Olivia.
But Feste has a depth beyond being a mere jokester. Like many of Shakespeare's clown characters—like King Lear's clown, The Winter's Tale's clown, and the gravediggers in Hamlet—Feste stands on the sidelines of the plot's happenings and is not a very active player. What he does do is see all the characters for who they really are. He comprehends the truths behind the play's many misunderstandings.
Now, a fool like Feste only reveals his knowledge through cryptic, hilarious, and sometimes insulting wordplay. As Isaac Asimov once said, "the great secret of the successful fool [is]—that he is no fool at all" (source).
Since Feste is a court jester, he sings a lot of songs throughout the play, and our quote comes from one of those songs. The song is called "O Mistress Mine," and for the curious, we present it here is in its entirety:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love's coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers' meeting—
Every wise man's son doth know.
What is love? 'tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth's a stuff will not endure. (Act II. Scene iii)
The song is what academics and Latin enthusiasts would call a carpe diem ditty. Basically, this Latin phrase translates as "seize the day."
(For another excellent example of a carpe diem poem, check out Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" right here at Shmoop.)
Notice the line "What is love? 'its not hereafter." In other words, don't wait until death to find love, because you won't find it there. Go get yourself some loving in the here and now. Seize that day.
Yeah, we know what you're thinking: why does a novel like The Haunting of Hill House reference a play like Twelfth Night so often? Shakespeare's play is a comedy of errors: it's all about festivities, finding love, seizing the day, and the like. Jackson's novel is about fear, terror, death, and love gone horribly wrong. In what nega-world do these two works connect to one another?
Good question. Truth is, we don't have a definitive answer for you. These works are too complicated for definitive answers. But fear not, oh intrepid Shmooper. We aren't going to leave you alone in this strange literary wilderness. We've got a couple of suggestions for you. Just to get you started:
So, allow us to conclude this discussion by asking you a question: why do you think Jackson so often quotes Twelfth Night?
When working with the narrative technique in Hill House, you can choose your own difficulty setting. There's the easy setting, the not-so-easy setting, and the give-it-all-you've-got setting. We're going to start things off easy and then make it progressively more difficult as we go on. By following our step-by-step program, you should have no problem going the distance and stunning any teacher or fellow reader when it comes to discussing narration in this novel. Ready for a mental workout? Here we go.
This novel uses a third-person limited omniscient narrative technique. Okay, that might not be easy to say. But it can be simple to figure out with the help of this short example:
Looking at herself in the mirror, with the bright morning sunlight freshening even the blue room of Hill House, Eleanor thought, It is my second morning in Hill House, and I am unbelievably happy. (5.1)
Let's break it down.
A third-person narrator never says "I." This narration remains outside the story and enters a character's perspective to tell us the tale. In this example, we see that the narration is third-person because it starts out presenting details from Eleanor's point of view ("Looking at herself in the mirror") before jumping into Eleanor's head to give us her thoughts ("Eleanor thought"). In both cases though, Eleanor is clearly not the one telling us the story. The text doesn't say "Looking at myself in the mirror... I thought"—that would be first-person narration.
An omniscient narrator is an "all-knowing" narrator, so a limited omniscient narrator is a narrator limited in its all-knowningness. In other words, a limited omniscient narrator only tells the story from the perspective of one, or maybe two characters instead of a whole bunch. Since this narrator chooses to stick with Eleanor's point of view for the vast majority of the story, we're calling it limited omniscient.
Put these two together, and what do you get? Why, it's third person limited omniscient narrator.
But we're not finished yet. This novel's third-person limited omniscient narrator is also an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is just that: unreliable. You can't trust everything he or she says. There are several reasons a narrator might be unreliable: he or she might be crazy, might not have all the facts, or might just be a human being (hey, people make mistakes).
In this case, the narrator tells the story from Eleanor's perspective, so the narrator inherits any unreliability in Eleanor's character. And Eleanor has got some mad reliability issues. She's prone to flights of fantasy, she's self-centered and quick to judge, and she's either haunted or psychologically off-kilter. None of these things makes for a particularly reliable narrator.
This unreliability can make analyzing the story difficult for the reader, especially when it comes to figuring out characterization and questions about whether or not Hill House is truly haunted. Here's a short but telling example:
They are all carefully avoiding looking at me, Eleanor thought; I have been singled out again, and they are kind enough to pretend it is nothing; "Why do you think [that message] was sent to me?" she asked, helpless. (7.140)
We have to ask: is anyone really avoiding Eleanor, or does she just imagine they are for the simple reason that no one is speaking directly to her? Sure, Mrs. Montague delivered the message to Theodora, but that was a case of mistaken identity. And it could be that no one is looking at her because she isn't saying anything to anyone. People do speak to her directly after she asks her question.
Now, things get way more complicated when Eleanor starts believing that Hill House is talking to her (seriously, Eleanor?), or when she claims a character feels a certain way (she usually has no evidence to prove it).
There is an exception to the above narrative rules. At the novel's beginning and end, the narration stays in third person but zooms out of limited omniscience and becomes just plain old omniscient, "all-knowing." Instead of sticking to Eleanor's point of view, this omniscient narrator can give us the thoughts, feelings, and viewpoint of any character.
You'll notice this at the novel's beginning, when the narrator introduces us to certain characters well before Eleanor meets them. You'll also see it occur at the novel's end after —spoiler alert—Eleanor dies. Eleanor can't very well tell us what happens to Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague from the afterlife, can she?
Oh, wait, can she? Okay, we're not going there.
Anyway, these parts of the novel give us our only chance to stop constantly questioning the unreliable narrator's unreliable narration. When this narrator says that Dr. Montague "hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education," we have no reason not to believe it. Since this narration is not limited to Eleanor's potentially psychologically disturbed perspective, we can take this information at face value.
Booker probably didn't have The Haunting of Hill House in mind when he drafted this plot structure, but that doesn't stop it from being a tragic, depressing, horribly unhappy, yet perfect fit.
The word anticipation brings one character instantly to mind: Eleanor. Our heroine starts the novel desiring to go and do something with a life horribly squandered at the behest of her invalid mother. With Momma dead and Hill House awaiting her over the horizon, Eleanor sets out to have adventure, meet some people, and start a new chapter in her life.
Speaking of new chapters, Eleanor reaches Hill House, and things couldn't be better. She makes new friends in Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague, and she becomes a welcomed part of a group: it becomes like a family to her. Hill House itself is exotic and new. Oh, sure, the place may be a pit of spiritual despair and malcontent that awakens every night to scare the pants off her, but each morning, she wakes up and the "very air tastes like wine" (5.1). Sounds dreamy to us.
Of course, the tragedy of the tragedy plot has to kick in sooner or later, and the first stage involves frustration. Eleanor begins to feel separated from the group bit by bit, though this separation may be more in her imagination than anything real. She's truly lacking in self-confidence. The frustration of loneliness reaches its peak when Theodora refuses to let Eleanor move in with her. Then Theodora and Luke seem to be cutting off Eleanor from the group. In need of solace, Eleanor turns her unrequited need for acceptance toward Hill House itself.
Eleanor gives herself completely to Hill House and loses control. In a typical Nightmare stage, the hero meets his or her loss of control with dread and despair. Here, though, Eleanor relishes the loss of her self, believing that Hill House has accepted her wholly and completely. The Nightmare stage culminates with Eleanor climbing the iron stairway in the library and attempting to reach the turret. Luke saves her, and the nightmare appears to have been avoided.
But it's not. The tragedy must end with the destruction of the hero; them's the rules. Eleanor decides she'd rather die than be parted from Hill House, the place that's come to signify home for her. Although she's forced to leave by Dr. Montague, Eleanor decides to partake in her death wish and commits suicide by running her car into a tree. Whether this means she and Hill House will be together forever is left to the reader's interpretation. Either way, it's pretty darn tragic.
Before we get into this story, we're going to need some questions answered. Who are these characters? Are there any conflicting interests between them? Where is this story going to take place? Who hates whom? Who loves whom? Without this information, how are we supposed to know what's going on? Or care?
Thankfully, the exposition stage is a one-stop shop for all these answers, and it's conveniently located at start of the first page. In the first three chapters, we learn about the histories and personalities of Eleanor and the rest of her ghost-hunting compadres. We get an account of Hill House and its eerie history. We even get a tour of the place courtesy of Dr. Montague.
Once the exposition has been established, it's time for the conflict to shift into high gear and give us some quality scares. Hill House begins its ghastly assault on the senses of its guests. Things go bang in the night, writing appears scratched onto walls, and ghostly whispers echo throughout the hallways. For Eleanor in particular, these manifestations tend to hold hints of her intimate fears such as loneliness and her mother.
But the conflict doesn't just pertain to the specters of Hill House. The relationship between the house's guests also complicates. Eleanor's relationship with the others strains under the weight of her own self-centeredness and fear of intimacy. This proves especially true with Theodora. When Eleanor asks to move in with Theodora, Theodora promptly refuses. The rejection pushes Eleanor further into Hill House's phantasmal embrace.
The climax is the turning point of the story. It's the moment when the protagonist makes a decision or does something that alters the conflict in a fundamental way, and the reader remains unsure of just how things will end.
The climax in this novel is subtle, but it's totally there. It occurs when Eleanor finally decides that Hill House will be her home sweet home. She believes it's the place she belongs, or even that she's been chosen by Hill House because it thinks she's special. The transition takes place at the end of Chapter 8 when Eleanor hears the rhyming song and thinks to herself, "None of them heard it, […]; nobody heard it but me" (8.173). This moment signifies Eleanor's removal from the group to become an occupant of Hill House. That's creepy, folks.
High tension? Check. Conflict building toward resolution? Check. Loose ends being tied up? Check. We must have entered the falling action stage.
The falling action in Hill House consists of most of Chapter 9. Eleanor is completely possessed by Hill House. When she tries to climb the iron stairway to the turret, the story has reached the moment of greatest tension as the reader wonders if Eleanor will kill herself like past Hill House residents. Then Luke saves her, and everyone has a "whew" moment.
Then we start the task of tying up loose plot threads. This occurs when Eleanor says her goodbyes to everyone. We learn what happened to Eleanor's sister, and Theodora and Eleanor seem to make up. Eleanor wants to stay, but the group resolutely refuses to let her. She must leave for her own safety.
We've reached the denouement, or the plot resolution, where everything comes to an end. Eleanor's heading home, so she can be safe from Hill House, and it's all well that ends well.
Or not. In a moment of insane conflict resolution, Eleanor decides she wants to be with Hill House forever and commits suicide. That's certainly one way to bring a story to resolution.
Now Eleanor will never have to leave her beloved home—though whether her ghost remains in the halls of Hill House or she's simply dead is up for interpretation. Afterward, we also learn about the fate of our other ghost hunters and what they did after their time in Hill House. As for Hill House, it continues to stand alone in the hills.
Like the Exposition Stage from our Classic Plot Analysis, Act I is all about giving us the information we need to understand the story to follow. We learn about Eleanor, her personality, and her dreams while she jacks her family car and drives to Hill House. We also learn about her new roommates Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague. Dr. Montague lets us in on the history of Hill House and plays tour guide through its haunted hallways. By the time Act I ends, we feel like we're part of the group and spending the night at Hill House ourselves.
Act II or, as we like to call it, "The Conflict Happens Act," features Hill House going medieval ghost-story on its guests and just generally doing its crazy thing. It knocks on doors, creates cold spots, tags Theodora's room with bloody graffiti, and manifests a bunch of phantasmal voices and images. It's a classy haunted house all the way.
But conflict arises between our friendly neighborhood ghostbusters as well. Eleanor undergoes a love-hate relationship with her new friends, sometimes feeling at home within the group but at other times feeling separate and alone. Her own angst and self-centeredness begin to push her further and further away from the group. To compensate, she identifies Hill House more and more as the place she truly belongs, the one entity that really "gets" her. Act II ends when Eleanor has become possessed under Hill House's spell.
Also, Mrs. Montague and Arthur arrive during this act because we could really use some comic relief.
The tension gets high in Act III, as Eleanor wanders the house like a ghost before deciding to climb the iron stairway. Once Luke saves hers, we move toward the resolution of the story. Eleanor is told she must leave Hill House for her own safety. Before she goes, she says her goodbyes, and it seems like all the conflict, plot, and relationship threads are nicely wrapped up. Right?
Wrong. Eleanor has no desire to leave Hill House, and so she commits suicide by running her car into a tree. Her story is brought to a violent and sudden resolution. Then we learn what the other ghostbusters do after leaving Hill House. As for Hill House, it keeps on keeping on in its solitary place among the hills.