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The Haunting of Hill House discussion guide: Home

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Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson, 1916-1965, one of the preeminent authors of classic American mystery and suspense fiction, best known for her short story “The Lottery.”

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Discussion Questions

  1. 1.On her drive to Hill House, Eleanor passes an empty grass square, surrounded by majestic oleander trees. She wonders what building had been planned and never built in the center of the square and imagines that the lot contains an invisible castle. She thinks that she might break the spell on the castle if she were to walk inside the square, but she drives away without allowing herself to do so. What does this early episode reveal about her character? What does the oleander square represent?

    2.Discuss the reasons Dr. Montague chose Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke to stay in Hill House. The psychic phenomenon which they experienced does not seem to have made a great impact on them. How is this significant?

    3.What is the role of Mrs. Dudley (and, to a lesser degree, her husband)? How does her behavior influence various characters?

    4.Eleanor often tells herself that she deserves her newfound happiness at Hill House. What is the cause of this happiness? Is it real or an illusion? How do her feelings about both the house and its temporary inhabitants change over the course of her stay?

    5.How does Jackson establish a romantic triangle, given the social proprieties of the era in which the novel is set? (It was first published in 1959.) What is the significance of the song refrain Eleanor keeps repeating, “journeys end in lovers meeting”?

    6.Do you believe Eleanor was justified in feeling resentful towards the others for treating her like a hysterical female? Or do you believe the others in the party saw something in Eleanor that alarmed them? Justify your position with examples from the story.

    7.Did Eleanor intentionally let her mother die, or is she merely suffering from bereavement and a mistaken feeling guilt? Cite examples from the story that support your point of view.

    8.Discuss the differences in the methods Dr. and Mrs. Montague use to study the paranormal. Which approach, if any, do you believe is most successful? Why?

    9.Why does Mrs. Montague believe that a loving attitude is more effective in a haunted house than a fearful one?

    10.The planchette is similar to the ouija board; it is a method of communicating with spirits from beyond through the process of automatic writing. What do you make of the planchette’s messages to Eleanor?

    11.The house itself seems to be speaking at some points, but the spirits in the house are never explicitly defined. How does this affect the reader’s perception of events?

    12.While The Haunting of Hill House is told in the third person, by an omniscient narrator, the point of view throughout the novel is almost exclusively Eleanor's. Is her viewpoint reliable?

    13.It seems clear that we are meant to believe the reality of the physical manifestations of Hill House’s “possession” by otherworldly forces, as many of the phenomena are witnessed by two or more people, whereas many authors would have left the reality of these events ambiguous. What do you make of Jackson’s decision?

  2. Do you see Hill House's horrors as being different for its male and female inhabitants? If yes, then what differences did you notice, and how do they suggest the novel's take on gender issues? If no, explain why you don't see any differences, and what this equal-opportunity terror has to say about gender in the novel?

  3. Assume that the ghostly manifestations are the result of Eleanor's blooming telekinetic ability. What does this suggest to you about the character of Eleanor?
  4. The Haunting of Hill House was first published in 1959. What aspects of 1950s culture or society do you see the novel critiquing, criticizing, or commenting on? Suggestions: family life, economic disparity, descriptions of womanhood or manliness, or, hey, maybe even the Cold War.
  5. Imagine that the events of Hill House took place this year. How would the story, themes, and characters change to become relevant for our brave new(ish) world?
  6. Most Gothic novels are written in an ornate style, but Jackson chooses a simplistic style with a conversational word choice. What does it add to this harrowing tale? Do you find that it detracts in some places? Finally, why do you think Jackson writes the novel in this style? Does she hit that mark successfully?
  7. While we're discussing style, how about we touch on tone? There are a lot of pretty funny moments in the novel. What purpose do you think these comedic asides serve in this horror story?
  8. For most of the novel, we're glued to Eleanor and her perspective. But at the very beginning and very end of the story, the narrative voice moves into full-on omniscient voice. Why do you think the narrative is structured like this? What does this add to the story? Does it take away from Eleanor's story to not have her center stage the whole time? (Check out our "Narrator Point of View" section if you need help getting started.)
  9. The Big One: what is it about Hill House that allows it to consume Eleanor's sanity so efficiently? Or, what is it about Eleanor that allows Hill House to consumer her sanity?
  10. Pop that popcorn and get a big gulp of soda because it's a double-feature matinee. Snatch up a copy of both the 1963 and 1999 versions of The Haunting. What aspects of the novel do you see these two films working with? How are they different from each other, and how do they diverge from the novel? Finally, write down the theme for each movie (a sentence or two). How do these themes compare to the themes of the novel, and what does this suggest to you?
  11. Adaptation Time. If you had a chance to adapt this novel into any other format, what would it be? Graphic novel? Video game? Facebook social media attraction? Painting? Get as imaginative as you'd like. Please remember to explain your choice and what aspects of the novel you'd hope to play with in your adaptation. How would you do it?

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