Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
Shirley Jacksons work consistently reveals the strange and disturbing undercurrents that lurk beneath the mundane and the commonplace. The Haunting of Hill House concerns itself with the evil energies held within a number of structures, not only the upright walls of Hill House but also the social structure of the family and the fragile constructs that make up an individuals identity.
An acrimonious sense of social and family relationships permeates the novel. Eleanors forced servitude to her controlling mother, her intense dislike of the sister with whom she now lives, and her own utter friendlessness mirror the stark history of the equally isolated Hill House, which was home to a morbid, oppressive patriarch, feuding sisters, and a suicidal companion, as well as other horrors. Montagues team becomes a de facto family, and Eleanor’s relationship with Theodora, her “cousin,” is replete with love, envy, and resentment. The house manifests physical evidence of Eleanor’s complex array of affection and anger by splattering Theodora’s room and belongings with blood, forcing the latter to share Eleanor’s room and clothes. This sisterly proximity contrasts with Eleanor’s emotional withdrawal from the others. She repeatedly is torn between her desire for connection with other people and for a normal life, on one hand, and the paranoia and suspicions that mark her desire for a life with those forces that reside in Hill House.
This novel is a psychological study as well as a literal ghost story. The ambiguities of Hill House’s architecture parallel the ambiguities of the human mind, particularly Eleanor’s mind. Closed doors, confusing hallways, and shifting perspectives represent the hidden feelings and contradictions within Eleanor. She repeatedly iterates her sense of connection with the mansion, seeing it as her home and wondering if she might be responsible for the vile activities taking place within its walls. In a novel that focuses not so much on plot as on a gradual unfolding of character, the animate house is as much a protagonist as Eleanor.
Eleanor’s tenuous sense of closeness with the others shifts between isolation and rage. As her reactions to the others become progressively warier, her reactions to supernatural events become more matter of fact. Resolution remains elusive for the reader. It is uncertain whether the house wants Eleanor or she wants the house, and it is unclear whether she is responsible for the paranormal events. Is she mad, or possessed, or behaving rationally in the light of the supernatural events to which she is sensitive? Eleanor’s final act is both self-destruction and self-realization: She irredeemably isolates herself and irrevocably fuses with the dark energies of the house.