Hill House has been standing for eight years and will stand for eighty years. It is not sane; it is silent and steady, and “whatever walked there, walked alone” (1).
Dr. Montague has always been interested in supernatural manifestations but took a degree in anthropology. He wants to be scrupulous since there is an air of ill repute about his interests. He rents Hill House for three months and decides to live there to see what happens. It is necessary for him to engage assistants, so he looks in records, reports, and back files to find people associated with abnormal events. Without saying too much, he writes these people and invites them to stay the summer. There are two who finally come, though another was supposed to, and a representative of the family who owned the house comes as well.
Eleanor Vance is 32 years old. She hates both her mother, now dead, and her sister Carrie, with whose family she lives with. In all her adult life, she’s never been happy before; all of her time has been spent dealing with her invalid mother and the reproaches and weariness that came with it. Once not long after her father had died in her youth, stones rained on her house without warning for three days. After Eleanor and her sister left, the stones stopped. Eleanor had been waiting all her life for something like Dr. Montague’s letter. Though her sister and brother-in-law were skeptical, Eleanor would have gone anywhere.
Theodora, “Theo,” is beautiful and charming and bright. She has some skill in telepathy. She was interested in the invitation but accepted immediately after getting into a fight with her roommate.
Luke Sanderson, a cheat and a liar but the person to whom the House was willed, was told by his mother to go. He is amused to undertake this adventure.
Eleanor, her brother-in-law, and Carrie discuss Eleanor’s taking the car to the House. Eleanor maintains it is half hers but Carrie and her husband find reason after reason why it is not a good idea.
That evening Eleanor takes a taxi to the city garage where the car is kept. Her stuff in tow, she is elated to begin her adventure. Unfortunately she bumps into an elderly woman carrying groceries before she is able to get into the car and drive off. The old woman is angry, but Eleanor tries to help clean up and offer her money. The old woman is mollified, but lectures Eleanor on the hazards of knocking people down. Still, she tells Eleanor she will pray for her.
It is a gorgeous summer day, and as Eleanor begins driving she thinks about how many days like this were wasted. Now, though, she is truly going, has truly taken a step. She looks at Dr. Montague’s careful instructions, which includes a warning to not stop in the town closest to Hill House. Apparently Hillsdale is filled with rude denizens who do not like to be asked about Hill House.
On the freeway, Eleanor marvels that she’s never driven alone before. The journey is “her positive action, her destination vague, unimagined, perhaps nonexistent. She meant to savor each turn of her traveling” (11). She imagines wandering off into the country, chasing butterflies until she comes to the end of the world.
However, she will go to Hill House. She wonders what it is like and what the Doctor is like. The roads dips and twists and turns. She sees houses, orchards, and fields. One house catches her eye. It is large, with shuttered windows and stone lions guarding the steps. She imagines herself sweeping the porch, dusting and cleaning the lions. An old lady will serve her tea and she will dine on bread and jam and sleep under a canopy of white organdy.
The car has left the town and she laughs at a billboard that once said “DAREDEVIL” but now only says “DARE” and “EVIL.” At another stop along the way, she admires stately oleander trees and the gateway they protected. There is no house inside though, so she wonders what was there or what was supposed to be there. What if she got out and went inside and passed into a fairyland and found a garden path? There will be a queen waiting for the lost princess and when Eleanor arrives she will drop her embroidery in wonder and the spell will break and the palace will be itself again.
Eleanor stops for lunch at a restaurant that is an old converted mill. She watches the only other diners, a couple and their daughter. The father comments that the sullen little girl wants her cup with stars on the bottom. Eleanor understands this completely. She silently encourages the girl not to drink the milk in the humble cup, and the little girl smiles and refuses her parents’ imploring.
Back on the road, Eleanor realizes her journey is more than half over. She keeps going, though she almost stops when she sees a little cottage buried back in gardens. No one would find her there and she could have cats and flowers, light a fire, and have a robin.
She tears herself away and realizes she is almost in Hillsdale. She decides that she will just stop for coffee and won’t say anything about the House. She drives into the dirty town and regrets it right away. it is sad and sullen and the people leer and stare. She goes inside a coffee shop and tells herself she has to drink her coffee. She talks to the young woman who works there, trying to indirectly ask about visitors and houses. A man sitting at the counter says people leave this town; they don’t come here.
The road away from Hillsdale is rocky and unfriendly. By now her sister and her husband would know that she took the car but they’d have no idea where she was. Eleanor laughs at this and how far away she is from home.
Her laughing dies though, when she arrives at the gate of Hill House. Huge and ominous, it is set into a stone wall. A dark road stretches back. She wonders why it is so heavily chained. She blows the horn and a grumpy man comes out. She tries to explain who she is but he pretends not to know. She argues that she is expected and he laughs that no one else is there yet. Finally, she loses her temper and demands he unlock the gates. Grumbling, he consents but says she will regret that she ever wanted him to do so.
She drives the car slowly in and the man follows. She asks if he is Dudley the caretaker, a name that jumped to mind from Montague’s letter. He asks who else he would be. She says she is looking forward to getting set up, but he laughs unmercifully that he and his wife leave before dark falls.
As she winds up the road, she gets a glimpse here and there of turrets, maybe a tower. She thinks of what she might find – a secret passage? A handsome smuggler? Suddenly, the House comes into view and she is immediately struck with its vileness. It is diseased and she must get away at once, she thinks.
Hill House is watchful and awake. Its lines, angles, and corners are unexpected and odd. It is a house that hates and is always on guard; it is evil. It is “without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope” (24). Eleanor is horrified and hears a voice telling her to get away. She knows she shouldn't leave, however, and continues to drive near and not look up at the huge and dark edifice. It seems an act of moral strength to get out of the car and step on the bottom step. She feels that the House is evil and patient, and remembers a line from a song: “Journeys end in lovers meeting” (25). Everything is silent and a knocker with a child’s face adorns the door.
A silent woman wearing an apron opens the door. It is Mrs. Dudley, the caretaker’s wife. Mrs. Dudley is unsmiling and suspicious. Inside the house, Eleanor can only make out dark wood, closed doors, and a staircase. Everything is still and her voice seems to get lost. She tries to talk to Mrs. Dudley, but the woman is unfriendly. Eleanor follows her up the stairs, observing the halls and corridors as she goes. It seems like the builders moved hastily on the top floors so they could get out as soon as possible.
Mrs. Dudley announces that her room is the blue room. Eleanor looks inside at the clashing, discordant shades of blue. While she looks, Mrs. Dudley matter-of-factly explains that dinner is set at six and they must serve themselves. She cleans in the morning and breakfasts at nine. She does not wait on people, and does not stay after dark. Eleanor says she understands but it is as if Mrs. Dudley does not hear her. She continues to say she cannot hear them in the night, that no one lives nearby, and that no one will come.
Alone in her room, Eleanor is struck with how awful it all is. She looks at the drapes, rug, and bedspread, all in shades of blues. The room has an “unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length” (28-29).
Eleanor unpacks and finds herself moving as silently as possible. It is like she is a small creature swallowed whole by a monster. She repeats her “journeys” phrase.
Suddenly she hears a car and a voice, and is happy to remember there will be others. She runs down and finds Theodora. Theodora is breathless and cheerful. She mocks the House. Nonplussed, Mrs. Dudley takes her to the green room. Eleanor looks at Theodora and thinks she is charming and not the sort of person who belongs in this dark place.
Mrs. Dudley gives Theodora her spiel and leaves. Theodora chats with Eleanor as she hangs up her clothes and laughs about Mr. Dudley not wanting to let her in. She adds that she’d like to go explore outside and Eleanor warns that it will get dark soon, but agrees and chooses to wear a red sweater. She compliments Theodora’s yellow one and the two head downstairs.
Theodora says she almost didn't really think there was a Hill House until they got here. She grabs Eleanor’s hand and they head out the front door. Theodora props the heavy door open with a vase, but once they step away, Mrs. Dudley shuts it. Eleanor looks at Theodora’s angry face and hopes she never looks at her like that.
They walk out on the veranda and stare uncomfortably out at the hills and road; there is no sign of any other human habitation. Theodora seems to hear what Eleanor is thinking and tells her not to be afraid all the time.
They find a little path taking them to a pretty brook. They joke about their families and Theodora teases that they must be cousins.
Theodora sees something moving across the way on the hill. She clasps Eleanor’s hand and says it is just a rabbit. Eleanor feels anxious and says they ought to go back since the others might be there.
Though a short novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a dense, complex, and fecund text with a multitude of points to consider on every single page. Symbols, metaphors, and allusions abound; characters’ thoughts and actions are rife with possible interpretations. Eleanor Vance is certainly one of the most intriguing characters in modern American literature, and charting her course from most likely sane to destroyed by Hill House and herself is a fascinating and maddening (no pun intended) literary experience.
Jackson begins with a description of Hill House as thorough as any of the human characters. Right away, readers learn it is unambiguously evil, haunted, and insane; there is no debate about this, but what we will look for is its effect on those who come to stay there. Jackson’s brief descriptions of Dr. Montague, Theodora, and Luke are useful, but that of Eleanor immediately triggers a warning light. She is an adult woman who has never had an adult life. Caring for her possessive, demeaning, and critical invalid mother has consumed her days, and even now after her mother is dead, she lives with her overbearing sister and her sister’s family. Eleanor garners our sympathy right away as she delights in the opportunity Dr. Montague’s note presents. While she certainly seems naïve and a little dreamy, there are only hazy indications that something deeper may be amiss in her psyche.
Critic Laura Miller notes Eleanor’s “running fantasy life that, besides a kind of smothered rage, we soon recognize to be one of her chief traits” and how such fantasies “serve as a bulwark against the actuality of her life.” Eleanor is dreamy indeed, but as aforementioned, there is something problematic about its excessiveness. She stops on her journey numerous times to indulge herself in imagining a new life. She is extremely introverted, and her interior life is vibrant but also unharnessed and fragmented. This isn’t surprising given the strictures of her past life, but it becomes more concerning once she is in Hill House. She lives in her head and is barely out in the world long enough to stop doing so before Hill House steps in.
It isn’t just Eleanor’s thoughts (and the fact that she was apparently involved with, to some extent, paranormal/poltergeist activity when she was a child) that disconcert. The house is objectively imposing and terrifying. Jackson uses words like “tall and ominous and heavy” (19) to describe the gates and depicts a quiet, dark road leading up to the house. Eleanor picks up on how “vile” and “diseased” (23) it is. It is a place of “manic juxtaposition” and its face seems watchful and awake; it is “arrogant and hating, never off guard;” it seemed to have “formed itself;” it is “a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for love or for hope” (24). These are Jackson’s narrative words, not just Eleanor’s impressions. Thus, readers are meant to see that the House is unequivocally evil and wrong.
Jackson adds to the creepiness of the edifice once Eleanor is inside. Doors are all shut, everything is silent and dark. Eleanor’s room has color but it is a garish explosion of different shades of the same color. Mrs. Dudley tediously impresses upon Eleanor how there will be no one to help them after dark and no one can hear them at all.
Jackson had also foreshadowed the trouble to come with the “DARE” and “EVIL” signs, the immediate collision with another person (the old lady) once Eleanor is free, the sobering words of the man at the coffee shop in Hillsdale (“People leave this town…They don’t come here” ), and Dudley’s grim warning that Eleanor will be sorry she ever had him open the gates for her.
It is at the moment Eleanor is unpacking that she seems to have the possibility to get away. No one else has arrived, she clearly sees the House for what it is, and she knows it might not be good to stay. She can leave if she wants to; her car is just downstairs. However, this moment is fleeting for two reasons: one, she tells herself her favorite snippet of a poem (more on that in a moment), and Theodora arrives, reminding Eleanor she will not be alone and eventually entrancing her with her charm and liveliness.
That oft-repeated phrase is “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (interestingly, it is sung by the Fool). Eleanor repeats this to herself numerous times and occasionally another character will say it as well (we will look at those utterances as they occur). It is important to note that the full phrase, which had eluded Eleanor earlier in her journey, only comes back to her as she stands on the steps of Hill House for the first time.