The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonI am currently re-reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson in anticipation of teaching it very shortly to my students. While I did a longform write up/thematic analysis of the novel after I read it last August, I wanted to (try to) write more involved chapter summaries, like the ones I attempted for War of the Worlds and The Martian Chronicles. We’ll see how far I get with Hill House; it’s pretty dense, so I’m already worried.

Below is a plot synopsis divided into sections based on the text, a list of characters introduced in Chapter 1, and then, an analysis of symbols and allusions that appear in the chapter. The house is practically a character, but since it’s technically inanimate it’s not on the official character list. I think it’s ultimately debatable though since the house does appear animate.

I’m not going to intentionally post information about the end of the novel, but this is written from the perspective of someone who is re-reading the novel. I sincerely wonder if anyone aside from teachers and students will find this interesting, but it will sure help me with my teaching, so here we go.

This post ended up being massive, so I built in a bit of navigation:

Chapter 1, Section 1
Chapter 1, Section 2
Chapter 1, Section 3
Chapter 1, Section 4
Chapter 1, Section 5
Characters
Symbols and Literary Elements
Allusions

Plot

In a novel that’s a very slow burn, the first chapter of the nine that make up the novel opens with a personified description of the eponymous Hill House. The house is “not sane,” eighty years old, and is “holding darkness within” (1). The last sentence of the opening paragraph that states “whatever walked there, walked alone” is absolutely terrifying (1). It’s repeated at the end, but the book itself is full of an almost-unnerving amount of repetition.

Section 1

The reader then learns the basic premise of the story, that Dr. Montague has rented the house for three months in order to investigate paranormal events alleged to have occured at Hill House. He is forced to hire assistants, presumably because there’s too much work for one person to do alone. Dr. Montague compiles a list of people who have been involved in “abnormal events” and invites them to the house (2). Hilariously, he eliminates the dead and those of “subnormal intelligence,” so when Eleanor’s sister isn’t invited it’s a very clever way of implying that she’s stupid. He is also forced to bring someone from the family who owns the house, along with the two people who actually respond to his letter.

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“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton Explores the Cruelty of Lady Friends

Roman Fever by Edith WhartonI just taught Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” (1934) to my college students and had a fairly good reception, considering that it’s a story about two well-to-do middle aged women chatting. About a third of one class liked it, and about two thirds of my other class liked it. Even though I taught it in college I really think the story works for the High School classroom because, believe it or not, students should actually really closely identify with the characters.

The horrid behavior between two friends over nothing less important than a youthful ‘relationship’ should be immediately recognizable to students. If not in their own life, they should certainly see it in the lives of the students around them. See also Sula, by the way. Women’s friendships should endure, but, instead, womanhood is the battleground whereupon we commit some of our worst atrocities as maturing women.

Enter Edith Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever,” and be ready to explain who the heck everyone is because I heard only two complaints: it’s confusing and/or it’s boring. It’s confusing if readers put no effort into understanding it, and it’s boring if they didn’t catch on to the fact that there’s a multi-generational murder-attempt tradition in place. I strongly suggest starting a lesson on this brilliant story by putting full names and relationships on the board. Here’s what I make the students tell me so I can write it on the board (“D” indicates “deceased”):

Alide Slade married to Delphin Slade (D): son Unnamed (D) and daughter Jenny.

Grace Ansley married to Horace Ansley (D): daughter Barbara aka Babs.

So who the heck are these people? (Spoilers below.) There are six main players in this drama, and two of them (and all the men in the story except a waiter) are dead.

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Persuasion by Jane Austen, a Re-Read

Persuasion by Jane AustenAfter spending a great deal of my recent free time reading non-fiction, I found myself in the mood for something more immersive. I re-read both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in 2017 thanks to a local hurricane, but I never connected as much with Austen’s other novels. I decided, however, to give Persuasion another chance, and I’m very glad I did. Looking back at my old review, I read the book at the exact same time of year, which is an interesting coincidence.

I don’t remember liking the book much, but reading it again, I definitely enjoyed it more the second time through. I sympathize a lot more with Anne Elliot’s plight than I did the first time. I had forgotten, really, that she has such an unlikable family; Sir Walter is vain, Elizabeth is a snob, and Mary won’t stop pretending to be sick. Anne’s mother dies before the text begins, and it’s implied that she would have kept her daughters from growing up to be so foolish (sort of a reverse Mrs. Bennet). Anne is almost the Pride & Prejudice Mary of the text, except she gets to fall in love, which I really appreciate, because I feel a bit bad for P&P Mary. (Also, what did Austen have against people named Mary?) Anne is underrated by her family, but has her late mother’s friend, Lady Russell, looking out for her. Unfortunately, Lady Russell looks out for her a touch too much, and persuades (get it?) her to back out of an engagement, which Anne regrets. Anne is trying to ‘do the right thing’ in the time before the novel, and when the novel starts, she is very much the worse for wear thanks to it. Lesson: Always look out for number one, ladies!

Anne’s family is pushed into financial troubles by Sir Walter’s incompetence; he is forced to rent his estate, and Anne get casually pushed out of the household in the process. This ends up being great for her because, as it turns out, two walks on the beach and spending time with anyone nice is all is takes to restore her beauty. It also lands her in much better company in general, and her ex-fiance, Wentworth, shows up, too. He tries to fall in love with Louisa Musgrove, but she throws herself down a flight of stairs like a dingus, and falls on her head. Since Wentworth was too charming near her, he is obliged to marry her, even though she’s the type of person who will just leap into the air expecting to be caught. Immodest! Facing a real predicament, Wentworth is saved by Louisa herself, who falls in love with a brooding young man whose wife had just died like six months ago. Move on faster, why don’t you? Everyone agrees that the poor, deceased young woman deserved better, but also that the bump on the head made Louisa a much better person, so that’s good enough.

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“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin was published in 1894 as “The Dream of an Hour” in Vogue magazine. The story is incredibly short and takes places only in the Mallard home over the course of, presumably, an hour. Louise Mallard, who has a heart condition, learns about the untimely death of her husband, Brently. She cries, of course, but then realizes that she will actually be much happier on her own. Armed with this new realization, she descends the stairs, only to see Brently himself walk in the door, just fine, and very much alive. Realizing that he was reported dead on accident, Louise promptly dies, the doctors concluding that happiness was her undoing. Except they were wrong.

Reading about the story online, I was surprised and delighted to find out that Chopin was a fan of Guy de Maupassant. I pair “The Story of an Hour” with Maupassant’s “The Jewelry,” and have found that they go together quite well. They both show the way in which ‘good’ marriages can still be bad; Chopin’s from the wife’s perspective, Maupassant from the husband’s. I know the gentlemen in my classroom appreciated being included; I will write up Maupassant’s story at my earliest convenience (hopefully soon). I also teach this story directly after Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which has worked out well.

A lot of the depth of the story is driven by the way that the elements of literature are used. For the length of the story, the amount of characterization present is a testament to Chopin’s skill as a writer.

Characters

Louise Mallard: Louise is characterized as “young” and is “afflicted with heart trouble,” which will be of no small importance in the story. Upon hearing of Brently’s death she cries uncontrollably, in a “storm of grief,” and retires to her room. As she contemplates life alone, she slowly comes to the realization that she is much happier now that she will not have a husband. The specific reason she gives is that, without Brently around, there will be “no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence” that characterizes marriage. The issue, then, is not with Brently as a person, but with marriage. Some students get bogged down in this subtlety because they assume, incorrectly, that Louise must ‘hate’ Brently to be happy he’s gone. However, she’s not happy that he’s gone, she’s relieved, though it’s complicated, as she admits that she will cry again over his death. Her reasons for relief at the idea of being alone are never made completely clear, nor should they have to be, but are given a darker dimension when it is explained that “She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.” Louise, before the story has started, is unhappy at the thought of living a long life. That should be reason enough to sympathize with her feelings about her newfound “freedom.”

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