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Haunted Houses And Characters In Gothic Fiction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4801 words Published: 10th May 2017

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What makes Gothic fiction so frightening, yet appealing to the readers is its ability to shake the reality. A home where one should feel safe becomes a haunted house, a place of great evil and unrest. In the fiction of Walpole’s time, it was easy to recognize the evil that haunts the innocent. Modern literature, however, does not provide that luxury. In nineteenth and twentieth century literature, the reader must search for the evil, recognize the villain, and accept the possibility that there is no traditional evil or villain to be found, but that the evil is in everyone. The sublime transforms into the uncanny. This paper aims to emphasize the evolution of the haunted house and its involvement in the understanding of the stories and character analyses in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, James’s The Turn of the Screw and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

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Poe is one of the writers to change this tradition. Even though he retains most of the original Gothic elements, the castle does not provoke fear anymore, and the chivalric battle of good and evil fails to entertain both the reader and the writer; as a result Poe modifies the traditional and writes one of the most well-knows Gothic stories of all time.

Poe celebrates the traditional Gothic elements in his story: the large house that has been in the family for years, the mystery that needs to be resolved, the madness of the characters, omens, and even the choice of words that evoke a gloomy atmosphere.

At the beginning of The Fall of the House of Usher, the narrator explains his reason for the visit:

‘The writer spoke of acute bodily illness-of a mental disorder which oppressed him-and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady.’

Roderick Usher’s illness, to which he refers to as an “acuteness of the senses”, is so much more than that. As the story progresses, the reader realizes that Roderick is mentally ill, all the time tormented by fear. The circumstances of his existence are to be fatal for him; the Gothic elements in this story exist to terrorize both the readers and the characters.

One of those elements is the setting of the story, the House of Usher. It must be noted that the story actually begins with a rather peculiar description of the house:

‘I looked upon the scene before me-upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain-upon the bleak walls-upon the vacant eye-like windows-upon a few rank sedges-and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees-with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium-the bitter lapse into every-day life-the hideous dropping off of the veil.’

The house is described as dark, gloomy and isolated, making it a prototypical setting of a Gothic story. By opening the story with the house, Poe draws attention to it, making it more than just a gloomy setting of a horror story. Furthermore, the house is clearly anthropomorphized, both by the narrator’s description of it and by Roderick’s insinuation that the house is “evil”, which adds to an already great number of ways in which the story can be analyzed and understood.

To try to analyze the characters, one must start with Roderick and Madeline, the twins who share a rather peculiar bond. The narrator, however, the reader knows very little about. While the narrator interacts with the brother while trying to help him, albeit unsuccessfully, Madeline is seen very rarely, and even then she merely passes by, never acknowledging the narrator:

‘While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared.’

This makes the narrator an outsider, a mere observer of the story, and his sole purpose is to tell it. This further emphasizes the connection between Roderick and Madeline, since they appear to be the only two characters who take part in the story.

Critics have argued over the years that Roderick and Madeline are two halves of the same person: male and female, mental and physical, natural and supernatural. It is thus understood that one cannot live without the other, that is, Roderick cannot live while Madeline is dead, which is why she comes back from the dead for him. The crack in the house, thus, shows a severed bond between the two, or rather, one, which proves to be fatal, since the brother and sister die and the house crumbles.

However, there is an additional interpretation to this. A rather controversial understanding of the twins’ relationship is that it is of incestuous nature (Mautner Wasserman, 1977). The two halves of one try to reconnect, which is why the incest happens, and their death is finally the spiritual unification of the soul that has been divided.

Finally, the connection between Roderick and Madeline may even be clearly defined; Roderick tells the reader what Madeline is, and how they are connected:

‘I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect-in terror. In this unnerved, in this pitiable, condition I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.’

At the end of the story, Madeline brings about the death of Roderick. His explanation implies that Madeline is, in fact, Roderick’s fear. Madeline is, therefore, a ghost, an apparition, and the House of Usher a traditional Gothic setting that provides the claustrophobic isolation necessary for the events to take place; in other words, the house serves to intensify the fear.

To focus solely on Roderick, for he is the most prominent character in the story, it is clear that his mind is often centered on the house; his art, or rather, his paintings, mainly show the House of Usher. Furthermore, it is interesting that Roderick contacts a friend from boyhood to come to his aid; the two are not as close now, since the narrator explains that they have not seen each other for many years. This illustrates how isolated Roderick is in the house he never leaves, and how unable he is to connect to anyone who does not live there, who is not an Usher. The house is like a silent obsession, representing the focus of his mind. This isolation, as it is usually the case, further worsens Roderick’s mental health, since the setting is gloomy, and the house influences “the morale of his existence”. He does not leave the house, and he does not try to “break the family curse”, but he chooses to stay in it and with it. The house is a part of Roderick, or rather, a representation of him. The crack in the house is, therefore, a crack in Roderick’s sanity.

On the other hand, the notion of the house in this story may be more important than that of a symbol for the severed bond or mind. Since the house is perceived as sentient, it can be understood that the house is the third Usher, the third character, and the third part of the same soul. The house, thus, is not just a setting, but a character in the story. When Roderick and Madeline die, so does the house.

This house is not haunted by ghosts; it is rather the house that is haunting the characters. As already explained, Roderick’s mental health is fragile, and it keeps deteriorating throughout the story. The house itself only amplifies his mental deterioration, not only due to the isolation, but by the very design of the house: tall, old, and slightly dilapidated. There is nothing explicitly supernatural about the setting, there are no apparitions. Therefore, the characters are being haunted by the house; in other words, the powerful Gothic imagery affects the characters’ minds, thus making the haunted house a metaphor, a projection of the instability of the mind, and ultimately, fear.

The setting, some half a century after The Fall of the House of Usher, changes, and the characters evolve, because the reader evolves. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is even more ambiguous than the previous, and his emphasis is rather on the unknown and unsettling rather than on horror. The unsettling is possible due to the existence of the ambiguity; the reader is left wondering whether the Governess is insane or the ghosts she keeps seeing exist.

The Governess accepts the job at Bly, and it is implied in the text that she has feelings for The Master:

‘”I’m rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!”

I can still see Mrs. Grose’s broad face as she took this in. “In Harley Street?”

“In Harley Street.”

“Well, miss, you’re not the first-and you won’t be the last.”

“Oh, I’ve no pretension,” I could laugh, “to being the only one.’

Like Poe, James introduces the theme of love, which is to prove itself significant on the protagonist. Although the theme of romance is typical in Gothic fiction, both Poe and James use it as a device to create mentally unstable protagonists. Romance, thus, is not a means towards the happy ending, but the exact opposite. Love, in James’s case, is the downfall of the ghost of Miss Jessel and of the Governess; it is either the love for the Master or the love for the children that affect the protagonist.

‘I remember as a most pleasant impression the broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out; I remember the lawn and the bright flowers and the crunch of my wheels on the gravel and the clustered treetops over which the rooks circled and cawed in the golden sky.’

When first arriving at Bly, the beautiful, warm month of June seems to enhance the loveliness of the setting. The pastoral, innocent scenery is even more enhanced by the introduction of the children, Flora, and later Miles, who are said to possess angelic beauty. When it is mentioned that Miles cannot go back to school because he misbehaved, the Governess refuses to believe that Miles is bad.

On an occasion, while she walks alone, she sees, as she later realizes, a ghost of Peter Quint. As she begins seeing ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel, the descriptions of the setting change from joyous to dark and “empty with a great emptiness”.

If the children misbehave, she attributes such behavior to the previous caretakers. She perceives the ghosts as a threat; on one hand, the ghosts are the obvious antagonists, the embodiment of evil, and they are trying to corrupt the angelic innocence of the children and take their souls. On the other hand, she feels a strong connection to the children and cares for them, and sees the ghosts as a possible danger to her relationship with Flora and Miles. Thus, her only concern is to protect the children from possible corruption.

One can, therefore, make an assumption about the Governess regarding her role in the story. She is a heroine who tries to protect the children from evil, and ultimately fails, since Miles dies, and the reader knows nothing about Flora’s fate.

It must be noted that most of the story is narrated by the Governess. The reader has no reason to doubt the truthfulness of her words, for she never seems to be openly and literally dishonest, that is, she does not lie to the reader on purpose, but her writing and perception are very subjective and biased by her own feelings. However, one should search for additional interpretations of her manuscript. Furthermore, the reader knows, like with Poe, very little about the other characters; the protagonist is, again, the focus of the story. But more importantly, in James’s case, the reader does not really know that much about the protagonist either, apart from clues that are useful for further analysis, most notably the state of her mind.

There is, thus, another popular interpretation of the story, the one that seems more accurate to the literal interpretation of the events. James leaves too many unanswered questions and too many ambiguities, which make the reader engage in finding answers; it seems hardly likely that he is ambiguous by accident, and therefore, he wants the reader to make assumptions and look for deeper meanings.

The other interpretation is that the Governess is insane. As already mentioned, it is hinted that she, not only has feeling for, but is in love with the Master. The first time she sees the ghost of Quint she happens to be thinking of the Master, and, initially, assumes that it is him in the distance. However, since he shows no romantic interest in her, she sets out on a noble quest to protect the children from evil and thus earn affections of the Master. Conveniently, the evil does appear in the form of ghosts.

In 1934 Wilson argued that the Governess is a sexually repressed female whose inability to express or fulfill her desires drives her mad. Indeed, she may be a schizophrenic and the ghosts mere hallucinations, in which case, the various occasions on which the children misbehave under the influence of the ghosts may be just innocent child play, with no evil involved. Furthermore, no one but the Governess sees the ghosts, even though Mrs. Grose believes her for reasons unknown to the reader. Therefore, the Governess becomes the villain who threatens the safety and innocence of the children.

The setting, subsequently, plays a far more important role. At the beginning of the novella, the Governess spends the time she has left for herself to be alone outside the house. She feels more comfortable outside, and the reader feels a sense of claustrophobia in the house. As the story progresses, the entire estate, despite its vastness, gives the same sense:

‘The place, moreover, in the strangest way in the world, had, on the instant, and by the very fact of its appearance, become a solitude.’

The setting is very isolated, apart from the mentioned church, with very little contact to the outside world, which is not untypical for the Gothic genre. But this isolation not only contributes to the tension of the story, but makes the setting a tool that helps drive the Governess insane. In other words, the purpose of the setting is not only to amplify fear, but it can be perceived as a plot device. Miles’s death occurs in the house, and it is the culminating point of the story; what is not emphasized, and yet it is evident, is that the culmination of the story occurs in the house.

As in The Fall of the House of Usher, the house may have driven the Governess over the edge of sanity; the influence of the Gothic setting once again corrupts the fragile mind of the protagonist. The Governess’ unfulfilled desires materialize, and she is living in this materialization: the haunted house. Thus, it becomes impossible for the protagonist to physically fight the evil or to escape it; while it may have been possible for Roderick to avoid his downfall, the Governess’ failure is inevitable, since her demons would only follow her to the next house where she would see ghosts.

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The house, on the other hand, may or may not be literally haunted by ghosts. The haunted house as a plot device does play a significant role, but it is not as clearly defined as it is in Poe’s story, because, as previously mentioned, the ghosts may be real. Unlike Poe, James does not offer a clear answer. James relies more on terror of the unknown, the mysterious. But more importantly, The Turn of the Screw is far more realistic. The house is not so explicitly dark and gloomy, or rather, James does not emphasize it as much as Poe does; like The Yellow Wallpaper, The Turn of the Screw incorporates only a few elements of the Gothic setting, enough to make it believable and terrifying at the same time. The house may exist in reality, which is what makes it a very powerful setting for a horror story. The reader is able to identify with the protagonist, thus being much more affected by the events, which is to become a tradition in horror stories.

Another half of a century later Shirley Jackson whites The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson, as it will be explained, takes the setting and the motif of the haunted house even further and makes them a crucial part of the story. Like James, Jackson does not give definite answers, but she does take on where James left off, incorporating only a few Gothic elements, but enough to make a haunted house story that is considered the best of the century.

The novel, similarly to Poe, opens with the description of the house:

‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. 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.’

The first sentence of the book shows that Hill House does not exist in what is perceived as absolute reality, the reader must rather be prepared to accept the reality that Jackson and the house provide. With this, the writer cleverly tells the reader that there is a possibility, not certainty, of some supernatural occurrences in the novel, which will only add to the mystery and ambiguity.

The narration is not only third person, but, like in the previous two cases, gives the reader insight into the characters’ minds and thoughts. If modern psychology and psychoanalysis was hinted in The Turn of the Screw, in The Haunting of Hill House the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis is evident, since the characters on different occasions analyze themselves, that is, their thoughts and actions.

The characters who inhabit Jackson’s modified reality are Eleanor Vance, Dr. John Montague, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson, but the focus of this paper is primarily on Eleanor and her interactions with other characters and the setting.

Eleanor, or Nell, is a deep and problematic character. Like many complex characters in contemporary literature, she is an outcast, as are the rest of the characters of the novel, who tries to finally belong somewhere. Previous to her journey, her life troubles her:

‘The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.’

Eleanor took care of her ill mother for eleven years, thus sacrificing her own youth, and subsequently any romantic notion of a future with a family. When the novel opens, she is thirty two years old, and embarks on a journey that has the potential to change her life and liberate her. As an outcast, she is portrayed as incredibly lonely, with only one person, a stranger she meets on the street, “praying for her”. Hence, the repetition of “journeys end in lovers meeting” shows that Jackson, as well, connects the themes of isolation and love.

Eleanor belongs to this modified reality, as depicted from the insight into her thoughts:

‘Will I, she thought, will I get out of my car and go between the ruined gates and then, once I am in the magic oleander square, find that I have wandered into a fairyland, protected poisonously from the eyes of people passing?’

This, however, can be interpreted as her innocence before the events in Hill house take place. That she mentions fairyland only emphasizes the tragedy of her downfall.

While some critics say that Eleanor is romantically interested in Dr Montague, the novel shows two other possible connections. The first one is Luke, “a liar” and “a thief”. It is not clear, however, whether Luke manipulates Nell, since he does show some interest in her but subsequently dismisses her, or if it is Nell’s paranoia and a sign of her descent into madness. But more importantly, the isolation of the setting is transferred to the isolation of the characters. Professionally or romantically, they are alone. Hence, Jackson explains why people are lonely by showing the reader how Luke behaves. On the other hand, the loneliness, if it is paranoia, is the cause of Nell’s insanity. The other person whom Nell has an apparent connection is Theo:

‘Nothing irrevocable had yet been spoken, but there was only the barest margin of safety left them; each of them moving delicately along the outskirts of an open question, and, once spoken, such a question-as “Do you love me?”-could never be answered or forgotten.’

Again, just like Poe and James, Jackson seems to be ambiguous on purpose, never giving clear answers and solutions; it may be, nevertheless, concluded that Jackson did intend to introduce the notion of homosexuality in her novel, since the characters do share a special bond.

At this point one may ask what the purpose of the different reality in the novel is. First of all, it is hinted that Theo is clairvoyant. Secondly, Nell herself may be psychic, since on more than one occasion it is not clear whether the characters utter the words, or Nell reads their minds:

‘”I don’t know,” Eleanor said, perplexed. I was just talking along, she told herself, I was saying something-what was I just saying?

“She has done this before,” Luke said to the doctor.

“I know,” said the doctor gravely, and Eleanor could feel them all looking at her. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Did I make a fool of myself? It’s probably because I’m tired.”

“Not at all,” the doctor said, still grave. “Drink your brandy.”

“Brandy? “And Eleanor looked down, realizing that she held a brandy glass. “What did I say?” she asked them.

Theodora chuckled. “Drink,” she said. “You need it, my Nell.” Obediently Eleanor sipped at her brandy, feeling clearly its sharp burn, and then said to the doctor, “I must have said something silly, from the way you’re all staring at me.”

The doctor laughed. “Stop trying to be the center of attention.”

“Vanity,” Luke said serenely.

“Have to be in the limelight,” Theodora said, and they smiled fondly, all looking at Eleanor.’

The incident with the stones from her childhood further emphasizes this theory, since she may have been the one who made it happen. Thus, Hill House is truly haunted. But to go back to the opening of the novel, one notices that, like the House of Usher, Hill house may be sentient, a theory offered by its description, thus making the house the fifth character, the antagonist; Hill House is, therefore, the one that physically haunts, and there is nothing wrong with Eleanor’s sanity.

But what makes this conversation important is not only the answer it gives, but the many questions it opens. First of all, is it just a case of paranoia on Nell’s part that makes her see herself this way in the eyes of others; if so, it is unclear whether she imagines the conversation, or if she can actually hear the words in her head, and this difference is an important detail on the state of her mind. Secondly, is she truly a psychic; if she is, than the fact that Dr Montague believes that she wrote the messages on the walls, and he is the one trying to prove the existence of supernatural, becomes confusing. As the novel progresses, many questions arise, with no definite answers.

However, taking into account the emphasized psychoanalytic characteristics, one must take into account a different angle of approach to the analysis. All of the characters are, again, isolated in a remote location, left there to face each other and themselves.

The Jungian dream analysis teaches that the house represents the self. All of the characters could be the house, since all are lonely, “at odd angles”. Furthermore, the house could represent their subconscious minds, “holding darkness within”, with different rooms representing different emotions, complexes. The doors are “designed” to stay closed, as Freud teaches us that our subconsciousness is “hidden” from our conscious minds, for the sake of our own sanity. Eleanor “opens” the doors, and subsequently loses her mind. The hills, in addition, could be their burdens, since they are referred to as “the pressing, heavy hills”:

‘All the time I’m here I’m going to be terrified,” Theodora said, “thinking one of those hills will fall on us.’

Eleanor is burdened by the death of her mother. Since she failed to wake up when her mother called for her. The mother died, and Eleanor, subconsciously blames herself for her death, since she fears that, on some level, she did want her mother to die. Even when the knocking on the door is heard for the first time, she initially thinks it is her mother knocking.

Castricano notices that the differences regarding the existence of the supernatural between Freud and Jung are evident in the ambiguity of this novel (Castricano, 2006). Jackson, thus, may have intended to keep the question of Eleanor’s sanity unanswered, since, indeed, there is no right and wrong. Following the first pattern of thought, the house may have managed to possess Nell at the end, which is why she wonders “Why am I doing this” when she comes round, but, alas, it is too late. On the other hand, the guilt over the death of her mother and the insufferable loneliness may have become too much once she opens the door, and that her subconsciousness kills her. Nevertheless, it is this ambiguity in all three works of art that makes them unique, since it is not frustrating that the answer is not given, but rather inspiring.

Ultimately, whether or not the house is haunted remains a mystery, but what is clear is that the entire story revolves around the house. It is interesting what scientific progress has done to human perception in only a century. Jackson actually tells the reader that the house is haunted, yet the skeptical contemporary reader does not believe her, just like the characters find it hard to accept. The multiple possible analyses of the story only emphasize this, as it is easier to believe in madness than in ghosts. Nevertheless, like James, Jackson relies on the mystery and the possibility, rather than factual and explicit. The stories of haunted houses have reached their own culminating point in The Haunting of Hill House, since Hill House offers the setting, and is a crucial part of the story.

While Poe writes a story about the Usher family whose members are connected to their home, Jackson writes a story about Hill House and what it does to people. James remains somewhere in between, as if indecisive on the issue of the Gothic setting and its effect on the characters. But the haunted house does become the center of attention in modern fiction.

The setting has evolved since Poe; the changed reality influenced James to be vague, for the great questions cannot have a simple answer. Furthermore, it is hard to shock the audience of the twentieth century, thus making it much harder to induce fear.

The haunted house is popular even in the twenty first century. Numerous books have been written and movies made where characters struggle with internal and external evil, with themselves and the houses that will not let them survive. True, the scientific progress prevents many to believe in haunted houses, and yet others do believe in ghosts. The fact is that the reality does not offer definite answers, which is why writers still dwell on the subject, trying to grasp the ungraspable. On the other hand, the writers may simply be trying to frighten somebody.


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