Study Guide

The Haunting of Hill House Genre

By Shirley Jackson


Gothic Fiction; Coming-Of-Age; Family Drama

Hidden passages, foreboding lightning strikes, twisty stone stairwells, and shackle-strewn oubliettes are just a few of our favorite Gothic things.

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:

  • Eleanor Vance can be read as the virgin maiden.
  • Luke or Theodora could be a unique take on the Gothic hero.
  • Mrs. Montague is the foolish old woman; Dr. Montague the knowledgeable old man.
  • Mrs. Dudley fits the comic relief role of clownish servant.
  • The only thing missing is the tyrant, but one could argue that Hill House assumes this role (or possibly Eleanor's mother).

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.

If you want to explore these breaks with tradition further, click on over to our "Setting" and "Characters" sections.

A Family Matter

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.

Late Bloomer

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.

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