How the Opening of ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ Projects the Main Themes of the Novel
The opening of The Haunting of Hill House introduces three main elements of the book. In terms of mood, the first paragraph is intentionally vague, with ominous undertones which set the atmosphere for the book. The first line introduces many aspects of the character of Eleanor and the character of the house. A final main element which is introduced is the relationship between Eleanor and the house, though Jackson also uses the opening to gesture towards the significance of other characters to the narrative.
One of the most significant early passages in Jackson’s novel is the following: “No live organism can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality, even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” This first sentence, which introduces the house as a live organism is followed by “Hill House, not sane,” which relates back to the words “sanely” in the first line. It means that the house has been exposed to more “absolute reality” than a live organism can endure. Jackson personifies the house, “the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the cornice of an eyebrow” and “hiding its blessedly mad face”. The doctor says at one point that it was ‘born bad’ and ‘sad’ from the start, but not evil from the start. This implies how finite the house is, like it has a lifespan. The phrase “for long” is emphasized in the opening paragraph with “it had stood for eight years and might stand for eighty more.” Inside the house, time always plays a pivotal role, where the characters lose track of time, the only structure in their life being the set meal times from Mrs Dudley, which are another extreme. When Luke asks, “But when is Saturday?”, the doctor responds “day after tomorrow. I believe Saturday is the day after tomorrow. We will know of course because she will arrive.” The tricolon of reassurance shows just how unsure he is. Mrs Dudley on the other hand, juxtaposes this by coming in right on the dot, saying “I clear at 2” or similar phrases, short and succinct. For the second part of the ‘eighty years’ quote, the word ‘may’ may refer to the quote “Hill House is not forever, you know.” when Theodora tells Eleanor that Hill House will end, that its life is finite. The other characters even talk about ending it, with Theodora saying, “what fun it would be to watch it burn down”, the previous tenant saying, “it ought to be burned down” and Luke saying, “it’s harder to burn down a house than you think.” The last one shows that it fights it, it doesn’t not give into the flames. Another use of time, or a strange coincidence, is that a book written from Hugh Crain to Sophia was on June 21, 1881 and Eleanor was invited to arrive on June 21, about 80 years later.
Like human senses, the house is ‘watching’ and ‘listening’ at all times, sometimes even moving. In one line, the doctor says “The house. It watches ever move you make.”, showing that they believe it to have sight. For hearing, quotes like “as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they had said” show that they think it’s listening. On top of this, it is not a taboo subject because Dr Montague even says, “Let us exercise great caution in our language.”, making puns about ‘spirits’ forbidden so the house does not unleash itself onto them again. In addition to this, Eleanor thinks that Theodora naming the house is like “telling the house she knows its name, calling the house to tell it where we are”, as if it is “deliberate”. Upon hearing this, due to Theodora’s supposed telepathic skills, she repeats the name thrice, without Eleanor having spoken aloud. For movement, Eleanor says, “Nothing in this house moves until you look away, and then you just catch something from the corner of your eye.” As if to say it does it when no one is paying attention, but it is actually alive all around. Another thing is she feels the cold is alive, and it is very much a part of the house. She describes the physical house as “chillingly wrong in all its dimensions”. Whenever something strange is about to happen, she feels cold, but one time she says the ‘cold chills’ were “like something alive. Like something alive. Yes. Like something alive.” She refers to the cold several times, even the warmth. When she finally feels at home in the house, she feels ‘warm, drowsily, luxuriously warm.” The cold just adds to the ominous spirit of the house. Another thing to add to the cold is the theme of iron. Iron comes up in many forms, like when she thinks whatever hitting the door is “an iron kettle or an iron bar or an iron glove” and that if a spirit was going around the house it would have “iron nerves” and that the stairway to the library was constructed out of iron. The house even has a heart, the nursery. The cold is the main feature of the nursery, colder than ‘11 degrees’ which is what it was in another haunted house, Borley Rectory. It’s described like “the doorway of a tomb” and “the very essence of the tomb”. By calling it the “heart of the house”, it shows the significance of the room while anthropomorphizing the house. The cold here was “almost tangible, visible as a barrier” and “like passing through a wall of ice”. It has an “indefinable air of neglect found nowhere else in Hill House”, like the heart, where love stems from, is being neglected. Back to the cold, the thermometer ‘refused to register any change at all” and they were unable to measure it, like the house is fighting back.
The house’s personality is described as “any of the popular euphemisms for insanity”, showing that it was indeed “not sane”. Nearer the beginning, it is referred to as “a house arrogant and hating” and later “a house arrogant and patient” as if it changes its personality throughout the book. It is also described as “a house without kindness […] not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.” Ironically, Theodora says that “Hill House has been kind to us so far.” and Eleanor embodies lots of hope and hints at love. The doctor even goes as far as to referring to its personality, saying that “the first hint of Hill House in its true personality”. To reinforce this, he talks about it having a “reputation for insistent hospitality”, not letting people go and having “destroyed its people” due to its “ill will”. The narrator adds in some of its moods, like when Luke says “Nothing in it touched, nothing used, nothing here wanted by anyone anymore, just sitting here thinking.” and “Around them the house brooded, settling and stirring with a movement that was almost like a shudder.” Sometimes, the characters reflect emotions onto it like when Eleanor says “It’s not us doing the waiting. It’s the house. I think it’s biding its time.” These moods influence what happens in the scenes, and is a vital part because it makes the reader questions whether the house is in control of the manifestations or not.
In the opening, the narrator says that “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House,” as if talking about its construction. A quote says “which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying to gather into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.” This shows its ability to control, although this is clearly not completely true as Hugh Crain makes allusions to having built the house with intention, in small things like the statue that was made for the tilt of the floor and mentioned in the book he wrote for his daughter. The way Eleanor perceives the tower and veranda also make the house seem like it built itself, calling the veranda “insistent” as it holds the “grotesquely solid” tower in place. One part of the construction which foreshadows the ending is about the “conical wooden roof” which was “gleeful and expectant, awaiting perhaps a slight creature creeping out from the little window onto the slanted roof”. The creature here, refers to Eleanor, who refers to herself and is referred to by others, as a creature frequently. The personification of the roof shows how it is viewed as a live organism.
Eleanor also fits the description of the first line. She is not existing sanely, and Hill House is like her absolute reality. When she dies in the end, she escapes this reality. As the doctor says, once she leaves “she will be herself again”. She realizes that her dreams will follow her anywhere, no matter how long the journey or how many potential ‘lovers’ she may meet. She cannot leave her guilt behind, “fear and guilt are sisters” and they are constantly interchanging for her, turning from one to another. Her not being able to escape the house may be what she fears most, but that is her guilt too. One anecdote from a conversation with Dr Montague is her realization about this, Eleanor says, “She should have gone away. Left the house and run as far as she could go.” He replies, “In effect, she did,” referring to the fact that she died the second she could, which although physically near Hill House, is mentally as distanced as she would ever be able to achieve. Before all of this, she is shown to be sane with her constant fantasies, which are dreams, about the places she might live, the lovers she might meet and the possessions she might own. At one point, this completely shifts with her thinking, “No stone lions for me, no oleanders” and is completely absorbed into the house.
All of this guilt may play into the fact that she is manifesting everything. The pounding on doors resemble her mother pounding on the wall when she failed to respond, the untouchable air of the library and smell only she picks up on may resemble the books she read to her mother and the nursery’s cold spot resembles the baby’s room that she sleeps in at her sister’s house. There are a few signs that point to Eleanor being the one doing it, starting with the fact that she may be a poltergeist. When the doctor mentions poltergeists, he says “They deal entirely with the physical world, they throw stones, they move objects, they smash dishes […] they are destructive, but mindless and will-less; they are merely undirected force; […] they drive out everything else too,” Eleanor reacts to this, “laughter trembled inside Eleanor […] she wanted to sing and to shout”. This shows that she may be the one doing it all, especially since the house has “ill will” and she is “will-less” and the house directs her to do what it does. One key scene is when Theodora’s clothes have blood on them, Theodora explicitly says “I don’t know how you managed it.” and Eleanor never denies it. She replies with part of the song from Twelfth Night, “Every wise man’s son doth know.” Later, Theodora even says “Why? Wasn’t it to be just a little private surprise for me? A secret just for the two of us?” The intention behind it is also clear, so that Eleanor does not have to be jealous of Theodora’s “considerably larger” and “considerably more luxurious” wardrobe. Eleanor thinks to herself in this part that “It must be paint; it’s simply got to be paint; what else could it be?” So deep down, she may know that it’s her blood, and none of the other characters want to question it, but they are aware that she did it all. Even though they determined it’s blood, when she informs the doctor, she refers to it as paint, trying to hide the fact that she actually knows what it was. She even says “someone-something” trying to hide the fact that it was a person, pretending she still believes it could have been a supernatural occurrence, She even thinks “Here lies one, she thought gracefully, whose name was writ in blood” like an allusion to Keats’ tombstone, where it says “water” instead of blood. The meaning there is quite clear, that the water will be fast fading, as will his name. Here, it implies that her name will be long lasting. The quote “sacred pacts are signed in blood” also show that this “sacred pact” may come true and she will eventually find a home, and go home. Another manifestation is the writing in chalk. Luke coincidentally tells a story involving chalk, where he says “the public executioner” would “outline his knife strokes in chalk”. It’s as if it is not concrete, only a trial here, and when written in blood, in the closet, it is then been signed, like when Hugh Crain signed his name in blood, sealing the “sacred pact”. It can also foreshadow that she would be killed, as it is done by an executioner, who did the chalk with the intention of later drawing blood.
The phrase “whatever walked there, walked alone” refers to Eleanor because she arrives and leaves alone, unlike the rest of them. She is also isolated in life, whereas the rest have lives to come out of and return to. The theme of loneliness is prevalent, and Eleanor’s isolation may be why Hill House targets her, and she is always the one being chosen. At first, to stop being lonely, she follows Mrs Dudley to “hurry after anything else alive in this house.” The relationship between Eleanor and the house is best summarized by two phrases. At the start, the phrase is “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills,” and at the end, the phrase changes to “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills,”. This slight change shows Jackson’s clever use of syntax, mimicking the line but the alteration shows exactly what has changed throughout the book. In technical terms, when she leaves by crashing, as mentioned earlier, she leaves as far as mentally possible but not physically. It is therefore not standing by itself, because she is now and forever part of the house. She is part of the “itself” and because it is not referring to a singular object, it is moved. She is sort of separated in the last moment, when she “thought clearly” the questions “Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?” Her spirit is separated but she is still united with the house. Before this, she was “driven mad” by the house, and the verb “drive” is emphasized as she drives away, madly, into the tree. Luke describes this perfectly, saying it’s “a mother house” with “Everything so soft. Everything so padded. Great embracing chairs and sofas which turn out to be hard and unwelcome when you sit down, and reject you at once.” In the end, Eleanor thinks “Hill House is not as easy as they are; just by telling me to go away they can’t make me leave, not if Hill House means me to stay. Hill House belongs to me.” Obviously, she leaves, so the house made her feel welcome but did not means for her to stay, because she did leave. It rejected her the second she got comfortable.
One final reference about “belonging” refers to a point Dr Montague made, “she was one of those tenacious, unclever young women who can hold on desperately to what they believe is their own”, like Eleanor who cannot let go of the fact that Hill House is not hers. She is so involved in the house that she even thinks, “Is there still a world somewhere? But as far as I can remember there is no other place than this. I can’t picture any world but Hill House.” It shows how lost she is in the house, something that Dr Montague predicted and warned her about. He realizes early on that she is at one with the house, using her to predict what may happen and pick up on small indicators that he does not perceive. He says, “Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.” She does not take this seriously, and it does catch at her, most evident in the line “how can the others hear the noise when it is coming form inside my head?” She even thinks “Now we are going to have a new noise” and the noise changes, showing her control. After this, it is shown that she is not the house, even though the house is her. When she thinks “Am I doing this? Is that me?” She hears “tiny laughter beyond the door, mocking her”, as if she isn’t in control, she’s just the medium. The voices are not new, she arrives and hears a “sick voice inside her”. During a manifestation, she hears sounds and cannot speak until the sounds cease, as if its her voice in use. She hears a “wild shrieking voice she had never heard before and yet knew she had heard always in her nightmares” followed by a voice she heard “inside and outside her head”. Ultimately she hears a voice and thinks with joy, “None of them heard it, nobody heard it but me”. It shows how she likes the isolation at the end, likes how for once, something is giving her the attention she wants.
Ironically, one of the doctor’s criteria was that none of them had “a clear tendency to take the center of the stage” but Eleanor and Theodora are always competing for it. When she has been completely taken over by the house, she is not in control, thinking “Poor house, I had forgotten Eleanor.” and her “mind supplied her with a reason”. She has disembodied herself and thinks the thoughts of the house. It’s exactly like what she thinks earlier on, “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster.” None of her has been separated, just being controlled. Another point about her and the house is Theodora mentions she mixes up “foolishness and wickedness” but Eleanor always talks about being a fool. This could imply that she is actually being wicked, due to the control the house has on her. Like in one example, she feels like “a damn fool trying to write crazy stuff”, about the notes she has to take on the house, almost like she is being wicked by betraying what the house is giving to her personally. Near the end, she thinks “I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside. I am home. I am home. I am home.” Previously, she has said breaking the spell will result in things “returning to its proper form”, like the silent version mentioned in the opening. Her at home here is the happy fairytale ending she’s been waiting for, finally getting the happiness she wants.
The most repeated part of her fantasy of love is the line from Twelfth Night, “journeys end in lovers meeting”. The journey she takes end with “her destination vague, unimagined, perhaps nonexistent.” It’s vague, because it could be a man or a woman or a house. When thinking about loving Luke and Theodora, she often envisions their homes, Hill House and Theodora’s apartment, finding more comfort in that than the people themselves. Before she makes her choice, Theodora and Luke dispute about her. At one point, Luke and Theodora say “A struggle between good and evil for the soul of Nell. I suppose I will have to be God.” “But of course she cannot trust either of us.” It is implied that they want to take advantage of her, not pursue a romantic relationship but rid her of her virtue. The doctor is reading two books, both about women who fight to keep their virtue by staying away from the pursuits of men. In ‘Pamela’ and ‘Clarissa Harlowe’, the protagonists vaguely resemble Eleanor, alluding to her actions being similar to theirs. Eleanor has never had a conversation with a man, further adding to the image of her virtue. In the book Hugh Crain wrote for his daughter, he says “they lead their child in innocence and righteousness along the fearful narrow path to everlasting bliss and render her up at last to her God a pious and virtuous soul.” The description is similar to Eleanor, and it foreshadows the fact that she will die a ‘virtuous soul’. When Mrs Montague starts to use Planchette, it was ‘insistent about a nun’, and Eleanor is not far off from one. The said nun is also trapped in the walls, like Eleanor trapped in the house possessing her. Considering Planchette only talked about Eleanor, it could add to this. Of course, virtue means more than her virginity, it also refers to her morals. Although a house cannot take her virginity, it can flip her morals, like Hill House does in the end, showing how it wins her over. Also, Planchette says “Home. Want to be home. Waiting. Home. Lost.” And in the end, she stops waiting, is found and goes home, so it may be more accurate than they perceive. As these are all flipped, in a twisted way, so is the ‘nun’ part.
Eleanor thinks “I am learning the pathways of the heart.” This implies that she is learning how to get around the house as she settles in as well as her learning more about love, with the house. The first time she feels possessed is when she says, without meaning to, “I don’t think we could leave if we wanted to.” This to her was a mere thought but she realized upon saying it that it sounds like the house’s insistent hospitality is true, therefore saying it has a personality and is therefore alive. It’s too early on and the others judge her for it so she quickly makes up for it by making a joke. When she first views it in a romantic light, she “wondered if she was the first person ever to find Hill House charming.” Charming is like a word you’d use for a lover, but here she uses it for the house. It goes so far as to make an advance on her, “something almost brushed her face; perhaps there was a tiny sigh against her cheek”. Later it’s “as though the house listened with attention to her words, understanding, cynically agreeing, content to wait.” Someone paying attention to her is all she wants, and the house does just this.
In terms of Eleanor’s own mentality, Eleanor says that she is “always afraid of being alone” and the house resolves this dilemma. The moment we see her giving in is when she says “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.” Shortly after, the house “rises triumphantly” because it has won her over. While a lot of this is not mentioned in the opening, the key parts are alluded to and built on to form all these major themes showing how important that one paragraph is. It foreshadows much of what happens and the emphasis of ending with nearly the same paragraph shows the delicate craft of Jackson’s writing.
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