Written by Dahlia Piccirelli
for Prof. Kris Woofter
In the novel The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, the protagonist Eleanor Vance experiences quite a transformation. At the beginning of the story, she is a timid and submissive young woman who has never been loved or accepted by anyone, including her family. When she arrives at Hill House she tries to form bonds and relationships with her housemates; however, she finds it easier to connect with the dark and supernatural forces haunting the house than with the people in it, and at the end of the story, Eleanor finds an unlikely home in Hill House. While some may say that the house slowly drives Eleanor insane as it consumes her, I will argue that she chooses to end her life in a place where she feels she belongs. Therefore, despite her untimely death, Eleanor finds eternal peace and happiness as a ghost haunting Hill House.
Eleanor Vance has lived a miserable life. She has spent the last 11 years of her 32-year-old life caring for her “invalid” and “cross” mother, by whom she was abused (Jackson 3, 4). Eleanor has never had any friends or lovers, and there is no mention of her having a job. She has never had anything that was truly her own. She has lived to please and serve everyone else and has always lived by their rules because she was afraid of seeming “ineffectual” (20). She even states that she feels as if she has “never been wanted anywhere” (154). When her mother finally dies, Eleanor has no choice but to move in with her sister and her family, whom she also dislikes very much and who treat her like a child. Part of the reason she was treated like a child is because she sounds and acts like one. As the reader becomes more familiar with her character, they discover that Eleanor is fragile and very dependent on others. She requires their constant attention, approval, and sympathy. In fact, she is so immature that the first character she truly identifies with in the novel is a little girl in a diner. The little girl refuses to drink her milk from any other cup than the one with stars that she has at home. Overhearing the conversation, Eleanor gives the girl a look to encourage her not to give in, because she believes that “once they [trap her] into being like everyone else [she] will never see [her] cup of stars again” (15). Eleanor has always been pushed around, and she does not want the little girl to live the same impotent and monotonous life that she has lived. When the girl stubbornly refuses to accept the other cup, Eleanor describes her as a “wise, brave girl” (15). Perhaps she admires the girl so much because she never had the courage to stand up for herself, nor has she had the chance to get so attached to someone or something, no matter how silly. Moreover, Eleanor has been smothered in her role as caretaker and housekeeper her entire life; therefore, it is no surprise that when she finally gets a chance to escape, even if it is from an invitation by a strange, old man to study a haunted house, she takes it. Eleanor “could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life,” so she is very anxious and impatient to finally find a place where she is loved and accepted; she wants to find her cup of stars (3). Furthermore, she is very hopeful about her experience in Hill House. As she walks up the front steps for the first time, “journeys end in lovers meeting” is the phrase that she repeats in her head several times (25). No matter how scared she might have been of the house’s intimidating and abject exterior, the thought of finally meeting someone who will love and accept her is what encourages her to go on.
When Eleanor arrives at Hill House, she takes on a new identity that she believes her housemates will immediately take a liking to, so she could finally find the family and home that she never had. Eleanor understands how inexperienced she is, so to counter her ignorance she makes it seem as if she knows and has experienced everything. She lies about her living situation to make herself seem more independent, and while most women would lie about their age to make themselves younger, Eleanor claims that she is older than she really is, to seem more mature. While her lies fool the others at first, Eleanor’s insecurities are never put to rest. She constantly has to remind herself that “[she is] the fourth person in [the] room; [she is] one of them [and therefore she belongs]” (43). At the start of the week, she gets along with her housemates and creates a strong bond with Theodora. While she is still insecure, she feels more at home than ever before; she even claims that “they [are] a family” after just one night spent together (71). When the house calls out to her for the first time and she finds her name written on the wall in chalk, Eleanor is terrified. She ignores Hill House’s first efforts to reach out to her and wants the words on the wall to be immediately “[wiped off]” because she feels that she “should not be on the walls of this house” (107). However, as time passes, she loses confidence and begins putting herself down again. She wakes up every morning and tells herself that she is “a very silly baby” (68). Moreover, tension with Theodora builds and she begins to disconnect from Luke and Dr. Montague. As she falls out of beat with the others, she seems to fall into a rhythm with Hill House. For instance, when Eleanor gets angry with Theodora, the house acts for her when it covers Theo’s clothes and walls in blood. Even though, once again, the house wrote a message to Eleanor, she is not as repulsed as the first time; she tells the doctor that “it makes [her] sick, but it doesn’t frighten [her]” (115). Furthermore, it seems as if Eleanor is abandoning her original mission to find family and get along with everybody. As she watches Theodora one night by the fire, she thinks to herself that she wants to “hit her with a stick,” “batter her with rocks,” and “watch her d[ie]” (117). However, she then proves to the reader that she has not given up just yet. That same night she opens up to the others about how having her name written on the wall makes her feel. Instead of sympathising with her, they accuse her of “trying to be the center of attention” and of being “[vain]” (119). Their tones as they speak to Eleanor clearly indicate that they are talking down to her, and she perceives that as well. In that moment, she understands that they are all looking at her from a place where she is not.
By the end of the novel, Eleanor is almost completely disconnected from her housemates; however, her fantasy of her “[journey] [ending] in lovers meeting” is not dead yet (25). Not only is Eleanor beginning to bond with the house, but she is becoming a part of it as well. Hill House may not be the lover that Eleanor or the reader was expecting, but it certainly fulfills the role of one. While some may argue that she is slowly being consumed by the house and becoming insane, I say that Eleanor is finally coming into her own person, and Hill House is helping her do that. The house is bringing out her true identity—it is helping her realize who she really is and what she truly wants. The reason she may seem uncomfortable or unsure at times is because she has never had this kind of autonomy or freedom before. Moreover, she has never had somebody, or in this case something, reach out to her or request her attention. The house is calling out to her; it wants her. The only other person that ever reached out to her is Dr. Montague, in his letter, and she doesn’t forget that. She gives her housemates one last chance when she asks Theodora to move in with her at the end of the summer. When she is rejected, Eleanor gives up all hopes of being accepted by people. That evening, as they sit in the parlor, the house calls out to Eleanor one more time and she hears it clearly. She notices singing that no one else seems to be paying attention to and she thinks “with joy” that “nobody [hears] it” but her (167). That night, she stops ignoring the house and whatever forces are calling out to her because she has finally found a place where she is accepted, and where she belongs. She celebrates finding a home in Hill House by taking on the role of the ghost that has haunted them all week. The next morning, when Dr. Montague tries to send her home, she refuses to go. She does not want to go back to her lonely life with her sister. Her character has developed and changed so much since her arrival at Hill House and she is a long way from being the shy girl that allows everyone to walk all over her. There is no way that Eleanor can go back to her mundane life and act like everything is normal, and she proves that she understands this when she claims that “Hill House belongs to [her]” (181). Instead of driving home, she turns the car around and drives to her death, straight into a tree in front of the house. This way she becomes a part of Hill House forever and no one could ever force her to leave.
Eleanor Vance was not consumed by Hill House, nor does it drive her insane. After realising that there was no hope for her to find happiness in the world of the living, the shy and lonely young woman finds a home and a family in Hill House. Right before she hits the tree, she begins to question her decision, but I do not believe that it is because she is regretting it. Her last thoughts are “why am I doing this?” and “why don’t they stop me?” (182). These questions come from the last part of her previous self coming out before she is completely merged into Hill House. Moreover, when she asks herself why the others do not save her, it proves that they do not accept her and that she will never be one of them; therefore, it reinforces her decision. She has had such a miserable existence and she feels that this is her last chance at happiness and belonging. This is her, stubbornly fighting for what is special to her: her own cup of stars. Eleanor Vance chooses to die at Hill House so that her spirit can live on forever in a place where she belongs.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. 1959. Penguin, 2006.
About the Author:
My name is Dahlia Piccirelli. I am a first-year student at Dawson College, currently studying in the Health Science program. While I am focusing on sciences in my academics, reading and literature have always been passions of mine. This text was written for a Reflections course, The American Gothic, taught by Dr. Kristopher Woofter. It is based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.