I 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:
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.
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.
The second section introduces each of the novel’s major players briefly, organized into subsections for each, indicated by a break in the text. Eleanor is first and it goes over the depressing details of her life, both magical and mundane. As a child, a month after her father passes, stones rained down upon the house that the remaining family members were living in. The implication is that Eleanor was haunted by a poltergeist, or, possibility, has some telekinetic powers. It is established in this passage that, as in many other horror novels, that the people were worse than the haunting, as the neighbors essentially drive them away from their home. Eleanor is then isolated as she is made her mother’s caretaker, and finds herself 32 years old and friendless. Eleanor feels like she’s been waiting her entire life for something interesting to happen to her.
Theodora (Theo) is next, and her small section – just one page long – is fascinating. First, it is obvious that Theo is a lesbian. Her motivation for joining the group at Hill House is that she has a bad fight with her ‘roommate’ (wink) that will take time to smooth over. The objects that are destroyed on each side indicate intimacy, including an Alfred de Musset book, who was a homosexual author. Theo was invited to Hill House based on her ability to detect the symbol on a card held up by someone out of sight, which happened in a laboratory setting.
Luke Sanderson appears next, which makes sense as the characters are presented in the same order they arrive at the house. He is essentially the ‘lovable rake’ who one of the women will inevitably fall for (wink). This is a red herring, of course, since careful readers will know that Luke won’t get far with Theo and even less far with Eleanor. Luke balances the text while playing with the trope, and gives Dr. Montague someone to pair off with.
In section three the reader gets a small but powerful glimpse into Eleanor’s current family life as she fights to use a car of which she is the half-owner. Her sister and brother-in-law clearly don’t trust her, and she doesn’t like them, either.
Then there’s a break in the text and Eleanor is in the city, taking the car regardless; she’s terribly nervous, but assertive at the same time. Then she bumps into a witch who curses her. Well, basically, anyway, it’s an old lady who she runs into and who shouts “Damn you!” at Eleanor many times. She’s a servant who pilfered a bunch of leftover food from a fancy luncheon, and which Eleanor has mostly bumped onto the ground. Classic Eleanor, amirite?
Eleanor offers to help, but the old lady smiles “wickedly” at her, then refuses to tell the taxi where she’s going until Eleanor is out of earshot, yet telling her “I’ll be praying for you dearie” (9). The old lady witch seems much more important now that I’m reading the book again. Could she be going … to Hill House? Probably not, I’m sure Eleanor would have recognized her, but there’s something interesting about this character. In the fairy tale tradition, many stories begin with a person insulting a witch, who is often in disguise. I don’t think it’s a mistake that as soon as Eleanor angers the old lady, the story snaps into fairy tale mode.
This section covers Eleanor’s trip to Hill House, and is the longest subsection of Chapter 1. I’m giving this section a lot more attention than the others because it’s rather important in the text and gives us some of the first pieces that will be repeated in Eleanor’s dialogue.
In the beginning Eleanor wonders why she spent her summers (aka youth) “wantonly,” which seems like an unusual word choice (10). This chapter is freedom for Eleanor, and she considers stopping “just anywhere and never [leaving] again” (11). This will become much more ominous later on, and the fairy tale fantasies that she tells herself in this section (reminiscent of Primrose in “A Thing in the Forest” by A. S. Byatt) will become the basis of the lies that Eleanor will tell at Hill House. Eleanor as presented as naive, in contrast to spending her summers “wantonly,” as this is the farthest that she has ever driven from home alone.
She imagines “chasing butterflies,” and then “at nightfall” coming to the “hut of some poor woodcutter” with its romantic overtones (11). Immediately following this paragraph is the repetition of “I wonder” three times. There are more than a few of these repetitions in this chapter, all of which are detailed below. She then calls the road a “magic thread” (11) as well as her “intimate friend” and imagines fantasies of her life in the locations that she passes (12).
The stone lions in her first extended imagining become quite important; in this first fantasy Eleanor lives in the large house and takes care of the lions, which are the source of her importance in the town, and which give the villagers a reason to bow to her. She is served tea by an old woman and drinks elderberry wine, which is like a stain on the whiteness of this section, as are the red radishes and plum jam. Again, the jam is making me think of Byatt’s Primrose. The section is full of bright whiteness, stained with red, and ends, ominously, with the phrase “When I died …” (12). The past tense that it’s thought in and the ellipses are both like a sudden drop off, and the fantasy ends there. Eleanor moves briefly back to reality before seeing a second place, and a new fantasy builds.
The next fairy tale location is surrounded by pink and white oleanders and a pair of “ruined stone pillars” with a road that leads into “empty fields” (13). In the Victorian language of flowers, oleander means “beware” or “caution,” also, it is poisonous. In wondering what this place could be Eleanor repeats “will I” three times and “what was” three times. She then thinks that she has stumbled across a “fairyland” with “magic oleander” and “magic gateposts” (13). This section also as an interesting piece of alliteration when Eleanor describes the scene as “protected poisonously from the eyes of people passing” (13).
In a way, this is similar to Hill House, and there is an eerie connotation to Eleanor idea that there is a spell within the protective walls of the garden to find a “palace which lies under a spell” (13). This also, of course, evokes Sleeping Beauty. The stone lions appear again and, very importantly, Eleanor imagines being a long-lost princess joyously welcomed home by her queen/mother. The reader hasn’t gotten to the depth of Eleanor’s issues with her mother yet, but on re-reading, this fantasy of having a mother who loves her and celebrates her is rather depressing. Eleanor’s “happily ever after” is receiving the maternal love that she has never been able to in her own life (13). This is reinforced by the very next word in the story: “No” and she begins to imagine a prince instead. At the very end she thinks “another day I’ll come back and break your spell” (14).
The next section is where the cup of stars, arguably one of the most important symbols in the text, appears. Eleanor stops for lunch and there is an unusual exchange between her and a little girl who looks at Eleanor with “frank curiosity” (14). The little girl refuses to drink milk unless it’s from her cup of stars, and when she hears this phrase, it takes on sudden and very really significance to Eleanor: “Indeed yes, … indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course” (14).
The internal monologue barely makes sense, but it’s clear something important has happened for Eleanor. When the little girl’s mother tries to coax her into drinking milk from a plain glass, Eleanor warns her – seemingly psychically – not to do it: “Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl … and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile” (15).
When the little girl leaves the diner, she waves to Eleanor, despite than having no real interaction in the text. Whether or not Eleanor and Theo actually have supernatural powers is a major debate in this story; if the reader wants to argue that Eleanor does possess some abilities, this looks like the place to start.
Eleanor will repeat several quotes within the novel, the first of which occurs here: “In delay there lies no plenty” (15). The third fairy tale is a cottage, a familiar fairy tale setting is there ever was one, and the color white appears again as a cat. Eleanor imagines being a sort of ‘wise woman’ selling tea and telling fortunes. The fairy tale digressions in section three function as three temptations for Eleanor. After she turns away from the third Eleanor thinks, correctly, “it’s my last chance” before arriving in “dark and ugly” Hillsdale (16). As the white purity of the fairy tale is rejected, the dark reality of Hill House appears on the horizon of the text.
Eleanor stops at a diner and drinks coffee so disgusting that she wonders if it was poisoned. She then decides to engage the waitress in small talk, but the waitress contains “an emptiness greater than any Eleanor had ever known” signifying that, for all her difficulties, Eleanor is not prepared for the depths of Hill House (18).
Eleanor arrives at the house and a new quote appears: “present mirth hath present laughter” (18). Importantly, both “Present mirth hath present laughter,” and “In delay there lies no plenty,” are from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Part of the Fool’s song, there is a line between them that is missing here: “What’s to come is still unsure.” It would be hard to find a more fitting description of Hill House.
The scene of Eleanor’s arrival must be compared to her leaving it at the end, her initial thought of “Why am I here? she thought helplessly …; why am I here?” will be echoed at the end. The gate is “locked – locked and double locked” causing Eleanor to wonder who would want in so badly, but this seems to be her perception. The gatekeeper, Mr. Dudley, puts Eleanor through the trial of forcing him to let her in, only to reveal that Eleanor is the first of the party to arrive. The Dudleys are of Hill House, so much so that they seem to function as extensions of it. I do not believe what many students attempt to argue, which is that the Dudleys are ghosts; they certainly aren’t, simply because ghosts cannot leave the place they haunt, whereas the Dudleys can and do leave.
Eleanor sighs “Hill House, … you’re as hard to get into as heaven” which stands out in stark contrast to the description of the house itself; this is an early clue that Hill House is something different to Eleanor (21). She then repeats her sentiment from section four: “I’m being given a last chance” (21). Demanding to be let in, Eleanor thinks about running Mr. Dudley over with her car, and, seeming to perceive it, he jumps out of her way, startled. Mr. Dudley informs Eleanor that she’ll “be sorry” (21) that he opened the gate, and smiles at her like a “sneering Cheshire Cat” (22).
Eleanor starts to daydream about Hill House in the way she did previously to the other locations, but it cut off my the appearance of the house itself. Seeing it “face to face” Eleanor realizes that it is “vile … Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once” (23). This sentence, which closes the chapter, is Eleanor’s third moment of intuition that she should leave.
Almost every important character is introduced in this chapter, as well as a few unimportant ones. Here they are in the order that they appear in the text.
Dr. John Montague: The first person to be introduced in the novel. A doctor or philosophy, he is an anthropologist who is also an investigator of paranormal phenomena. He is concerned that he is not taken seriously by his peers.
Eleanor Vance: 32 years old woman who hates her mother and sister; she also dislikes her brother and niece. Eleanor was her mother’s caretaker, but her mother has recently died. Eleanor cannot remember ever having been happy as an adult, and she is awkward around others (and has no friends) since her mother’s illness kept her life on hold. It is implied – though not stated – that she lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She was haunted as a child by a poltergeist or she possesses power that allows for the creation of manifestations.
Theodora: aka Theo, interestingly she is the only character without a last name. Theo is a lesbian who lives with her partner. This is implied very heavily by the text, but it is never stated outright; however, this is a safe assumption. She’s a beautiful, feminine, charming, and modern woman who owns a shop. Theo is a member of the group because she is psychic.
Luke Sanderson: The heir set to inherit Hill House who is forced by his aunt to accompany Dr. Montague during his three month stay. He is presented as a liar and thief, before the description is walked back. Really, he gambles and cheats, or takes money from his aunt’s purse, but is really lazy. He has all the makings of a lovable rake, but this is presented to be undercut within the text.
Mrs. Sanderson: Luke’s aunt to owns Hill House; she doesn’t trust Luke and sends him to Hill House as a sort of passive aggressive punishment.
Carrie, Linnie, and Eleanor’s brother-in-law: While Carrie is, I believe, an allusion, I am not sure Eleanor’s brother-in-law even has a name, as he’s referred to by his title throughout this section. They are not a particularly likable group of people and are the only glimpse of Eleanor’s family that the reader gets. A self-obsessed bunch, they try to keep Eleanor from borrowing the car she is half-owner of because they’re worried she’ll damage it. Both adults only doubt Eleanor, while Linnie is only mentioned, but never appears.
Old Lady: Eleanor knocks her over in the city and the secretive woman damns Eleanor before saying she’ll pray for her.
Eleanor’s Father: Died when Eleanor was a child, she cannot remember winter until after his death.
Hillsdale Waitress and Diner Customer: There is something dark, dirty, and vaguely threatening about these characters, as through Hill House has infected the town that surrounds it.
Mr. Dudley: The gatekeeper at Hill House who is reluctant to let Eleanor in. He has worked at Hill House for a long time and warns Eleanor to leave.
Symbols and Literary Elements
The symbols introduced in this chapter appear throughout the novel, and their origins are worth noting. Some are classics, while others are specific to the novel.
Three: The number three is all over texts; in Chapter 1 it appears as the three months Dr. Montague leases the house, and the three days that stones rain on Eleanor’s childhood home. In section three the old lady says “Damn you” three times (five repetitions broken into three textual sections), and “I wonder” is repeated three times in Eleanor’s internal monologue. In section four, “what was” and “will I” are each repeated three times, as well as “cup of stars”. There are three fairy tale digressions in section four as well, which I would rank with the more important of these examples since three repetitions is one of the trademarks of the fairy tale genre itself. In section five the gate is “locked,” repeated three times, and Mr. Dudley repeats “you think” three times when talking to Eleanor. Section five also ends with the third moment that Eleanor thinks that she should leave.
Anaphora: Along with the number three and three repetitions of events/phrases, there are many uses of anaphora, where a character will repeat the beginning of a sentence three times. The list of threes is above, but note that only some of the examples are also anaphora.
Summer/Winter: Section four opens in summer, the first day of summer specifically. Summer represents vitality and life, this is the first day, too, of Eleanor’s independence, which is not a coincidence. Winter, in contrast, is a time of death, and Eleanor thinks that she cannot remember a winter happening until after her father is dead. In the summer/winter pairing, Eleanor’s personal winter seems to be the time of her life when she looked after her mother, figuratively ‘hibernating’ through it.
Clean/Dirty: Cleanliness and dirtiness are major themes in the story that will appear throughout. In section three Eleanor imagines carefully cleaning the stone lions, and being served tea in silver (which needs constant cleaning) by a starchy old woman (starch is used when preparing clothes for ironing). Hill House, on the other hand, is portrayed as dark, dirty, and diseased, with this extending to Hillsdale, the town that surrounds it.
White: This related to the theme of being ‘clean’ and, in the first fairy tale, Eleanor imagines that she sleeps under white organdy. The table she keeps is “gleaming” and the walls are white as well. In the “cup of stars” scene the little girl refuses to drink milk, which is white. The third fairy tale features a white cat and white curtains.
Cup of Stars: Its first appearance is in this chapter and seems to symbolize, for Eleanor, (unattainable) hope or her dreams.
Darkness: Hill House seems to exist in perpetual darkness, with a landscape full of dead leaves and dark trees.
There are enough allusions within just the first chapter that it was important to break them out into their own section.
Sister Carrie: Eleanor’s sister is named Carrie, which I believe is an amusing allusion to Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie wherein a young woman comes to the big city and eventually becomes a stage actress.
Montague: A possible allusion to Romeo’s family in Romeo and Juliet.
Fairy Tales: The entire genre is alluded to in section four (see longform analysis above).
Shakespeare: There are allusions to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Eleanor’s repeated quotes “Present mirth hath present laughter,” and “In delay there lies no plenty,” part of the Fool’s song in Act 2 Scene 3.
Alice in Wonderland: Referenced in Mr. Dudley’s sneering smile, which is described as a Cheshire Cat, from the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
If you’re gotten to the end of this massive summary and analysis, I thank you. Hopefully you will find this useful if you are teaching Hill House like myself, or perhaps if you are learning about it. Let me know what you would find useful in future posts in the comments.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics, 2006.