Tag Archives: american literature

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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“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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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was originally published in 1959 before being being turned into two movies and (soon) a Netflix series. After terrorizing students for years with her short story, “The Lottery,” I became intrigued by this novel when a friend read it for a book club. A year later, I’m happy to say that I finished the novel, and in two readings nonetheless. The night I started it, I stopped reading it when I was about 80 pages in because I could tell something terrifying was about to happen, and I didn’t want to be up all night either reading it or worrying about ghosts.

The novel has a relatively small cast of characters: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal scientist; Eleanor Vance (Nell) a shy woman of 32 who has taken care of her mother for the last 11 years; Theodora (Theo) who seems to possess some sort of telepathic or psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson who is the heir to the house, a charming rake, and whose aunt seems to want to get rid of him. If four people from diverse backgrounds staying overnight in a haunted mansion where terrible events took place seems trite, don’t blame Jackson: she invented these tropes. As much as I hate horror movies, I absolutely love terror in books, and Jackson’s novel is a slow, atmospheric build. Once events start happening you know that it’s already out of control, and many questions remain unanswered at the end of the novel.

The Question of Eleanor and Theodora

One of the main questions that I ended the novel with is about Eleanor and Theodora; are they in love? I talked about “lesbian disruptions” in my The Return of the Soldier writeup, but this is something more. Eleanor is the shy mousy girl in the story, she’s living with her sister, Carrie, and her brother-in-law three months after her mother, who she was forced to take care of, died. She hated her mother, and kind of slept through her mother’s demand for medicine, which may have been what killed her. Oops! At 32 years old we get the impression that she’s never had a boyfriend or relationship of any kind, and that she sees herself as essentially unwanted. She has a wild, immersive imagination that fills the beginning sections of the novel, and she covers up the banality of her own life with pieces of these early daydreams. It’s only at the end of the novel that she reveals that she truly has no place to go home to, and it’s crushing.

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