Tag Archives: Shirley Jackson

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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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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