Monday, August 29, 2011

Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

I think the most interesting thing about this book has to do with how the protagonist, Eleanor, is somebody we can relate to – for most of the story, that is.  She has her good traits and her bad, but we sympathize with her despite her good traits.  The reason is because we pity her.  Even though she steals her sister’s car to go to Hill House and lies about her apartment in the city to the other characters at the house, we realize that she does these things because of her “broken” family life (she had to take care of her miserable/terrible mother) and we root for her to find companionship at hill house.  The fact that she’s so desperate to find companionship – the fact that that’s the only reason she’s going to Hill House in the first place – is so pitiable it makes the reader (or at least this reader) like her.  Her likability also factored in for me when she observes/judges Theodora, who is pretty vain and spoiled.  In comparison, Eleanor seems very kind and down-to-earth.
However, despite the fact the reader sympathizes with her and how down-to-earth she is, she goes through a transformation into being pretty much outright insane and unreliable.  At one moment (well, most of the story) I believed everything she says – the fact that she didn’t write on the walls or spray blood (whose blood, anyway?) in Theodora’s bedroom, but toward the end of the book she has clearly lost her mind.  She even starts wondering how the other people in the house can hear certain noises when they are going on inside her head!  Toward the end she also wanders around the house aimlessly on her own, and the other characters need to coax her down from a dangerous stairwell in the nursery.  She clearly loses her marbles!  What is fascinating is that Shirley Jackson keeps us right inside Eleanor’s head all throughout the story and her transformation.  Which means that the reader goes from feeling grounded and comfortable with Eleanor to feeling like she’s completely unreliable.  This was such a fun part of the book for me, because it threw me for a loop.  And it didn’t happen suddenly, either.  Eleanor would think a couple thoughts that made me think, What the heck? Where is this coming from?  But I would still go on believing her, that she was sane and reliable, and then suddenly it dawned on me that she had completely lost her mind (I’m not sure when, exactly, her thoughts and actions just became too much and I knew she’d gone off the deep end). 
What also made it fun was that not only could I no longer believe her perceptions of the world and the house and events at the moment, but it made me wonder how much I could believe anything she’d said in the past at all.  I mean, could I believe anything she had told the other characters or even the reader via thoughts throughout the entire story?  Now that I think about it, I have the feeling that this might annoy some people.  The fact that now they wonder if they can buy anything she’s even said could be frustrating, because it might spawn the question, Why did I even read this if the main character is insane and isn’t even relaying the story accurately?  But I personally find it fun, because I had been totally fooled (and I appreciate being fooled lol), despite all the warnings (for example, the fact that she lies to the other characters and what not even before she’s clearly lost her head).  That has to be difficult to achieve, and I think Jackson pulls it off quite well.


Chris Shearer said...


Eleanor is a wonderful unreliable narrator, and the subtlety Jackson uses in showing her unreliability is remarkable. I wonder, do you think a narrator like her would be tolerated by today's readers?

(And I cheered when she stole her sister's car)

Scott A. Johnson said...

I'll agree. I think, as writers, we're often told that our narrator has to be reliable, but Eleanor is the exception to the rule, and a wonderful example of how an author can pull such a character off. Nice entry. Good perspective.

Jennifer Loring said...

Knowing that Eleanor is crazy and that her experience is probably not very accurate made the book that much more enjoyable for me. We never really know the truth, which in my mind is a lot more interesting than being hammered over the head with "meaning" and "intent" the way American audiences so often are these days, especially in film.

Kristina Elyse Butke said...

I especially enjoyed the surprise I felt when Eleanor would get these very sudden, violent feelings toward the others. Jenn pointed it out in her entry about Eleanor wanting to throw stones at Theo (a parallel to what happened in her childhood); I also thought of how Eleanor was at war with herself, hating and loving Theo at the same time; wanting her companionship and wanting to kill her. It's hard to follow a character that switches sides all the time.

John Dixon said...

Fun post, Chris. I love Eleanor's character, especially the way she meshes with the house, its past, everything. One reason Jackson is able to pull off the unreliable narrator so well, I think, is because she spends so much time developing Eleanor, who has a wide range of thoughts and reactions right from the get go. In fact, I don't think she totally loses her mind. She fantasizes throughout the book. At the end, her "normal" state just gets exaggerated. She's still somewhat -- off an on, at least -- in touch with her "traditional" self. This is a stark contrast to HELL HOUSE, where people go absolutely loopy at the drop of a hat. Puppet time! I far prefer Jackson's approach.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fascinating that we all seem to have slightly different interpretations of Jackson's book. Isn't it kind of frustrating that we can't just e-mail Shirley Jackson and ask her what she intended? I can't say I sympathized with Eleanor or liked her, but she was interesting, so I wanted to follow her. I did, however, think she was mentally a little off from the get-go, though who could blame her with the life she'd had. I never saw her becoming unhinged; rather, I saw her seeking and finally finding a place where she belonged.