Undergraduate thesis, researched and written over the course of two semesters between 2011 and 2012 while attending Gardner-Webb University.
A Witch Among Us: Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
Witches are everywhere. Without the magic, without the potion-brewing and broom-flying, they are not always obvious to the untrained eye. Our society does not persecute these witches as we did so long ago—not with burnings or hangings, yet we still persecute them, martyr them. Perhaps you know a witch. I know many. I look towards these individuals with a sense of pride and amazement: these trampled beings that— finding a foothold in society, a tear to hold onto— climb their way back up society’s bigoted ladder towards a new type of power. Not all witches are bad, though not all witches are good, either. Witches are human and witches are symbols at once both myth and daily reality.
I believe that Eleanor Vance in Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is a witch and ultimately serves as a symbol of fear and an interesting commentary on how communities and society function. After being continuously shunned and ostracized by the rest of the characters, Eleanor allows herself to be drawn into the overbearing grasp of Hill House. Doing so, Eleanor accepts her position outside of the group and gains a sense of power that, if used correctly, could be exerted over the other characters and give her more strength then they have in numbers. Despite this power, though, her transformation into a witch leads to her own demise.
I do not believe that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition that a witch is “A female magician, sorceress…esp. a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts” satisfies the full potential behind the concept of the witch (OED 437). A similar view of the witch comes from Lenemaja Friedman’s biography on Shirley Jackson in which she says that Jackson called herself the Witch of Bennington “humorously” (9). Despite this choice of word to describe Jackson’s own views of herself, Friedman seems to take the word ‘Witch’ very seriously, and writes that Jackson’s power resided in her ability to write stories rather than “in the exploration of witchcraft or in secret glimpses into demonic practices” (9). Such a definition of witchcraft and the witch, I believe, reveals that Friedman misses the point entirely, and views the concept of the witch through eyes that are entirely too literal. Indeed, Friedman’s definition of a witch seems a little cartoonish and far too focused on the magic-casting abilities of a witch, when, in reality, I believe the term ‘witch’ encompasses much more. In light of what I have come to believe the word ‘witch’ means, Friedman’s definition is almost demeaning. Nowhere in Jackson’s work is there any mention of demons or steaming cauldrons. This definition certainly does not seem satisfactory enough— not for what I hope to examine here.
By the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, and Friedman’s as well, both Theodora and Dr. Montague’s wife should be witches as well, as Theodora possesses psychic abilities and Montague’s wife communicates with spirits beyond the veil using planchette—a form of automatic writing. The discrepancy between these definitions and Jackson’s text reveal that, should the witch be an important figure within The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s definition is different, indeed. For one thing, Jackson’s definition of the witch seems to pay more attention to the social aspects surrounding the conditions and existence of witches, such as how society interprets them, than anything else. I believe, too, that the witch in Jackson’s text is outside of the constraints of gender, age, and time.
In the model I believe is presented in Jackson’s text, a witch is first engendered when an individual is chosen out from a community. This individual is considered to be the member of the said community that is most Outside of that community’s socially-accepted norms and values. Treated as a scapegoat, the individual is continuously pushed and pushed outside of the preexisting community by the other members—made to feel unwelcome, mistreated, and blamed for one thing or another—until the scapegoat finally comes to a crossroads. Once at that crossroads, the scapegoat then has the opportunity to choose to repent at the mercy of their community and accept their role within the community as a humbled member, or forsake their role as the scapegoat and to embrace their new role as the witch. Should the individual accept their role as a witch, they choose to be marginalized and they embrace the identity of all that is shunned and spurned—all that is Outside of the community’s values and norms, therefore gaining a sort of new power over the community that tossed them out.
This new power and new role as a witch recreates the individual as a symbol. Through becoming the witch the individual becomes a symbol of fear. For the society or community, this fear becomes, specifically, the fear of a change in social order. In Jackson’s text, the characters cast their fears and insecurities on Eleanor when she is their scapegoat but, by doing this, they only make her more fearsome once she accepts her position as a witch. Such a weapon like fear should potentially give the witch more power over her circumstances. I shall explore this possibility, along with the idea that the witch transcends beyond Jackson’s novel and its own archetype, making it a relevant concept for both her time and ours.
In her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, Mary Douglas discusses how witchcraft is an actual possible psychic force. She further defines it as “the anti-social psychic power with which persons in relatively unstructured areas of society are credited, the accusation being a means of exerting control where practical forms of control are difficult…” (127). This is certainly seen in the text when it comes to Dr. Montague maintaining order in Hill House. So long as Eleanor is treated negatively for standing out or acting different, none of the others dare trespass in the same way that she has. With a little encouragement, Luke and Theodora end up treating Eleanor the same way as Dr. Montague. Eleanor is their scapegoat, their interstitial little beast, and “Witches” Douglas writes “are social equivalents of beetles and spiders who live in the cracks of the walls and wainscoting. They attract the fears and dislikes…and the kind of powers attributed to them symbolize their ambiguous, inarticulate status (Douglas 127).
One other concept that is interesting to note, and that appears many times in Jackson’s text is that of dirt and filth. It appears in Hillsdale, in Hill House, and in Eleanor—in her past and present physical being. Like the scapegoat, dirt is something to be regarded as wrong, as foul, and is shunned as such. As I shall elaborate, it also plays into the idea of the witch quite nicely.
Let me begin, though, by setting some boundaries I dare not cross over into, much like those ghosts that are bound to certain areas and objects and must not trespass too far away. First and foremost let it be known that I do not hope to explain the supernatural elements within Jackson’s work what-so-ever. That is to say, I do not intend on shedding any light on what exactly haunts Hill House, nor do I intend to explain away any or all of Eleanor or Theodora’s supposed psychic abilities. Whatever there may be within Hill House does affect the characters, of course, and interacts with whatever psychic abilities Eleanor and Theodora may or may not have. It is only because Eleanor’s psychic abilities connect in certain ways to the concept of the witch, and are crucial to still address as they influence both the plot and characters, that I shall from time to time muse over and toy with the idea of them, but I will not at any point focus my attentions entirely upon them. Though the spiritual and supernatural undoubtedly play a great role in the concept of the witch and in the physical makeup and manifestation of the haunting in Hill House, the realm of the spiritual is far too vast and much too dense to elaborate on in the space allotted here. What I will seek to illuminate is that Eleanor possesses certain undeniable characteristics which aid in casting her into the role of a scapegoat in the eyes of her immediate community, and I will most importantly trace her journey as she is pushed towards becoming a witch and as she accepts her role as one.
Another aspect of this paper relates to the persona of Hill House and the concept of the Inside/Outside binary. As I view Hill House as participating in Jackson’s novel as another character, rather than as a setting or plot device, I shall refer to it as the House rather than the house, as Jackson does in her novel. This is to help the reader see Hill House as I see it, and to aid the reader in associating the transformation of the individual into a witch with the House, itself. As I shall further elaborate, I believe that it, too, displays some aspects of the witch. The terms ‘Insider’ and ‘Outsider’ will be used throughout this paper, as well, and while they are easily enough to understand, I believe it would benefit the reader to know beforehand that they are capitalized simply to catch the reader’s eye and to help simplify the concepts presented in the paper a bit.
As I have mentioned in passing, along with Eleanor, I believe that there are two other witches in the text—the little Companion and Hill House, itself—although it is Eleanor who shall be discussed in detail as the text revolves around her more as a character. I believe that it is still important to see how the progression towards becoming a witch functions in other characters in Jackson’s text, especially because the outcome of the three characters’ persecution and transformations varies and is a greater representation of how the concept of the witch actually functions in real life.
Jackson’s novel begins when Eleanor Vance, Luke Sanderson, and the artistic Theodora meet at Hill House to spend a few weeks of their summer in assisting Dr. Montague in the investigation of the supernatural; namely a haunting. Dr. Montague’s study is focused intently upon the psychic and supernatural goings-on of Hill House—a House shrouded in misery and a darkly stained past. Though Hill House has stood alone for a long time it is no less aware and wicked than it was, and Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague are left to deal with the scares the House has in store for them. Along the way, the group dynamic that precariously holds them together is tested and strained as they face the unknown together.
The Companion as a Witch
Built by the wealthy Hugh Crain eighty-some years before Jackson’s novel begins, Hill House was originally built to be a family home. Upon moving into their new home, however, Crain’s wife died, and Crain was left with two little girls to raise. The girls had two more mothers while growing up—one mysteriously fell to her death, and the other contracted tuberculosis. Crain journeyed to Europe with his third wife in the hope of finding a cure for her illness and, failing to find one, Crain remained in Europe until his death, and his daughters were left in the care of a relative. The eldest sister was given ownership of the House and took in a young woman from Hillsdale to be her companion in her old age. After the oldest sister died of pneumonia, the little Companion, left alone in Hill House, had to deal with persecution from the younger sister and the horrors of the House, itself. Like Eleanor, I believe the Companion and Hill House are both witch characters. The Companion is only mentioned in Dr. Montague’s story of the House, though she is a recurring character in Eleanor’s mind and one that she both strongly empathizes with and emulates whether she knows it or not. Indeed, Eleanor seems to see herself in the “lonely little companion” (Jackson 103). Not much is known about the girl, except that when she was hired by Mrs. Crain “it was thought a fine thing” by the rest of the villagers in Hillsdale (Jackson 77). It was not until Mrs. Crain died from pneumonia that the Companion’s name was dirtied. She inherited the House, and was hated by the younger Crain sister; she became the lady of Hill House and was hated by the people of Hillsdale—people that used to be her friends and family. Rumors surrounding the older Crain sister’s death accused the Companion of murder, and these rumors, along with the physical distance between the House and Hillsdale helped to further isolate her from their community. Jackson writes that, even if the good people of Hillsdale “did not believe that she would murder her friend…they were delighted to believe that she was dishonest, certainly because they were capable of dishonesty themselves when the opportunity arose” (80). Here we see the Companion fulfilling the role of the scapegoat for the town of Hillsdale: in that they projected their sins—in this case, dishonesty—on her. Because no one else in Hillsdale has been accused of being a murder suspect, they allow themselves to view her as the most dishonest of all of them—walking sin—and they feel little remorse for keeping her out of their fellowship with one another. The fact that the Companion remains holed up in Hill House only makes this alienation easier, and her suicide later-on only confirms their own innocence and her own guilt in their eyes—that “her guilty conscience drove her to it” (Jackson 80). Though Dr. Montague’s personal opinion regarding the event is certainly harsh, that the Companion:
was one of those tenacious, unclever young women who can hold on desperately to what they believe is their own but cannot withstand, mentally, a constant nagging persecution; she had certainly no weapons to fight back against the younger sister’s campaigns of hatred, her own friends in the village had been turned against her, and she seems to have been maddened by the conviction that locks and bolts could not keep out the enemy who stole into her house at night…I really think the poor girl was hated to death… (Jackson 80-81).
While his description of her is certainly not kind, and his insight into the Companion’s fate is almost ironic, considering his treatment of Eleanor, I do not believe Jackson could have had Dr. Montague phrase it any better. The Companion’s death was a direct result of the animosity she faced as Hillsdale’s scapegoat. Though she never rises above her role as a scapegoat, never assumes the role of the witch, according to the pattern I have observed in the creation of witches, she could have. Taking on such a role would have given her power, perhaps even power over the younger sister and the mysterious entity that crept through Hill House at night. In a way, the Companion represents the failure of the witch—to where persecution and such trials result in a fragile and fragmented human being, rather than a hardened symbol of fear.
Hill House as a Witch
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hill House stands as the ultimate symbol of fear in Jackson’s text. Though it never seems to have been mistreated or influenced by others, rather “flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles…without concession to humanity”, Hill House is still on the lips and tongues of the people of Hillsdale, though they loathe to say its aloud (Jackson 35). While it may have skipped the first stage of serving as a scapegoat, Hill House is still described in terms of being Outside of Hillsdale. It is still connected to the little town: The Dudleys, residents from Hillsdale, serve as caretakers for the House’s grounds, and it is physically tethered to Hillsdale by electrical wires (Jackson 49). Despite these connections, though, it is obvious that the House is not a part of the little town or the rest of the world. Even the location of the House: six miles away from Hillsdale and hidden away in the hills of the countryside describes something unwanted and shunned. The amount of fear Hill House inspires is incredible. From its entrance into the text, Eleanor notes that “Hill House likes to make an entrance” (Jackson 27). The House is immediately described as “vile” and “diseased”, “evil” by Eleanor, who trembles outside of its gates (Jackson 33, 35). Even the fact that the House is personified by the other characters seems to imply a certain amount of power. Eleanor is the only character to find it alluring, though this is after she has begun to be entranced by the House. Theodora describes it as “a filthy, rotten house”—the language of filth coming into play, further describing the House as something to be shunned and despised (Jackson 101). The House’s influence is most stunningly seen at the end of chapter three: “Six miles away Mrs. Dudley awakened, looked at her clock, thought of Hill House, and shut her eyes quickly” (Jackson 92). So much is conveyed in that simple sentence—that the House’s influence can be felt as far away as Hillsdale, and that it affects others intimately, personally. Mrs. Dudley is a dutiful servant to the old House, and yet the idea of the House, of going there to work the next morning, has the power to wake her up and leave her shaken. If this power of fear is a direct result of the House being a witch, though, it is interesting to note that the House does not have to suffer the end result of Eleanor’s transformation or of the Companion’s persecution. While Eleanor dies in a car wreck upon being made to leave Hill House, and though the Companion hangs herself, Hill House does not die. It does not end. The beginning and end of Jackson’s text is sure to show the reader this, that “it had stood so for eight years and might stand for eighty more” (3, 246). There is no definable or foreseen end to the madness and fear of Hill House. Unlike Eleanor and the Companion who are crushed in the end, Hill House rises above both as the ultimate monstrosity, and perhaps the ultimate witch. Such a statement, though, craves further research and introspection than I have space for here.
Eleanor Vance as a Witch
When Jackson introduces Eleanor Vance to the reader, she certainly does not stand forth as a character meant to be emulated or admired, much less envied. At the age of thirty-two, Eleanor is just getting out into the world to begin living a life for herself. For her, the past eleven years have been devoted to caring for her late mother, around whom “her years…built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair” (Jackson 6). With her mother dead and gone, she only has her sister, brother-in-law, and their offspring in the entire world, and yet hates them. Whether or not this hate is entirely deserved is debatable, though the couple certainly does not shine in the small section of the text they appear in. If anything, they seem to treat Eleanor as if she is an object—something they speak for, and to be kept inside away from a world that might hurt her and that certainly will not understand her.
Regardless of whether or not her journey away from her sister’s house is worse for her in the end or not, the decision to flee the repressive environment marks a turning point in Eleanor’s life—a spark of individuality and rebelliousness that heretofore has not existed within her. Setting off for Hill House with a suitcase, a carton of personal belongings, and the car that she jointly owns with her sister’s family, Eleanor has virtually nothing to lose. Everything she owns travels with her to Hill House, and by stealing the car, she knows she cannot return to her despised sister.
Officially without a home, Eleanor daydreams of all the different types of homes she could potentially have on her way to Hill House— she imagines full lifetimes spent in homes she sees off the side of the road on her journey, and each separate lifetime seems to belong to a completely different person. Interestingly enough, after imagining herself as a respected citizen who lives in a house flanked by stone lions, and as a celebrated princess in a mythical country, she comes across a house where she almost seems to imagine herself as a friendly witch: “People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens…” (Jackson 25). Such imaginings certainly point to Eleanor’s deeper desire to belong somewhere, to fit into a community without others repressing or hating her. Even as a witch in her last vision, she is a necessary and respected figure within that community.
Eleanor Vance as a Witch: The Scapegoat
Her mother’s illness has robbed her of more than her time. The very reason Eleanor is being called forth to Hill House is because of an incident that occurred in her childhood that definitely incorporated some sort of psychic manifestation. Regardless of what it may have really been, Eleanor informs Dr. Montague later in the story that she does not “remember very well” and that “My mother said it was the neighbors, they were always against us because she wouldn’t mix with them” (Jackson 73). The reader is told that Eleanor and her sister “had supposed at the time that the other was responsible” for the psychic event (Jackson 7). This event, though Dr. Montague assures her that it “has been forgotten long ago”, must have drawn a lot of negative and unwelcome attention to Eleanor’s family, and surely did not do anything for Eleanor’s ego (Jackson 74). It still weighs upon her mind: how standing out and being different is a reason to hide and be ashamed for fear of the prying, judgmental eyes it might entice. From the start, it seems that Eleanor grew up with a mother who was Outside of society’s norms. How much of this is a direct result of whatever illness her mother had, the reader does not know, but because of her role in taking care of her dying mother, Eleanor steps out into the sunlight to find herself marginalized as well. The invitation to Hill House, though, is a type of inclusion in something, and that something makes Eleanor feel less like an Outsider and more like an Insider, so it is almost impossible for her not to go.
From the start, though, Eleanor seems to have difficulty fitting in. Though the four main characters that show up at Hill House can hardly be considered to be a part of the more socially acceptable side of their culture—Luke, though heir to the House is suspected of being a conman by his own aunt; Theodora is an artist and quite possibly a lesbian; Dr. Montague, though a scholar, is mostly interested in the occult— are far more so ‘Inside’ the boundaries of their culture than Eleanor is. As stated before, Eleanor has no home, something that certainly sets her apart from any of the other characters in Jackson’s text. Though Theodora has gotten in a fight with her friend prior to arriving at Hill House, there is nothing barring her from going back. Dr. Montague is married, which implies a sort of domestic setting away from Hill House, and, this coupled with a scene later on in Jackson’s text where Mrs. Montague and Mrs. Dudley wash dishes together in Hill House’s kitchen implies a familiarity and relative ease within a domestic setting. Likewise, the Dudley’s have a home “over in the town, six miles away”, where they can safely be away from the House at night (Jackson 39). To top it all off, Luke Sanderson could claim the House as his own home, yet does not seem to particularly care to. Even if Luke had no other home, though, he is wealthy and could therefore purchase a home whenever he so pleased. Rather than keeping quiet about her situation, or simply telling the truth about the fact that she is homeless, Eleanor seems to feel the need to talk continuously about the home she does not have. Eleanor knows social norms even if she has never fit inside their confines.
Stuart Hanscomb describes the unknown as something “interstitial”, in his essay “Existentialism and Art-Horror”—as something “not adhering to familiar categories” (5). This is, without a doubt, Eleanor. The House, too, is unnatural and interstitial, as can be gathered from the previous discussion. If anything, once Eleanor becomes possessed by the haunting or by the House, itself, she becomes stranger (Hanscomb 13). I can see part of Hanscomb’s existential hero in Eleanor. Like the existential hero, she is accepted by the group for a while, even after she comes into contact with the monstrous—in this case, the House—but then the presence of the monstrous playing itself out within her brings a sense of “contempt” to the group dynamic and she is further shunned as the group’s scapegoat (Hanscomb 13). The House gets ahold of Eleanor early-on, and as her fear and fascination of the House mingles, she is seduced away into the unknown further, becoming more interstitial than she was originally upon arrival at the House. Eleanor does not fit in with the others, yet she does not fit in with Hill House—Eleanor is monstrous. She has no accepted place in society and becomes a fringe member. Viewed thus, it makes it all the more easy to slip the skin of a witch over her and to name her as such.
While there are certainly preexisting differences between her and the others staying in the House with her, Eleanor seems to believe they may still get along well enough, seeing them as “four separated people” all of them looking “trustingly at one another” (Jackson 58). She expects to become friends with them, and Theodora even lovingly calls her a cousin. Jackson does describe them as “a family” in a scene where they are all gathered around the breakfast table, but this is early-on in the text, and much changes between the first few days and the end of the novel (97). Some scholars, however, would like to think differently. In her essay “Whose Hand Was I Holding”, Tricia Lootens views the group of main characters as a family. Lootens’ fear for this group’s dynamic is what she cites as the “terror of [Jackson’s] entire culture”: the “brutal, inexorable vision…of nuclear families that kill what they are supposed to nurture” (151). While Lootens makes some very valid points, I disagree that the characters’ main problem lies within destroying one another or with destroying their unity as a group. Overall, the other three characters in the initial research group seem to get along relatively well with one another. It is Eleanor that is the unanimous candidate to be spurned and forsaken. If nothing else, this can be seen at the end of the novel, where Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague watch Eleanor drive off, they are no worse off than when they started the study at Hill House. As the reader, we are not allowed to see anything beyond the exact instant of Eleanor’s death. Nothing intimate, anyways. The reader is told that Theodora returns to her lover, that Luke runs off to Paris, and that Dr. Montague’s half-hearted study of the haunting of Hill House—perhaps an incomplete one at that—is not warmly received.
The fact that Lootens tries to also make a nuclear family out of the research group by claiming that their incomplete or strained familial lives give them something in common, does not sit well with me (159-160). Never does Eleanor truly fit in. It is never about surviving as a group so much as sacrificing the weaker one to save the rest. Therefore it does not seem right to view Eleanor’s suicide as a valiant last-ditch effort to save her new nuclear ‘family’, as Lootens suggests (166).
So if Luke, Theodora, Dr. Montague, and Eleanor are not really a family, they can be considered a community of sorts, instead, a microcosm. As Linda J. Holland-Toll suggests in her book “As American as Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction”, a community “is a positive American value that does not really play out all that positively in American society” and holds no less potential to be something negative and dysfunctional (106). In a startling statement, she suggests that Salem, Massachusetts may be the best example of an early American community. In light of the topic at hand, though, it seems as if communities are doomed to fail, should Salem be the best example of one (108). If anything, Jackson’s novel seems to support this point as Hillsdale, the research group within the House, and the neighborhood Eleanor grew up in are all failed communities.
At the first instance of Eleanor becoming emotional in the text, Luke interrupts her “slowly and deliberately” (Jackson 74). If this had only happened one time, it possibly could have meant nothing at all, however, this act of silencing Eleanor becomes habit, along with the act of becoming silent before Eleanor. In this dichotomy, the Insiders at Hill House are both afraid and outraged by Eleanor’s strangeness.
Along with the way the others act around Eleanor, there is the issue of dirt and filth. Eleanor sees it both in herself and in memories of her mother. When Eleanor sees dirt in herself, it happens especially when Theodora—who is unique and interesting—pays attention to her. This first occurrence is in a scene where Theodora simply lays her hand atop Eleanor’s. The simple, but familiar touch “embarrassed her” and she immediately ponders whether or not her “fingernails are clean…and slid her hand away gently” (Jackson 86). Being accepted so readily by someone she views as so interesting is too much for Eleanor who immediately sees all of the possible things “wrong” with her, imagined or not. Again, in a scene where Theodora is painting Eleanor’s toenails, Eleanor stares at her feet—“her feet were dirty, and her nails were painted bright red” (Jackson 116-117). Here, the red of the toenail polish is an almost glaring individuality—a color and trait that Theodora wears well, and that Eleanor, so conscious, is ashamed to wear against such dirty skin. Again, whether this dirt is imagined or not, Eleanor cannot bear it to the point of calling it “wicked” and “foolish”, and Theodora’s effort to convince Eleanor that her own feet are dirty, too, is useless because of how deeply Eleanor’s conviction goes that she is somehow filthy and Outside (Jackson 117). Perhaps this conviction that she is dirty stems from her childhood and from being so close to her mother’s illness. The fact that Eleanor cannot approach the tower and its library for the longest time in the text suggests this. Upon first approaching it, Eleanor backs away from the open doorway, “overwhelmed with the cold air of mold and earth which rushed at her” and she simply says “My mother—” (Jackson103). This happens yet again towards the end of the text. Though she finally enters Hill House’s tower, “the odor of decay” makes her sick, and again, directly after this smell overpowers her, she says the word “Mother” (Jackson 228). This association with an old and rotting smell with her mother is powerful, indeed. Added to the fact that her mother did not mingle with the rest of their community, perhaps her illness was the reason for being reclusive. From the start, Eleanor has been an Outsider—the dirt and filth of her mother’s ailment has transferred to her. She is displaced in the world, alone, unsettled and unsettling. In a scene that occurs after Theodora’s room and clothes have been ruined by a rain of supernatural blood and Theodora is happily wearing Eleanor’s prized red sweater, Eleanor distinctly thinks “She is wicked…beastly and soiled and dirty” (Jackson 158). It is interesting to see Eleanor think this of Theodora when Theodora could not be more Inside of the group, when Theodora could not be any cleaner or right in the eyes of the rest of the group, but Eleanor hates her for it, and in her hate the worst thing she could possibly wish upon Theodora is for her to be dirty—to be Outside and shunned.
Hanscomb notes that monsters are often associated “with filth, decay, deterioration, slime and so on” (3). It is this vision of filth that may suggest that Eleanor gradually comes to believe that she is the witch. At that point, the witch in her head is a symbol associated with filth and shame, though this symbol changes later in the novel when she becomes possessed by the House, where the witch becomes a symbol of fear for the rest of the cast.
Some of it results directly from her uncanny intuition regarding the house. After Dr. Montague details the House’s past with the other three, Eleanor softly speaks up and suggests that they probably could not leave the House then even if they wanted to, speaking “before she realized clearly what she was going to say, or what it was going to sound like to the others; she saw that they were all staring at her” (Jackson 75). What Eleanor has done is voice the chief fear of not being able to leave or escape Hill House for whatever reason, and though it is true, it is certainly unnerving to hear it spoken aloud so easily. Eleanor’s strange, almost psychically-inspired words could be attributed to a form of tongues. Such tongues, Elaine Showalter is kind to remind us in her essay “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness”, “led to the persecution of witches” (254). This will eventually help Eleanor transition over from the scapegoat to the witch, as her strangeness transforms into a kind of fear for the others. Here we see, again, the fear of the unknown, the unknown burrowing into the human, slipping beneath Eleanor’s skin and crawling up out of her throat. Along with being on the fringes of society and normalcy, already, it is this fusion of the mind of the haunting with Eleanor’s mind and body that begins to transform her into the monstrous. Similarly in a later scene, after the group has been told the story of Hill House and is headed off to bed, Luke asks Dr. Montague if they had better lock the doors for the night to safeguard against anyone getting in. Eleanor eerily voices her own question: what should be done if anyone of them wants to get out of the House? The question causes the Dr. to glance “quickly at Eleanor and then away” (Jackson 89). Responding in a quiet voice, he tells her that he sees no reason to lock the doors of the House.
Eleanor is not oblivious to the way she is treated by the others, though. After their first night in the House, they find themselves discussing how well they all slept over breakfast. When the conversation turns to dreams, and then to nightmares and Eleanor begins to explain her dream—which was the same as Theodora’s—the others, including Theodora, quickly smother the conversation:
Eleanor felt, as she had the day before, that the conversation was being skillfully guided away from the thought of fear, so very present in her own mind. Perhaps she was to be allowed to speak occasionally for all of them so that, quieting her, they quieted themselves. And could leave the subject behind them; perhaps, vehicle for every kind of fear, she contained enough for all (Jackson 98).
Here, Eleanor expresses what I have already claimed about her: that she is a scapegoat, a vessel for the fears of the other characters within the text. It is interesting to note, though, that she claims that, being filled with such fears, “she contained enough for all” (Jackson 98). Perhaps this refers to the later stage of becoming a witch, where she literally becomes the embodiment of fears. Though no longer a scapegoat, she is a vessel for the others’ worst nightmares. Again, she acknowledges her role as the scapegoat later on, after their next night in the House—and their first real night of terror. Over breakfast, rather than being shaken up by their experiences, they are ecstatic. Theodora, Eleanor, and Luke are abuzz with excitement, an excitement that “troubles” Dr. Montague, as it might serve as a warning sign that they have all “fallen under a spell”, under the sway of Hill House (Jackson 139). Though he has a right to be wary of their excitement, it is Eleanor’s excitement that worries him the most. She explains that she understood that the House had “wanted to consume” them, take them “into itself”, and make them “a part of the house” the previous night (Jackson 139). Yet, knowing this danger does not make her any more alarmed or any less excited about the House. Perhaps it is this danger of knowing what the House’s motives are, of knowing the dangers of losing herself—body or mind—to the House, and not being worried about it that bothers the others, especially the doctor. Perhaps it is her later statement that if she “had to take sides with Hill House against the rest of” them, she “would expect” them to cast her out that stirs up fear (Jackson 140). In this scene, too, she recognizes herself as “the public conscious”, though she laments the fact that she seems to be just that (Jackson 140). She also seems to see the hostility of their little community, too, as she tells herself that “Of all of them” she would be “the least likely to turn against the others” (Jackson 140). They have already turned against her, so how, she wonders, could it ever be the other way around?
On top of being the group’s vessel for fear—their scapegoat and outcast—Eleanor is also blamed for several of the supernatural events at the House. In one scene, the group discovers bloody writing on a wall with the words “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”, and in a scene shortly after that, more bloody writing reading “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR” (Jackson 146, 155). Though she did not write it, Theodora blames Eleanor for both incidents. While this blame-placing may seem empty, the very fact that Theodora does blame her associates her—not only with Hill House, as her name on the walls already does, but with Hill House’s power. In the community’s mind—at least Theodora’s—Eleanor is already uniting with the House. Upon finding the first slogan—“HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”—Eleanor is scolded for letting her fear get the best of her, and for being almost out of her mind with it (Jackson 146). Upon calming down and calmly admitting out loud that she was afraid, and that her fear had made her act irrationally though, Dr. Montague seems receptive of it, and Eleanor almost bitterly thinks: “Now I am back in the fold”, while recognizing that she is still an Outsider (Jackson 148). It is only her acknowledgement that the words have frightened her that allows her to remain somewhat Inside. She thinks: “if Eleanor is going to be the outsider, she is going to be it all alone” (Jackson 148). She is but serving as vessel for their fear yet again. When Eleanor attempts to address the fact that the others—namely Theodora—blame her “for everything”, the doctor replies that no one is blaming her for anything, yet she “felt that she had been reproved” in the way Dr. Montague responds (Jackson 156). Here, Eleanor begins to separate herself from the group, and almost begins to think in a way that is completely separate from the group when she stands back and observes their own fear of the supernatural events:
She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought…and found that she was smiling. (Jackson 154).
It is here that the reader almost gets a glimpse of Eleanor as the witch. She is thinking like the House, analyzing the others for their weaknesses and gloating in the power it gives her over them.
Perhaps the most defining scene where the group’s animosity towards her reaches it peak is in the scene later that evening after the second bloody message is discovered. Gathered around in the House’s little parlor, with brandy and a crackling fire, Eleanor finds herself feeling comfortable enough in their company to reveal her deepest fears to them and how they relate to the House: “I am always afraid of being alone…Look. There’s only one of me, and it’s all I’ve got…I could stand any of it if I could only surrender—“ (Jackson 160). It is this last word that draws the acute attention and suspicions of the rest of the group, though, and they immediately whisper back and forth about her in front of her face and stare at her. When she notes that she is tired and wonders at their reactions, they command her to drink her brandy. When she persists in wondering at their behavior, they all attribute her question to vanity, smiling “fondly, all looking at Eleanor” (Jackson 160). If no previous scene proves the dynamic of the Hill House community, this one certainly reveals Eleanor as Outside of their fellowship, and certainly as nothing more than a sort of pet—something to be quieted and made to obey, no better off than she had been at her sister’s house.
Eleanor as a Witch: Becoming the Witch
Though Eleanor certainly fears the House when she first arrives, it is not difficult to see the fascination with which Eleanor begins to regard Hill House. Perhaps this interest begins after their conversation about the need to lock doors. Because Dr. Montague decides against locking the doors, it is almost as if Eleanor finds something extremely amusing about locking her bedroom door: “they won’t know I locked it, she thought…Hidden deep in the bed under the blankets, she giggled and as glad none of the others could hear her” (Jackson 91). Later on, this private giddiness almost turns to public giddiness during breakfast the morning after the first real supernatural incident. This same giddiness that worries Dr. Montague causes Eleanor to have the sudden urge to laugh, “to run to the head of the table and hug the doctor…to reel, chanting, across the stretches of the lawn,…to sing and to shout… to fling her arms and move in great emphatic, possessing circles around the rooms of Hill House” (Jackson 141). This irrational joy and interest Eleanor builds in Hill House is certainly unnerving in the fact that she is embracing the unknown and the source of fear for everyone else in the novel. It is joy without explanation or knowledge of whether it stems from something harmful or helpful, therefore it is something to be wary of.
The transition from scapegoat to witch occurs when Eleanor begins to pull away from her role as a scapegoat, and away from the rules that have been set by Dr. Montague and the others. In a few simple sentences, Jackson conveys the exact moment of this: “Eleanor went alone into the hills above Hill House…wanting only to be secret and out from under the heavy dark wood of the house” (179). Not only is Eleanor thinking for herself here, breaking Dr. Montague’s rule about being alone when under the shadow of Hill House, but she has gone outside alone, too—not only breaking another rule, but physically symbolizing her marginalized status.
The last psychic event that they experience in Hill House, helps facilitate Eleanor’s transition from scapegoat to a witch. It is during the event that Eleanor can hear pounding and laughter inside her own head. When it gets to be too much, Eleanor speaks to it and to the House: “I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly, what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have. I’ll come…” and then, the once tumultuous, shaking “room was perfectly still” (Jackson 204). This little monologue is certainly similar to Eleanor’s talk of ‘surrendering’ earlier in the text. Not only does the noise cease immediately, but it seems as if Eleanor gains powers almost immediately afterwards. As soon as she surrenders, she realizes that she “can hear everything, all over the house” (Jackson 204). This power continues on to the end of the text. For several parts of a chapter, Eleanor remains hidden, watching and listening to the other characters, in the strange hope that they might talk about her: “When are they going to talk about me? Eleanor wondered in the shadows” (Jackson 219). None of them ever do mention her—either in a negative or a positive way. Dr. Montague is wrapped up in his research, Theodora and Luke are wrapped up in one another, and even the good Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague are engaged in a domestic conversation. These small scenes with Eleanor hidden in the House, though, reflect the House, itself—all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-waiting and watching. In one little scene, where they are all gathered in the parlor again, a strange—supernatural—presence passes through the room, singing softly, brushing past Eleanor. It is her realization that “None of them heard it…nobody heard it but me” that reveals the extent of her power to her. She is set apart, she is Outside, but the binary has been flipped and she is on the Inside of the Outside, never again to need the approval or protection of the Inside again (Jackson 226).
At the height of her power, Eleanor leaves her room in the middle of the night and emulates the psychic force haunting the House by banging on all of the doors and running up and down the halls to frighten the others. She seems to believe that the fear she generates will be enough to keep the others from doing anything:
She won’t open the door…she is afraid but she won’t open her door…Theo, she thought, cruel, laughing Theo, wake up, wake up, wake up…then ran swiftly down the hall to Luke’s door and pounded; wake up, she thought, wake up and be faithless. None of them will open their doors, she thought, they will sit inside, with the blankets pressed around them, shivering and wondering what is going to happen to them next…I dare you to open your door and come out to see me dancing in the hall of Hill House… (229).
It is clear that Eleanor’s use of her powers reverts to simple revenge and animosity towards the others. Using her newfound witch’s powers, Eleanor uses it to advance herself, to place herself over those who once used to place themselves over her. The fear is not just in her head, either, for the others, though they attempt to chase and find Eleanor end up “moving purposefully, all together, straining to stay near one another” (Jackson 230). They are the very picture of a frightened community of Insiders. The way they move in the hope of finding Eleanor makes Eleanor laugh: “…what fools they are…we trick them so easily. They are so slow, and so deaf and so heavy” (Jackson 230).
Eleanor dances all around Hill House. In a small scene reminiscent of an earlier one that involved the House, alone: “She touched a kitchen door as she passed, and six miles away Mrs. Dudley shuddered in her sleep” (Jackson 231). Eleanor now has power enough to frighten and affect those in Hillsdale, as much influence as Hill House has ever had. She dances, eventually coming to the front doors, and steps through them into Hill House “as if it were her own” (Jackson 231). Eleanor has come home, has found her place, and as she acknowledges this very sentiment—“I am home, I am home”—she also acknowledges another thought that does not seem to coincide with finding one’s place: “now to climb” (Jackson 232). The only thing the reader is left to associate with climbing the tower is the Companion’s suicide-by-hanging from that very tower. This is something that is puzzling, but that seems to suggest that witches—that Outsiders are only truly accepted in death, thus why being a witch often ends in death. Indeed, on her way up to the top of the tower, Eleanor is blocked by the trapdoor, which has been nailed shut. With the others standing feet upon feet below her, gazing up, all Eleanor can think is “Make it open, make it open, or they’ll catch me” (Jackson 234). If they catch her, Eleanor runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a scapegoat in their eyes again. If they pursue her, the fear she emanates is not enough to keep them back, and the whole concept and image of being the witch is compromised and shattered. Her fear of becoming a scapegoat again, at least in their eyes, is not far off, for as soon as Luke ascends the staircase to get her back down from the height of the tower, he begins commanding her and the others insult her once she is safe: “Now behave yourself”, “What an imbecile you are”, “The doctor was displeased” (Jackson 235, 236, 237). As soon as Eleanor is back within their possession, her entire attitude changes, though she still possesses her powers. She cannot meet any of their eyes, and gazes down at her feet—perhaps yet another reference to the idea of being dirty (Jackson 237).
The following morning is described immediately as “humiliating” and Eleanor is treated more like the group’s scapegoat than ever before, except they have decided to send their scapegoat away. Not only is she in danger of hurting herself, but them as well, now. Though they know this, the fact that they have been able to subdue and capture her seems to take away much of their fear. All that is left to startle them is the truth that Eleanor “hasn’t any home, no place at all” (Jackson 239). “No home” she tells them, “Everything in all the world that belongs to me is in a carton in the back of my car…So you see there’s no place you could send me” (Jackson 239). Though it is a sad truth, Eleanor almost revels in it, laughing, “seeing always their frightened, staring faces” (Jackson 239). She finds her strength in their fear, still, even now when they are trying to continue to treat her as if she is a scapegoat.
In the final scene where she is sent away, save for Theodora who almost weeps for her sake, Eleanor is met only with the stone-still faces of the small community of Insiders. She is forced to get into her car and to drive away, back towards Hillsdale. She mocks them, summing up their treatment of her since day one in a little monologue:
“Go away, Eleanor,” she chanted aloud, “go away, Eleanor, we don’t want you any more, not in our Hill House, go away, Eleanor, you can’t stay here; but I can,” she sang, “but I can; they don’t make the rules around here. They can’t turn me out or shut me up or laugh at me or hide from me; I won’t go and Hill House belongs to me” (Jackson 245).
Acknowledging all of the things that used to be true of the group dynamic—that they used to control her, and make the rules, and silence her, and mock her—along with acknowledging her newfound powers to scare them, Eleanor knows that the power has shifted. She is determined to turn the Insiders out of the community they have formed in Hill House by reclaiming Hill House as her own for the Outsiders. Hill House will be hers—she will punish the Insiders. Here we see that while scapegoats provide a sense of order and security for communities and society at large; witches topple the order, shift the power to the side of the Outsiders, who have no conventional power to begin with. There is no telling what Eleanor might have done with her power and determination to take Hill House as her own, should she have not driven her car into a tree. The power of the witch is nothing to be underestimated. Perhaps she passed on, lingering within the House with powers as fearsome as the ones she had cultivated as a witch in her life. The supernatural realm is not within my scope of knowledge or comprehension, though as far as existing on the plane of the living, Eleanor became, as a witch, a force to be reckoned with.
Nakagawa on the Witch in Jackson’s Texts
Chiho Nakagawa also sees the potential for the witch in Jackson’s novels, and discusses the concept of the witch in Jackson’s text We Have Always Lived in the Castle in her essay “How to Make a Witch—Shirley Jackson and Femininity”. In my research I have found no other such voices, and while she focuses on a different text, it is still worthwhile to reflect upon her scholasticism within this paper.
Nakagawa views witches only ever as women. While Nakagawa does not view witches as a symbol of female power, she believes that women do choose to identify themselves as witches when they are left with no other option (64). Here, as I have previously discussed again and again, I must disagree. As witches are not usually self-identified, but pointed out by others and the surrounding community, I believe that witches are made by others, and therefore may accept the label given to them by society as a last resort. This last resort, I believe, would be one to utilize the fear and wonder evoked by the word ‘witch’, rather than to be a willing scapegoat. For, though witches do hold some power—whether mystically or in popular myth—I still maintain that a witch and a scapegoat are, more often than not, one and the same thing. While Jackson may have called herself a witch, it would be fickle to overlook the fact that she was not easily welcomed by the surrounding community of Bennington. It does not matter whether or not Jackson actually practiced magic in her spare time. The fact still remains that Jackson felt a sense of “distance” between her and her surrounding Vermont neighbors (Nakagawa 65). Most of this feeling of isolation comes from the nature of Jackson’s move from New York to Bennington, and the fact that her husband was affiliated with the college in Bennington—two things that instantaneously made Jackson’s family outsiders (Nakagawa 65). As a housewife, with her husband, Hyman, away at the college most of the time, she “was the only adult in the household to be in contact with other local people” (Nakagawa 65).
It is interesting to note that the end of the novel that Nakagawa focuses on—We’ve Always Lived in the Castle— contains some elements that can also be found in The Haunting of Hill House. After the two sisters, Merricat and Constance, suffer through having to watch their family’s home burn and then further demolished by angry villagers, they make their way back to the ruins of their house from the woods and hide in the remains (Nakagawa 67). According to Nakagawa, Merricat and Constance have become witches through this experience—choosing to live out the rest of their days like fairytale legends in the old family manor, safe from the villagers (67). Similarly, Eleanor tries to hide in the House from the others when she becomes possessed at the end of the novel—drifting from room to room, hearing everything going on in the walls, in the rooms, always one step ahead of the others as they try to pursue her. In a way, though, we can attribute part of her possession, and her process of becoming part of the House to the way she is driven away from the fellowship that Luke, Theodora, and Dr. Montague have and then deeper into the House physically and otherwise. Just like Merricat and Constance find shelter in their old home, Eleanor finds a place away from the other characters—a place they arguably cannot discover on their own
Just like Merricat and Constance “become the existences people fear”, Eleanor becomes the same to the other characters in Hill House in Jackson’s novel (Nakagawa 73). She slips away into the unknown, the parts of the mind and conscious that the others have not experienced, or claim to not have experienced. She becomes more and more unstable as the novel progresses, eventually becoming insane—the resident madwoman. Whether the spirit that possesses Eleanor is the actual spirit of Hill House, or the twisted soul of another woman—perhaps the little Companion—who was also lured into thinking that security and purpose could be found in the confines of the House, it is not certain, but either way it is clear that the presence is tied to the House and that the House serves as an unhealthy tether
The Witch in Our Own World
The social commentary on witches that Jackson presents in the text goes beyond just being cast out and persecuted. By the time The Haunting of Hill House was published, America had witnessed a whole slew of changes in culture and society. In the fifties, the Red Scare was in full swing, and many American citizens were being wrongly black-booked as Communists on American soil. Such blatant persecution led Arthur Miller to write and publish his play, The Crucible in 1952. Interestingly enough, The Crucible recast the modern events in the year 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials. Women of the nation were also struggling with their own issues. ‘The Problem That Has No Name’ was sweeping through households across America, as women began to question just what they were doing with their lives as wives and as mothers. Many women felt that they had no purpose aside from taking care of their children, doing household chores, socializing with other neighborhood mothers, and keeping their husbands happy. Some of them attempted to take greater pride and control over their own households—taking the time to make the house their world: a nice world where they could feel as if they had a purpose. Even in today’s Twenty-First Century world, evidence of the witch can be seen. Some have made the witch a part of popular culture, something to be both celebrated by the Outsiders and feared and jeered by the Insiders. Cultural icon Marilyn Manson can be considered to be a witch. Though most of his persecution by other Insiders is more or less self-inflicted now, based on an image he has cultivated and marketed, he still utilizes fear and uncertainty in order to get his message across and to create power for himself and others that associate themselves with his sentiments or image.
Eleanor Vance is a witch in that she is shunned by the rest of the characters in Jackson’s novel and in the fact that she does not fit within social constructs. While several of the other characters do not, either, they place their fears of not belonging on Eleanor, who then becomes the scapegoat for all the ways they have been wronged or the ways they may yet be wronged. In becoming this interstitial being, however, in becoming the not-quite-right, Eleanor transcends into a symbol of fear for the rest of the cast, and slowly becomes part of Hill House and its haunting. I believe that witches are created by the community that hails them as such, and that witches, while ill-treated and trampled by society, may become powerful when they accept their societal label and allow themselves to fully embrace their existence as a witch. This interstitial existence—both not and is— reflects societal fears and, in turn, becomes a fear and a danger for the community in question. Though it is difficult for a witch to survive and hold influence in the world at large, a witch has the potential to topple conventional strongholds of power, giving power to those Outside of the fellowship of communities, while creating fearsome chaos in their wake. A witch can be you or me or any number of people we know. Supernatural powers or no supernatural powers, a witch is an incredible symbol of power and strength in a world that continuously finds itself playing more nicely with those on the Inside.
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