In The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson demonstrates a strong depiction of oppression towards women. Jackson introduces the idea that women have a weaker mind and a tendency to act childish. This idea can be seen through the deteriorating mental health of the character, Eleanor. She tends to always resort to juvenile behavior throughout the novel. She is most likely to act immature because she lacks individuality and wishes she had her own. Her mother took away her individuality and she has been longing for it since. Her presence at Hill House is her first time being able to really explore herself. Men were known to take away women’s individuality because women obeyed men in a relationship and did not have authority of themselves. This demonstrates that women are more susceptible to being weaker than men and coincides with the theme of American Gothic literature. In American Gothic literature men are known to be superior and the women are the damsels in distress.
In the novel, The Haunting of Hill House Jackson puts forth the idea that women are inferior to men because their minds are weaker causing them to be immature. This is demonstrated in Eleanor and Theodora’s characters. For example, when they are exploring the outside of Hill House Jackson states, “Like two children they ran across the grass, both welcoming the sudden openness of clear spaces after even a little time in Hill House…”. Eleanor and Theodora are seen as children because they are playing outside and making up stories about their families and how they are related. In society this makes women look immature and inferior to men. Eleanor is seen as the most immature. Her lack of childhood could possibly be responsible for her juvenile tendencies. Eleanor appears younger to Theodora as well when she comments on her appearance, ‘’I’m thirty-four years old,’ Eleanor said, and wondered what obscure defiance made her add two years. ‘And you look about fourteen,’ Theodora said. ‘Come along; we’ve earned our breakfast.’’ Her absence of a childhood has caused her to hold onto innocent features. Jackson foreshadows Eleanor having the weakest mind when Dr. Montague says,
“One cannot even say that the ghost attacks the mind, because the mind, the conscious, thinking mind, is invulnerable; in all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking there is now one iota of belief in ghosts… No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.”
There is enough evidence that Eleanor is in fact the weakest because she didn’t have a strong foundation of a childhood or parents. Eleanor is seen as fragile, which is another view that society has on women and a way that men degrade women. An associate professor of English, Parks, speaks about Eleanor in his text Chambers of Yearning: Shirley Jackson’s Use of the Gothic, “She is so fragile and vulnerable that her survival is questionable from the beginning.” Eleanor’s vulnerability and weakness; a common factor in American Gothic literature is what leads to her falling weak to Hill House and her expulsion from the house. Parks makes a statement on Dr. Montague’s masculinity and how society thinks that men are superior, “This militant rationalist shows little compassion for Eleanor’s loss of sanity and banishes her from the house to protect his so-called experiment.” Dr. Montagues banishment of Eleanor demonstrates how men felt that women are inferior and that she would ruin his experiment. He didn’t care about her health or well being, he was selfish and cared about himself. This is an accurate view of society and how women’s feelings and mental health were disregarded because men always had the upper hand. However, Eleanor’s weakness should not be regarded to women as a whole because this is a personal issue. Not all women are deprived from the foundation of a childhood. This weakness is only a reflection on Eleanor and her mental health.
Eleanor’s lack of childhood plays a leading role in her mental health. Eleanor has a strong desire to seek her own individuality. Hill House is Eleanor’s first experience of being on her own and being able to be her own person. She mentions her new found independence when she arrives at Hill House, “I would never have suspected it of myself, she thought, laughing still; everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home.” (Jackson 19) Hill House is her first time away from home and the first time she is allowed to be herself. The importance of individualism is mentioned when she runs into the little girl at the restaurant wanting her cup of stars. Eleanor says, “Don’t do it, Eleanor told the girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it…” Eleanor is trapped into being like everyone else and never really finds her own identity because she was too busy taking care of her mother and listening to what other people told her to do and be. Eleanor knows the importance of originality and tells the little girl to fight for it. Eleanor talks about her own longing for her own individuality with Theodora, “Once I had a blue cup with stars painted on the inside; when you looked down into a cup of tea it was full of stars. I want a cup like that.” She lies about having a cup or stars and about where she lives. She makes up a story to make herself seem interesting because she really has no personal life at all, besides being told what to do by her sister. Eleanor longs for originality and can possibly be why she makes up stories. In Masse’s essay, Gothic Repetition: Husbands, Horrors, and Things That Go Bump in the Night, she explains the idea that suppression of identity is a stimulus in American Gothic novels, “When we extend our consideration of what we are willing to recognize as trauma, we begin to see a revised analysis of the gothic in which the stimulus, suppression of identity, exists not only in the past but also in the present and the implied future of the narrative…”. This passage explains the idea of the importance of identity and individuality in the narrative. Eleanor’s own longing for herself not only exists in her past but in her future throughout the novel as well.
However, one may say that it is Eleanor’s absence of confidence that diminishes her from having her own identity. She never had the courage to stand up to her sister or for herself by being independent, causing the audience to think that this is Eleanor’s accountability for not developing originality. Yet, this idea is can be proven wrong because it is society and history to blame for Eleanor’s lack of self-confidence and courage. Eleanor believes that she needs to conform to society to be who society thinks she should be. Eleanor struggles with her past and present self in a way that she is stuck in her childish self where she loses her identity. In Davison’s text, Gothic Repetition: Husbands, Horrors, and Things That Go Bump in the Night, she explains how the repression of self-identity is the lack of authority over oneself, “The fear of losing autonomy and identity is represented quite specifically as a lack of voice and, therefore, authority over the self.” Eleanor never had her own voice which can also be connected to society and gender norms. Men were seen as superior, women were expected to obey men and never developed their own voice. In society women did not have authority over themselves and were seen as property after marriage. This reflects on Eleanor’s character because she is constantly worried about what others think of her and how she should be acting instead of focusing on being who she really is. This is a representation of how women felt. Goddu argues in her text, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, that the Gothic is a way to work through cultural anxieties. Davison contributes to Goddu’s argument when she identifies what the female gothic is, “the female gothic mode, a form that is generally distinguished from the traditional Gothic mode as it centers its lens on a young woman’s rite of passage into womanhood and her ambivalent relationship to contemporary domestic ideology, especially the joint institutions of marriage and motherhood.” This shows a cultural tension between men and women and societal norms. Women were expected to follow gender norms and follow societal expectations. Women felt that they needed to be a mother, and a wife, and felt that they only belonged in domestic affairs since the male patriarchy did now allow them any other freedom. Many women didn’t actually have their own self-identity besides what they thought they should be. Jackson is conveying a message that women need to be themselves and find their identity before they are confined to social norms and lose themselves in the way that Eleanor loses herself when Hill House consumes her mind and takes her identity.
In conclusion, Eleanor’s lack of identity is the reason why Hill House is able to take over her mind and break her. Since she doesn’t have a strong foundation of who she is as an individual Hill House breaks her and mentally consumes her, causing her to go insane. This is a reflection of Jackson’s message of the importance of identity and individuality. Men often took both from women because they are seen as being stronger and superior. Women were seen as weak because men controlled their mind and self-identity, much as how Hill House controlled Eleanor. However, this is also a depiction of modern-day mental health treatment. Treatment does not allow for individuality. People are confined to hospital beds, medication, schedules, rules, and are hidden from family and society. This lack of individuality is what causes people to act out or become more mentally ill. A person longs for their own individuality because without it they become nothing.