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    Rejecting Domesticity

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by EFMingo, Dec 11, 2022.

    ~ 15 Minute Read



    Rejecting Domesticity in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House


    Eleanor Vance, in her stay at the haunted house in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, embodies the troubled protagonist of what critic Brittany Roberts calls the “domestic gothic fairy tale” (Roberts). Most of Jackson’s works fall under this sub-genre, but Hill House has the distinct effect of bringing the house into play as a representative of the domestic issues that were afflicting women of the Post-War era. It is an abstract portrayal of women’s idleness and lack of identity that was being protested across America due to the lack of avenues of growth open to them in their society. Eleanor’s odd-nature and undetermined identity signify crippling domestic issues of Post-War era America and its women, and her subsequent fall into a shared identity with the neglected and broken Hill House is representative of the malformed nature of the position of women in American society.

    Eleanor was influenced by the house due much to her personal identity crisis she was experiencing after the death of her mother. Eleanor’s behavior became, from the onset of the novel, rebellious and erratic, much like that of an adolescent trying to find their identity when they recognize their independence. Jackson’s initial description of Eleanor and her hatred for her mother and sister is described as “eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking. She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair” (Jackson, 3). By this description, it appears that most of her adult life, and likely all her childhood, were spent in devoted attention to the health and wellness of her mother. Eleanor was thereby placed in the motherly role early on without being able to formulate her own identity. She was unable to experience a life after adolescence as her being shut into the home of her mother encompassed her only avenue for self-growth.

    In her essay on Eleanor being caught simultaneously under the courtesy stigma and the caregiver burden regarding her dead mother, Marilyn Boyer states that during the fifties in America, “if you were physically disabled, you were kept indoors due to the extent of stigma and ostracism that came with the very idea of disability…In Hill House, then, Jackson’s exposition and emphasis are on the long range “courtesy stigma” that one who is physically disabled has in her association with her able-bodied caretaker who absorbs that stigma and is, in turn, also treated in negative ways, as most likely, her mother would have been. Consequently, Eleanor may be compelled to see herself in a distorted way” (Boyer, 148). Eleanor is forced into a role for a third of her life that revolved around understanding and caring for another’s needs incessantly. This pressed a broken identity onto Eleanor, despite her rejection of the character the identity came from. She internalizes the disabled mentality, even though she is able-bodied, which leads to her confused self upon release from the domestic prison of caregiving life. Her identity is therefore stunted, or disabled, leading Jackson to describe her state at the introduction of the novel as “Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words” (Jackson, 3). Eleanor’s consistent internalization of negative thoughts and remonstrances throughout the novel bear this same inability to connect with others that she never learned as a late adolescent turning adult. Her disability is found in her impressed identity, which was never allowed to form naturally because of the consuming infirmity of her mother.

    The newfound freedom from the caregiver role gives Eleanor room to find her own identity, but with the voluminous gap in lost time from taking care of her mother, she isn’t equipped well to isolate a good sense of where to begin. Instead, with the invitation to Hill House, Eleanor finds a sort of relation to its design. In Brittany Roberts reassessment of Eleanor, she states that “Childhood, for Eleanor, was the last time that she was allowed to nurture a sense of self…The house's construction, then, in many ways mirrors the compartmentalization of Eleanor's own identity” (Roberts). Hill house is described by Dr. Montague as “every angle is slightly wrong” (Jackson, 77), which is much like Eleanor’s own mind. She was never allowed to fully develop as a woman of her society in Post-War America because she was locked away from it and malformed in development mentally. The house takes on a physical manifestation of her mental development. Every angle is off-set and warped, giving it a disoriented feel in a labyrinthian design. Eleanor’s identity is based in a cyclical idleness that circles back to her mother’s caretaking, which she reflects on often throughout the novel. Hill House has also been a sort of abandoned on the outskirts of a forgotten little town. The architect and first owner meant for it to develop into a grand home for show, but instead it became isolated because of its malevolent history and was left in idleness. It’s strange angles and general rejection from most anybody who sees it is something that Eleanor can easily associate with. Roberts continues this by writing “Hill House and Eleanor thus mirror each other: each is comprised of bits and pieces that have been subsumed by other elements” (Roberts). Their shared existence in general neglect from other people brings them together as one entity in mind, joining them by the end of the novel.

    The failures of Eleanor’s broken family development fulfill some of the same failures that Hill House experienced. The house has never truly contained a nuclear family element inside of it, and thereby didn’t naturally develop as a standard family home should from the building’s inception. The death of the mother before she could even enter the halls of the house created an environment where the children were taught and cared for only by the house’s builder, who was a bit unhinged himself. The house wasn’t cared for by a housebound mother, so it was forced to endure a life under the strain of being malformed at birth. Hill House never truly formed into what it could understand as a well-rounded home. When Eleanor and the house finally come together, they are matching each other’s poor upbringing they find by a middle in relation over their deficiencies. Hill House desperately desires the care of a motherly figure, and Eleanor needs to discover a life of her own in owning and caring for something directly controlled by her own person. Eleanor feels a stake in the growth of the home as a person. They are a comfortable match for one another because they fill some the gaps that each other’s family units failed to achieve. They achieve a partnership by the end of the novel in their deficiencies, finding love in each other’s flaws.

    Boyer comments on this friendship as being at the root of the novel’s purpose. She states “Fundamentally, this novel is about a search for companionship that is not forthcoming and leads to a shocking and irrevocable demise, as Eleanor takes her own life, rather than become walled up alive inside of a life with her sister, which would be reminiscent of a life with her mother, in that she would not be in control of her own existence” (169). The forced removal of this companionship from the house seems to be a recurring issue that leads to the death of these motherly and caring women who reside in the house. Sophia and her friend that lived with her experienced much of this same issue. Sophia was being constantly abused by her sister for the ownership of the home as her sister was attempting to force her out. For Sophia’s friend, the entire town rejected her ownership of the estate and led her to a suicide within the home. Eleanor was forced out because of the display she makes in her joining with the house, which her ‘family’ unit staying at Hill House fails to understand. This eventually leads to her suicide, or possibly the house forcing her death, in an effort to stay with Hill House forever. The women that Hill House chooses to remain under its care, the broken and rejected persons in their respective societies, are always taken from it upon the convalescence of their mutual acceptance of each other.

    Hill House is often viewed in the manner of taking on a motherly role, but it effectively acts more child-like in its actions and demeanor, much like Eleanor. Richard Pascal, in his study of the novel, introduces the mother concept at the beginning of his essay as a sort of base to start from. He writes “for Eleanor the allure of the house, and also its horror, is bound up with the sense that it wishes to envelop her in a maternal embrace so comprehensive that her newly won independence and all vestiges of her individuality will be subsumed utterly” (Pascal). He says the house wants to care for Eleanor as she has been without a mother for most of her life, instead taking on the role in reverse. Pascal argues that the house wants to hold Eleanor as a mother and keep her protected and safe, but that seems illogical. Though Eleanor is child-like in character because of her upbringing, she is also motherly in that she genuinely wants to care for something of her own in the same way she had cared for her mother for all those years. Instead of caring for another person though, she wants to adore and love a home that is rejected by others, calling it something of her own. Eleanor owns almost nothing and has no home to call her own, so Hill House, though owned by Luke’s family, is something of a possession of hers since she is the only one who seems to appreciate it for how it is. It is rejected and neglected by most others except for herself.

    There is also the ghostly presence within the home that takes the form of a child, though no child died within the home. Pascal conjectures that the child spirit is the home’s lure for Eleanor in adolescent likeness when he writes “There is no child--no living child--in residence at Hill House. But there is a child spirit, apparently, as well as a very immature thirty-two-year-old adult, Eleanor, who is a child at heart even though she struggles for a while to mature into an independent young woman like Theodora” (Pascal). To him, the house takes in Eleanor as a representative of this child spirit to escape the idleness and unloved nature of the outside society she doesn’t fit into. He continues “Eleanor's gradual descent into childishness marks The Haunting of Hill House as a sort of bildungsroman in reverse: she doesn't grow into adulthood, but rather develops her hitherto latent capacity for immaturity” (Pascal). Pascal argues that the house allows for her adolescence to be free to grow in the home. Though this seems a strong possibility in the late-night scene of Eleanor’s final night in the house where she takes on the spirit’s role of haunting the house, it appears more evident that Eleanor is taking on a relation to the house as a friend and caretaker instead of a child to a mother.

    In speaking of Pascal’s quote that there is no child that died there even though there is a child spirit, there is more sense to be made out of the child spirit being that of the home itself. It cries and throws tantrums because it is unloved. It appeals to the presence of a motherly figure who both understands its malformed upbringing due to having a similar identity problem, and it desires to be loved by someone who desires to claim it as her own. Eleanor, if anyone, would take on a more motherly role than the house because she doesn’t desire her mother; Eleanor desires isolation in a place of her own. As Roberts states “these homes fulfill desires for seclusion, security, and a space of one's own, offering charmed, fairy-tale kingdoms and spaces of self-determination in the guise of macabre gothic homes” (Roberts). Eleanor’s initial attitudes towards the other guests are amiable and friendly, but they deteriorate due to her desires to isolate within a home she feels understands and exhibits the same mannerisms as her. In an internal monologue, Eleanor states “what I want in all this world is peace, a quiet spot to lie and think, a quiet spot up among the flowers where I can dream and tell myself sweet stories” (Jackson, 18), letting the reader know that she has long passed the ability to foster true relationships due to her malformed upbringing, but is instead contented to live in isolation with a place in her same image. This lines up with the desires of Hill House, who simply wants someone to love it as a home instead of rejecting it because of its objectional qualities as observed by normal society. As Roberts states, “They find a source of love in each other: Eleanor has longed for her own home, and the home has longed for someone like Eleanor to fill it. Indeed, 'ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House’” (Roberts).

    This interest in isolation is a large part of what Jackson is subversively writing about regarding the societal conditions for women of the nineteen fifties America. In a reassessment of Jackson by Angela Hague, she writes “By focusing on her female characters' isolation, loneliness, and fragmenting identities, their simultaneous inability to relate to the world outside themselves or to function autonomously, and their confrontation with an inner emptiness that often results in mental illness, Jackson displays in pathological terms the position of many women in the 1950s” (Hague). This goes together with the psychological portrait of Post-War era women brought forward by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, which defines house wifes as being in “uneasy denial of the world outside the home” with “comfortable, empty, purposeless days” (Friedan). Eleanor’s former existence as a caretaker for her mother for most of her adult life has left her in a constant struggle of being in a sort of purposeless existence, living day after day in service of another who should have been caring for her. Eleanor’s abhorrence for it and utter rejection of being in service of another’s property is reminiscent of women in the decade. She wants something of her own to be proud of and love, and Hill House fulfills this brilliantly because that is exactly the type of adoration that it repeatedly is deprived of throughout its long history.

    Hague further continues her argument regarding Jackson’s characters like Eleanor by stating “Jackson's characters possess neither gyroscope nor radar; lacking a core of identity forces them to seek meaning and direction in the world outside themselves, but their inability to relate to and communicate with others and their fear of unfamiliar environments create the panic and paranoia that descend upon them when they venture beyond the dubious safety of their domestic environment” (Hague). The expected domesticity of the female condition in Post-War America led to these sorts of characters from Shirley Jackson. They rejected the norms of societal interaction and instead opted for isolation and ownership away from the service of others. They are lacking an identity because they are fulfilling a role as a mother or a caretaker of family members who are advancing in position while they remain stagnant or idle. Eleanor is a prime example of this rejection of domesticity, which makes her an objectionable character for the other ‘family’ unit she lives with at home and her actual family which disregards her as anything more than a pest, instead opts for the isolation of loving something malformed as herself.

    The Post-War America home environment during Jackson’s writing of this novel was apparently comfortable to outside viewers, but in the reality of women living in idleness in service of their families with every day being identical to the last, it was a certain sort of personal prison. Their lack of identity because of this imprisonment in station led Jackson to develop the home, in its societally acceptable form, to be a sort of personal Hell for them. As Hague continues, “Although Jackson's domestic writings offer the idyllic version of home that the traditional culture sought to promulgate, her literary fiction presents a world in which "home" can instantly transform into a frightening and unpredictable environment that represents the darker side of family security” (Hague). This idleness is terrifying to people such as Eleanor who have experienced it first-hand for so long that they watched their dreams pass by and let their identities drown out into expectation. They assumed roles in the home as caretakers and mothers, often for things that they had no direct control and decision making over. Jackson shows Eleanor as rejecting of this sort of world by having her throw it far away to find an identity and partner in a malformed and haunted house simply because it shared a likeness to her own being. The true horror of Jackson’s novel falls under society’s rejection of Eleanor, who finds her identity in a disdainful home that mutually meets their respective desires, casting her away from it and letting that further rejection murder her in the process.



    Works Cited


    Boyer, Marilyn D. Embodied Disturbances: Disability and Freakishness in Shirley Jackson's Anxious Horror, Fordham University, Ann Arbor, 2012. ProQuest, https://nuls.idm.oclc.org/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fdissertations-theses%2Fembodied-disturbances-disability-freakishness%2Fdocview%2F924762306%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D25320.

    Friedan, Betty, et al. The Feminine Mystique. W.W. Norton, 2013.

    Hague, Angela. "'A faithful anatomy of our times': reassessing Shirley Jackson." Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 2005, p. 73+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A137493114/LitRC?u=nu_main&sid=LitRC&xid=1d66be29. Accessed 26 Mar. 2021.

    Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin, 2006.

    Pascal, Richard. "Walking alone together: family monsters in The Haunting of Hill House." Studies in the Novel, vol. 46, no. 4, 2014, p. 464+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A395165345/LitRC?u=nu_main&sid=LitRC&xid=0bd6f2da. Accessed 26 Mar. 2021.

    Roberts, Brittany. "Helping Eleanor Come Home: A Reassessment of Shirley Jackson's the Haunting of Hill House." The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, no. 16, 2017, pp. 67-93,233. ProQuest, https://nuls.idm.oclc.org/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Fhelping-eleanor-come-home-reassessment-shirley%2Fdocview%2F1984358196%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D25320.
     
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Discussion in 'Articles' started by EFMingo, Dec 11, 2022.

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