Estella Society Read-along: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouseReadalong

I read The Haunting of Hill House for the first time directly after college. I remember enjoying the book, but I didn’t recall many of the details. I knew I wanted to revisit this Shirley Jackson classic, but I’ve been putting it off for quite a while to wait for the “right time”. I am so glad Heather suggested we read this book for The Estella Society, because I got so much more out of my rereading. Since several people are posting about this book today I will skip a giant rehash of the plot and provide the GoodReads blurb:

“First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.”

Now at this point I’d like to boot out everyone who has NOT read The Haunting of Hill House. SCRAM. We’re about to play literary twinsie and if you haven’t read the book you won’t get the connection and it will spoil your read.
Go on, go READ THE BOOK.
Now then *picks up coffee cup* let’s chat book twins.
The Haunting of Hill House and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar could be twins (maybe not identical twins, but definitely fraternal). If you haven’t read The Bell Jar then, 1) you are missing out and 2) this conversation will hopefully entice those of you who enjoyed Hill House to read Plath’s novel.
I am going to be very brief and skim the surface with this analysis because when Sam is done with school I am applying for graduate school and this idea is in my stash of possible thesis/graduate paper topics (yes, I am a dork). I also feel like I should read The Bell Jar again along with another read of The Haunting of Hill House to fully solidify my ideas. For now I’m just going to create a list of similarities for your pontification.

  • Hill House and The Bell Jar were written during the same time period. Hill House was published in 1959 and The Bell Jar was published in 1963.
  • Both novels concern young, unmarried women. Eleanor (Hill House) is in her early thirties, but seems to be stuck in emotional adolescence and Esther (The Bell Jar) is in her late teens / college aged.
  • During this post-WWII, pre-second wave feminism era women struggled with balancing their desire for marriage and family with wanting independence and freedom. Esther (BJ) talks about a large fig tree with giant figs rotting off as representing different life paths and everything is rotting away because she cannot chose one thing. Eleanor (HH) wants to be cherished and loved, but also struggles with wanting her own space and to make her own decisions.
  • Both heroines have odd, enmeshed relationships with their mothers. Both Esther and Eleanor want to escape the control their mothers have, yet both daughters seem dependent on maternal approval and struggle to present a perfect, mom-approved, and well-put together façade.
  • Both heroines lie for no reason. Esther lies to a sailor about her name and her life and Eleanor lies about having an apartment. Each woman is presenting a false life to others. Each woman is also extremely adept at imagining themselves as living the life of another.
  • Lesbian frenemies. Yes, you read that right. Esther becomes sort of friends with Joan, a girl from her university. Joan ends up having a “close friendship” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) with another asylum patient. Eleanor and Theo vacillate from friendship to hating each other. It is implied (and more explicitly stated in the film, The Haunting) that Theo is a lesbian and it both fascinates and horrifies Eleanor.
  • Madness or nah? Shirley Jackson maintains that The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story (I’m still looking for citation information to confirm that) and The Bell Jar is certainly a story about a mentally ill college girl. However, the reader can link these two together because the supernatural has always been viewed as madness. Esther tries to commit suicide, but Eleanor either commits suicide or dies by supernatural intervention. Who can say what ended Eleanor’s life? Other “madness” narratives have elements of haunting, spirits or horror: The Turn of the Screw, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Jane Eyre. When women don’t fit in and have no space or acceptance allowing them to be their true selves they become alienated, cut-off, otherworldly.

Eleanor and Esther are haunted. Perhaps Eleanor is the only one haunted by the supernatural, but Eleanor and Esther are both haunted by not having a place to belong and be valued by society. In fact the opening line from The Haunting of Hill House could very easily been lifted from The Bell Jar, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”

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8 comments

  1. I read this novel last year the only Jackson I have read apart from her short story The Lottery. It’s a good creepy read with some interesting characterisation.

  2. I haven’t read The Bell Jar (I’ll have to now) but reading your list I immediately thought of Turn of the Screw which I read in Sept. Great post!

  3. That’s two posts in a row I can’t read…YET. Both of these (The Haunting and The Secret Keeper) are next to my chair waiting on me. I’m hoping to get to them next week and then I’ll come back and read. 🙂

  4. This is fascinating stuff, Amanda! I read The Bell Jar for the first time earlier this year and this was my fist time through Hill House, too. Never would have thought of this myself (that’s why you’re the one contemplating a thesis topic!)

    I felt like I was never quite sure what was really happening in Hill House and the characters (especially the women) were such mysteries. I’m already planning a reread.

  5. Finally got around to reading this. I liked the suspense/creepiness of this one, but I was frustrated with the ending. I wanted more about the house. I’m guessing Jackson intended to leave us hanging to a certain extent, but I wanted just a little more resolution. (Perhaps because I had just reread My Cousin Rachel with my girls…two unresolved endings in a row!) That said, my dh read this one with me and loved it. He’s trying to convince me to watch the movie with him now. 🙂 Hoping to get to The Secret Keeper during Dewey’s Readathon this weekend. Happy reading to you! (I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet this week – I’m hoping that you’ve just been busy and that y’all are not dealing with illness.)

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