Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House displays the classic gothic style, with its setting (a dark and mysterious mansion), suspenseful atmosphere, active legends (the existence of a curse or evil presence within the house), omens and portents (sensed by Eleanor), supernatural events, overwrought emotion, women in distress, women threatened by a tyrannical male, metonymy of horror or gloom, and vocabulary (agony, alarm, anxious, apprehension, breathless, dread, frantic, resentment, shriek, surprise). The house itself is a character in the novel, seemingly alive.
Another element giving the novel a sense of gothic horror is the unreliable narrator, Eleanor. Because of her inability to tell the truth, Eleanor is unreliable—she frequently lies to other characters and then cannot be sure why she told the lies—and her inability to separate her own feelings from those she attributes to the house. However, there are enough shared experiences (such as the destruction of Theo’s room and clothes, the banging sounds, and the cold spot in the nursery) to make it clear that not every happening comes from Eleanor’s imagination. Readers, though, wonder if Eleanor is the cause of these happenings, just as she perhaps had caused a rain of stones to fall on her house for three days when she was an adolescent.
Eleanor’s psychological state is further questioned when she repeatedly speaks of suicide. She also speaks of surrendering to the house, feels uncontrollable jealousy for Theo and Luke, and continues to think about her mother’s final moments. She has nothing in her life that is her own, and she is desperately looking for something. She even tells Theo that she will follow her home like a stray cat because she is used to going where she is not wanted.
Jackson also examines the family dynamic and gender. Dr. Montague takes on the role of father, frequently calling his assistants his “children” when they ask to hear the history of the house or when they are unable to amuse themselves. The house itself can be read as a metaphor for repressive patriarchal society. Finally, the women in the story are stereotyped: Either they are subservient or they are forceful shrews.
Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” (1948) assured her status as one of the great American writers, but The Haunting of Hill House was her most successful work commercially. The novel was adapted for film and released as The Haunting in 1963 and was remade under the same title in 1999.