Walking alone together: family monsters in The Haunting of Hill House.
--Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (3)
Elaine Tyler May has observed that "the legendary family of the 1950s, complete with appliances, station wagons, backyard barbecues, and tricycles scattered on the sidewalks, represented ... the first wholehearted effort to create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members' personal needs through an energized and expressive personal life" (11). The energies thus expended in pursuit of such easeful fulfillment were, ironically, volatile, if much of the popular print and screen discourse from that era devoted to promulgating the sacralization of the nuclear family is to be believed. For in the media (if not necessarily in actuality) the iconic households that aspired to keep the outer world at bay were spaces besieged from within--"haunted" is an appropriate metaphor--by family members intent upon usurping complete control over the premises in pursuit of their own whims and desires, thereby undermining the communal basis of the familial model. Overly needy personal lives too self-seeking threatened to usurp all the family's energies unto themselves. Wise, authoritative fathers could become overbearing tyrants; affectionate nurturing mothers could become smotheringly manipulative Moms; and adorably lively children could become egocentric little monsters. The title of one of the many screeds of the time that sounded alarm bells about the perilous consequences of domesticity gone awry provided a concise bestiary of the trio of mythic figures that were allegedly threatening the nation's well-lit living rooms: Dangerous Fathers, Problem Mothers, and Terrible Teens (1958).'
Fittingly, it was the most imaginative and acutely observant Gothic writer of the postwar era, Shirley Jackson, who brought the family monsters spawned by fears of permissiveness and authoritarianism most arrestingly into fiction. Notorious for her disturbing parable about heartland American communalism, "The Lottery," she was also well known in her time for her sprightly chronicles of family life in a suburban-seeming small town. In those tales of modern parenting monsters are nowhere really encountered, except as vaguely hinted at by the titles of the two volumes in which the stories were collected: Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). The controversy over child rearing approaches and their consequences for family life seems to hover in the margins, however, and in her late novels it finds fuller and eerier expression as parents and children pit their steely egos against one another in a protracted struggle to dominate the family domain. Tellingly, those narratives feature literal casualties perpetrated by brawling, self-obsessed nuclear relations. The most significant casualty, however, is figurative. It is the demise (or at least debunking) of the idyllic family unit itself--and therefore of all that the era wished to invest in the domestic sphere and its defining project of "parenting." In Jackson's familial spaces filiarchy tends to reign supreme in that obsessive parenting, whether permissive or not, brings out the brattishness in children--and in the parents themselves.
The most famous of Jackson's novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959), conjured up postwar America's disturbing anxieties about the modern family with wit, acuteness, and a healthy modicum of dread. In Hill House, the opening paragraph solemnly announces, "whatever walks there, walks alone" (3). In conformity with Gothic narrative convention, the "whatever" appears to be unidentifiable, even with regard to whether or not it is a single entity or a plurality--or somehow both. "Walking alone" (as though on the prowl) connotes isolation, yet it may be what the "whatever" does in oxymoronic togetherness, or by way of some bizarre familial pact arrived at by disparate clashing wills. For Hill House is a home site that shelters and nurtures no ordinary family, but rather, one riven by variations of the solipsistic self-centeredness of the spoiled child. Certainly it is haunted by ghosts, the liminal undead traditionally endemic to Gothic narrative; but its undead are Addams Family undead who constitute, in effect, an unfamily. Together they do walk alone, attempting to impose their personal fantasies and demands upon the communal domain. Therein lies the more unsettling horror of the house, and of the novel, for its far reaching implication is the possibility that the hungry singularity of the child may well be a restive presence in even the ostensibly sunny, normative American households of its time, insinuating itself even into the souls of the parents. Hill House, frighteningly, is no model home; and yet, more frighteningly, it may well be.
Contextualizing Hill House; Family Monsters in the Postwar Era
Powerful fathers, of course, had been figures of dread in previous eras and in other cultures, and they remained daunting presences in mid-century America's imagination. "The 1950s," Steven Greydanus has observed, "are popularly remembered as the age of the omnipotent patriarch." Film and television Dads were ordinarily characterized sympathetically as kind and reasonable rulers of the domestic space, but strict rulers nonetheless. The potential dark side of their patriarchal might occasionally found expression in popular narratives such as the film Forbidden Planet (1956) in which the other-worldly monster turns out to be a father with a voracious and incestuously inclined id. But as the century progressed, the familial dominance of the patriarch was becoming a shared and even contested privilege, as the widely reported spectre of the obsessively manipulative mother became prominent (van den Oever 5-37; Aidenbaum 1-16). Popular writers and psychologists professed great concern over the damage wrought upon society by this devouring Gothic presence--most notably novelist Philip Wylie, whose fulminations in his best selling 1942 diatribe Generation of Vipers had provided a label for the alleged phenomenon: "Momism." Such was the prevalence of the "Momism" obsession, in print discourse at least, that only a few years after the appearance of Wylie's book Erik Erikson could refer casually to a latterly emerging "literary sport in books decrying the mothers of this country as 'Moms' and as a 'generation of vipers'" (248). The figure appeared in many popular narratives as well. The most famous fictional incarnations of the Wylie "Mom" were Norman Bates's mother in Robert Bloch's 1959 thriller Psycho, who was immortalized a year later in the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, and the power mongering Mrs. Cheney who sacrifices her son's soul for the sake of her own political ambition in Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1959). (2)
However, it was children--offspring of every stage from infancy through adolescence--who were routinely seen as harboring and embodying the disruptive energies of individualism, as the society's veneration of them was understood to adversely affect the entire familial model. "The Twentieth Century," Peter N. Steams notes, "once rated 'the century of the child,' became rather a century of anxiety about the child and about parents' own adequacy" (1). It was a trajectory that reached an apex in the decades immediately following the Second World War with the much publicized introduction of "permissive" modes of child rearing inspired by the popularity of Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care (1944). (3) By the 1950s, "parenting"--significantly, the term was coined in the postwar era--had become a controversial and very popular topic in the mainstream media. For the permissive approach, though very much in the spotlight, did not go uncontested. It was frequently challenged by adherents of stricter methods later termed "authoritarian" (Scheidegger 6) but usually thought of at the time as traditional, for whom permissiveness and the increased centricity of the child in the family and the larger society conjured up visions of progeny running riot (Cross 192-94). To interested parents not committed to one approach or the other, it must have seemed as though pitfalls and monstrosities lay lurking in both directions. Apprehensiveness about the consequences of too much permissiveness conjured up visions of the unruly child wreaking havoc within the home, and anxiety about the effects on the child of strict authoritarianism was embodied in the figure of the tyrannical parent who might pervert or scar vulnerable young psyches.
The stakes were high in the debate, it appeared: nothing less than the future of America as a society hung in the balance. A Boston judge may have been untypical in the extremity of his dystopian rhetoric when he opined that "we have the spectacle of an entire city terrorized by one-half of one per cent of its residents. And the terrorists are children" (Miller and Nowak 280). But his bald claim that the very stability of the society was at risk from ill-disciplined youngsters echoed an assumption broadly held. Thus, for example, the irrepressible Philip Wylie--still renowned in the '50s (and in some quarters respected) as "Mom's" chief castigator--rang alarm bells in a 1955 article entitled "Child Monarchy in America?" that appeared in the widely circulated Reader's Digest. (4) Even the respected scholar Max Lemer, in his grandiosely conceived overview of the national culture America as a Civilization (1957), wrote that "American overconcentration on the child" (566) often resulted in domestic arrangements that verged upon constituting "a child-centered anarchy" (568). The prevalence of such Paul Revere cries of alarm in popular media provide solid grounds for Ann Hulbert's comment that "from little devils refusing to go to bed and big 'delinquents' painting the town red (two symptomatic youth problems of the 1950s), alarmed Americans feared it was a slippery road to reds under the bed" (244). Thus, as Deborah Wasserman comments, "the promotion of democracy became framed in the language of children's personality formation" (5). Parenting--especially bad parenting--was political.
Thus, while Spockian "permissiveness" may have provoked the national debate on child rearing, it was the authoritarians' dystopian nightmare--the vision of modernity's children as anarchic self-centered beings bereft of any limiting sense of affiliation with others--that served as the media's favored catalytic trope. And it was, at bottom, a very Gothic conception if the rhetoric often employed in popular discussions of it is any indication. Mary Cable, in her history of child rearing in America, cites the revealing titles of some popular books of the postwar period that registered the apprehensiveness provoked by the prospect of children insufficiently regulated: Don't Be Afraid of Your Child, Parents on the Run, and The Child Worshippers (18384). Dread of little monsters in the home and resentment over the degree to which what was termed "filiarchy" had taken hold of everyday life (Oakley 123) begat monstrous offspring in numerous print and screen narratives. The most famous was a 1954 novel by William March entitled The Bad Seed that featured a homicidally inclined eight-year-old girl. As the narrative unfolds, the mother's awareness of her daughter's penchant for violence increases, as does her sense that the child is unreachable, virtually an alien being. The Bad Seed became a best seller and was transplanted onto the stage by Maxwell Anderson, with considerable success; a popular film version soon followed, as did further variations on the conception of the dangerously uncanny child. John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), Tom Tryon's The Other (1971), and William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971) are among the more well known, but there were many others. (5) In such figures postwar society confronted dark alter egos of its iconic free-spirited yet well adjusted child--what Joyce Carol Oates has termed "a mass-market harvest of evil, murderous children where none had previously existed; or, if they'd existed, had been too nuanced and ambiguous in their meanings, thus too difficult of access, to have emerged as mythopoetic" (16). (6)
Shirley Jackson took the controversy over "parenting" and its dire offspring seriously, and fretted over its implications and consequences. In her 1960 anthology Special Delivery: A Useful Book for Brand-New Mothers, a collection of lighthearted pieces by herself and others about parenting, she alluded to it directly in an essay entitled "Who is Boss?"
After careful study it is going to be clear to the earnest mother that the enormous propaganda on child raising in books, magazines, and even advertisements is being largely written by the babies. Baby is the boss, the articles point out flatly; first you are waiting for him [s/c], and then you are waiting on him. ... Perhaps this is because twenty or twenty-five years ago the going rage in baby care was exactly the opposite. Children who were allowed a little freedom of choice were going to be 'spoiled,' and the worst possible thing an anguished mother could do was pick up a crying baby.
"Baby," the subsequent context establishes, refers not only to newborn infants, but to children of any age:
In our family there is a sharp division of opinion on the question of the authority of the child. Our four children ardently support the cause of absolute indulgence, warmly seconded by their grandparents on both sides. My husband and I, bolstering one another secretly with reminders that we are firm, righteous, fair, stem although impartial, and beyond all else the heads of the family, have managed to fight the issue to a standstill somewhere between the two camps.... (67)
Though the tone is airily humorous, an underlying anxiety is decidedly palpable. "Bolstering" is necessary if parental morale and resolve are to remain strong yet supple, and parental authority seen to be credible. Parents living life among the savages and raising demons must strain mightily not to become what they behold in their offspring. If they fail, the home space will be rent with anarchy, perhaps rendered nightmarish. It will become a Hill House.
The Parenting of Hill House
The now familiar view that the psychological drama of The Haunting of Hill House traces the ultimately unsuccessful struggle of Eleanor, the focal character, to construct a unified adult personality in defiance of a voracious mothering force embodied by Hill House is compelling. (7) Any remotely responsive reading will detect the grounds for it. Early in the narrative the reader is apprised of Eleanor's longstanding hatred of her recently demised mother, the "cross old lady" (7) who demanded to be waited upon at all hours of every day. Her flight from the home, and from lifelong tyranny, is an effort at escape and autonomy. But as though foreordained, her refuge turns out to be a house that is, as she experiences it, virtually a maw. Shortly after her arrival Eleanor feels "like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster...and the monster feels my tiny movements inside" (42). Later, upon being awakened at night by a loud knocking sound caused, apparently, by the Hill House spectre, she says aloud, "Coming, mother, coming" (127). The words found written mysteriously upon the wall the next day spell out a distinctly motherly injunction: "Help Eleanor come home" (146). And during a subsequent nocturnal ramble through the house Eleanor says aloud, "Mother," and hears a voice answer, "Come along" (228).
Unquestionably for Eleanor the allure of the house, and also its horror, is bound up with the sense that it wishes to envelop her in a maternal embrace so comprehensive that her newly won independence and all vestiges of her individuality will be subsumed utterly. To the others she confesses confusedly, "There is only one of me, and it's all I've got. I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip and separate so that I'm living in one half, my mind, and I see the other half of me helpless and frantic and driven ... and I could stand any of it if I could only surrender" (160). Not long before her suicide she thinks to herself, "I will relinquish possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have" (204). The conclusion seems inescapable: ultimately, in a sort of reverse birthing (Lootens 158), Eleanor is absorbed into Hill House--or else, at the very least, the promise of a return to such amniotic oneness is the delusion that lures her to her death there.
But the sense that the old mansion represents a disturbing maternal space is not Eleanor's alone. One of the other guests/ghosthunters, the callow but perceptive Luke who is heir to the property, refers to it as a "mother house" (211), for example. In structure and decor a comprehensively Victorian period piece, the house has presented Eleanor with an appropriate locale in which to reenact and eventually succumb to the maternal might that had oppressed her throughout her life. As Luke further suggests, the embracing ambience of Hill House is suggestive of the nineteenth century cult of motherhood that influenced its founding patriarch, Hugh Crain, who conceived it as an enclave of familial communality dominated by Victorian notions of domesticity and femininity. Superficially, at least, the house is haunted by the tender, if cloying, idealized motherhood of Victoriana. But the decor is deceptive, for the overbearing mother that harasses Eleanor is not fully intelligible as a latter day counterpart of any of Hill House's previous maternal residents, Crain's three wives. That is evident from the narrative's dismissive lack of interest in them. They are hardly spoken of, and the little that is said about them suggests that they were so nondescript in personality as to have made as little impression on the house as on the narrative. The first died before even entering the house; the second suffered a mortal fall while in residence; and the third spent little time there (she traveled abroad extensively for health reasons). Subsequently, up until the arrival of Dr. Montague and his helpers, no mothers or stepmothers inhabited Hill House. Therefore its domineering maternal wraith is less a nameless Thing from a frightening past, as is the convention in much Gothic narrative, than she is a manifestation of what modernity has transformed motherhood into.
The matriarchal presence, that is, represents more than simply a projection cast by Eleanor's disturbed psyche. It incarnates and caricatures that figure alluded to earlier that was readily encountered in the public domain in the middle decades of the twentieth century: Philip Wylie's notorious "Mom." Eric Erikson, who was more discerning than most of his contemporaries in regarding the "Mom" figure as a "composite image of traits" (247-49)--a cultural construct, in other words--offered a brief checklist of its defining hallmarks. Several of those characteristics, significantly, are strikingly applicable to Eleanor's difficult mother. "Mom" is, for example, the "unquestioned authority in her home" (Eleanor always responded to her mother's demands without protest); she exhibits "determined hostility to any free expression of the most naive forms of sensual and sexual pleasure on the part of her children" (Eleanor's mother did not even permit brightly colored clothes or furnishings in her home, and she would have been "furious" over the pair of slacks her daughter has packed for her stay at Hill House); she is nonetheless "avidly addicted to sexual display in books, movies, and gossip" (Eleanor had to read "romances" to her mother); and while she "expects her children to be hard on themselves ... she is hypochondriacally concerned with her own well being" (Eleanor's mother appears to have been perpetually bedridden, and expected her daughter to attend to her night and day).
The novel implies that Victorian motherhood, so adulated in its own time, has survived and mutated into something more oppressive in the modern era. At the same time that the "Mom" figure is parodied, it is also regarded chillingly, as though somehow Wylie's misogynistic fantasy had identified something altogether too prevalent in contemporary life--even if, contrary to Wylie's anxieties over its effect on the nation's manliness, "Mom's" psychological voracity had turned out to be more of a threat to her daughters than to her sons.
But "Mom" is not the only thing that goes bump in the night at Hill House. The mansion is also haunted by a male counterpart--a sex crazed patriarch who had fashioned himself in the image of his omnipotent, possessive, and inscrutably willful God. Some of its most chilling aspects and phenomena are ascribed to this shadowy figure. The house was originally constructed at Hugh Crain's behest as a country home for himself, his first wife, and their two little girls. That wife never lived to preside over the household--she died before even entering its front door--and her two successors spent little time doing so. Crain, however, remained in residence for years, functioning in effect for unspecified periods of time as a solo parent. The house's smothery Victorian maternal ambience and Eleanor's "Mom" problem notwithstanding, the implication of the early history of Hill House is clear: it was, in its formative period, primarily the domain of an unbalanced and powerful male figure, an emanation of his bizarre psyche. Dr. Montague comments that Crain "made his house to suit his mind," with every angle ... slightly wrong (105).
Fittingly then, prominent among the dubious attractions of Hill House is a large piece of marble statuary that one of the group, the free spirited Theodora, interprets as a Crain family portrait dominated by the egregiously masculine figure of Hugh himself (108). She goes on to suggest that he may have used the idiosyncratic work of art to scare his daughters (109), and in striking corroboration of that speculation the group subsequently learns that fearmongering was fundamental to Crain's religiously based approach to child rearing. In this regard he is more representative of an older America than of his own late nineteenth century social milieu. A scrapbook he compiled for his daughter Sophia stresses dutiful subservience to parents and the spiritual imperative to remain untouched by worldly "lusts and ingratitudes" [sic], and it reinforces its pious advice with horrific illustrations, both graphic and verbal, of the eternal damnation awaiting those who fail to "hold apart from this world" (169).
Daughter, could you but hear for a moment the agony, the screaming, the dreadful crying out and repentance, of those poor souls condemned to everlasting flame! Could thine eyes be seared, but for an instant, with the red glare of wasteland burning always! Alas, wretched beings in undying pain! (171)
Such hellfire and brimstone is not what might be expected in the increasingly secularized America of Crain's time. The rhetoric seems more consonant with the fearful discourse of seventeenth and eighteenth century divines--Jonathan Edwards, for example, in his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon--than of the pragmatism and materialism that was taking hold in the late nineteenth century. And Jackson's novel, as we'll see, casts Crain as a nineteenth century parvenu obsessed with lavish display in the domestic space--a sort of lesser Vanderbilt or Carnegie. However, older evangelical beliefs and attitudes hadn't been eradicated by the newer social ethos in that era, as is indicated by the fact that at least one of the scrapbook cuttings was taken from a pietistic tome published in 1862.8 What the novel suggests is that in that early modern period Calvinist asceticism and the newer materialist ethos, with its growing emphasis upon permissiveness and self exaltation ("lust" and "ingratitude"), were powerful contending social forces, and Hugh Crain, engaged in a struggle to reconcile them within his own soul, projected his wrenching spiritual crisis upon the vulnerable psyche of his young daughter.
In doing so, he abused her. Not, so far as the text permits us to infer, physically. But the emotional invasiveness of his fearmongering rhetoric is unquestionably construed as a form of psychological ravishment designed to ensure that she and he "will be joined together hereafter in eternal bliss" (171). The incestuous implications of that phrase and others that are similar are spectacularly underscored by one of the accompanying illustrations. The scrapbook incorporates visual representations of all the seven deadly sins, but it is the apparently highly graphic illustration of lust, drawn by Crain himself, that the twentieth century ghost hunters find most eye-catching:
'Here is lust,' Luke said. 'Was ever woman in this humor wooed?'
'Good heavens,' said the doctor. 'Good heavens.'
'He must have drawn it himself,' Luke said.
'For a child?' The doctor was outraged. (170)
The "woman" alluded to in Luke's sardonic remark is, in likelihood, a figure in the drawing. But she is also Crain's young daughter, for the comment also, in conjunction with the doctor's responses, implies that the purpose of his sanctimonious pornography was to "woo" her--to inform her about and inflame her with the forbidden impulses. The prescient Theodora, cast as a sexually liberated modern young woman--she shares an apartment with a "friend," gender unspecified--as well as something of a mind reader, spells out this inference when she comments that she is certain that he read the scrapbook injunctions to his young daughter, "'spitting out the words so they would take root in her little mind'" (171). She goes on to call him a "dirty old man" who "made a dirty old house" (171). It is as though he has infested the very atmosphere with his barely suppressed lust. The house is terrible in part because it provides a home for sexual perversity that is somehow seductive. Theodora herself isn't immune to the twisted charm of Crain's transgressive desire shrouded in sanctimoniousness. Previously she had gaily invited his spirit to dance with her--as the even more receptive Eleanor also does, later, when she is fully succumbing to the power of the house. As the narrative unfolds, sexual tensions felt by the three younger people become increasingly evident; the inexperienced Eleanor is particularly affected by them. If they are not made to seem sinful or inherently "dirty," they are certainly tainted by association with the words that Crain has spat in his daughter's ears, and, decades later, in those of the ghost hunters.
In the musty reaches of Hill House, then, calculating maternal possessiveness is compounded by overbearing paternal rapacity. In the hall just outside the nursery there is a classic haunted house "cold spot" that inexplicably causes spines to shiver. Hanging high in the comers overlooking the doorway are two decorative "grinning heads" whose intersecting lines of sight pinpoint that spot: "their separate stares, captured forever in distorted laughter, met and locked at the point of the hall where the vicious cold centered" (120). While the text does not say so explicitly, Dr. Montague's assertion that the spot is "the heart of the house" (119) carries with it the implication that the heads represent parental spirits whose insinuating stares are psychologically all-seeing, all searching. The two presences function as familial despots who are both conspiratorial and competitive, terrible mother and terrible father jostling for possession of vulnerable child souls. Each exploits filial love and conscientiousness as tools for his or her lust for dominance. Rather than striving to nurture the sense of family as a community in which each individual's personal whims and needs are interwoven with those of others and that of the family as a whole they engage in strategies of oppressiveness that exalt themselves at the expense of their vulnerable offspring.
And, parenting through terror, they engage in the modern evil of parenting terribly. That, more than their conventional ghostly fright mongering, is what is most appalling about them from an enlightened mid-twentieth century perspective. For when Eleanor reflects with sad sympathy on the plight of the Crain daughters growing up isolated in such an environment as Hill House, "like mushrooms, in the dark" (76), and when Theodora denounces Crain for psychologically abusing his child out of licentious concern for her spiritual well being, they speak the wisdom of modernity, in which intimidatory measures are regarded as psychologically damaging and must be forsworn in favor of close and loving attendance upon the child's needs and desires. As Daniel Gomes has observed, the sensational public response to Dr. Benjamin Spock's 1945 manual Baby and Child Care indicated that in Spock already prevalent "permissive childrearing methods found their master disseminator," and subsequently "the Spockian school of childrearing saturated American popular culture during the Atomic Age" (12). Parents Magazine, a highly respected journal which nearly tripled its circulation in the period between 1948 and 1963 (Gomes 13), featured many articles on "discipline" that stressed not only the negative consequences of corporal punishment with titles such as "I Stopped Spanking ... When I Found Out Why I Did It" and "Should We Go Back to the Woodshed?" (the answer was an emphatic "no"), but preached the inadvisability of almost any practices that could be construed as negative or intimidating. As noted earlier, in the popular media the danger of "spoiling" children was at times acknowledged rhetorically; for example, a piece entitled "Do you Spoil your Children?" cautioned against "giving [children] whatever they want, allowing them freedom to do as they wish" (Heller 23, 93). But the antidote to a child's recalcitrance in the face of parental supervision was often held to lie in a strategy of all-embracing familial warmth rather than in disciplinary tactics: "A child who is loved.. .will never be spoiled by the things you give him [sic] or the things you do for him. He doesn't need to make a bid for your attention by showing off, or not eating.... He's secure in the knowledge that you, his mother and father, are all for him!" (Heller 93).
Yet although Crain's ferocious and licentious mode of parental guidance and the nakedly domineering tactics displayed by Eleanor's mother are thrown into sharp relief by the narrative's references to progressive childrearing wisdom, the critique is double edged. Modernity's program of loving permissiveness is also held out for scrutiny in The Haunting of Hill House, and it does not fare well. Readers of the 1950s would have recognized as such an incident that dramatizes the new permissiveness favored increasingly in the "more child centered families" (Sealander 163) that is presented, strategically, early in the novel. Eleanor, lunching at a country restaurant en route to Hill House, observes a family in which parental guidance pointedly forswears discipline in favor of almost obsequious deference to a child's whims. A little girl refuses to drink her milk because she can't have it in her favorite "cup of stars," left at home. Her mother, rather than insisting, attempts to placate her with a promise and a plea: "You'll have your milk from your cup of stars tonight when we get home. But just for now, just to be a very good little girl, will you take a little milk from this glass?" (21-22). By the standards of the permissive approach to childrearing the mother's sugary negotiating offer would have been adjudged as, at worst, defensible, and in greater likelihood as exemplary. But the tactic proves ineffective. A mild objection from her father notwithstanding, the little girl is not forced to drink her milk and is allowed her dessert nonetheless; her contrariness is to be deferred to--"just this once" her mother says, unconvincingly.
The episode of the little girl and her milk certainly highlights, by way of contrast, the harsh treatment Eleanor experienced at the hands of her mother. But it also serves the purpose of anticipating a key point that is to emerge in the subsequent presentation of the nature and history of Hill House. The novel strongly suggests that the modern challenge to traditional notions of childrearing so widely in evidence in American society by the time of the ghost hunters' reoccupation had its roots in the Victorian era's "almost religious reverence for home and hearth" (Skolnick 52). Earlier, in the colonial period, parental supervision of children had been widely deemed to be a matter of breaking their wills so as to "vanquish their naturally evil propensities" (Skolnick 26), and they were regarded as figures of subordinate importance in the household rather than as centerpieces. The mid- and late eighteenth century, however, saw the emergence in many households of "a more private, affective tie between parents and children" as the socially endorsed family paradigm (Wall 86). And by the latter half of the nineteenth century a further aspect of the shift in the ways in which middle class society thought of children in the familial context had gained momentum: "the old idea that children were born sinful and depraved was replaced with the concept that children were basically innocent and loving" (Clement 40). As well, the vengeful Yahweh of earlier evangelist ideology and rhetoric had for growing numbers of believers metamorphosed into a divinity imagined as a "loving, caring father" (Clement 42). These were reconfigurations that had significant consequences with regard to notions of parenting. They meant, for one thing, that raising children necessitated especially close attendance upon their needs and wishes, a belief that is so engrained in modern thinking, with its emphasis upon "intensive childrearing practices" (Brady 99), that it is difficult to apprehend the degree to which it is culturally specific and relatively recent of inception. And they meant as well that the loving cultivation of children's inner wellbeing was not only no less important than providing them with the material means of existence, but fundamental to the very ideal of family life.
The imprint of Victorian domesticity upon Hill House is discernible not only in the mansion's billowy enshrinement of the cult of motherhood, but in its less blatantly evident receptivity to the era's then revolutionary stress upon loving attentiveness in parental relations with children. Mothers were of course preeminent in the domestic sphere, but fathers were increasingly expected to play an active role, and certain aspects of Hugh Crain's approach reflect the shifting and conflicting currents of his time. His conception of the fathering God was that of the fearful potentate of earlier centuries who ruled by might and dread; in this sense his notion of his parental role was distinctly backward looking. Yet he, though empowered by that God, styled himself as a contrastingly loving, solicitous father. The initiative he displayed even in conceiving of the project of the child guidance scrapbook signifies this, as is indicated by Dr. Montague's comment that it was a "labor of love" (170). As the book's author, Crain is also, as he himself stresses therein, the "author" (168) of the little girl's being, and she, by inference his more important labor of love, is enjoined to be secure in the knowledge that he is "all for" her. His watchfulness will serve as her lifelong safeguard in the face of the cosmic intimidation associated with the sternly disdainful father in heaven. In its twisted way, then, Crain's image of his fatherly role was a decisive departure from the traditional conception of the father as an emotionally aloof disciplinarian of inherently "sinful and depraved" children (Clement 40). Progressive child rearing in the modern sense it was not; but it was what modernity eventually found it necessary to coin a new term for: "parenting." In this regard it is significant that in at least one important way his effort to influence his daughter's behavior is oddly similar to the attempt of the mother in the episode of the child and her milk to appeal to her daughter's better nature. In both instances the appeal is to a state of goodness that, it is tacitly implied, all little girls aspire to preserve or at least enact.
But stern discipline was nonetheless the rule in Hill House. So when childrearing with modernity's distinctive infusion of permissiveness eventually attempts to set up residence in Crain's patriarchal domain, the consequences are initially comical, but eventually calamitous and tragic. Quickly upon taking occupancy the ghost hunters constitute themselves as a family. The middle-aged Dr. Montague's relationship with the three younger adults is construed by all as that of a benign father figure charged with administering a household of engaging, somewhat rambunctious youngsters. Like the happy close-knit families of postwar cultural lore, they gather together in the evenings for dinner and, subsequently, in a drawing room for chatty conversations and parental story-telling. "You are three willful, spoiled children who are prepared to nag me for your bedtime story" (69-70), he chides indulgently when they insist, against his advice, on hearing about the history of the mansion on their first night there; and afterwards, when all are finally headed for their bedrooms, he adds, "If any of you has trouble sleeping I will read aloud to you" (90). Although ultimately one of his "willful, spoiled children" will be shown to have been permitted altogether too much license for her own good, the doctor's play-acted permissive parenting is jocular in tone; he alludes to it in the manner of one who feels himself wise enough to appraise it critically even while indulging in it. His wife, however, a late arrival at the house, is a true believer in the power of amorphous "pure love" to tame a household's anarchic spirits. These are "spirits" in the literal sense, ghosts, and not living children. But she speaks of them and even addresses them as might a progressive parent who is trying to reach out to delinquent offspring. "Those who have passed beyond," she informs her bemused husband, "expect to see us happy and smiling; they want to know that we are thinking of them lovingly. The spirits dwelling in this house may be actually suffering because they are aware that you are afraid of them" (183). The key to regulating their potentially dangerous behavior, she goes on to stress, as though under the influence of one too many articles in Parents Magazine, is "purest love and understanding" (196). The novel invites readers to have fun at Mrs. Montague's expense, but there is an underlying tremulousness to the mirth. Theodora, who is surely, in the light of subsequent developments, articulating the narrative's own view, remarks to Eleanor privately that Mrs. Montague may well "blow this house wide open with that perfect love business. If I ever saw a place that had no use for perfect love it's Hill House" (198).
Perfect Love Business
Subsequent parapsychological tantrums in the house are spectacular and chilling, leaving little doubt that Theodora's comment articulates the narrative's own disparaging view of Mrs. Montague's (and modernity's) belief that effusive professions of love and understanding can assuage, and thus control, spirits out to make trouble. But it has a yet wider reach, for the quest for a mode of love that is supremely fulfilling has been from the start a fundamental factor in Eleanor's acceptance of the invitation to the Hill House project. In the introductory account of her life up to that point it is stressed that 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" (6-7). And from the outset of her journey, and throughout her stay at Hill House, what she thinks of as the "tag end of an old tune" (22) surfaces in her mind: "Journeys end [in lovers meeting]" followed by "In delay there lies no plenty." The phrase recurs repeatedly in Eleanor's mind throughout the novel, and within and without its Shakespearean context--the refrain is from Twelfth Night9--the implication is that the love alluded to is romantic and heterosexual, suggesting that Eleanor, a thirty-two-year-old woman who has never known such love, has set out to find herself a swain. Her bitchy sister had proclaimed as much in opining that Eleanor's eagerness in accepting Dr. Montague's offer means that she "is prepared to run off to the ends of the earth at the invitation of any man" (11-12). And at Hill House, as noted earlier, there is considerable flirtatious interplay between the three young people; at one point Eleanor and Luke, it is intimated, have either had a brief tryst or were on the verge of one.
Yet if in her proneness to crushes and abrupt shifts of affection she seems very much like a moody young adolescent, romantic love in the conventional, socially sanctioned understanding of the concept is attractive to Eleanor only as one of a variety of possible options. As the narrative traces her capricious emotional whims it becomes increasingly clear that on a fundamental level she just doesn't care greatly who her dream lovers may turn out to be, whether they are to be one or several, or what kind of love she will share with them. In the early account of her motives in accepting Dr. Montague's invitation the narrator offers a telling comment apropos of the sister's suggestion that he may be the sort who "used" women for some "You know--experiments, the way they do": "Eleanor had no such ideas, or, having them, was not afraid. Eleanor, in short, would have gone anywhere" (8). Indeed. And with anyone, or to anyone ... who might bestow love of any kind upon her. At various times she seems attracted not to Luke, the suave young bachelor, but to Theodora, in some instances perhaps sexually and otherwise in a more giggly and sisterly way. The perfect love she yearns for so blurrily need not even be amatory in any sense. Thus her extreme desire for all embracing maternal or paternal affection also falls within the range of the "journeys end" catchphrase's implication: the lovers who meet may be--may as well be--parent and child.
More broadly still, her beloved may be a group rather than an individual--the nuclear family thought of as a warmly embracing nexus of "lovers meeting." In one of the novel's most vividly rendered episodes, Eleanor and Theodora, somewhat lost in a wooded area of the grounds of Hill House, pass through trees and grass that have gone strangely translucent, giving the impression of "an annihilation of whiteness" (176), and emerge into a clearing where there is a garden and a family picnic in progress:
They could hear the laughter of the children and the affectionate, amused voices of the mother and father; the grass was richly, thickly green, the flowers were colored red and orange and yellow, the sky was blue and gold, and one child wore a scarlet jumper and raised its voice in laughter, tumbling after a puppy over the grass. There was a checked tablecloth spread out, and, smiling, the mother leaned over to take up a plate of bright fruit. (176-77)
At that point Theodora screams and shouts, "Don't look back" (177), and the two young women, panic stricken, run through the site of the garden picnic, whereupon they perceive nothing but weeds. In this extraordinary passage the family tableau, with its rich, sensuous coloration, is both idyllic and hypnotically treacherous. To attain it, to be that child in the scarlet jumper (so like the red sweater that is her one flamboyant article of clothing), Eleanor would have to pass through the annihilation of whiteness that is her death. That, foreshadowed, is what Theodora witnesses when she casts the backward glance she warns Eleanor not to emulate, and why she repeats her name and embraces her when the incident is finally over.
The phantasm of the family picnic reflects not only Eleanor's romanticized vision of the domestic bliss denied her in childhood and adolescence--her father died when she was a child and she was left to grow up with that demanding mother and mean-minded sister--but one of mid-century America's most sacred mythic configurations. There is now general agreement among many cultural historians that the era was, to an unprecedented degree, "a profamily period if there ever was one" (Coontz 24). No other area of experience, even that of heterosexual romance, was deemed a more suitable site within which to transact "perfect love business." Even fantasized true love, after all, carries with it the risk of shame or humiliation; it admits, that is, of complications and self-satisfaction thwarted. But the dream family of the postwar era was all harmony and fulfillment, emanating at most only faint and inconsequential traces of dissonance. Innumerable representations of it in the popular culture of the time attest to this: television situation comedies, advertisements and photo spreads in such widely circulated publications as the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies 'Home Journal, and, in written narrative, amusing accounts of blissful day-to-day domestic fuss by popular writers such as Betty McDonnell, Jean Kerr, and, as noted earlier, Shirley Jackson. "Family" in such idyllic tableaus and scenarios almost always meant, in the now familiar phrase that the postwar era found it necessary to coin, "nuclear family"--"the type of family," according to the anthropologist who introduced it in 1949, that America recognized "to the exclusion of all others" (Hulbert 208). Households inhabited only by parents and children were of course common in earlier eras; as Skolnick and others have stressed, "the closed domesticated nuclear family had been at the center of bourgeois life for centuries" (52).10 But in the postwar period the nuclear configuration became, in Edward Shorter's account, "a state of mind rather than a particular kind of structure or set of household arrangements" (205). It is the latter point that underlies Stephanie Coontz's otherwise very dubious claim that in the 1950s "the emphasis upon producing a whole world of satisfaction, amusements, and inventiveness within the nuclear family had no precedents" (27). Within the nuclear fold there was to be perfect love business. For Eleanor, the phantasmagoric picnicking family constitutes a bizarre familial version of la belle dame sans merci, that elusive beloved who is all allure but no substance, and who leaves the journeying lover withered and mortally stricken in the end.
Child at Large
The brief vision of the perfect family enjoying a perfect picnic is of course farcically incongruous at Hill House, wherein the ghostly familial regime is one of fractiousness, not harmony. Each of its disparate energies--matriarchal, patriarchal, and filial--clamors so strenuously for individual attention that it seems as though the entire cast of the paradigmatic nuclear family is rattling around the premises disjointedly, its nuclear aspect conspicuous mainly by its glaring incapacity to bind. Amid the clamor, and indeed even within the idealized fantasy if the eye-catching image of the little girl in the scarlet jumper at the picnic is indicative, one presence seems particularly importunate. Prominent commentators of the postwar period who attempted to critique the prevailing domestic ideology opined that America was becoming, as Richard Hofstadter put it, "the land of the overvalued child" (Sealander 171). Victorian society, as earlier discussed, had also advocated tenderness in parental guidance, and it too rendered obeisance to the figure of the child. In the twentieth century images of the sweetly compliant "good" child beloved of Victoriana certainly continued to abound in the popular imagination (as did, for that matter, images of loving mothers who in no way resembled the reviled "Mom"). What distinguished the mid-century myth of the family, however, was its inclination to subvert the very premise of childrearing by allowing, even encouraging, the children themselves to dominate--or so its critics opined.
There is no child--no living child--in residence at Hill House. But there is a child spirit, apparently, as well as a very immature thirty-two-year-old adult, Eleanor, who is a child at heart even though she struggles for a while to mature into an independent young woman like Theodora. Initially she seems neither spoiled nor unruly. Her upbringing, as we've seen, had been anything but permissive, and throughout her life prior to setting out for Hill House she behaved as a depressingly dutiful daughter, almost as an antithesis of the self-centered disruptive child of contemporary lore. As events unfold, however, it becomes ever clearer that such a being has always lurked within her. An early signal is the incident at the restaurant with the little girl and her milk. Discreetly observing the entire domestic scenario, Eleanor's sympathy is entirely with the child, who is behaving as she herself had never dared to: "Don't [give in], Eleanor told the little girl; 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" (22). Hill House proves to be Eleanor's own cup of stars. Upon her arrival at its door she is confronted with "a heavy iron knocker that had a child's face" (36), and the text draws attention in several subsequent instances to cupid figures that seem to proliferate within. The cupids represent an ironic testimony to the history of the house, which features two adored but psychologically abused Crain children who grew up to be quarrelsome, selfish adults, each of whom insisted on having the family mansion all to herself. It is a place in which restive, eternally unsatisfied childish insistence on having everything all its own way has established a claim every bit as intimidating as that of the maternal and paternal presences. That is why the nature of the haunt that stalks Eleanor and Theodora in the night seems confusingly both parental and childish. On the night when it first terrorizes them Eleanor initially assumes that it is her mother calling her home, but subsequently thinks "it sounds like something children do, not mothers, knocking against the wall for help" (128). On the second such occasion, hearing "babbling" and "gurgling," she is struck with certainty: "It is a child ... they have been hurting a child and I won't let anyone hurt a child" (162).
Eleanor's gradual descent into childishness marks The Haunting of Hill House as a sort of bildungsroman in reverse: she doesn't grow into adulthood, but rather develops her hitherto latent capacity for immaturity. Disturbingly--and tellingly--it is not wholly clear that the narrative encourages readers to regard her steady transformation into brattishness as regressive. While it is clear eyed and discerning about the suicidal implication of her vertiginous descent, there is a subtle insinuation that ultimately death itself is Eleanor's cup of stars worth insisting upon--or at least a price worth paying in exchange for the fantasy of abiding forever in an alternate domestic universe wherein a self-indulgent spirit may run riot. While she is both terrified of and attracted to all aspects of the haunts, increasingly in the course of her stay it is the child spirit that she identifies with and eventually seeks to emulate. Her childishly manipulative passive aggressive behavior is remarked upon by the others, who suspect her of being responsible for some of the apparently occult phenomena. As Julie Newman observes, Eleanor's cheerful remark to them at one point, "all three of you are in my imagination" (140), indicates "an incipient narcissism ... which would make self and world coterminous once more, assimilating all to the subjective imagination" (Newman 128).
Eventually, on her last night, as she goes dancing and running through the house to the refrain from an old children's song ("Go in and out the windows ..."), she feels she has virtually become the child ghost--become, that is, like a teasing poltergeist, skippingly elusive and amoral. In giving herself over utterly to the eerie nursery ambience of Hill House, she relinquishes her earlier effort at adult independence for a child's fantasy of liberty and license; haunted hitherto, she now aspires to do the haunting herself. At journey's end she goes to meet her lover. Hill House, in a fit of pique that brings with it the feeling of giddy transgressiveness characteristic of spoiled children: "But I won't go, she thought, and laughed aloud to herself ... they don't make the rules around here. They can't turn me out or shut me out or laugh at me or hide from me; I won't go, and Hill House belongs to me" (245). Family and household are to be pliant to her rampaging will, she declares. But the effort to transform herself into an almighty brat who will frolic eternally in a domestic Never Never Land is unrealizable in life, and therefore implicitly a suicidal impulse. This she realizes only in the "crashing second" just before the car she has deliberately driven towards the great tree on the grounds of Hill House literally crashes: " Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don't they stop me?" (245-46). Finally--very finally--there are no parents either sufficiently strict or permissive enough to save her from herself.
By the end of the novel Eleanor is acting like an anarchically inclined child nurtured by bad parenting of both the pennissive and authoritarian modes. Yet her behavior isn't merely a reflection of--and on--contemporary child rearing practices. She epitomizes a social syndrome that Jackson dealt with elsewhere in her fiction: the widespread desire to exploit the privileges of adulthood in pursuit of juvenile license. As noted earlier, both in Jackson's time and since a widely held view of postwar social arrangements has been that they were child-centered to a degree unprecedented in Western history. Much of her writing certainly reflects and comments upon that diagnosis and powerfully teases out an underlying implication that few other writers of her time saw: the socially sanctioned veneration of children--of modern children in their alleged childishness, that is--may be motivated primarily by adult envy. It is as though "parenting" had become less about traditional child rearing, or socializing children into adulthood, than about prolonging and emulating childishness. In a critical conversational exchange the ever-percipient Luke calls attention to a stylistic motif that dominates Hill House decor:
Perhaps ... the single most repulsive aspect is the emphasis upon the globe.... the lampshade made of tiny pieces of broken glass glued together ... the great round balls of the lights upon the stairs ... the fluted iridescent candy jar ... and an Easter egg of sugar with a vision of shepherds dancing inside. A bosomy lady supports the stair rail on her head.... (210)
What Luke finds disturbing about the ubiquitous globe imagery is, in part, that it represents the oppressively maternal atmosphere of the house, as suggested by the "bosomy" supportive statue. But if the term "globe" is associated with pendulous breasts signifying motherliness, it is also, and more emphatically, linked with the Easter egg, "a world contained in sugar" (210), as Luke goes on to term it. The comment targets Victorian domesticity broadly, but the subtler implication is that the world of make-believe immured within the stronghold of the family is a subjective fantasy realm, sweetly pitted against the human world outside the domain of self. A world contained in sugar is a child's daydream realm, suggestive less of a desire for endless confections than of narcissistic self-enclosure and power.
Jackson realized that it is the figure of the child, fundamental to the image of the family as a group, that has embodied that aspiration so vividly in modern times. Carolyn Steedman, in her study of the "strange dislocations" wrought upon social life by its relentless pursuit of solipsistic individualism, articulates eloquently the centripetal inertia of modernity's fascination with the childlike self: "The ideal of the child was the figure that provided the largest number of people living in the recent past of Western societies with the means for thinking about and creating a self: something grasped and understood: a shape, moving in the body.... something inside: an interiority" (20). Steedman's argument casts its net over the whole of Western society since the early stirrings of Romanticism, but its applicability to Shirley Jackson's fearful envisioning of the America of her time is striking. In Jackson's rendering that shape moving within the body, that strange Gothic whatever that prowls body-like Hill House, is more than merely an interiority; it is the childlike self, completely at home in its relentless efforts to be the home, to dominate the family and assimilate it unto itself. Like the idealized family units often on popular display in the postwar era, Hill House appears secure against invasion, decay, or destruction ... and yet something both familiar and alien haunts it: "within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone" (246). Thus the novel ends, with a reprise of its opening paragraph that is aesthetically satisfying but disquieting, as the closure is imprisoning and the refrain seems like a sentence that is to be reiterated interminably.
If ultimately the weirdness of The Haunting of Hill House has seemed to many readers uncannily familiar, then, it may well be because it is so suggestive of the underlying strangeness of one of modernity's distinctive nightmares about unsettling presences within its seemingly secure social framework. Postwar America, if many of its respected commentators and popular media are indicative, was a time, a place, a culture characterized by veneration, to a historically unprecedented degree, of the insular ego that aspires to replace communal and familial reality with a miniature household completely in its thrall. Where there should be harmony pervading the microcosmic home space there is only dissonance--the clamor of individuals intent on ruling while reserving for themselves alone the privilege of being unruly. All family members, whatever their ages or allotted roles, are spoiled, or wish very much to be; sheerest subjectivity--an atomistic "world contained in sugar"--is the prevailing desideratum, only thinly camouflaged as the ideal of the happy family. It is as though Philip Wylie's dystopian vision of a "child centered monarchy" in the castle of the American home has been realized, if not in social reality, at least in Shirley Jackson's most famous Gothic narrative. At Hill House--in The Haunting of Hill House--the family, the era's bulwark of togetherness in rejection of otherness, and its favored metonym for the society as a whole, has been infiltrated from within by imperious whatevers, walking alone together. Individualism, that cherished old American ideal, is now behaving like a child.
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
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(1) Cited in Cable 183.
(2) On the emergence of the figure of the possessive and manipulative mother--sometimes referred to as the "phallic mother"--sec Hulbert 204-06; Kaplan 107-10; and Wasserman 14-15.
(3) Spock's influence in this regard is legendary. Many recent scholars, however, point out that in his writings he often espoused views that were considerably more temperate than those generally associated with him. Sec, for example, Cable 185-86 and Hulbert 12, 229-55.
(4) Sweeping diatribes about the juvenile enemy within (often infused with a note of hysteria that seems, ironically, childish) continued to appear in later years. See, for example, John W. Aldridge's In the Country of the Young (1969), which claimed that by the end of the 1960s, and with no terminus in view, America "will have been dominated by children for almost twenty-five years. Ever since World War II the needs, values, styles, and demands of the young have been the major neurotic concern of very nearly the whole of our educated adult population" (xiii). Sec also Robert Bly's The Sibling Society (1996) and Diana West's The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization (2007).
(5) The figure of the monster child became a staple of fantasy fiction, for example. A number of the more well known stories in which it featured were collected in two anthologies edited by Roger Elwood and Vic Ghidalia: The Little Monsters (1969) and Young Demons (1972).
(6) In such figures postwar society confronted dark alter egos of its iconic free-spirited yet well-adjusted child. As Oates concedes with grudging vagueness, there had been some nineteenth century prototypes: the ill-behaved children of Wuthering Heights, most notably, but also Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, the enigmatic Miles in The Turn of the Screw, and the bratty American twins in Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost" that are archly alluded to at one point in The Haunting of Hill House. But there is an important difference: what had been imagined in the nineteenth century prototypes as a quality of psychological unruliness that inclined the children who possessed it towards troublesome behavior became, in the most extreme of the mid-twentieth century characterizations, a pronounced predilection for narcissism, malice, and self serving violence.
For a fuller discussion of the motif of the child as monster in the postwar era see Kathy Merlock Jackson, 137-54.
(7) See Rubenstein 136-37; Lootens 157-58; Newman 172-81; and Hattenhauer 161-62.
(8) An English Grammar (1862) by George Payne Quackenbos was actually a widely used school reader, as its title suggests. It was filled with moralistic advice and injunctions such as those in Crain's scrapbook. The phrase "honor thy father and mother, authors of thy being" is drawn from it directly.
(9) The passage from Twelfth Night (II, iii) in which the phrase appears enforces a traditional carpe diem reading that becomes ironic when applied to Jackson's story about a quest for love that can never be attained in the present, so must be deterred to the uncertainty of "what's to conic" beyond the grave.
(10) See also Demos 5-6 and Davis 16-18.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2014|
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