Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Hunting of the Hill House, tells a story of an investigation of a house thought to be haunted by ghosts. The leader of the experimentation is Dr. Montague, who hopes to salvage his career by providing evidence of the existence of a supernatural world. To achieve his objectives, Dr. Montague selects a few guests to help with the research. The plan is for the participants to reside in the house. One of the chosen people, who will be of central interest in this essay, is Eleanor Vance. This protagonist is convinced that she will eventually have a sense of belonging by simply staying in that house, but she ultimately commits suicide. She is the most psychic and also the one who has experienced hate, isolation, rejection, trauma, and other challenges while growing up. Although not all of Eleanor’s unstable psyche can be attributed to her past interactions, her relatives’ dysfunctional relationships had a significant contribution to her psychic personality.
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First, the mental challenges that Eleanor has are a direct result of her childhood and youthful experiences. Notably, “she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without feeling self-consciousness” (Jackson 2). People are naturally social such that they need to belong to a family or any other group. However, Eleanor did not have the chance to develop any attachment since she eleven years of her life taking care of an ailing mother. When female power is bottled up for a long time, as was the case of Eleanor, it turns lethal. It is evident in her failure to develop effective communication and self-expression skills. Her lifestyle not only made her depressed and isolated but also incapable of developing healthy relationships.
There was some hostility between Eleanor and most of her family members, which made her develop mistrust and remain isolated, even in a social group. Eleanor “disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends ” (Jackson 2). From this statement, it is clear that Eleanor never got to form any stable relationship with anyone. Consequently, it was difficult for her to trust people because she does not know how to secure attachment. During the haunted house, Eleanor has a bad relationship with other members. For instance, her relationship with Theodora is characterized by enmity, especially after the writings in the hall are discovered (Jackson 69). She cannot resolve conflict in an amicable way leading to hatred as was the case during her childhood.
Besides, living among hateful and irresponsible siblings may develop unhealthy ways of dealing with dynamic realities. While arguing with her brother-in-law over a car, Eleanor states that she helped pay for it and is still denied access (Jackson 3). The conversation shows that Eleanor was never able to confront her step-siblings successfully. Resultantly, she developed a passive-aggressive character such that even while at the haunted house, she still failed to make her stance clear during a disagreement. For instance, after Theodora finds her clothes stained, Eleanor states, ” I’m getting used to her blaming me for everything ” (Jackson 75). She equally says that she hopes her clothes will fit Theo well. There is an incongruence in that Eleanor wishes well of her but again says insults in a passive-aggressive manner. Therefore, the unresolved conflicts that she had with her siblings resurface when she interacts with others.
People who have suffered at the hands of their families may try to escape their emotionally painful reality by creating fantasy. Throughout the novel, Eleanor keeps creating imaginary stories, which permits her to alter reality. Most wishful thinking that the protagonist has concerns “journeys end in lovers meets” (Jackson 15). The thoughts on romance can indicate that she desires an intimate relationship but is unable or is afraid of one. Notably, the finalizing of journeys is symbolic of her desire to gain independence from her ailing mother and siblings by being far away and getting a soulmate. Eleanor’s life was characterized mainly by pain that she avoided, almost to developing psychic tendencies.
Finding love for a person who has never experienced the same from relatives can be difficult due to low self-esteem. Eleanor expresses the following regarding Theodore, “I will not be frightened or alone anymore; I will call myself just Eleanor” (Jackson 103). She hopes to end up in a stable romance with Theodora even though the feelings are not reciprocated. The repressed feelings for her mother and failure to admit that she had a role in her death imprisoned Eleanor. Specifically, she decided to go back and sleep when she knew that her mother needed assistance. The haunted house is, thus, a metaphor for her thought processes. The truth about her life is the reality that she tries to escape, only to discover that the escape is but a mirage that sinks her more into anxiety and eventual death.
Family support is vital for people undergoing psychological challenges so that they do not deteriorate further and have a mental breakdown. The emotional issues Eleanor developed due to isolation and advanced because of the hatred of her family members. Later she feels that she will find sanity when she joins in the haunted house experiment and find Theodora’s love. Unfortunately, the experience only resurfaces the ugly reality of her past. She does not find hope except for the solace in her mysterious imagination. Thus, Eleanor entraps herself in a cycle of regrets, fear, and paranoia (Baker 77). The novel is finalized when Eleanor decides, though reluctantly, to commit suicide. Her story depicts that if a person could have tried to show her some genuine concern, she might have regained some sanity.
Conclusively, Eleanor’s isolation, family members’ hatred, and unresolved conflicts made her develop mental health issues. Her prolonged years of social isolation are responsible for the poor social skills that she depicts and her paranoia. In addition, Eleanor’s enmity with her sister and brother-in-law contributed to her paranoia. When she eventually joined Dr. Montague’s experiment, she was excited, but the haunted house only exposed the reality of the bottled-up emotions and pain. She tries to find solace in her fantasies and misplaced belief that Theodora will love her to no avail. When her coping strategies are finally exhausted, she resolves to commit suicide. Thus, without a sense of belonging and social support, a person can slowly become mentally unstable and diminish their quality of life.
Baker, Julie Ann. Missing Mother: The Female Protagonist’s Regression to the Imaginary Order in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Sundial, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, 2017. College of Liberal Arts, Theses. 1127.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin, 1959.