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Dr. John Montague has a degree in anthropology, but his true vocation and passion is studying psychic phenomena. He strives to publish one of the first credible studies in the field. Dr. Montague finds Hill House, a house long reputed to be haunted, and invites two participants for a study: Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two-year-old woman reported to have had experiences with a poltergeist as a child, and Theodora, a young woman marked in lab records as having potential psychic abilities. Luke Sanderson, a thief with a penchant for lying, also volunteers to join them. Luke has been sent by his aunt, Hill House’s current owner, to keep an eye on everyone else.
Eleanor’s sister and brother-in-law are suspicious of Dr. Montague and forbid Eleanor from taking their shared car to go to Hill House. Prior to her mother’s recent death, Eleanor had spent most of her adult life as her mother’s caretaker, and she is desperate to establish her independence. She decides to participate in the study anyway and steals the car. On the way to Hill House, she stops at a diner where she overhears a young girl insisting on drinking her milk from a special “cup of stars.” Eleanor thinks to herself that the girl is brave for holding her ground against her parents.
The novel’s opening chapter introduces a central theme of the story: confinement versus freedom. Eleanor has been confined by her role as caretaker to her cruel, invalid mother. This burden, which has consumed most of Eleanor’s adult life, has stifled her identity and robbed her of the chance to have a life of her own. With her mother now deceased, Eleanor’s sister Carrie has stepped in to continue her younger sister’s confinement. In her efforts to prevent Eleanor from taking their shared car to the Hill House study, Carrie’s insistence that their mother would agree with her is an unkind attempt to keep Eleanor pinned under her mother’s thumb. Eleanor’s journey to Hill House in the stolen car is transformative as she leaves confinement behind and embraces her newfound freedom. The road she travels becomes a symbol of freedom as it leads her on a journey of firsts.
On her journey, Eleanor’s interiority reveals an overdeveloped tendency toward escapism. As she drives, the fantasies Eleanor conjures about the places she passes are filled with elaborate details about other lives she might live. Her fantasy triggered by the stone lions shows her desire for a quiet, orderly, independent existence. Eleanor’s daydream about the magic oleander square and its fairyland discloses her yearning for tender motherly love. The lines of the song she sings—“In delay there lies no plenty” and “Journeys end in lovers meeting”—will become a refrain throughout the story and are a reflection of Eleanor’s desperate need for affection. Though this childlike behavior stems from her oppression, the quality and frequency of her escapist fantasies is excessive and startling. As reality and fantasy blend on a minute-by-minute basis, Eleanor’s interiority reveals her damaged psyche and unreliable escapist viewpoint.