Eleanor Vance is the protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House, and that's the one point all readings of her character agree on. Past this point, readings start to diverge and differ like light split through a prism. It's not that these readings can't agree on the facts of Eleanor's character. They're right there in the book. It's just that Eleanor is such a rich, flesh-and-blood character that it's really hard to pin down the who of who she is. And the why? Good luck, sister.
Why do we bring this up at the beginning? It's to point out that what we're offering below is not the end-all-be-all of this character, and you shouldn't consider it as such. We've put this together to get you started into diving into Eleanor's psyche. You might agree with some points and add to them, or you might take them in a different direction, or you might totally disagree with everything we say. All are acceptable approaches to the task of figuring out just who exactly Eleanor Vance really is.
When we first meet Eleanor, she's dealing with the death of her mother, and she couldn't be happier. It's not as cold-hearted as it sounds, though. Eleanor has spent the last eleven years of her life in a type of suspended childhood, bound to the care of her invalid mother. Now she feels she can finally go out and live her life for herself. And when the invitation arrives to go and stay at Hill House, she totally goes for it. What better wait to start living your life, right?
So the first thing we notice in Eleanor is a desire to free herself from the confines of her reality. It's the part of her character that drives her from the beginning of the novel onward. During her trip to Hill House, she imagines all the different lives she might live in all the different houses. And once she arrives at Hill House, she sets out to be the woman she's always wanted to be—and to free herself from the confines of, well, herself.
How does she do? Eh, not very well.
The thing about Eleanor's freedom is that it always comes in an illusory form. She only ever imagines her freedom; she never actually gets it. All those lives she imagines living while on the road—lives with stone lions and oleanders—appear later in the dream apartment she lies to Theodora about. But the apartment itself never becomes a real thing.
Even Eleanor's drive to Hill House is instructed by someone else: Dr. Montague, who "guid[es] her from some spot far away, moving her car with controls in his hands" (1.66). So, Eleanor's freedom is pretty much all in her mind, while the reality of her situation is that she's confined to the expectations of a new parental figure, Dr. Montague.
When Eleanor gets to Hill House, things don't change in this regard. In fact, they become much worse.
At Hill House, we discover further depths to Eleanor's character. It seems that all those years spent in the service of her mother must have halted her normal psychological development, because Eleanor has a serious case of arrested development.
What we're talking about is Eleanor's inner child. Although Eleanor is all grown up on the outside—she's thirty-two—she's still carrying around some childish traits on the inside. Because the book is told almost entirely from her perspective, we get to see Eleanor's inner child rage time and time again. Examples? Oh boy, do we have examples for you. Let her roll.
And there are many, many more examples of Eleanor's childishness to be found. Seriously, this smattering of examples may help prove our point, but they do little justice to just how often Eleanor's arrested development takes hold of her.
Perhaps the most telling example of Eleanor's arrested development is her need for a home. When she leaves her mother's house, she goes directly to Hill House. Once at Hill House, she finds she is "unbelievably happy" in the mansion, despite the whole potentially soul-sucking horror of the place. And when she ponders leaving Hill House, she asks Theodora if she can move in with her. When Theodora promptly refuses, Eleanor sighs that she's "never been wanted anywhere" (8.33).
While we all need homes and family to get by, Eleanor seems unable to function in any situation outside of a home. She is unable to go out and make her own home, and, like a child, she requires the home of another person to shelter and protect her from the terrors that truly get under her skin, like the real world.
What makes Eleanor such a tragic figure is the combination of the two traits we've already looked at. On the one hand, we see a woman desperately trying to escape the confines of her current life predicament. On the other hand, Eleanor's inner child and lack of social growth is what really prevents her from achieving her freedom, not some malevolent, outside force.
What do we mean by that? If you'll remember, Eleanor's sense of freedom during her car ride came in the form of imagining new homes, homes with stone lions and oleanders and a cup of stars. Sure, these were illusions, but we might also call them dreams: something to work toward and achieve with a newfound lease on life.
But Eleanor lets all those dreams go in order to meet her inner child's need for warmth and security:
Here I am inside. It was not cold at all, but deliciously, fondly warm. […] No stone lions for me, she thought, no oleanders, I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside. I am home, she thought, and stopped in wonder at the thought. I am home, I am home. (9.15)
Why does she do this? Why does anybody do anything in a horror story? Fear.
Eleanor's fears prevent her from seeking out her own stone lions and oleanders and cup of stars. These same fears attract her to Hill House. It's wonderfully ironic actually. The fears of Eleanor's inner child—fear of loneliness, hardship, love, guilt, and the world outside the home—outweigh her fear of ghosts and phantoms and things that go bump in the night (what we traditionally associate with childish fears).
So Hill House becomes an attractive alternative, a place to make a home. When the others make Eleanor leave the security of Hill House, fear is what ultimately drives her car into that tree.
In the end, Eleanor becomes her own haunted house of fears.