The Haunting of Hill House


Shirley Jackson

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Themes and Colors
The Supernatural vs. The Psychological  Theme Icon
The Search for Home Theme Icon
Fear and Dissociation Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Haunting of Hill House, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Isolation Theme Icon

All of the characters in The Haunting of Hill House are isolated in their own ways—so, too, is the remote and looming manor at the center of the action. As she examines the effects of both physical and emotional isolation throughout the novel, Shirley Jackson ultimately suggests that true loneliness is the most terrifying force on earth—and more deserving of fear than even the strangest, most bone-chilling experiences with the supernatural.

Eleanor Vance is a very isolated woman, and Jackson uses her character to posit that the prospect of a life spent in emotional and physical isolation from the rest of the world is more terrifying than ghosts, spirits, or unexplained phenomena. “I am always afraid of being alone,” Eleanor admits after one of several encounters with whatever entity may or may not be haunting Hill House. After stating the words aloud, she is shocked by her own candor—the admission itself has made her feel even more isolated, vulnerable, and lonely. Eleanor has been a loner all her life. Eleanor has long been the caretaker to her ailing mother—now, at thirty-two, she lives with her sister and brother-in-law, but she has few friends of her own and spends most of her time daydreaming not of love or companionship but of possessing a large house all her own where she can tend to small daily rituals like cleaning, strolling through the yard, and preparing meals in peace. Eleanor, who has been lonely all her life, seems to have come to crave isolation; it is only within the halls of Hill House that she sees for the first time just how pitiful loneliness truly is, and begins to question whether a life lived out alone is even worth living. Eleanor’s suicide at the end of the novel—tragic, sudden, and yet committed almost gleefully—seals the thesis that Jackson has set forth throughout the novel: that being alone, cast out, and unwanted is more terrifying than death itself. 

The other characters who visit Hill House are isolated in their own ways. Theodora is unmarried, marked by her psychic sensitivities, and lives with a roommate with whom she often quarrels. Luke Sanderson is a dishonest bachelor, a thief whose devilish ways—not to mention his motherless existence—have left him feeling alone in the world. Doctor Montague is intellectually isolated, as his burning desire to research the paranormal has made him feel shameful and outcast. Eventually, his failure at Hill House renders him a complete pariah in his field and forces him to retire. He’s also emotionally isolated, constantly bullied and undermined by his imposing wife, Mrs. Montague, who believes that she alone is the authority within their marriage. Doctor Montague loves being at Hill House with Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke because they regard him as an expert, take his work seriously, and make him feel less alone. All of the characters in Hill House, then, come to the haunted manor for a reason—they are so lonely in their own lives that even a mysterious invitation to a decrepit mansion seems like a worthwhile prospect that might ease their profound solitude. Indeed, upon arriving at Hill House and meeting one another, there is a jovial atmosphere in the air despite their dread, and even as the haunting escalates, Theodora, Luke, and Eleanor playact at being a family. 

“Whatever walked there, walked alone,” Jackson writes of the entity which may or may not have overtaken the sprawling Hill House. These lines recur in both the opening and closing paragraphs of the novel, and further hammer home the idea that isolation is a terrifying and even corrupting force in and of itself. “Whatever” now resides in Hill House is doomed—or desires—to “walk” its halls “alone” forever, driving out whoever comes to visit. This isolation seems both foisted upon the mysterious entity, whatever it may be, and self-inflicted, much like Jackson’s simultaneous contempt for and exclusion from North Bennington society. The house itself is a symbol of emotional, intellectual, or circumstantial remoteness and isolation. Built at the base of a grouping of hills miles from the nearest town, Hill House was deliberately constructed to be a lonely place removed from the world—but this seclusion, Jackson shows, has given way not to peace but to an insidious rot. The thing that haunts Hill House—if such a thing exists—is both cloying and destructive, seeming to want the attention of anyone who visits the house while simultaneously frightening them into leaving. The entity appears at times as pure force—ground-shaking, door-clattering angry energy—and other times as something childlike and desperate for connection, as when a ghostly hand holds Eleanor’s in the night. This simultaneous desire for connection and revulsion at the prospect of truly being seen is a hallmark of prolonged distrust and isolation—feelings with which Jackson herself struggled for a large part of her life, and was perhaps attempting to exorcise in the writing of Hill House.

The Haunting of Hill House is a slim novel that takes on expansive, existential questions: what it means to be forced into isolation and what it means to crave it, and how the great terror of existence may not be the empty, finite loneliness of death but the empty, finite loneliness of life. As Jackson’s characters wrestle with isolation, her own struggle to understand what it means to be a person in the world seems to be laid bare—the humiliations and vulnerability of human connection are just as terrifying as the prospect of a life lived all alone. To Jackson, and, to a greater extend extent, her characters, accepting that one’s lot in life is to be lonely, isolated, or misunderstood is more terrifying than being locked inside a haunted house.

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The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Isolation appears in each chapter of The Haunting of Hill House. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Isolation Quotes in The Haunting of Hill House

Below you will find the important quotes in The Haunting of Hill House related to the theme of Isolation.
Chapter 1 Quotes

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

During the whole underside of her life, ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House. Caring for her mother, lifting a cross old lady from her chair to her bed, setting out endless little trays of soup and oatmeal, steeling herself to the filthy laundry, Eleanor had held fast to the belief that someday something would happen.

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

When they were silent for a moment the quiet weight of the house pressed down from all around them. Eleanor, wondering if she were really here at all, and not dreaming of Hill House from some safe spot impossibly remote, looked slowly and carefully around the room, telling herself that this was real, these things existed, from the tiles around the fireplace to the marble cupid; these people were going to be her friends.

Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 42-43
Explanation and Analysis:

“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 constant nagging persecution; she had certainly no weapons to fight back against the younger sister’s campaign of hatred, her own friends in the village had been turned against her, and she seems to have been maddened by the conviction that locks and bolts could not keep out the enemy who stole into her house at night—”

“She should have gone away,” Eleanor said. “Left the house and run as far as she could go.”

“In effect, she did.”

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Doctor John Montague (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

“I hate having things done to me.”

“You’re about as crazy as anyone I ever saw,” Theodora said cheerfully.

“I don’t like to feel helpless,” Eleanor said. “My mother—”

“Your mother would have been delighted to see you with your toenails painted red,” Theodora said. “They look nice.”

Eleanor looked at her feet again. “It’s wicked,” she said inadequately. “I mean—on my feet. It makes me feel like I look like a fool.”

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Theodora (speaker)
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

“We must take precautions,” he said.

“Against what? How?”

“When Luke and I are called outside, and you two are kept imprisoned inside, doesn’t it begin to seem”—and his voice was very quiet—“doesn’t it begin to seem that the intention is, somehow, to separate us?”

Related Characters: Doctor John Montague (speaker), Theodora (speaker), Eleanor Vance, Luke Sanderson
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Looking at herself in the mirror, with the bright morning sun light freshening even the blue room of Hill House, Eleanor thought, It is my second morning in Hill House, and I am unbelievably happy. Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

“When I am afraid, I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful not-afraid side of the world, I can see chairs and tables and windows staying the same, not affected in the least, and I can see things like the careful woven texture of the carpet, not even moving. But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things. I suppose because things are not afraid.”

“I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” the doctor said slowly.

“No,” Luke said. “Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.”

“Of knowing what we really want,” Theodora said. She pressed her cheek against Eleanor’s hand and Eleanor, hating the touch of her, took her hand away quickly.

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Doctor John Montague (speaker), Theodora (speaker), Luke Sanderson (speaker)
Page Number: 117-118
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

Somewhere there was a great, shaking crash… […] Eleanor heard the laughter over all, coming thin and lunatic, rising in its little crazy tune, and thought, No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, 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.

“I’ll come,” she said aloud, and was speaking up to Theodora, who leaned over her. The room was perfectly quiet, and between the still curtains at the window she could see the sunlight.

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Theodora
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

“And your night?” the doctor asked timidly. “Did you spend a—ah—profitable night?”

“If by profitable you meant comfortable, John, I wish you would say so. No, in answer to your most civil inquiry, I did not spend a comfortable night. I did not sleep a wink. That room is unendurable.”

“Noisy old house, isn’t it?” Arthur said. “Branch kept tapping against my window all night; nearly drove me crazy, tapping and tapping.”

Related Characters: Doctor John Montague (speaker), Mrs. Montague (speaker), Arthur Parker (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 152-153
Explanation and Analysis:

She heard the little melody fade, and felt the slight movement of air as the footsteps came close to her, and something almost brushed her face; perhaps there was a tiny sigh against her cheek, and she turned in surprise. Luke and the doctor bent over the chessboard, Arthur leaned confidingly close to Theodora, and Mrs. Montague talked.

None of them heard it, she thought with joy; nobody heard it but me.

Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Dancing, the carpet soft under her feet, she came to the door behind which Theodora slept; faithless Theo, she thought, cruel, laughing Theo, wake up, wake up, wake up, and pounded and slapped the door, laughing, and shook the doorknob and then ran swiftly down the hall to Luke’s door and pounded; wake up, she thought, wake up and be faithless. None of them will open their doors, she thought; they will sit inside, with the blankets pressed around them, shivering and wondering what is going to happen to them next; wake up, she thought, pounding on the doctor’s door; I dare you to open your door and come out to see me dancing in the hall of Hill House.

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Doctor John Montague, Theodora, Luke Sanderson
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

“I haven’t any apartment,” she said to Theodora. “I made it up. I sleep on a cot at my sister’s, in the baby’s room. I haven’t any home, no place at all.” […] She laughed, hearing her own words, so inadequate and so unutterably sad. […] “So you see there’s no place you can send me.”

I could, of course, go on and on, she wanted to tell them, seeing always their frightened, staring faces. I could go on and on, leaving my clothes for Theodora; I could go wandering and homeless, errant, and I would always come back here. It would be simpler to let me stay, more sensible, she wanted to tell them, happier.

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Theodora, Carrie
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

“Go away, Eleanor, you can’t stay here; but I can,” she sang, “but I can; they don’t make the rules around here. They can’t turn me out […]; I won’t go, and Hill House belongs to me.”

With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator… [...] I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.

In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?

Related Characters: Eleanor Vance (speaker), Doctor John Montague, Theodora, Luke Sanderson
Related Symbols: Hill House
Page Number: 181-182
Explanation and Analysis: