Hill House is an enormous, oddly constructed manor whose seclusion from society, odd angles, labyrinth-like layout, and disturbing history all make it a decidedly inhospitable home. Still, the characters who venture there to study the house’s mysteries and discover its secrets all have one thing in common: they are looking for a sense of home and belonging. As Doctor Montague, Eleanor Vance, Luke Sanderson, and Theodora play house inside of their haunted retreat, it becomes clear that all four individuals are searching for connection and a sense of belonging in all the wrong places. Ultimately, the characters fail to find what they’re looking for—and Jackson uses their collective failure, combined with the potent central symbol of Hill House, to make the bleak argument that for some people (or perhaps even all people) home and belonging can never be found.
Through the journey of Eleanor Vance and her companions at Hill House, Jackson shows how embarrassing, vulnerable, and ultimately fruitless the search for home can feel, or even be. Eleanor has never felt at home in the world. Once the caretaker for her ailing mother, and now a burden to her sister, brother-in-law, and niece, with whom she lives in a small apartment, she has never known independence or belonging. She has never, she tells Theodora, been “wanted” anywhere—she has merely bounced from place to place. Eleanor arrives at Hill House with a repetitious phrase in her head, a line of Shakespeare which she remembers as a song: “Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.” Eleanor believes, as she arrives at Hill House, that despite the place’s malevolent energy, her journey there will end in happiness and recognition. However, when the presence haunting Hill House begins attempting to communicate directly with Eleanor—by scrawling, in chalk and then in blood, the words “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” over and over again—a strange paradox emerges. Eleanor is being summoned “home,” but as the house itself makes increasingly desperate attempts to connect with Eleanor, she starts to go mad and believes that the house is the only home she has ever, or will ever, truly know. When she briefly tries to find “home” and friendship in Theodora, and expresses her desire to move to the city where her new friend makes her own home, Theodora’s rejection makes Eleanor lose all hope of ever feeling wanted, needed, or loved. The novel ends with Eleanor, who has been urged to leave Hill House in light of her worsening mental state, crashing her car into an oak tree at the foot of the driveway and committing suicide rather than departing from the only place where she has ever felt welcomed or wanted. The bleak irony of the fact that the only place Eleanor has ever felt at home is a twisted, haunted, and inhospitable mansion is Jackson’s way of metaphorically expressing the true depths of Eleanor’s isolation, and of showing that for some unlucky people, the search for home ends in being called “home” to a realm beyond.
The other visitors to Hill House—Doctor Montague, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson—are united with Eleanor in their search for home and a sense of belonging. Doctor Montague, an academic compelled by a fascination with the strange, the occult, and the paranormal, longs for the clout that will allow him to make a name and a home for himself in the field he wants to pioneer. Theodora, a psychic who has abandoned her last name (and symbolically her ties to her past and her original home), lives a freewheeling and bohemian lifestyle, and it’s heavily implied that she longs for family, stability, and permanence (though she ultimately rejects Eleanor’s offer of friendship and companionship). Luke Sanderson, the heir to Hill House, is searching for home in a more literal sense—he knows the dark history of the house he stands to inherit, but he wants to get to the bottom of what may or may not be haunting the strange place so that he can decide what to do once it falls under his ownership. All four of these characters are drawn to Hill House because of what the place represents. Home is a place where one feels safe, known, and welcome: at Hill House, Eleanor, Montague, Luke, and Theodora find the opposite. There’s a reason Hill House is always referred to as a house, not a home—though it’s a domicile, it’s been unoccupied for years, and the family that once resided there was broken, ruined, and indeed haunted. None of the characters can, in the present day, find any trappings of home in the manor, in spite of all their efforts to convince themselves that the place could lead to happiness. The search for home ends in failure not just for Eleanor, but indeed for all of the other characters who venture to the house: Luke runs off to Europe, Theodora returns to her unhappy apartment and roommate in the city, and Doctor Montague, shamed due to his inability to produce any substantive research pointing to paranormal activity at the house, is forced to retire from academia.
Jackson herself, in real life, moved to North Bennington, Vermont in the mid-1940s with her husband, who worked as an instructor at Bennington College. Jackson felt isolated from the rest of the town, and during her time living there she wrote several works of fiction which reflected the competing feelings of misanthropy and exclusion she was experiencing. The Haunting of Hill House, then, adopts as its thesis the bleak suggestion that the idyllic, perfect idea of “home” perhaps does not exist for anyone, really—home is made of memories, imperfect and unreliable, and the attempt to reconstruct an ideal of home will almost always fail. Jackson’s characters search for security, family, and the familiar in an almost comically bleak and inhospitable place, hoping against hope they’ll be able to find a place to belong. But in the end, all of them fail, and they’re flung back to their far corners of the world just as alone as when they began their journey to Hill House.
The Search for Home ThemeTracker
The Search for Home Quotes in The Haunting of Hill House
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.
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.
The doctor sighed again. “Suppose,” he said slowly, “you heard the story of Hill House and decided not to stay. How would you leave, tonight?” He looked around at them again, quickly. “The gates are locked. Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree. Suppose I tell you about Hill House, and one of you wants to leave? Tomorrow, at least, we could see that you got safely to the village.”
“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.”
“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.”
“I think we are all incredibly silly to stay. I think that an atmosphere like this one can find out the flaws and faults and weaknesses in all of us, and break us apart in a matter of days. We have only one defense, and that is running away. At least it can’t follow us, can it? When we feel ourselves endangered we can leave, just as we came. And,” he added dryly, “just as fast as we can go. […] Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.”
“I promise,” Eleanor said, smiling.
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.
“I must say, John, I never expected to find you all so nervous," Mrs. Montague said. “I deplore fear in these matters.” She tapped her foot irritably. “You know perfectly well, John, that those who have passed beyond expect to see us happy and smiling; they want to know that we are thinking of them lovingly. The spirits dwelling in this house may be actually suffering because they are aware that you are afraid of them.”
“Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell. They sometimes do that,” Mrs. Montague broke off to explain. “They repeat a word over and over to make sure it comes across all right.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “What do you want?” he read.
“Want to be home.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for what?”
“Home.” Arthur stopped, and nodded profoundly. “There it is again,” he said. “Like a word, and use it over and over, just for the sound of it.”
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.
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.
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.
No stone lions for me, she thought, no oleanders; I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside. I am home, she thought, and stopped in wonder at the thought. I am home, I am home, she thought; now to climb.
“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.
“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?