"Hill House": Haunted by What Might Have Been
The great nonsense of cultural relativism has been superseded by personal relativism. Values are now relative to each person. Shirley Jackson's ghost story reveals how this "freedom" is really a cage.
“First world problems”: I hate that phrase, if only for its cringe-inducing note of virtue signalling. Still, there are problems and then there are problems. As I fretted over a particular quandary a couple of weeks ago, even I was moved to think, This might justify the “first world problem” phrase. I couldn’t decide what to read.
Given the thousand-plus books straining the shelves of my library, the issue wasn’t a lack of something to read — it was a surplus of novels calling for my attention. I’d take one from its shelf and glance across the cover, skim its pages, imagine sitting down to read it, then imagine which books I might enjoy reading even more, and a strange anxiety about missing out would make me return the book to find another.
I know, I know: Cry me a river, and then drown this self-indulgent fool in it. But this scene manifests something many of us face frequently. Our culture has become enamoured with an ill-conceived notion of freedom, one that rejects any boundaries and all restrictions. As a result, making a choice about anything looks uncomfortably like choosing to get into a cage. A decision settled means all other avenues are closed off. Bridges rarely burn — in most cases, choices can be undone, mistakes rectified, paths followed back to a prior junction to take a different route. But making even a temporary choice and momentarily reducing one’s freedom isn’t seen as something to indulge.
Bored with my own indecision, I finally decided to re-read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. As much as I adore her magnificent We Have Always Lived in The Castle, when I first read Hill House it left me underwhelmed. There’s much to admire in Jackson’s writing, much to be frustrated by, but the sum total for me amounted to a sad lack of enthusiasm. My re-reading of Hill House made me see how wrong I’d been. And the main theme I detected in its pages spoke to that inability to decide and that adolescent worship of freedom.
At the start of the novel, Eleanor Vance is summoned by Dr Montague, who hopes to study the alleged psychic phenomena haunting Hill House. Eleanor’s mother has recently died, emancipating Eleanor at age thirty-two from caring for the elderly woman. Invited to take part in something exciting and bizarre, while also seeking the wide world from which she’s been removed for so long, Eleanor takes a pseudo-mythic journey from one life to another, from the city in which she was trapped to the house she will never leave.
On the cross-country drive, Eleanor daydreams about other lives she might live, imagining a garden in which she “shall live happily ever after”, then a whole kingdom that turns into “a soft green picture from a fairy tale”. In order for any of this to happen, of course, she’d have to get out of her car and choose a dream to pursue. “Another day,” she thinks, “I’ll come back and break your spell.” For now, she wishes to remain dazzled by the enchantment, preferring the open road and its endless choice.
This is one of the defining neuroses of our time: we are determined to hold onto every possible option. As a culture, we are obsessed with freedom from the chains shaken off in the twentieth century, which we’ve thrown in a box taped shut and labelled with “Tradition – DO NOT OPEN”. As a result, we insist on committing to nothing. Various institutions to which individuals once belonged are now jettisoned in favour of the individuated institution of me in this moment. Marriage was rightly tipped upside down and shaken so its outdated baggage fell from its pockets, but then marriage too was tossed aside with nothing offered in its place as a progressive alternative for symbolising a firmly-decided romantic commitment. In fact, the idea of making such a promise has become a taboo, a contravention of the shallow individualism that is the only thing still seen as sacred. This is not a rewarding way to live nor a solid route to real freedom.
Eleanor so stubbornly resists infringements of her freedom that she fails to see how this can restrict her. Like the little girl she watches later in a café, who stubbornly refuses to drink boring milk from an ordinary glass, Eleanor too wants to drink from a “cup of stars”. When the girl’s parents attempt to cajole her into drinking from a plain cup, Eleanor silently wills her to rebel, because “once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again”.
Our hyper-individualist age insists on a cup of stars for each person, or a cup of planets if you prefer, or why not no cup at all if your particular tastes take that preference. Our intellectual culture was once demeaned by cultural relativism, but that has since given way to personal relativism. We insist on our individually tailored view of reality at any cost, ignoring that much of the cost is at our own expense. The little girl, for instance, has won the battle over the ordinary cup, but she doesn’t get anything to drink. She is not free to quench her thirst.
Imagine our naïve Eleanor at a roundabout in her journey. There are three new roads she can choose between, but choosing one means losing the others. Like a spinning top, she goes uselessly round and round, until she runs out of energy. Perhaps she tentatively drives some way up the first road, glancing around but always bothered by what she might be missing down one of the other roads. She doesn’t get far before turning back and making her way down road two, which she quickly gives up for road three. Eventually, she finds herself circling the drain at the roundabout again, looping indecisively.
What if, instead, she voluntarily sacrificed that freedom of choice by choosing one of the roads and committing to it? Having given up the other routes, she gives everything to fully exploring this road. The indecisive Eleanor has none of the opportunities afforded to this second Eleanor, who discovers places hidden to those who refuse to commit to the exploration. In any case, the fact is that we cannot go on indefinitely into an infinite sunset on a road that keeps unrolling ahead; eventually, a destination is arrived at, and if we don’t choose it, it chooses us. Eleanor refuses to make up her own mind about where to go — so Hill House chooses for her.
On their first night in Hill House, Eleanor, Dr Montague, Luke, and Theodora play a game in which they construct fictional autobiographies, from princess to bullfighter to living “a mad, abandoned life, draped in a shawl and going from garret to garret”. This is an overt rendition of what many of us now do in the real world, and not for a single evening but across our whole lives. We are encouraged by magazines and make-over shows to “fix” this or “alter” that; people follow self-help courses promising to turn you into “the best you that you can be”; individuals construct esoteric vocabularies that express nothing more than how they identify and what those identifications mean from moment to moment. Our cultural gaze is now aimed directly at the navel.
Taught that identity is the product not of our actions but of our professed beliefs about who we '“truly” are, the concept of self becomes malleable. We slip in and out of personalities, careers, relationships, even entire worldviews as if merely changing clothes. These shapeshifting identities are often a response to anxiety over obligations and duties that might hamper freedom: if I can simply become someone new the moment the responsibilities of my old self become a burden, I am “free” from unwanted burdens. There is no need to analyse my reasons for giving up, no soul searching required, because I can simply torch the old soul and pick a new one.
Later in Hill House, Dr Montague says that Hill House has the ability to “find out the flaws and faults and weakness” in all of them and “break [them] apart”. He says that their only defence against such testing of their character is to flee, to run away as quickly as possible — “At least it can’t follow us, can it?” In this we discover the motivation behind our obsession with freedom: fear fuels the engine that keeps us speeding down the open road. We are not merely running towards freedom, we are fleeing from fear — fear of failure, of hardship and obligations, of perceived cages. Dr Montague tells the group, “We are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke responds, “No. Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.”
None of this is to suggest that all existential cages are created equal, or that it’s never justified to break a cage open. It might just be — and it often is the case — that life’s prodding at our weak spots is precisely what we need to become strong enough to break out of the chains that bind us. We can destroy the cage by choosing to remain in it and learning to break its bars. If, instead, we flee as soon as a door opens — as Eleanor did the moment her mother (and her duties to her) died — we must continue to run in case we are flung back into the cage. What kind of freedom is this that demands we endlessly pursue it?
Throughout Hill House, Eleanor sings to herself the line, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” A few times, Jackson also drops in the line “In delay there lies no plenty”. These are both lifted from the fool’s song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a carpe diem ditty admonishing the one who constantly roams, instead of seizing a moment. “What is love?” Shakespeare asks, and then answers, “’tis not hereafter.” It is not to be found in the afterlife. Love, as with all opportunities, should be grabbed decisively, because although “what’s to come is still unsure”, refusing to choose leads only to waste.
“In delay there lies no plenty,” whereas deciding for oneself offers much, including a liberation denied to the reckless chaser of all-consuming freedom. And there is no not choosing — by holding off, you don’t abstain from choice, you choose delay. And in that state of indecision, you are chosen. Hill House chooses Eleanor because she didn’t have the strength to choose something else. She is imprisoned in Hill House as one of its many ghosts.
How do we avoid similar (if less melodramatic or supernatural) fates? By voluntarily submitting ourselves to something greater than the self-centred nature of absolute freedom. Liberation comes of giving ourselves up to something within which we find greater freedom than can be found wandering aimlessly, rejecting any responsibility that doesn’t allow us to pursue every whim. As David Foster Wallace put it:
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad, petty, little, unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
• The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (1959) • Commencement Address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace (2005) • Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare (circa. 1600)