Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Anxiety to Author a Life in Shirley Jackson’s *The Haunting of Hill House*

            Referring to Foucauldian philosophy, feminist author Mariam Fraser states that “the author appears in discourse at a ‘privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy and the sciences’” where “the subject position ‘Author’ contributes to the production of individuality” (8, 9).  Implicit within Fraser’s arguments is the notion that authorship is not only an act of creation but an act that involves power relations and to be author means to engage in battle with previous discourses in order to make room for the author’s voice.  In the act of creating a text, the author also produces a self that is “both target and object of power” because “the speaking subject, as a discursive site, is implicated in the very same power relationships that allow the theoretical text to function” (Fraser 6).  This idea of power relationships that an author, especially a woman author, engages in is at the core of Sandra Gilbert’s and Susan Gubar’s arguments in The Madwoman in the Attic.  Expanding on Harold Bloom’s notion of “anxiety of influence,” Gilbert and Gubar describe and explain the obstacles that women writers face upon entering the world of literary discourse, terming the experience as “the anxiety of authorship.”  Gilbert and Gubar claim that while Bloom’s notion of the “artist’s ‘anxiety of influence’” illustrates the paradigmatic relationship between current and past authors, the model “is intensely (even exclusively) male, and necessarily patriarchal” (Norton 2025).  What Gilbert and Gubar point out is that Bloom’s model of poetic influence considers only the power relationships that male authors engage in; power relationships that equate differently for women authors.  According to these two feminists, “the ‘anxiety of influence’ that a male poet experiences is felt by a female poet as an even more primary ‘anxiety of authorship’ – a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate or destroy her” (Norton 2026).  This anxiety of authorship illuminates that “’inferiorization’ mark[s] the woman writer’s struggle for artistic self-definition and differentiate her efforts at self-creation from those of her male counterpart” (Gilbert and Gubar, Norton 2027).  The woman writer’s anxiety is caused by her having to struggle against the patriarchal culture and tradition that dominate the society and world in which she exists.  As author and person, a woman struggles to define a self outside of the prescriptive role imposed upon her by patriarchal ideals.  Thus, in order to gain authorship and succeed in creation, a woman writer must not only undergo the struggle for self-definition but must also redefine the ideals applied on Woman.
            The anxiety of authorship Gilbert and Gubar delineate is, in many ways, parallel to the anxiety encountered by the Female Gothic heroine.  In the tradition of the Female Gothic genre, the female protagonist is threatened by “the authority of a powerful male figure or his female surrogate” (Punter and Byron 279).  As such, the plot focuses on the female protagonist’s struggle against this authority and “her experiences are represented as a journey leading towards the assumption of some kind of agency and power in the patriarchal world” (Punter and Byron 279).  Agency and power equates to authorship for the Female Gothic heroine because her success against patriarchal domination leads to the creation of an autonomous self.  However, success is, for the female protagonist, practically non-existent.  As Gilbert and Gubar illuminate, within patriarchal society, a woman is represented as either angel or monster where a woman who defies the angelic role is seen as the inconstant monster.  In other words, female autonomy is viewed as a mark of monstrosity, which leads to the isolation and even destruction of the autonomous woman.  The similarity between the plight of Gilbert and Gubar’s woman writer and that of the Female Gothic heroine is apparent in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  In Jackson’s novel, female protagonist Eleanor Vance embarks on a journey to author a self, a life free from the domineering influence of her mother and sister.  Eleanor’s mother and sister function as patriarchal surrogates who limit and deter agency as they impose patriarchal ideals of woman on Eleanor.  Much like Gilbert and Gubar’s woman author who struggles against the male-dominated literary world, Eleanor struggles to author a self free from patriarchal prescriptions and limitations.  Eleanor’s struggles illustrate how authoring a self is much like authoring a text for the act of self-definition is an act of creation.  Hence, like Gilbert and Gubar’s woman author who must struggle against the misreading of woman by male authors, Eleanor must struggle against the definition of her as “angel of the house.”  In the same way that “the female writer’s battle for self-creation involves her in a revisionary process,” so too must Eleanor revise the role defined for her by her family and society (Gilbert and Gubar, Norton 2027).  And like the woman writer who seeks a model of influence, a precursor that will guide the revisionary process, so too does Eleanor seek a model of female influence that will help revise her socialization.
            According to Gilbert and Gubar, “it is debilitating to be any woman in a society where women are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters” (Norton 2029).  Male-dominated society expects women to be angelic beings creating a “cultural legacy of subordinate status and an imbalance between the care for others and the care for the self” (O’Grady 91).  Women are expected to take care of the family, expected to remain within the domestic sphere where her only concern is the maintenance of the home.  This expectation and imposed responsibility is a form of confinement, a trap that limits a woman’s agency inculcating her with the idea that her ideal role is within the domain of the home. The confinement is often guised “as an act of love and as a gesture of protection from a hostile world” (Allen 19).  This seems apparent in Eleanor’s sister’s insistence that accepting the invitation to Hill House is unsafe because it might expose her “to savage rites not unconnected with matters Eleanor’s sister deemed it improper for an unmarried young woman to know” (Jackson 4).  But confinement is really limitation that guarantees control.   Certainly, the home becomes Eleanor’s trap which “[owes] largely to the eleven years she spent caring for her invalid mother” (Jackson 3).  Living within her mother’s domain, Eleanor “could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair” (Jackson 3).  Eleanor’s life was limited within the domestic sphere under the oppressive influence of her mother.  Consequently, her choices were limited and the self that she knew is the one her mother had defined for her.  In other words, Eleanor was literally and metaphorically imprisoned.  Literal in the sense that the role of nurse forced on her keeps her from living a life of her own, and metaphorical, because this role prevents her from authoring a self.  Eleanor exemplifies how “limited social expectation creates limited personality” for, as she admits, “she had spent so long alone with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words (Spacks 39, Jackson 3). Eleanor’s self-consciousness and her inability to find words represent the silencing of women, the limiting of their authorial capability which works to secure them into the role of angel of the house.
            As such, the death of her mother is a celebratory moment for Eleanor because it signals her release from domestic chains and her chance to author a story of her own.  As a Female Gothic heroine, the death of Eleanor’s mother signifies her escape from the dungeon of Ideal Womanhood maintained by patriarchy’s female surrogate.  As a woman, the death of the mother signifies Eleanor’s chance at authoring a self without imposition and limitation.  As such, Eleanor views Dr. Montague’s invitation to Hill House as her ticket to freedom and her journey there as “her positive action” because it is the first autonomous decision she had ever made (Jackson 11).  That is, accepting the invitation to spend a summer at Hill House is, for Eleanor, the beginning of a new story, one that she writes on her own.
            Eleanor’s attempt at authoring her own story is evident in the novel on two levels; both within the narrative and the meta-narrative levels.  At the narrative level, Eleanor’s efforts are apparent in her constant daydreaming, her imagining that her journey will lead into a fairytale world where she will live happily ever after.  Repeating the Shakespearean refrain “In delay there lies no plenty,” Eleanor believes that the world “was a time and a land where enchantments were swiftly made and broken” (Jackson 15, 14).  While stopping for lunch at a Romantic country restaurant, Eleanor meets a little girl whom she tells, “insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again” (Jackson 15).  Eleanor’s constant drifting into the land of enchantment, of daydreams and of fairytales evinces her imaginative capacity as author; it illustrates her ability to try and create a story of herself.  Furthermore, her shifting from two different worlds, one of reality and one of fantasy, shows her effort at revising her current situation.  Eleanor is ready to take on a new adventure, an adventure which leads to a new world, a new life.  Bold and brave, she looks forward to a new definition, a new Eleanor.  
Ironically, however, the references to fairytales and Romantic pastoral scenes illustrate the domination of male discourse in society.  That is, the fairytales Eleanor alludes to and even the refrain she keeps repeating as her motto are examples of literature written by male authors.  In this sense, Eleanor shows how male authors do not only dominate the world of authorship but they also dominate as authorial precursors; literary models that are not sympathetic to the female situation.
 Eleanor’s tendency to rely on fairytales as the springboard for her own story emphasizes the problematic situation of the woman writer.  In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan claims, “We did not want to be like [our mothers], and yet what other model did we have?” (Qtd. in Greene 58).  What Friedan highlights is the lack of a model to follow, especially for women authors.  This lack is cause for the anxiety of authorship because as Gilbert and Gubar iterate, the woman author suffers “feelings of alienation from male predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors” (Norton 2027).  This anxiety is emphasized by the woman author’s realization that her “foremothers struggled in isolation that felt like illness, alienation that felt like madness, obscurity that felt like paralysis to overcome the anxiety of authorship that was endemic to their literary subculture” (Gilbert and Gubar, Norton 2028).  Hence, Eleanor’s referencing to male-authored discourse is evidence of her anxiety at creating her own story.  Metaphorically, Eleanor’s fear of authorship is symbolized by her fear to enter the library of Hill House.  Not only does she fear that space because its smell remind her of her mother, but because the space symbolizes the patriarchal culture of literature that she must contend with.   More importantly, this referencing shows how Eleanor, and women writers for that matter, must first assimilate with male discourse in order to negotiate and transcend patriarchal imposition.  That is, “she must be able to interrupt and transform men’s words if she is to alter her world” (Yaeger 159).  And thus, Eleanor must enter the library.  She must overcome her fear for it is the only way that she can become author of her life.
The anxiety of authorship that Eleanor undergoes, while seemingly evident within the narrative, is especially apparent at the meta-level.  As the narrative progresses, Eleanor’s voice begins to dominate the text.  This domination reflects Eleanor’s struggle to define herself in the midst of her company at Hill House, a group that seems to further represent patriarchal ideals, and her struggle to negotiate the haunted space which, as Claire Kahane claims in “The Gothic Mirror,” “functions as a powerful maternal imago” (341).  Eleanor, in authoring a self, must resist the patriarchal trap.  She must resist the paternal figure of Dr. Montague and the brotherly assistance of Luke as they treat her like a delicate flower that must be handled gently.  Even Theo, who may appear like a feminist, is a threat to Eleanor’s developing self as she treats the latter like a daughter that must be tended with care.  While Theo’s social orientation might seem different than Eleanor’s mother and sister, she functions in the same role as a patriarchal surrogate as she imposes on Eleanor’s decisions.  Furthermore, Theo has a debilitating effect on Eleanor because she belittles Eleanor’s capability as a person and makes fun of Eleanor’s story.  Theo represents the apathetic audience of the woman author who, despite being a woman herself, does not support the efforts of her sisters. 
Eleanor, most of all, must resist the trap that Hill House represents.  As a haunted space, it symbolizes another domestic dungeon that threatens her autonomy.  As a patriarchal home, Hill House is manifestation of the threat of male authority and domination.  But most of all, Hill House reminds Eleanor of her experience under the patriarchal surrogacy of her mother.  This threatening reminder literally appears on the walls of the house.  As Eleanor reads the message “ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR written in shaky red letters on the wallpaper,” she is overcome with guilt for leaving the maternal domain.  Eleanor’s guilt is driven by several factors.  Firstly, by what she believes as her role in her mother’s death.  But more importantly, by her declaration of autonomy which, in the eyes of patriarchal society, is a monstrous act.  Gilbert and Gubar explain that “in patriarchal culture, female speech and female ‘presumption’ – that is, angry revolt against male domination – are inextricably linked and inevitably daemonic” (Literary Theory 823).  Eleanor’s guilt and the reactions of her fellow paranormal researchers toward her illustrate how “men view the smallest female steps toward autonomy as threatening strides that will strip them of all authority, while women respond to such anxious reaction-formation with a nervous sense of guilt and paradoxical sense of vulnerability” (Gilbert and Gubar, No Man’s Land 66).  Eleanor’s fellow researchers begin to treat her a little more carefully, suspecting her of developing madness.  Eleanor observes, “[t]hey are all carefully avoiding looking at me . . . I have been singled out again, and they are kind enough to pretend it is nothing” (Jackson 143).  While the haunted writing should bring more attention to her, what happens instead is her companions begin to exclude her from conversations which signify the literal silencing of her voice and her existence.
Indeed, as Eleanor dominates the text, her voice begins to sound more guilt-ridden, more anxious, more doubtful and more hesitant.  Unable to tell between reality and illusion, she begins to sound like a madwoman ranting.  Her domination as narrative voice obscures the third-person narrator which seemingly signifies her taking control of her own story.  Eleanor exemplifies “the mysterious power of the character who refuses to stay in her textually ordained ‘place’ and thus generates a story that ‘gets away’ from its author” (Gilbert and Gubar, Literary Theory 819).  Eleanor seems to take hold of the agency and power that comes with authorship.  Defiant, she begins to retaliate and her thoughts begin to sound belligerent.  She will not be silenced and thus, she seeks attention.  Suspicious of her companions, she begins to spy on them, all the while thinking “[w]hen are they going to talk about me?” (Jackson 162).  Eleanor does not only want to have a voice but she also wants to have an audience.  Her involvement in conversation and her position as subject of conversation is, one way or another, confirmation of her creating a story that is heard, a story that engages discourse.  In other words, to be subject and object of conversation means successful authorship of discourse.
But as Gilbert and Gubar illustrate in The Madwoman in the Attic, authorship for a woman does not come without woes because “a life of female rebellion, of ‘significant action,’ is a life that must silenced, a life whose monstrous pen tells a terrible story” (Literary Theory, 824).  Such is the fate Eleanor faces.  As she takes up the metaphoric pen to write her story, as her voice takes over the text, so does her becoming demonic monster manifest.  Believing her to be overly sensitive, prone to madness, Eleanor’s companions decide to send her home.  Without consulting her, they make a decision about her future.  This reaction illustrates how a woman of action, a woman author is isolated from society.  Not only must she be silenced and ignored, but she must be turned away because her agency threatens the patriarchal structure of society. Eleanor’s authorship, however, does not only lead to isolation, but rather to complete destruction.  Seemingly no longer able to endure the brunt of authorship, Eleanor weakens and succumbs to the patriarchal influence that never stopped imposing upon her.  She confesses, “I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me” (Jackson 149).  She surrenders the power to author her life, the power of autonomy.  She succumbs with the thought, “No stone lions for me . . . no oleanders; I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside.  I am home” (Jackson 171).  In a final act of autonomy, Eleanor crashes her car towards a tree.  Eleanor dies literally and symbolically.
Eleanor’s death embodies Gilbert and Gubar’s notion of “[t]he ‘killing’ of oneself into an art object” (Literary Theory 823).  Her death and her subsequent disappearance from the text illustrate the silencing of her voice, the death of her authorship.  Her final thoughts illuminate doubt and hesitance about merging with the house, assimilating with the patriarchal influence that she had tried to defy.  Her fate symbolizes the fate of the woman author who, without a sympathetic audience that will listen, without a precursor to follow, and without sisters to fight the battle with, dies in silence and disappears from history.  Eleanor’s fate illustrates how the angel becomes a monster in the eyes of patriarchal society.  She does not only transform into a monster because she defies maternal influence and patriarchal prescription, but rather she is monstrous because she dares to have a voice and dares to take over authorship.  Her isolation, destruction and death represent the main causes for the anxiety of authorship.   Women authors fear authorship because its consequences are fatal to the point of complete eradication.
Gilbert and Gubar states that “[w]hether she is passive angel or an active monster, in other words, the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her, and the crippling effects of her conditioning sometimes seem to ‘breed’ like sentences of death in the bloody shoes she inherits from her literary foremothers” (Norton 2033).  Indeed, women are offered no choices in a male-dominated society.  If she is angel, then she is nothing.  But if she is monster, then she must be destroyed.  Certainly, Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House illustrates how these debilitating options render a woman powerless, no matter the situation.  The anxiety of authorship, of authoring an autonomous self is an anxiety rooted in the fear of destruction.  It is an anxiety of fighting a battle that has been lost many times over.  But there is hope yet.  Gilbert and Gubar believe that a path can be made to overcome the anxiety of authorship.   That path can be made through the “[recovery] and [remembrance] of the lost foremothers who could help [women authors] find their distinctive female power” (Norton 2035).  Eleanor does not have to be one of the madwomen in the attic.  Perhaps, resurrection may come in her visiting the dreaded library to become acquainted with the literary foremothers that lay in wait but not in silence.

Works Cited
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Works Consulted
Parks, John G. “Chambers of Yearning: Shirley Jackson’s Use of the Gothic.” Twentieth Century
Literature 30.1. (Spring 1984): 15-29. JSTOR. Web. 21 April 2010.
Rubenstein, Roberta. “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and Female
Gothic.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15.2 (Autumn 1996): 309-331. JSTOR. Web. 4 November 2009.