Study Guide

The Haunting of Hill House Women and Femininity

By Shirley Jackson

Women and Femininity

I would never have suspected it of myself, [Eleanor] thought, laughing still; everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home. "In delay there lies no plenty; … present mirth hath present laughter..." (1.95)

Both Eleanor and Theodora attempt to gain freedom by going to Hill House. It's telling that both of the female visitors need to escape the dissatisfaction they have in their home lives. Of course, it's also ironic that they're escaping to a house.

For a moment her face was thing with anger, and Eleanor thought, I hope she never looks at me like that, and was surprised, remembering that she was always shy with strangers, awkward and timid, and yet had come in no more than half an hour to think of Theodora as close and vital, someone whose anger would be frightening. (2.91)

Eleanor strikes us as the kind of person who'd never had a friend before now. When she meets Theodora, the two seem to form an instant bond of friendship. Guess she finally has someone to share that heart necklace with, right? (Yeah, think again.)

"Eleanor." Theodora put an arm across her shoulders. "Would you let them separate us now? Now that we've found out we're cousins?" (2.148)

The women's bond is given a name beyond friendship, connecting the themes of "Women and Femininity" and "Family." Do the men in the novel ever form these kinds of bonds?

"It was said that the older sister was crossed in love," the doctor agreed, "although that is said of almost any lady who prefers, for whatever reason, to live alone." (3.130)

Dr. Montague's story of the Crain sisters has some horrifying aspects to it. But this quote suggests that much of the horror the townsfolk saw in Hill House could have been a potent mixture of gossip and Grade-A social sexism.

"I'm thirty-four years old," Eleanor said, and wondered what obscure defiance made her add two years.

"And you look about fourteen," Theodora said. "Come along; we've earned out breakfast." (5.8-9)

Ah, a play on the old cliché of a woman subtracting years from her age. But here's our question: why does Eleanor do this? Is it because she wants to seem more mature to Theodora? While we're here, why does Theodora say Eleanor looks about fourteen? Isn't that an awfully childish age to give an adult? Is it because Eleanor is actually childlike?

"In Mrs. Dudley's eyes I [Luke] am something lower than a dropped fork. I beg of you, if you are contemplating asking the old fool for something, send Theo, or our charming Nell. They are not afraid—"

"Nope," Theodora said. "You can't send a helpless female to face down Mrs. Dudley. Nell and I are here to be protected, not to man the battlements for you cowards." (5.58-59)

Another play on an old cliché. This time it's the old damsel in distress ploy. Theodora calls on Luke to protect her from a danger—as any man would be willing to do in a traditional Gothic story. Here, it's just Mrs. Dudley, but when the real horrors arrive, the men can do little to protect the women, as they are in the same predicament.

"Try to see," she said. "It's my own dear name, and it belongs to me, and something is using it and writing it and calling me with it and my own name…" She stopped and said, looking from one of them to another, even down onto Theodora's face looking up at her, "Look. There's only one of me, and it's all I've got. I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip and separate so that I'm living in one half, my mind, and I see the other half of me helpless and frantic and driven and I can't stop it […]" (5.172)

Eleanor fears losing her identity, here represented by her name. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that women in Western culture traditionally change or alter their name throughout their lives, such as when they get older or when they get married (Miss, Mrs., Ms.).

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. (7.193)

Remember that last quote? Well, so much for that. Eleanor's desire for Hill House means she must give herself up to Hill House, name and all.

"It was going to happen sooner or later, in any case," Eleanor said. "But of course no matter when it happened it was going to be my fault." (8.68)

Western culture historically requires women to be the caregivers and nurturers of the home. The novel suggests that when this care fails blame is unfairly put on the woman. The fact that Eleanor's mother would eventually die was inevitable, which only underlines how unfair and ridiculous the blame game is here.

It was warm, drowsily, luxuriously warm. (9.2)

Before, Eleanor always found warmth in human contact, particularly human contact with her friend Theodora. At the novel's end, though, Eleanor has cut herself off from everyone else, finding warmth instead in Hill House.

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