Hill House itself is a metaphor for the fractured self in its closed doors, windowless rooms, odd angles, and incongruous and complex floor plan. This house was the product of a bitter, depraved, and prideful man and acts upon Eleanor Vance in a way that explicitly reveals her own fractured self. Modern life with its numbness, sensory and semiotic overload, and incomprehensible perils (the novel was written during the height of the Cold War, after all) takes it toll on even the strongest individual, but poor Eleanor is ill-suited to withstand both it and the supernatural malevolence of the house. Almost right away, Eleanor begins to feel like she is two different people, that she is splitting and dissolving, and, eventually, that the house is claiming her for its own. At the end of the novel, she drives her car into a tree in full surrender but wonders at the last moment why she is doing so. Overall, the house reflects and exacerbates Eleanor's contradictions and hidden feelings; ultimately, Eleanor cannot hold onto a sense of self.
Although Dr. Montague sees himself as a scientist and applies the scientific method to his practice, he ultimately butts up against the raw power of the supernatural (tellingly, the cold spot he is trying to measure won't even let him hold the chalk long enough to make accurate measurements). It is inarguable that the supernatural is a real force in this novel, but its exact nature is ambiguous. Is there actually a spirit of someone in the house such as Sophia Crain, Old Miss Crain, or the companion? Is it a more nebulous force? Is Eleanor the real avatar of the supernatural who awakens the house rather than the reverse? Is the supernatural's power really what it does to people's weaknesses and flaws, as Dr. Montague points out? Overall, Jackson obfuscates the exact nature of what we're dealing with, allowing us to look the intersection between the paranormal, diseased psyches, and more.
The maternal force in this novel is a devouring, all-consuming one. Eleanor's life before Hill House was one of unceasing torment and toil for a capricious and cruel mother who could never give her daughter the love and cherishing she so ardently desired. It is implied that Eleanor may have even let her mother die on purpose. Hill House is also a suffocating maternal force with its dark, enveloping, womb-like interior and murderous reluctance to let people leave its grasp. It becomes very clear that the house and/or Eleanor want a reunion of mother and child; the messages in chalk, blood, and planchette attest to this desire. Eleanor's sense of self is not strong enough to withstand this pressure and she ultimately agrees to return to her "mother."
Eleanor has spent most of her life inside her own head given that caring for her invalid mother was no life at all. This has hampered her ability to engage with wider society, navigate personal relationships, and accurately judge the reality of situations. Readers are privy to her rich fantasy life but come to see that this excessive interiority is problematic. She entertains ludicrous thoughts, dwells obsessively on things, and dreams and entertains delusions too often. Hill House is able to exploit her fixation on cogitation and she begins to lose control of herself.
Jackson suggests that there is a danger in fixating on women's sexuality, a hallmark of patriarchal society. Eleanor's sister and her husband are concerned that the Doctor may take advantage of her, Mrs. Montague worries about the young people being thrown together, and Hugh Crain marries religion with a lewd fascination about his daughter's passage into sexual maturity. Eleanor has clearly internalized these views because she frets that the red nail polish she wears on her toes is "wicked." Later when she has come to despise Theodora, she thinks to herself that Theodora is "wicked." Theodora is a much more openly sexual being and Eleanor feels uncomfortable with this; she is also jealous of Theodora and attracted to her at the same time.
Freedom and Surrender
Eleanor thinks she wants freedom but ultimately she prefers to surrender to a more powerful force. Freedom for her is intoxicating at first but it means being uncomfortable; it means having to navigate a complicated external world. Because she spent her adult life completely imprisoned, she can only function in such a world. She resists Hill House's suffocating maternal grasp for a little while, but ultimately gives in, deciding that it is better to dissolve and surrender because then you are truly part of something forever.
Home and Family
Family is rather disappointing to the characters: Hugh Crain was a perverse patriarch and his wives kept dying and leaving their daughters motherless; Eleanor's mother was a demanding crone; Luke has no mother; Dr. Montague's wife is a shrew; and Theodora has trouble with her roommate/partner. As for home, it is perhaps a concept that the Montagues, Luke, and Theodora can more easily embrace, but Eleanor and the Crains of Hill House have decidedly different experiences. Home and family are complex; family is suffocating and a house is not a home. It is not a refuge but rather a suffocating and oppressive place where individuality is obliterated. Eleanor does not have a home in the way she wants one, and spends most of her time dreaming about the ideal space and being "cherished" by someone. Hill House is the home that eventually claims her and she it; she accepts its abusive love and its invitation to COME HOME ELEANOR. The novel's ambiguity surrounding the concepts of home and family suggest some of the problems with them in the wider 1950s society, where the ideal nuclear family and comfortable suburban home more often than naught contained something repressed, stultified, or distressed.
The Haunting of Hill House Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Haunting of Hill House is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.