This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Madison Harmon
‘An indefinable air of neglect’:
Dissecting Eleanor Vance from Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House
Given that The Haunting of Hill House is a Gothic novel, the ghosts and supernatural activity must be thought of as a metaphor for an internal conflict of the psyche as well as commentary for societal consciousness. There is an existing intersection that exists between sexuality and monstrosity. Viewing the Gothic and ‘queer’ as interconnected allows for the acknowledgement of the inherent queerness at the heart of the Gothic while also positioning it as a genre that persistently explores the meaning of ‘queerness.’ Understanding Eleanor Vance as a queer character can be contextualized by exploring the novel with queer and psychoanalytic theory. Reading The Haunting of Hill House through a queered lens not only adds to interpretation of the fatal ending but also changes how Shirley Jackson’s Gothic horror can be understood as a production of psycho-supernatural horror. Jackson’s rendition of the Gothic hinges purely on the ‘Mother,’ entrapment of the feminine and the spectralization of queer bodies. A biography on Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer includes a letter written by Jackson during her time at Syracuse University. Jackson writes “my friend was so strange that everyone, even the man I loved, thought that we were lesbians and they used to talk about us, and I was afraid of them and I hated them, then I wanted to write stories about lesbians and how people misunderstood them. And finally this man sent me away because I was a lesbian and my friend went away and I was all alone.” Jackson uses the Gothic framework to explore and construct “misunderstood lesbians” that elicit skewed sexual desire, embody queer abjection and subvert societal expectations of femininity. Eleanor Vance, when read as both a Gothic heroine and lesbian, highlights the connection between queerness and monstrosity and abjection to hauntology. The Gothic’s inherent ‘otherness’ matched that of a lesbian body being an extension to that same ‘other.’ Mair Rigby, a queer scholar, argues that “if to be queer and to speak is to risk flirtation with the Gothic, then to speak through the Gothic is always to risk flirtation with what is queer.” Eleanor Vance from The Haunting Hill House is an essential case study for understanding this flirtation.
About the Author: Madison Harmon is a graduate student at North Carolina State University in the MA program for Literature. Madison graduated with dual Bachelor’s degrees in English & Comparative Literature and Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Madison’s research interests lie in New American Gothic, the Female Gothic, 19th Victorian, queer theory, womanist theory and applying psychoanalysis to literature.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 2: Queering Boundaries, which will take place at 3:10PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Madison Harmon, who is a graduate student at North Carolina State University in the MA program for Literature. Madison graduated with dual Bachelor’s degrees in English & Comparative Literature and Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Madison’s research interests lie in New American Gothic, the Female Gothic, 19th Victorian, queer theory, womanist theory and applying psychoanalysis to literature.
Jeannette Foster, in her controversial 1956 publication, Sex Variant Women in Literature, wrote that Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman was “an eerie novel about lesbians.” Jackson vehemently denied Foster’s claims and responded, “I don’t know anything about stuff like that [lesbianism]. And I don’t want to.” However, in Judy Oppenheimer’s biography on Jackson, Private Demons, she includes a letter that was written by Jackson during her college years. The letter reads, “My friend was so strange that everyone, even the man I loved, thought we were lesbians and they used to talk about us, and I was afraid of them and I hated them, then I wanted to write stories about lesbians and how people misunderstood them.”
Jackson’s writing, here, fully contradicts her defensive retort to Foster’s remarks about Hangsaman. If Jackson set out to write about “misunderstood lesbians,” then why deny any knowledge of “stuff like that?” Jackson’s ambiguous take on lesbianism and queer desire manifests in a number of ways across her entire corpus of writing. The greatest manifestation of queerness in her work, I argue, is in her 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House. The novel is centered around 32-year-old protagonist Eleanor Vance as she embarks on a solo journey to participate in paranormal research, which is being conducted by Dr. Montague at the Hill House estate. Eleanor becomes transfixed by the supernatural lure of the home as well as falling into a complicated relationship with fellow participant, Theodora.
George Haggerty, on the Gothic novel, argues that “it is about fear, specifically erotic fear, and the ways in which desire renders the family a hotbed of sexualized brutality…this sexual excess, this dysfunctionality, is traceable to an originial moment of loss.” My argument for Eleanor’s “original moment of loss” is her mother. The event that triggered Eleanor’s journey to Hill House in the first place was the death of her mother and her having to relocate and live with her sister and brother-in-law. Eleanor expresses immense guilt surrounding her mother’s death and goes as far as to blame herself for it. This ‘mother-figure’ lingers throughout the duration of the narrative and eventually becomes superimposed upon the Hill House estate itself. The subversion of ‘Mother’ and the absence of the maternal parallels Nancy Chodorow’s belief that a woman’s primary sexual relationship is with the mother. In concerns to Eleanor and her characterization, Jackson invokes the use of doubling to convey an attempt on Eleanor’s part to reproduce a pseudo-maternal figure for herself.
Doubling has psychoanalytic implications because of its connection to Freud’s concept of the uncanny. The double can be a symbol of the return of the repressed, manifested fragmentations of the internal psyche as well as embodying a tension between one’s conscious and unconscious desires.There is also an existing intersection between sexuality and hauntology, which Jackson extrapolates in her iteration of a Gothic narrative. Viewing the Gothic and queerness as complementary to one another allows for the acknowledgement of the inherent queerness that is at the heart of the Gothic while also positioning the Gothic as a genre that persistently explores the meaning of queerness. Understanding Eleanor to be a queer character can be contextualized by exploring the novel through the frameworks of queer, psychoanalytic and feminist theories. Reading The Haunting of Hill House through an inherently queered lens not only adds to interpretation of the ending but also changes how Jackson’s Gothic horror can be understood to be purely a production of psycho-supernatural horror. Jackson’s version of the Gothic hinges purely on the Mother-figure, entrapped femininity and the spectralization of queer bodies.
The foundation for both the novel and my argument is Hill House, itself. The house is the first character introduced to the reader, with the infamous opening lines revealing that Hill House was “not sane, stood by itself against its hills holding darkness within…and whatever walked there, walked alone” (Jackson 1). Hill House is the epitome of what Freud coined das unheimliche, or the ‘unhomely home.’ Das unheimliche defines a domestic space that, though ostensibly warm and secure, is actually disturbed by secrets and repressed fears and desires. The implications of the das unheimliche is that it evokes a tension or clash between what one would know as familiar versus unfamiliar; Hill House as das unheimliche allows it to be established as architecturally uncanny. Hill House is also physically slanted, “every angle is slightly wrong…Angles which you would assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off” (Jackson 77). The house is not only haunted but is architecturally queered with its slants and incorrect angles, which in turn, queers and disorients the inhabitants.
Jackson, in her notes during the writing process, wrote “Eleanor IS house” and “Eleanor is ALL DISTORTED LIKE HOUSE.” Darryl Hattenhauer goes as far to say that “the house’s foundation and construction allegorize Eleanor’s psychological foundation.” The house, itself, becomes a double for Eleanor not only in the queer sense but also because of how it poses as a duplicate mother-figure. The tension and violence held within this uncanny, domestic space is driven by the production of fear and the resurfacing of Eleanor’s repressed desires, all of which lends it to readily parallel queer existence. Eleanor is repulsed by the house upon arriving because she deems it “a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope” (Jackson 24). Despite the fear that the house immediately instills in Eleanor, she claims she “had been waiting for something like Hill House” (Jackson 4). Although the house unsettles her, it produces this uncanny shock of recognition. The house becomes an embodiment of queerness because of this psychological hold, its slanted foundation and what it represents as a pseudo-mother because not only did Jackson intend for Eleanor to resemble the house but also for the house to resemble mother.
Immediately upon arriving at Hill House, Eleanor remarks about the child’s face emblazoned on the front door’s knockers, she hears a child’s laugh and then is greeted by Mrs. Dudley, one of the caretakers. In crossing Hill House’s threshold, Eleanor feels “[she is] a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels [her] tiny little movements” (Jackson 29). This is the first stage of psychosexual regression that Eleanor will undergo once inside Hill House. The infantile regression that Eleanor becomes victim to aligns with Freud’s uncanny theory of the “abjective infantile,” which is when uncanny sensations can stir up ego disturbances. The longer Eleanor stays, the more childlike she becomes and that is because the Hill House has become an uncanny mother and Eleanor is the child in its womb. It then forces Eleanor into the Pre-Oedipal stage of self-recognition. However, feminist psychosexual theory argues for identity formulation to occur in the Pre-Oedpidal rather than the Oedipal, which is what Freud would’ve argued for. Judie Newman discusses how “because children first experience the social and cognitive world as continuous with themselves, mother is not seen as a separate person. There is this immunity from individuality and the experience of fusion with the mother, of mother as world, is both seductive and terrifying.” Newman, here, is aligning herself with Chodorow and other feminist psychoanalytic theorists, arguing that young girls form their identity in congruence with the mother, which creates a symbiotic development of the ‘self.’ However, the young girl’s identity can be “threatened by separation and shaped throughout life by the fluctuation of this symbiotic relationship and attachment with the mother.” All of this materializes in The Haunting of Hill House because Eleanor’s severe attachment and her sense of self is completely obliterated with the death of her mother.
Eleanor’s life had become completely infused and orbited around her mother for eleven years. Her sense of self became duplicated as both mother and daughter as she was taking care of the mom. Feminist psychosexual development argues that “coldness on the mother’s part may prevent a loosening of the emotional bond beecause of the unappeased nature of the child’s love,” which in a sense is what happens to Eleanor because she resents the coldness she receives from her mother but also feels an unfulfillment of maternal love. Eleanor’s double identification of mother and child had been stripped away, until arriving at Hill House, which is also called in the novel,“the mother-house.” The infantilization of Eleanor once inside the estate is a result of her liminal psychosexual development. In maturity, women may form close relationships with other women as a means to recapture some semblance of the fractured mother-daughter bond from adolescence. The lack of mothering, the lingering guilt, and Eleanor’s desperation for love only fuels her further fixation on both the uterine-like home and the next best thing to a maternal substitute: Theodora.
In order to understand the full breadth of Eleanor and Theodora’s relationship, Theodora—as her own individual—needs to be fleshed out. Theodora, beginning with her name, is queer coded given that “Theodora was as much name as she used; her sketches were signed “Theo”...the name was always only Theodora” (Jackson 4-5). Not only having a last name is another indicator of Theodora’s queerness because it automatically removes her from the realm of compulsory heterosexuality and the hetero-patriachal structure of the nuclear family. It should also be noted that Jackson revealed, when writing earlier drafts of the novel, Theodora was an open lesbian, which contextualizes the ambiguous living situation which is seen in the published version. While Eleanor was living with her sister and brother-in-law prior to Hill House, Theodora had fled a wanton and violent quarrel with the ‘friend’ whom she lived with. While the friend is unnamed and ungendered, context clues and the standards of mid-20th century living suggests that the ‘friend’ is most likely another woman. It is said that “her friend had cruelly ripped to shreds the volume of Alfred de Musset, which had been a birthday present from Theodora taking particular pains with the page which bore Theodora’s loving, teasing inscription” (Jackson 5). The allusion to Musset is a key context clue because he was a French Romanticism writer whom is famously believed to be the anonymous author of the lesbian erotic novel, Two Nights of Excess. Excess, as a concept, is heavily tied to both the Gothic and when constructing queerness.
Eleanor is instantly taken aback by Theodora, with moments like “she is charming, Eleanor thought…not at all the sort of person who belongs in this dreary, dark place” (Jackson 31) and “she is lovely, Eleanor thought, I wish I were lovely” (33). Theodora is clearly a queer-coded woman and her “lesbian demonstrates the adult implications of remaining bound within a mother-daughter relationship—erotically bound, this is, to a woman” and this shared infantilization further subverts the relationship which grows between her and Eleanor. The house is fostering infantilization but it also becomes a symptom of the overt queerness between the two women. Eleanor and Theodora are running around the garden, painting each other’s nails, holding hands and giggling up a storm while calling each other “poor baby.” Ellen Case argues that “playfulness is perhaps a crucial tool of the queer theoretical practice which allows barriers and thresholds to be crossed, sexual and gendered roles to be explored, and importantly, the acknowledgement of the role of fantasy within different discourses.” Eleanor and Theodora even acknowledge this unconscious regression when Theodora suggests that the house is “ a good girls’ camp” and is just like an all-girls boarding school that she attended. Theodora’s comments echo 20th century notions that lesbianism was an erotic continuation of friendship between two younger girls. Florence Littauer speaks on this and writes “women who desired other women were psychologically immature, frozen in a state of permanent adolescence and this becomes central to discourse on female homosexuality that Americans encountered during the 1950s.”
A language, of sorts, forms between the two women; for example, Eleanor will think one thing and the next line of dialogue is Theodora verbally expressing that same thought or the two will communicate just through looks or subtle touches. One of the first moments where this becomes apparent is when the two women go exploring near the brook in the back and “unexpectedly—although it was later to become a familiar note, a recognizable attribute of what was to mean “Theodora” in Eleanor’s mind—Theodora caught at Eleanor’s thought and answered. “Don’t be so afraid all the time,” she said and reached out to touch Eleanor’s cheek with one finger” (Jackson 36). Theodora urges Eleanor to follow her as she hurries along the path near the water and Eleanor can’t keep up, running after her and “she called to Theodora, but Theodora only called back, “follow, follow,” and ran down the path. Suddenly she stopped, breathless and tottering, on the very edge of the brook, which had leaped up before her almost without warning; Eleanor, coming more slowly behind, caught at her hand and held her back and then, laughing, they fell together against the bank” (Jackson 37). This scene sets a precedent for the continuation of their relationship because Eleanor, here, is the one being lured and is transfixed not the other way around. The brook and the garden, in general, become important locations for the women because the outdoors adds a sense of ‘realness’ to their relationships with these transgressive moments transcending the interior of Hill House. The brook, as a body of water, acts as a threshold for rebirth and Eleanor is, literally on the edge of the water, holding Theodora’s hand as she is urged “follow, follow, follow” (37). The underlying erotic tones of this are confirmed when at the close of the chapter, Eleanor, unprompted, “stopped on the pather, not turning. “Theodora,” she said, “I don’t think I can, you know. I don’t think I really will be able to do it” (Jackson 39). This is a crucial moment because Eleanor’s sexual unconciousness is bubbling to the surface and she is hesitant about doing it--- it being transgressing and relenting to these desires she’s feeling. As the women settled into Hill House alongside Dr. Montague and Luke Sanderson, a member of the family who currently owns the estate, Hill House’s history is quickly revealed, specifically about the Crain Sisters.
The original builder and owner of the home, Hugh Crain, had two daughters whom he raised by himself until his death. Afterwards, the two sisters quarreled over the estate with the younger sister leaving to get married. The eldest daughter, however, “she lived here alone for a number of years…She eventually took a girl from the village to live with her, as a kind of companion” (Jackson 56). This, alone, mirrors the living situation between Theodora and her ‘friend.’ This subplot becomes even more concrete when it is learned that after the eldest sister died, the younger sister returned to attain ownership of the home, only to find it left to the companion. Legal action was taken and the companion actually won full custody of Hill House but was only met with visceral reactions and violence from the younger sister and the surrounding townspeople. The companion couldn’t handle being bombarded with the violence and eventually she killed herself in Hill House.
Eleanor is completely shocked by the reveal of how the companion died and questions if “she had to kill herself?” and Dr. Montague tries to assuage her by saying, “it was accepted locally that she had chosen suicide because her guilty conscience drove her to it. I am more inclined to believe that she 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 nagging persecution” (58).
This sentiment by Dr. Montague could easily be describing Eleanor and also serving as the trigger point for the cascade of paranormal activity to come. Eleanor learns about Theodora’s living situation and asks if she is married and after a brief moment of silence, Theodora laughs and quickly says “no” which causes Eleanor to become embarrassed but Theodora assures her “you’re funny,” [she] said and touched Eleanor’s cheek” (Jackson 64). ‘Touch,’ becomes an important element to their blossoming relationship. Touch and the transgressiveness it can carry maps onto Jackson’s Gothic exploration of lesbianism. Phyllis Betz explores this phenomenon and argues “sensuality and sexuality are merged in the meaning of physical desire in the lesbian Gothic; passions are aroused through sight and touch before a consummation is achieved and looking and touching provide the necessary verification that what is seen is real.” The idea of touch allowing the invisible to become visible ties into the concept of the apparitional lesbian and the specter as a figure in both the Gothic framework and within queer theory.
Terry Castle coined the term ‘apparitional lesbian,’ when she argued that “the lesbian is never with us, it seems, but always somewhere else: in the shadows, in the margins, hidden from history, out of sight, out of mind.” As Eleanor and Theodora grow closer, the companion’s presence becomes fused with the hauntings that begin. The paranormal activity occurs mainly in the hallway outside of the girls’ rooms as well as in the house’s nursery, which is “the heart of the home.” The first tangible evidence of these hauntings comes in the form of the infamous “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME,” which is scrawled on the wall (Jackson 107). Eleanor is horrified and frightened, Theodora reacts completely differently and goes as far to suggest that Eleanor did it herself and even laughs at her. This sisterly, yet erotic doubling is furthered cemented when Theodora’s green room becomes completely covered in a blood like substance—like red paint or like the red nail polish that Theo painted Eleanor’s toes so they would match her read sweater. Theodora, when first seeing her room ruined, laughs and beckons Eleanor in and says “I don’t know how you managed it. Wasn’t it to be a little private surprise for me? A secret just for the two of us?” (Jackson 113). Reading this as an erotic moment, it becomes indicative of some sort of sexual transgression that might’ve taken place between the two women. Eleanor cared for her mother for eleven years, presumably from the age of twenty-one to thirty-two, and given mid-20th century standards for a woman, it can be assumed that she was a virgin. The red paint symbolizes a rite of passage and the result of a sexual consummation, which was meant to be “just a secret.” Theodora only becomes upset when she realizes her clothes are also tainted, particularly the same yellow shirt that she was wearing when the two first ventured along the brook. Theodora is then forced to borrow Eleanor’s clothes and sleep in her bed, which Eleanor doesn’t mind. But, she becomes increasingly upset when she notices that the red paint on Theodora’s hands has rubbed off on her pillow, “she is wicked, beastly, soiled and dirty” Eleanor thought (Jackson 116). Eleanor’s adoration, in this moment, shifts and becomes disdain, which in my opinion, can be read as a foreclosure of queer desire on Eleanor’s part after the presumed physical transgression that might’ve occurred between the two women . Eleanor becomes unhinged by the increased presence of the companion, the repeated ‘COME HOME ELEANOR’ messages and her growing convoluted feelings for Theodora. She finds herself thinking “I am learning the pathways of the heart…and then wondered what she could have meant by thinking such a thing” (Jackson 121).
The hauntings have escalated to the point where Eleanor is unraveling, she can’t decipher what is real, what is not and begins to pull away from Theodora and retreat into herself. Eleanor began pulling away after Theodora’s negative reaction until the two venture along the garden path; “nothing irrevocable had yet been spoken, but there was only the barest margin of safety; each of them moving delicately along the outskirts of an open question, and, once spoken, such a question—as “Do you love me?”---could never be answered or forgotten…..They perceived at the same moment the change in the path, and each knew then the other’s knowledge of it (Jackson 128-129).” This is the final nail in the coffin for Eleanor and Theodora’s relationship. This moment being shared between two women, down to the rhetoric that Jackson uses, is explicitly erotic and romantic. This moment and the “change in the path” that they both recognize is their shared innate queer desire for the other, bubbling to the surface. Eleanor had been waiting for ‘something,’ unsure of what, but she thought she found it in Theodora. Eleanor has a change of heart following the garden moment and suddenly claims “I’m coming home with you…Back with you, back home. I—am going to follow you home” (Jackson 153). Theodora is caught off by guard and replies, “Nellie, Nellie…You have your life back home, I have my life…Hill House is not forever” (Jackson 154). Eleanor can’t process Theodora’s rejection because she had already come to the conclusion that Theodora would fill the maternal hole in her psyche. Eleanor is set on adopting Theodora’s identity as her own. She wants to call herself ‘just Eleanor,’ which is a clear allusion to Theodora’s ‘just Theodora’ introduction. Eleanor's distraught over Theodora’s rejection and would ultimately allow the companion to take the driver’s seat, pun intended. As we know, Eleanor would follow in the companion’s footsteps and take her own life by driving into a tree at the end of Hill House’s driveway. In her final moments, Eleanor thinks “just by telling me to go away they can’t make me leave, not if Hill House means for me to stay…they don’t make the rules around here. They can’t turn me out or shut me out or hide from me; I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me” (Jackson 181). Phyllis Betz argues that the ghost, especially a lesbian-coded specter, haunts a particular place because their own same-sex desires had been deprived during their lifetime. Once that has been reaffirmed, through seeing either their lives remembered or experience validated in a human relationship, the spirit is no longer tied to the source of her pain and is set free. With Eleanor following in the companion’s footsteps, the companion is free from the hold of Hill House and she almost passes the role on to Eleanor. Just like how Hill House belonged to the companion when she killed herself, Eleanor is claiming the same thing here—the cycle of trapped femininity and repressed queer existence continues and Jackson solidifies this by ending the novel with the same paragraph as the one she used to start it.
Jackson, under the guise of the Gothic, constructs a queer narrative that escalates in perversion and violent intension. Eleanor’s innate need to simultaneously reproduce and rid herself of a ‘mother-figure’ amalgamates into a repression of the self and replaces it with the materialization of lesbian desire. Understanding Eleanor Vance to be a lesbian allows for deeper contextualization of how Jackson’s rendition of the Gothic undermines gender expectations and the embedded societal pressures to conform to compulsory heterosexuality. The majority of Jackson’s female protagonists, specifically Eleanor, elicit subversive sexual desires, preform skewed femininity and embody a total separation from reality. Jackson strategically uses the Gothic framework to explore and contextualize those “misunderstood lesbians” that she vowed to write about in the opening letter. To close, Mair Rigby argues that “if to be queer and to speak is to risk flirtation with the Gothic, then to speak through the Gothic is always to risk flirtation with what is queer.” Jackson’s Hill House and Jackson’s Hill House heroine, Eleanor Vance, is not only a lesbian but a Gothic lesbian because the inherent otherness of the Gothic mirrors that of a lesbian’s inherent otherness to the norm.