Friday, April 23, 2010

Final Paper Draft: The Indefinable Self and the Struggle for Meaning in Shirley Jackson’s *The Haunting of Hill House*

In his theory of individuals as homo-hermeneuts, Max Weber posits that “[l]ife should not be an ensemble of inconsistent beliefs and unconnected decisions and actions; rather, each life in its totality should unfold from the ‘inner core’ of the individual” (Chowers 70). The self, which Weber calls personality, is authored by an individual through struggling with and against external and internal forces. Only through struggle can an individual author meaning, taking the external and internal influences as parts of the continuous story of life. Indeed, life is a struggle and defining the self is an even bigger struggle, especially for women for whom an inner core seems non-existent. That is, to be woman is to be subject and object of a socially constructed ideal that is, at best, limited. This socially constructed image is imposed on women upon birth, before a time when, what Weber calls an ‘inner core’ has even had a chance to develop. Even if an inner core does emerge, it is already influenced, imbedded and manipulated with social and cultural ideals. Furthermore, the social imposition on and manipulation of women is perpetuated by the female examples that surround them; examples that have long been molded as the social ideal.
In their work The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar illustrate how the social and patriarchal dichotomous construct of woman, as either the ideal angel or inconstant monster, is the cause of anxiety among women who are trying to find definition. Specifically, Gilbert and Gubar talk about the anxiety in female authorship because “for the female artist the essential process of self-definition is complicated by all those patriarchal definitions that intervene between herself and herself” (813). These feminist scholars claim that to liberate woman, especially the woman author, “women must kill the aesthetic ideal” and “kill the angel’s necessary opposite and double, the ‘monster’ in the house” (Gilbert and Gubar 812). In other words, Gilbert and Gubar emphasize that, yes, life is a struggle, but for women, the struggle is specifically to eradicate the social construction of womanhood and rewrite a new definition of woman; to author a new story of womanhood. The struggle of being woman and finding meaning in the female self is the central conflict for Eleanor Vance, the female protagonist in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Liberated from the oppressive influence of her mother and sister, Eleanor embarks on a journey towards recreating a self. Optimistic about her endeavor, Eleanor imagines recreation as an easy and even, romantic process. However, haunted by the ideals imposed by her mother, ideals reiterated by the history of Hill House, Eleanor discovers that authoring a self means to struggle against those ideals that have become core of her being. Essentially, the struggle that Eleanor encounters in The Haunting of Hill House is the female struggle that Gilbert and Gubar delineate in In the Madwoman in the Attic. Like Gilbert and Gubar’s definition of the anxiety of female authorship, the anxiety that haunts Eleanor is caused by the dichotomous image of woman that must be overcome in order to author a life story. To fail in the struggle is to lose authorship, and for Eleanor, this means to metaphorically and literally be killed.