Homosexuality, when you hear this term what do you think of? You think of same-sex couples, and the right to love and marry whomever you please. Well, it wasn’t until the late 1940s that homosexuality was even talked about. Homosexuality in the 1940s and 1950s was often if not always categorized as a mental illness.
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When diagnosing someone as “mentally ill” for being attracted to the same sex, you are labeling that individual. In 1956 Martina Navratilova said “Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” To be openly gay in the 1950s was difficult. While there was some openly gay activist during this time, many were still struggling in silence.
Homosexuality was first labeled as a mental illness in the first ever Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952. In the DSM-1 homosexuality was labeled as “sociopathic personality disturbances.” “Alfred Kinsey’s and colleagues’ study on male and female sexuality marked the beginning of a cultural shift away from the view of homosexuality as pathology and toward viewing it as a normal variant of human sexuality.”(The History of Psychiatry & Homosexuality). These studies that were conducted in conjunction with gay activist protesting the APA brought attention to the fact that labeling homosexuality as a mental illness was incorrect. Finally, in 1973, the APA came to the ruling that homosexuality would not be published as a mental illness in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The 1900s was considered a pivotal moment in the LGBTQ community. In 1924 the first ever documented gay rights group was formed by Henry Gerber. He formed what was known as the Society for Human Rights. The group would go on to publish “Friendships and Freedom” which become the world’s first published gay-focused newsletter. During this time homosexuality was very foreign. The police raided this group in 1925 which in turn forced the group to disband. In 1951 the Mattachine Society and the was formed. This organization is known as one of the first gay activist groups after the disbanding of the Society for Human Right and consisted of seven gay men brought together by the founder Harry Hay. This group became widely popular in Los Angeles by using group activities and group discussions to allow the LGBTQ community to come together in a safe place to talk about their fears of oppression and the pressures of societal norms.
Literature regarding homosexuality in the 1950s was few and far between. One novel written by James Baldwin turned out to be a saving grace for many in the LGBTQ community. This novel known as Giovanni’s Room tackles the main societal issues that the members of the LGBTQ community were feeling during this era, shame and social alienation. Giovanni’s Room is focused on David, who is currently living in Paris and meets Giovanni a bartender who soon becomes his gay partner. The novel focuses on the shame and social alienation that David feels regarding the feelings he is developing for Giovanni.
Another heaving hitting novel that took the LGBTQ community by storm was The City and the Pillar written by Goar Vidal in 1948. During this time, the gay community was still being depressed. During these times being gay was strongly considered immoral, and the few homosexual novels that were written during that time ended with the protagonist dying for disobeying social norms. This is why this novel is considered as one of the greatest LGBTQ novels written, as it was the first of its kind. The City and the Pillar novel is based around a young boy Jim Willard and his friend Bob, growing up and discovering his sexuality.
The Haunting of Hill House, written by Shirley Jackson in 1959 is not considered one of the greatest LGBTQ novels out there, but Jackson does an excellent job of connecting fear and the repression of sexuality. The Haunting of Hill House is much more than a thriller. If you dive deeper into the text, you’ll notice many sexual undertones in her writing. Jackson does an excellent job of connecting these innate impulses of fear and desire by portraying them through the house itself. The fear that the characters feel in Hill House could potentially be a representation of their own internal conflicts and troublesome pasts.
Some believe that Shirley Jackson used incorporated the sexual undertones that she did to show the relationship between hauntings and sexual repression. The repression of sexuality and mental health are directly linked. If one continues to repress their sexuality, the “human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire”(Sexual Repression, 2010). This, in turn, can cause the brain to do things unimaginable to a sane person. I believe this is what Jackson was trying to achieve with the sexual undertone and the repression of Eleanor Vance’s sexuality in The haunting of Hill House.
Eleanor Vance, a timid and shy middle-aged woman, could be seen as the root of fear in this novel. In some way, we can interpret Eleanor’s unappealing past as the cause of fear and uneasiness in the Hill House. Eleanor has yet to confront and open up about her own sexual orientation and the sexual repression she’s experienced and such an issue could be represented through the eerie Hill House. For example, Eleanor thinks “no stone lions for me, she thought, no oleanders; I have broken the spell of Hill House and somehow come inside. I am home, she thought and stopped in wonder at the thought, I am home, I am home, I am home. (Jackson, 219)”. This can be perceived as Eleanor trying to seek out her own “stone lions” and oleanders or her own cup of stars. She is trying to navigate the world having not been in contact with many people other than her mother.
Towards the beginning of the novel, Eleanor is very unsure about herself and her sexual preference. There is some tension between her and Dr. Montague which could be read as an example of Eleanor attempting to “cover up” who she actually is. Eleanor is uneasy about her burgeoning sexuality, and she’s not sure who these feeling are towards. In the 1963 film adaptation, it points towards Eleanor and Dr. John Markway developing feelings for each other, although in the book adaption by Jackson I see no more than what could be considered a father-daughter relationship. This state of anxiousness is easily represented through the house. All who enter claim to be uneasy and find the atmosphere unsettling. As stated in the book, “No live organism can continue for long to exist under sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even lark 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. (Jackson, 1).” Such feelings directly correlate with Eleanor’s emotions.
Later in the novel, we discover Eleanor’s strong attraction towards Theo. While Theo’s sexual orientation is not expressed outright, her attraction to women seems apparent. For example, Eleanor stated “Good god- whose hand was I holding (Jackson, 152)?” She thought that she was holding Theo’s hand while she listened to the child’s laughter. Dreams often represent our deepest desires. Eleanor was dreaming that she was holding onto Theo’s hand, since Eleanor is repressing her sexuality, her desires for woman are showing through her dreams. While Eleanor was still unsure about her emotions and desires.
Theo always seemed to be much more confident in what she was feeling. Although Jackson never stated that Theodora was attracted to the same sex it is hinted at the beginning of the novel by talking about the “violent quarrel” her roommate, and she had. Jackson stated, “Things were said on both sides which only time could; Theodora had deliberately and heartlessly smashed the lovely little figurine her friend had carved of her, and her friend had cruelly ripped to shreds the volume of Alfred de Musset which had been a birthday present from Theodora” (Jackson, 6). This can also be supported through the actions of the entity within Hill House. As the novel states, “No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense (Jackson, 130).” This quote is hinting that Eleanor hiding her sexuality is linked to the upset of the house.
In Eleanor’s early life, she was never truly able to come to terms with her own emotions. Her life revolved around being the caretaker for her “invalid mother” for eleven years. Eleanor had very little contact with the real world. She rarely left home and never felt happiness while living with her mother. Jackson never made a direct link between the ghosts of Hill House and Eleanor’s mother but could something that she experienced in Hill House be her mother trying to communicate with her? On page ninety-five Eleanor states, “I can’t go in the, surprising herself, but she could not. She backed away overwhelmed with the cold air of mold and earth which rushed ar her.” Eleanor then states “my mother.” The fell of cold air and the stench of the mold could be evidence that her mother is trying to communicate with her from the grave. Eleanor couldn’t enter the library because it reminded her of her mother’s grave. We know that Eleanor feels some sort of guilt about her mother’s death as evidenced by “It was my fault my mother died…She knocked on the wall and called me and I never woke up, I ought to have brought her the medicine; I always did before (Jackson, 199).” Since Eleanor is dreaming about this night, it proves that this is bothering her in some sort of way, whether it be subconsciously or consciously. What I feel Jackson is trying to portray at this moment is a guilt dream. A “guilt dream will represent this sudden moment of realization as you feel ashamed of yourself.”(dream guilt, 2019) Furthermore, Eleanor claims to have felt:
“She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she 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.”
The novel explains that Eleanor felt liberated and expressed happiness shortly after her mother’s passing, but this could mean that she is trying to bottle up her emotions. Therefore, Eleanor didn’t have any resources to help with understanding her own feelings about her sexuality. She hid and ignored what she was feeling which led to her still being unsure of her sexuality into adulthood.
The Haunting of Hill House written by Shirley Jackson is an extremely thrilling novel that keeps readers on the edge of their seat through the entirety of the story. At first glance, readers may believe this is simply a ghost story, but if you look farther, there is an even deeper meaning. The Haunting of Hill House could be viewed as a strong representation of women’s sexuality, and the fear that coincides. The fear of one’s own sexuality, and the judgment of others sometimes can greatly surpass the fear of the things that lie in the dark, hide under our beds, or live in our closets and this novel exhibits such fears perfectly.
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