There’s nothing quite like a guest that overstays their welcome. What do you say in a situation like that? It’s always awkward for all parties involved, there’s just no getting around that. Like an elephant in the room, it’s the type of occurrence that no one feels comfortable addressing until it’s absolutely unbearable. So when is it absolutely unbearable?
Forcibly removing an occupant would be an extreme option when dealing with the ordinary transgressor of this faux pas, but some cases are extraordinary. An example of a case that would warrant such an extreme measure comes to us from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. “He now persists in haunting the building generally, sitting upon the banisters of the stairs by day, and sleeping in the entry by night” (29). Here Bartleby is simply exercising his preference not to move from his environment, no matter what. The problem is that no one has any desire for Bartleby to maintain his preference. He latches on to the office and refuses to leave for reasons left unknown, but the aftermath of his removal is clear. When forced from the space that has become part of his identity, Bartleby quickly adapts his preferences to a life that will be short-lived outside of the office he had grown so accustomed to.
The tale of a figure who ties themselves completely to a single place is not unique in the genre of horror. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House provides us with another poor soul seemingly bent on remaining a resident of a certain dwelling. “The house was waiting now, she thought, and it was waiting for her; no one else could satisfy it. ‘The house wants me to stay,’ she told the doctor, and he stared at her” (178). The speaker, Eleanor, developed an unnatural attachment to Hill House and, like Bartleby, was eventually removed by force. Rather then starving herself, Eleanor takes a more direct approach and forces the car meant to take her away into an accident. In a sense, she succeeds in maintaining her presence at Hill House.
The frightening component of these tales comes from their subtle familiarity. Through social conventions we all like to think that we know how others will respond in certain situations, but the truth is that you never can know. That’s how the phrase “going postal” came about, from the previously shocking but now cliched idea that any normal person is capable of a violent response. It’s a horror to think that any one of us may meet the same terrible fate as Bartleby or Eleanor.
Be weary of who you allow into your home, they may overstay their welcome.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York, Penguin Books, 1959.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Melville’s Short Novels, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2002, pp. 3–34.