Six Stunning Houses in Literature


I have always been fascinated by certain houses in novels. They exert a strange power over me, especially if they are part of gothic stories. Maybe because I have been living in apartments for more than half of my life now, I am somewhat jealous of the large spaces, yards, porches, gardens, the lack of noisy neighbors, and maybe the safety of the proximity of the ground those houses provide – despite the fact that I was never in an earthquake, and, as a consequence, never experienced the trauma caused by these events, which causes most people who have been through them to wish not to live far from the ground.

I lived in a house for some time growing up in Recife, and those were some of the best years of my life. Of course, living there as a distracted child, then as a sullen and hormone-crazed teenager, and finally as an ultra-busy college student, I never fully appreciated what I had back then. I took it for granted. Then, I left the city, came to live in São Paulo, and, presently, my mother sold it and bought a huge apartment, which I fell in love with too, while I went there on vacation. 

Well, all this is beyond the point, however. What I want to do in this post is just to list book houses that I felt particularly close to or fell in love with. Not all these books are classics, but they have always been popular and famous.

The houses in this post are not listed in order of preference. The list is random to a certain extent, as I wouldn’t be able to actually rank them in terms of the impact they had in my imagination. Here they are:

  1. Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë): Rustic, uncomfortable, subjected to the rough weather conditions of the Yorkshire moors, this was the house that brought Cathy and Heathcliff together – two of most beloved and passionate characters in literature. Becoming orphans at an early age, they grew up like savages, free and wild, running and playing around the dreary surroundings of the house, and eventually falling in love with each other. Cathy was the daughter of the place’s owner, Mr. Earnshaw,  who died when she was still a child, and Heathcliff was a gypsy boy her father found in the streets of Liverpool on one of his business trips, and brought home to live with the family. The house mirrors all the brutality and violence of the novel’s plot. In addition to that, Cathy became the ghost that, in the future, would haunt Wuthering Heights forever, driving Heathcliff crazy.

2. Manderley (Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier): Owned by the wealthy Mr. Maximilian de Winter, the house is described in all its beauty. I love houses by the sea and this, located in breathtaking Cornwall, is one of them. Besides, there’s the mystery surrounding the widowed owner’s first wife, Rebecca, who seems to have drowned. She was rumored to have been on top of her game, beautiful, sophisticated, well-connected, adored by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Denvers,  who would later give Max’s second wife (who remains nameless to the reader throughout the novel) a hard time. However, signs abound that there was something off about all that perfection during the first marriage. Did Rebecca’s personality really match the architectural magnificence of landscaped Manderley?

3. Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë): This is a different case altogether from the houses listed before. The main attraction is the mystery that involves the place. I lived in the UK for almost two years, but never had the chance to visit Yorkshire or see heathers. However, both Wuthering Heights  and Jane Eyre, novels written by two sisters, fascinate me. Who wouldn’t become excited reading about a house with a mysterious attic, hiding a crazy woman? That’s the most important thing about gothic Thornfield Hall: Mr. Rochester, the romantic lead, has his first wife locked up in the attic, mad as a March Hare, while Jane knew nothing about it.

4. Gatsby’s mansion in Long Island (The Great Gatsby, by Scott Fitzgerald): The green light at Daisy’s dock, which Gatsby stares endlessly, signaling how close and yet so far the woman he has always loved lives with her wealthy husband Tom Buchanan, makes one of the attractions of the book. The green light is a powerful metaphor for ambition, desire and the struggle for great accomplishments at any cost. Gatsby, the man, personifies the American dream: from a poor background, he rose to acquire a mansion, expensive cars, and a glamorous lifestyle. He also constantly gives popular and orgiastic parties, but he still needs to get the ultimate prize: Daisy herself. The parties were the means he used to call attention to himself and attract her, but only when he befriends her cousin, Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, and persuades him to orchestrate a meeting between him and Daisy, does he have a chance to try to rekindle her love. In the novel, the house is described as a nouveau-rich paradise,  with all the extravagances and bad taste of these kinds of places,. Yet,  it does not lack its allure. The green light, seen from his side of the bay, is the strong symbol that stays with the reader long after he finishes the novel.

5. The Dakota Building (Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin): This is an exception, as it’s a condo and not a proper house. The building itself is the setting of one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen, Rosemary’s Baby, directed by Roman Polanski. Later, it was the place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had an apartment and lived, at the time he was shot and killed right in front of it in 1980. As for Rosemary’s Baby, neither in the movie nor in the novella that inspired it, the Dakota building is mentioned by name. In the book, the location is not even where it’s seen and recognized in the movie by those who are familiar with the Upper West side of Manhattan. However, most people who both read the book and saw the movie agree that the power of the story is Polanski’s credit. He turned what could pass for a simple and not very sophisticated thriller into one of the most successful movies of the 1960s, catapulting actress Mia Farrow, who played the main character, into worldwide fame. One interesting comment I read somewhere was that Polanski, a non-believer in religion, did not want to make it clear that the baby was the devil (or his son). He claimed that this would go against his beliefs. After all, if you don’t believe in God, you can’t believe in the Devil. So, he turned the plot into a more ambiguous and interesting story –  there’s the possibility that Rosemary could be delusional and paranoid, imagining that she was in the clutches of a coven whose leaders are her neighbors in the dark building, and that her own husband and her trusted gynecologist were in on the conspiracy. 

6. The House on Matacavalos Street (Dom Casmurro, Machado de Assis): That is the setting of one of my favorite Brazilian novels. Today, this street, in the district of Santa Teresa, has the name of Riachuelo. When the main character, Bentinho, starts narrating the story of his life, already a middle-aged man, resentful and a recluse, the house he spent his childhood in had already been demolished, but it held such a symbolic reference to him that he had it rebuilt, in exactly the same way, only in another neighborhood. And that’s where he lives in the present, nursing his traumas and pains. The original house was next door to Capitu’s, the main female character of the novel, and the love of his life.  Those neighboring houses witnessed the birth and blossoming of a sweet and romantic love story between teenagers  growing up together. The story is told subjectively from the point of view of an unreliable character, Bentinho, so, as a result, the reader can never be sure whether his estranged wife Capitu was really unfaithful to him, having had an affair and got pregnant by his best friend, Escobar.

What are your favorite book houses? Let us know by leaving your choices in the comments section below.

Jorge Sette