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Shirley Jackson`s The Haunting of Hill House: Feelings of Being an Outsider and Agoraphobia

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In both of these gothic fiction novels, Shirley Jackson consistently reflects on the themes of isolation and persecution on the characters, especially the female protagonists, Merricat and Eleanor, who have been alienated by their family or society. Jackson uses these novels to project her own feelings of being an outsider and her later developed condition of agoraphobia.

The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959 is widely referred to as Jacksons’ most known and successful work. Inspired by reports from psychic readers in a similar setting from the nineteenth century, the novel focuses on four main characters with different motivations for temporarily residing in the Hill House. Unexplainable events occur in the presence of the house believed to be supernatural forces. Eleanor, the female protagonist of this novel is affected the most by experiencing more heightened and almost deadly disturbances. She left her family to take part in the experiment to be free of her domesticity by living in isolation with few others, but the hostile environment of the house possesses her and she eventually becomes isolated not only physically but mentally to the surrounding environment. The cause of her suicide is left undetermined as to whether she became emotionally unstable due to alienation or because she was influenced by supernatural forces from Hill House.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the last book published by Jackson herself in 1962, the novel focuses on the lives of the three remaining members of the Blackwood family and the continuous torment they face. Merricat especially faces judgment and taunting from the villagers due to her being the only form of contact to the outside world, even though the villagers believe Constance poisoned the deceased members of the Blackwood family. The villagers make their hostility clear and Merricat acknowledges this by wishing upon them death and torture. Merricat is highly overprotective of Constance who has agoraphobia and she is suspicious of others interfering in their lives. So when provoked by their estranged cousin she acts out and their home sets on fire. The villagers help to solve the issue but then continue with their torment. Later the villagers regret this and bring food as a peace offering. The two siblings choose to live alone and isolated from the rest of society.

These novels both reflect upon isolation for We Have Always Lived in the Castle it is more physically and socially whereas The Haunting of Hill House it is about psychological isolation and the differing effects this has on characters. In the Haunting of Hill House, isolation negatively affects Eleanor and leads to her ultimate demise, whereas in We Have Always Lived in the Castle isolation is welcomed by Merricat.

At the beginning of the novel, Merricat openly speaks about herself and what she likes, including interestingly a deadly mushroom.

“I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom.”

Merricat lists all the things she likes but peculiarly mentions a poisonous mushroom. Her affinity towards the death-cup mushroom foreshadows that she really poisoned the rest of the Blackwood family and likes the death-cup mushroom due to it being the cause of her family’s death. The Blackwood family are alienated from the surrounding villagers and considered outcasts socially. Merricat dislikes visiting the village due to being subjected to constant taunts and childish rhymes from village children that remind her of her family history:

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.

Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?

Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

This children’s nursery rhyme is used to suggest that Constance, Merricats older sister was responsible for the poisoning that occurred, several years ago at the Blackwood estate killing all the Blackwood family except Constance, Merricat, and their Uncle Julian who was left with a damaged memory. The villagers isolate Merricat from them by allowing her to be terrorized and taunted. Shirley Jackson also uses the rhyme to foreshadow the real truth being revealed as Merricat was actually responsible for the poisoning, not Constance who seemingly is responsible from the villagers’ perspectives.

The actions of Merricat are quite childlike when she visits the village:

“I played a game when I did the shopping” and “crossing the street (lose one turn)”

This imagery suggests she perceives the village as a gameboard. Just as if you make a wrong move in a game and lose, a wrong move in the village could be adverse to her. This also suggests the villagers to be opponents to her and a wrong move could put them at an advantage.

Shirley Jackson uses the first-person perspective of Merricat in this novel to show Merricat’s internal monologue which appears to be childish and dark. This hints that Merricat to be the true poisoner as internally she has very sinister thoughts and wants the villagers to be deceased.

“I wished they were dead” and “I am walking on their bodies”

This is repeated several times while Merricat walks through the village, highlighting her strong desire for this to be true. Her sinister internal monologue foreshadows the reveal that Merricat was responsible for the deaths of her family. This also emphasizes her desire to be completely secluded from society. She wishes this torment to stop but also seemingly wants revenge. The disturbing imagery emphasizes her gruesome and revengeful thoughts by suggesting she wants to walk on top of their dead corpses. In contrast characters in The Haunting of Hill House are secluded more psychologically. At the beginning and end of the novel Jackson highlights that the characters had to rely on themselves mentally to not be vulnerable to the overpowering nature of the house:

“Whatever walked in there walked alone”

This suggests that the characters became isolated psychologically and Jackson repeats this to show the circular nature of the outcome of walking into the house. The word choice of “whatever” implies that other things could enter the house not just humans such as supernatural beings. At various points in the novel Jackson has Eleanor repeat the line:

“Journeys end in lovers meeting”

This line is from William Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night and foreshadows Eleanor’s future, with her “journey’s end” being death and the “lover” she meets is Hill House.

Symbolism is a prominent technique used in both of these novels and repeated throughout them. Shirley Jackson uses the houses as symbols of imprisonment in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House to highlight the physical isolation of the characters to the surrounding environment.

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.”

The house is personified and is a symbol of isolation and disconnect from society. Just as insane means for an individual to be displaying irregular behaviors and being detached from society as a whole, this suggests the house exhibits abnormal qualities and is disconnected with the outside world. “Holding darkness within” implies the house has something evil contained within its walls, which is also confined to the space.

“The gates are locked. Hill house has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away… killed at the end of the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree”

The house is personified and suggested to be known for being overly accommodating and wanting people to stay, which could be a reflection on family. Eleanor had spent a lot of her life caring for her mother and wanting freedom. Just as gates enclose a space and keep people from getting in an enclosed space, the gates could also be used to keep people in. The house has also been a place for catastrophe in the past due to someone trying to leave, this foreshadows Eleanor’s death because she was forced to leave, because of the negative psychological effects the environment had on her.

After the Blackwood House mostly burns down due to the fire caused by Merricat, the two sisters reside in the remaining rooms. The villagers who visit regularly to bring food comment on the house’s devastated appearance:

“Now it looks like a tomb”

Just as a tomb is where corpses lay and slowly rot, this emphasizes all the death that has occurred in the Blackwood House over a period of time, with the poisonings and Uncle Julian due to the fire. Tombs are also confined spaces and closed off to the outside world, which suggests the house is isolated and the sisters are separated from society.

The moon is a reoccurring symbol repeated in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it is representative of Merricat’s dream life of complete isolation:

“On the moon, we wore feathers in our hair, and rubies on our hands. On the moon, we had gold spoons”

Just as the moon is known to be a non-inhabited area with no contact to Earth, this suggests Merricat wishes to be away from the life surrounding her and the villagers. This dream is quite childlike and unrealistic. The most prominent part of her wish to live on the moon is the isolation that the moon would provide. 

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Shirley Jackson`s The Haunting of Hill House: Feelings of Being an Outsider and Agoraphobia. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from
“Shirley Jackson`s The Haunting of Hill House: Feelings of Being an Outsider and Agoraphobia.” GradesFixer, 24 May 2022,
Shirley Jackson`s The Haunting of Hill House: Feelings of Being an Outsider and Agoraphobia. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 Aug. 2022].
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