A Complete and Separate Thing

There’s a paragraph in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that stubbornly lodged itself in my craw a little more than a year ago, and I have been unable to unstick it since. I’ve tried a few times to explain to friends why this paragraph has been bouncing around in my head, but I have mostly just gotten blank stares in response. So I’m going to try again, at length, and in a piece of writing on the Internet, so that I’m not cornering anyone at the bar to expound on my Weird Book Thoughts.

Here’s the paragraph:

“Eleanor found herself unexpectedly admiring her own feet. Theodora dreamed over the fire beyond the tips of her toes, and Eleanor thought with deep satisfaction that her feet were handsome in their red sandals; what a complete and separate thing I am, she thought, going from my red toes to the top of my head, individually an I, possessed of attributes belonging only to me. I have red shoes, she thought-that goes with being Eleanor; I dislike lobster and sleep on my left side and crack my knuckles when I am nervous and save buttons. I am holding a brandy glass which is mine because I am here and I am using it and I have a place in this room. I have red shoes and tomorrow I will wake up and I will still be here.

‘I have red shoes,’ she said very softly, and Theodora turned and smiled up at her.”

The Haunting of Hill House, 60

(Okay, yes, that’s technically two paragraphs.)

First: I promise this isn’t a feet thing.

Second, context: Eleanor Vance, the protagonist of Hill House, is a 32-year-old single woman who lives in her sister’s spare room, and who spent the last 11 years of her life taking care of her dying and abusive mother. Now that her mother is dead, she is listless, and at the start of the novel, she has answered a letter inviting her to stay in a purportedly haunted house for a few days. It’s still early in their stay at this point, and little-to-nothing overtly supernatural has happened, and Eleanor is possibly happier now than she has ever been in her life.

But context, here, is about more than just what’s happened in the book so far. Falling in love with a book is much like falling in love with a person, in that it’s maybe as much about who you are and where you are in your life as it is about the person or book you’re falling in love with.

I first read this paragraph last July, a few weeks after my 29th birthday. I was sitting on a couch in the beautiful home in Minneapolis I had purchased with my wife only five months before. My wife and I had since decided to get divorced. More accurately, my wife had decided to divorce me, and I had decided to stop trying to convince her otherwise. For the last four months, she had been oscillating about whether or not she wanted a divorce, and every time previously she had lit temporarily on wanting a divorce, I had tried to argue that was the wrong choice, while doing my best to respect her decision, if it really was her decision. But after that last fight, when she said “so I guess we really should get divorced,” I gave up, and said “I suppose you’re right.”

I’m not going to get into any more detail than that, because the circumstances are not all that relevant, and because it’s not really any of your business. But suffice to say that she wanted a divorce, and I didn’t. She had some good reasons, and she had some bad reasons, and only God above knows what the final balance there is. Both sets of reasons had been building up for years, and the catalyst that set the final closure in motion (which was my fault, to be clear) is not really that interesting, and the truth of it is simultaneously less scandalous and more embarrassing than whatever it is you’re imagining.

What matters here is that I read about the psychological disintegration of Eleanor Vance as I was experiencing a psychological disintegration of my own. My now ex-wife and I had dated throughout most of college and gotten married immediately afterwards (I was not quite yet 21), and stayed together through two cross-country moves, three advanced degrees, and just really a host of sudden family deaths. Now, eight years later, we were done, and I had absolutely no idea who or what I was as a single human being, rather than as one half of a unit.

“Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends. This was owing largely to the eleven years she had spent caring for her invalid mother, which had left her with some proficiency as a nurse and an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking. She 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.”

Hill House, 3

One of the things I admire most about Shirley Jackson’s writing is that she doesn’t often hide the ball. Many of her books have mysteries at their core, and she can be a very subtle writer, but she doesn’t seem to believe in wasting time. “Show, don’t tell,” says the mantra, but the mantra, like all mantras, is only right some of the time. Jackson frequently looks the reader square in the eye and explains exactly what’s happening, so we can move on from the boring preliminary material and get to what actually matters.

Her initial description of Eleanor is far from the only time Jackson dispenses with pleasantries and gets to the heart of the matter in Hill House. Hill House itself is “not sane,” a place of “despair,” “without kindness,” and “not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.” (Hill House, 1 and 24). Trust me on this, Shirley says: Eleanor is a sad and shy person who hated her mother and doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life, and Hill House is evil. What’s interesting is what happens when the one comes to the other, not how they got there.

Eleanor feels some amount of guilt about her mother’s death. At one point, apropos of very little, she tells her compatriots that her mother’s death was her fault:

“‘It was my fault my mother died,’ Eleanor said. ‘She knocked on the wall and called me and called me and I never woke up. I ought to have brought her the medicine; I always did before. But this time she called me and I never woke up. . . . I’ve wondered ever since if I did wake up. If I did wake up and hear her, and if I just went back to sleep. It would have been easy, and I’ve wondered about it.’”

Hill House, 156

I don’t believe Jackson ever gives us a direct answer as to whether Eleanor’s matricide-by-neglect was intentional or accidental. (To be clear, sometimes I miss subtle clues in books like this. Ruth Franklin, in her biography of Jackson, briefly chastises a critic for not recognizing that a major character in Hangsaman is a figment of the protagonist’s imagination. Alas, I, too, didn’t pick that up. In my defense, Hangsaman is a really weird book, and gets particularly disorienting towards the end. Nevertheless, I like it immensely. (Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, 301)) But regardless, the first real thing Eleanor does after her mother’s death, which is also really the first thing she’s ever done on her own as an adult, is go live in a haunted house for a few days as part of a mysterious pseudoscientific expedition.

She’s thrilled, even after strange and horrible things start happening. After their first night, where they are haunted by knocking noises, phantom dogs, and mysterious laughter, Eleanor wakes up “unbelievably happy.” “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,” she thinks. (Hill House, 100). She only really becomes unhappy once it is clear that Hill House is singling her out for special treatment, and the other ghostbusters become nervous about her accordingly.

All these later happenings are prefigured in the paragraph I’m in love with. The crux of the thought is this line: “What a complete and separate thing I am, she thought.” Everything else in the paragraph is essentially just unpacking that line. Eleanor believes she is complete, and that she is independent; she is discrete, in the mathematical sense, and she is astonished by this.

It isn’t true, of course. Most of the rest of the book is dedicated to showing how incomplete Eleanor really is, and how terrified she is of being truly separate from other people. She attaches herself to people in such an immediate and inappropriate way that they have no idea how to respond. She tells Theodora, the other woman in their party, that she’s going to go back and live with her after this is all over, to which Theodora responds that she is not in the habit of taking in stray cats. Eleanor persists, and Theodora, exasperated, asks her if she always goes where she’s not wanted. “Eleanor smiled placidly. ‘I’ve never been wanted anywhere,’ she said.” (Hill House, 154).

By the time Eleanor is admiring her feet by the fire, we’ve already realized she should make us uneasy. We’ve seen her flagrantly lie about her life to the other ghostbusters, and we watched her spend the entire drive to Hill House fantasizing wildly about alternative fairy-tale futures held in the houses she sees on the road.

Most important is a scene in a restaurant, while she’s still en route to Hill House, where Eleanor sees a little girl refusing to drink her milk. At home, the little girl has a cup painted with little stars in it, and the girl refuses to drink from anything but her “cup of stars.” She wants her cup of stars. “Indeed yes,” Eleanor thinks, “indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.” Later, she silently urges the little girl to “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. . . .” (Hill House, 14–15).

Eleanor clearly never had a cup of stars or anything like it. She resents that absence of idiosyncrasy or detail so much that all it takes is a pair of red sandals and a faintly courteous evening in a haunted house to make her feel alive and unique for the first time in her life.

“I have red shoes-that goes with being Eleanor,” she thinks, clearly trying that idea on for size. Will this new Eleanor be the sort of person who habitually wears red shoes? Just 27 pages earlier she chastised herself for having the temerity to buy these red shoes, and now she has made them a core part of her identity. (“Serves me right anyway, she thought, for wanting to wear such things; I never did before.” (Hill House, 33))

This is the way it works post-divorce, as well. No one could say I lack for idiosyncrasies, or that I ever did before, but now I’m faced with many strange new questions. Is this quirk or habit or opinion a thing of mine, or a thing of ours, and either way, should it be discarded or embraced? My ex-wife mostly didn’t like it when I grew a beard, but now I can do whatever I want with my face. But what is that, exactly? Now that I am a separate thing for the first time in my adult life, what do I need to do to go about becoming a complete one?

The crisis ends poorly for Eleanor. She’s deluding herself — she is neither separate, nor complete. Hill House possesses her, or she possesses Hill House, and when she’s sent away (for her own safety, theoretically), she spends her last moments marveling at her own self-determination, even as she realizes she may not be making her own choices:

“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?”

Hill House, 181–182

But sitting by the fire, looking at her shoes, drinking her brandy, Eleanor is surrounded by new friends and wondering if perhaps there can be a life for her after all. Perhaps she will not have to be defined solely by what has happened to her thus far. Jackson imbues this thought with all the joy and irony all such self-regarding epiphanies require, and she does it in all of one hundred and fifty-three words, and if I wasn’t already in love with her after the first paragraph (and I was), this clinched it. Whatever else I might be going forward, I’m madly in love with Shirley Jackson.

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