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The Dark Uncertainty of Laughter and Silliness in 'The Haunting of Hill House'

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

A Laughing Fool. Netherlandish oil painting (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) ca. 1500. [Public Domain Image.]

A Laughing Fool. Netherlandish oil painting (possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen) ca. 1500. [Public Domain Image.]

*Spoiler Alert*

The following is an in-depth analysis of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and contains spoilers of the story's conclusion.

Many of Shirley Jackson’s works are known for inter-mixing the narrative modes of “the comedic, the satiric, the fantastic, and the gothic” (Egan, 34). In The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Jackson uniquely utilizes each of these modes in a way that creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear among the characters as well as the reader. As a story of four strangers—a doctor of philosophy who wants to perform a scientific analysis of the supernatural, a lonely woman with possible telekinetic abilities, a woman who is believed to be telepathic, and the next-in-line heir to Hill House—who come together to investigate supernatural activity in a supposedly haunted house, it is easy to imagine how Gothic and fantastic elements could be implemented in this text to promote uncertainty and fear. It is the narrative mode of “the comedic,” however, that becomes inverted and distorted into a device for uncertainty, portrayed mainly by the persistently recurrent motifs of laughter and silliness throughout the novel. Though laughter and silliness are normally meant to entertain through humor, in The Haunting of Hill House they tend to be closely associated with fear, leaving the characters with a loss of reality, complications of identity, and temporary madness, which the reader experiences and shares. Along with inciting feelings of fear and hesitancy, laughter appears to play an important role when considering the main characters of the novel, particularly Eleanor Vance, as it seems to relate to Eleanor’s perception of self and others. My goals in this article are to examine the role of laughter and silliness in The Haunting of Hill House, to uncover Eleanor’s construction/complication of self and identity (often depicted in the Gothic), and expose the fear manifested in hesitation between the real and the imaginary, relayed in the fantastic.

Though all the major and minor characters of the novel indicate some level of association with laughter, amusement, and questionable sincerity (including the house itself), it is the four main characters who significantly share a relationship through silliness which forms and shapes both their personalities and the atmosphere of uncertainty experienced at Hill House. Dr. John Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson are all introduced in the first chapter as very distinct individuals, all with different reasons for wanting to spend the summer in the “haunted” Hill House. All four are introduced with some level of seriousness and severity that later clashes with their whimsically imaginative personalities once they arrive at Hill House: Dr. Montague wishes to have his interest in analyzing “supernatural manifestations” (4) to be taken seriously on an academic level by his peers, and thinks of himself as “careful and conscientious” (5); Eleanor “genuinely hate[s]” (6) her late mother and her sister, spends “so much time alone” that it “was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person” (6-7), and accepts Dr. Montague’s invitation to stay in Hill House for his scientific experiments because “she would have gone anywhere” (8) to get away from her living situation with her sister; Theodora accepts Dr. Montague’s invitation only after getting into a cruel fight with her roommate; Luke is forced to go to Hill House by an aunt who considers him a liar and a thief. These introductory portrayals paradoxically prove to be both important and unimportant as the story unfolds. As Tricia Lootens puts it in her analysis:

Luke is a liar and a thief; Theodora is ‘not at all like Eleanor’; Eleanor ‘hates’ only her sister now that her mother is dead. All these statements seem to be true; but so are their opposites. In fact, Luke plays into Hill House’s hands through his honesty; Theodora through her ties to Eleanor; and Eleanor, through her desperate need for a family to love. (160)

Lootens doesn’t mention Dr. Montague’s introduction, but I would add that, though he is depicted as being very scientific, he consistently “plays into Hill House’s hands” with his unscientific bias towards the supernatural and by self-jeopardizing his own careful planning. More importantly, it is the interaction between the characters that proves to be more meaningful than their individual backgrounds; it is significant that their relationships to one another predominantly reside within silliness and the imaginary, seemingly contrasting the characters from their personas in the outside world.

The silliness that links the four characters together is interestingly prefaced by the awkward giddiness demonstrated by Eleanor on her journey to Hill House. As we get to know Eleanor, it becomes apparent that the other characters are defined in relation to Eleanor in their respective introductions. As mentioned earlier, “Theodora was not at all like Eleanor” (8), and Luke’s introduction as a liar and thief is later demonstrated, not by him, but by Eleanor as she lies during different moments throughout the text and steals the car that she shares with her sister. Eleanor even imagines her sister calling her a thief: “There she is, just as we thought, the thief, there she is” (12). Even Dr. Montague is shown as having an interest in “catch[ing] at the imagination” (5) of his invitees, foreshadowing the imagination-riddled drive that Eleanor makes. It is no surprise that all three characters are solely perceived through Eleanor’s perspective from the moment the narrative chooses to follow her, and that their relationship becomes centered on the rampant imagination Eleanor depicts early on.

Eleanor’s whimsicality during her drive not only foreshadows her relationship with the other characters but also shows her desire for the construction of a new identity. As suggested by her introduction, Eleanor has no identity outside of caring for her invalid mother and hating her sister: “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” (6). Spending the past eleven years caring for her mother, Eleanor has no experience living an adult life, especially a happy adult life. During Eleanor’s road trip, it becomes more evident that Eleanor has no stable adult identity, and that she can only construct one out of her imagination—by absorbing everything she encounters outside her home. On her road trip, she imagines herself living in magical fairylands as she passes oleander trees and settling down in various areas that she drives by, including a “house with two lions in front.” As she creates different scenarios for her new identity, she proves that her imagination is more real to her than her own life when she thinks, “in these few seconds I have lived a lifetime” (18). She also begins mapping her new life according to a song to which she can’t remember the words: “everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home. ‘In delay there lies no plenty; … present mirth hath present laughter ...’” (27). As each line of the song is remembered, Eleanor seeks to embrace the message within her present circumstances. By the time she remembers the third line, “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she spends the rest of the novel trying to imagine the end of her journey, but cannot do it because she has adopted the journey as part of her new identity: “The journey itself was her positive action, her destination vague, unimagined, perhaps nonexistent” (17). This whimsical construction of identity is later conveyed and complicated by her interactions and perceptions of the other three characters in the novel.

"Hill House" by Glen Bledsoe

"Hill House" by Glen Bledsoe

Though Eleanor’s whimsical nature appears hopeful on the surface, her trip to Hill House is also tainted with fear that is displayed primarily through laughter. It is on this trip that we discover that other people’s laughter makes Eleanor afraid that she is being made fun of, or being made to look like a fool – a fear that is prevalent throughout the novel. The fear of being laughed at is closely tied to uncertainty and self-consciousness. When others laugh, Eleanor is consistently questioning whether or not they are laughing at her, wondering if the laughter is malicious and at her expense. This occurs even before Eleanor reaches Hill House, most notably when she stops at a diner for a cup of coffee:

There was some elaborate joke going on between the man eating and the girl behind the counter; when she set Eleanor’s coffee down she glanced at him and half-smiled, and he shrugged, and then the girl laughed. […] Perhaps Eleanor’s coffee was poisoned; it certainly looked it (24).

Ironically, it is Eleanor who often laughs at the expense of others in various moments throughout the text, though this laughter is often tainted by underlying fears. Eleanor’s laughter becomes increasingly prevalent as she gets closer to Hill House, and seems to coincide with her increased feelings of fear. Though she is nervous about taking the car and going against her sister’s objections, as she gets close to the house “she thought of her sister and laughed” which is quickly followed by a gasp of fear as “the car cracked against a rock” (27). Her fear of damaging the car and submitting herself to her sister’s disapproval underlies the humor and freedom she found in stealing the car. Similarly, when she meets Dudley the caretaker at the gates of Hill House she is at first amused by him, then scared: “She could anticipate his shrug, and, picturing him, laughed […] She dared not admit to herself that he frightened her, for fear that he might perceive it; his nearness […] was ugly, and his enormous resentment puzzled her” (29-31). After offending Dudley with her laughter, it is then Dudley’s laughter that scares her, as she seems to associate it with resentment: “He snickered disagreeably […] Grinning, satisfied with himself, he stood away from the car […] perhaps he will keep popping out at me all along the drive, she thought, a sneering Cheshire Cat” (32). By the time Eleanor reaches Hill House, it is clear that laughter and fear are inextricably related, and that they have strong ties to uncertainty. When she first lays eyes on Hill House she admits that “beyond everything else she was afraid,” and yet she is more afraid of Dudley’s laughter: “But this is what I came so far to find, she told herself; I can’t go back. Besides, he would laugh at me if I tried to get back out through the gate” (35). The fear of being laughed at and being made a fool is related to Eleanor’s construction of identity, as it is also a process that proves to be uncertain, self-conscious, and isolating.

It is not until Eleanor meets Theodora that she finally becomes somewhat at ease in Hill House, and it is during their meeting that laughter and silliness again become elements that construct Eleanor’s new identity. Just as Eleanor had come to define the others in their introductions, they also come to define her as they arrive at the house, especially Theodora. Just as Theodora arrives, Eleanor demonstrates that she is afraid of being alone: “‘You’re frightened,’ Theodora said, watching Eleanor […] ‘It was just when I thought I was all alone,’ Eleanor said” (44). Though Eleanor is afraid, she learns to dispel that fear by joking around with Theodora, using silliness as both security and a foundation for bonding.

As soon as Theodora and Eleanor meet, they immediately begin joking with one another about the house and Mrs. Dudley, dispelling their own fears but also creating an intimate connection that is based on repetition. Their bedrooms “are exactly alike” (44) with a connecting bathroom, as if immediately establishing the psychological doubling that is taking place between the two women. Theodora also passively demonstrates a fear of being laughed at, as if recalling Eleanor’s fear, when she says that being at Hill House is like being at boarding school: “it is kind of like the first day at school; everything’s ugly and strange, and you don’t know anybody, and you’re afraid everyone’s going to laugh at your clothes” (46). Along with mocking laughter, clothes also seem to connect the two women. They both dress in comfortable, bright colors when they decide not to dress up for dinner, and begin to double one another in their speech:

“I’d like to change into something comfortable - unless we dress for dinner, do you think?”

“I won’t if you won’t.”

“I won’t if you won’t […]” (46).

Interestingly, the similarities between clothes and speech become distorted and perverted later on in the novel, as does their “double” relationship. In the second half of the novel, instead of a repetition of dialogue, Theodora begins repeating aloud Eleanor’s thoughts, highlighting the increasing distortion of reality that progresses throughout the novel. Also, Theodora, instead of simply dressing similar to Eleanor, begins wearing Eleanor’s clothes once all of hers mysteriously become stained with blood. As Lootens puts it, “Theodora’s mirroring of Eleanor is fortunate, dangerous, erotic; she is her other self, her potential sister, lover, murderer” (163) and that she “has exposed herself as Eleanor’s true double, able simultaneously to seduce and annihilate” (164). Lootens's claim that the double is dangerous and has the potential to “annihilate” is valuable when considering Eleanor and Theodora, in that Theodora becomes an important aspect of Eleanor’s self that Eleanor both admires and loathes. Even though she immediately becomes attached to Theodora, she also fears her and is disgusted by her, mimicking other relationships between doubles often seen in fantastic texts.

Just as Eleanor establishes a relationship with Theodora based on silliness, both women immediately adopt Luke and Dr. Montague into their private circle of jokiness. Since Eleanor has no stable adult identity, it is not surprising that her relationship with the other characters is based primarily on a childlike envisioning of friendship – one that is situational, with no depth, and formed by a playful lack of seriousness. When Luke and Dr. Montague arrive, they prove to be as imaginative and silly as Eleanor and Theodora. Even before Eleanor gets to know any of them, she feels as if she belongs and as if they are all going to be friends, and they seem to confirm this as they attempt to get better acquainted with one another:

“[…] shouldn’t we get acquainted? We know only names, so far. I know that it is Eleanor, here, who is wearing a red sweater, and consequently it must be Theodora who wears yellow –“

“Doctor Montague has a beard,” Theodora said, “so you must be Luke.”

“And you are Theodora,” Eleanor said, “because I am Eleanor.” An Eleanor, she told herself triumphantly, who belongs, who is talking easily, who is sitting by the fire with her friends (61).

After playing the game with their names, all four characters decide to invent their own backstories; Luke is a “bullfighter,” Eleanor an “artist’s model,” Theodora a “lord’s daughter,” and Dr. Montague a “pilgrim” (61-62). During this conversation, all four identify one another in relation to each other and then construct identities out of their imaginations—something that Eleanor has been doing from the beginning and continues to do throughout the remainder of the novel. After spending a short time together, they even begin to know one another by their laughter: “they had begun to know one another, recognize individual voices and mannerisms, faces and laughter […]” (68). At first, the laughter between the characters is good-humored and forms a bond between them. Later on, however, the laughter and joking become ambiguous in meaning, and at times spiteful, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Laughter, silliness, and imagination connect all of the main characters, while at the same time creating an atmosphere of unreliability and doubt. Though we primarily follow Eleanor’s perspective and occasionally gain insight into her thoughts, she is just as unreliable and uncertain as the other three characters. Based on her introduction, in which she is shown as living a demanding, lonely life that is isolated from the outside world, it is easy to question Eleanor’s mental stability, making her perspective suspect. Also, though Eleanor feels connected to the other characters through mutually playful imaginations and silliness, the playfulness of the characters often leave her and the reader to question what exactly is occurring in the novel. It is often difficult for Eleanor to get a straight answer out of anyone concerning strange events, especially when those events are fearful since laughter and joking appear to be the defense mechanisms used by all the characters to dispel anxiety. Eleanor is often the only character that admits to her fears, and recognizes the other characters’ blatant denials of being afraid:

Eleanor felt, as she had the day before, that the conversation was being skillfully guided away from the thought of fear, so very present in her own mind. Perhaps she was to be allowed to speak occasionally for all of them so that, quieting her, they quieted themselves and could leave the subject behind them; perhaps, vehicle for every kind of fear, she contained enough for all. They are like children, she thought crossly, daring each other to go first, ready to turn and call names at whoever comes last […] (98-99).

Though all characters are supposedly staying at Hill House in order to observe the supernatural, many times the supernatural is shrugged off in humor. This lack of seriousness in the novel, abetted by the rampant imaginations of the characters and the temporary madness associated with laughter and fear, leaves both Eleanor in the reader in a constant state of hesitation as to whether events are actually occurring, or if they are induced by the power of suggestion; It doesn’t seem a coincidence that many of the “supernatural” events in the novel are first predicted by Dr. Montague [“’Something’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘I don’t like it’” (198)]. Dr. Montague seems to recognize the power of their combined imaginations: “’This excitement troubles me,’ he said. ‘It is intoxicating, certainly, but might it not also be dangerous? An effect of the atmosphere of Hill House? The first sign that we have – as it were – fallen under a spell?’” (139). Though Dr. Montague recognizes the powerful effect of the atmosphere on the imagination, particularly with such imaginative individuals, he does little to prevent the imaginary from interfering with his academic observations, leaving the reader in a state of uncertainty.

Penguin cover of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House." Photo by  Drümmkopf.

Penguin cover of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House." Photo by Drümmkopf.

The hesitation and uncertainty caused by the lack of seriousness and imaginative personalities of the main characters push The Haunting of Hill House into the realm of the fantastic. Though the fantastic is often defined as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (Todorov, 25), Tzvetan Todorov’s second definition of the fantastic also seems applicable when discussing the hesitation experienced by the main characters of the novel:

There exists another variety of the fantastic in which the hesitation occurs between the real and the imaginary. In the first case, we were uncertain not that the events occurred, but that our understanding of them was correct. In the second case, we wonder if what we believe we perceive is not in fact a product of imagination (36).

While the reader’s experience is more directly linked with the first definition of the fantastic, all of the main characters often experience hesitation due to the second definition. The reader must determine how to approach the “apparently supernatural event” of the pounding noises in the hall that Eleanor and Theodora, and later all four characters, experience, and decide whether it is actually happening or a result of very imaginative, playful, suggestive minds. The characters (Eleanor in particular), however, experience hesitation while deciding as to whether “supernatural” events are actually taking place or if it is all “a product of imagination.” At different points in the novel, each character has a moment in which they do not trust their own experiences and attributes strange happenings to the imagination. For example, Dr. Montague comes back to the group after walking through the house alone, clearly upset by something he has seen/experienced, but refuses to share the experience with the group: “’What happened?’ Eleanor asked. ‘My own imagination,’ the doctor said firmly” (85). As the novel progresses, Eleanor especially is unable to distinguish what is happening inside the house from the workings of her own mind:

I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

Even though the other characters seem to hear the “supernatural” pounding in the hall, Eleanor becomes convinced that the sounds are coming from her mind. Her confusion and inability to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, along with the questionable mental state of the other characters sharing her experience, contribute to the reader’s hesitation of the supernatural event that is supposedly taking place.

Laughter, its relationship with the imagination, and its links to uncertainty and fear, could also implicate a descent into madness. Imagination and madness in particular seem inextricably linked, even from the very first line of the novel: “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” (3). From the beginning, the reader is told that dreaming and delving into the imagination are essential for existing “sanely” in “absolute reality,” implying that the dreams themselves are perhaps brief moments of insanity. In the very next line, it is stated that Hill House is “not sane,” showing, perhaps, either that dreams do not exist or come true there, or that the house itself is the dream-state of insanity. The latter seems particularly true for Eleanor, as she is the only character shown to have a growing attachment to the house, and is the only one who embraces her playful madness by the end of the novel.

Eleanor’s playfully mad behavior by the end of the novel, along with her suicide, can also be clarified by examining it as a failed attempt at identity formation. Eleanor’s desire to become a new person explains the childish, playful behavior that seems out of character for the woman we’re introduced to in the beginning. As she travels to Hill House, it is as if she regresses back to a Lacanian stage of identification in order to form her new identity. This regression would not only explain her childlike behavior and attitude towards the others, but also make Hill House the site of her identity construction, and all its inhabitants, aspects of her newly formed identity. Eleanor is able to recognize the other characters as aspects of her own mind at different points in the story: “’I could say,’ Eleanor put in, smiling, ’All three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real.’” (140). Eleanor’s repeated thought that the other characters and the house are only figments of her mind would also explain their shared silliness and childishness, since as they enter the house they become reflections/projections of Eleanor’s process of identity formation. It also explains why the main characters contrast with their initial introductions and adopt strikingly similar personalities once they enter Hill House; by the end of the novel, they are almost indistinguishable: Theodora says what Eleanor thinks, which then gets repeated by either Dr. Montague or Luke; Luke adopts Eleanor’s song phrase, “journeys end in lovers meeting” and repeats it several times. This duplication and repetition among the houseguests center on Eleanor, and she is often accused by the others of trying to be the center of attention:

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 (161).

Eleanor and the others’ preoccupation with Eleanor’s “self” relates back to the mirror stage and identity formation.

In order to better demonstrate this view of identity formation, it is helpful to apply Rosemary Jackson’s analysis of dualism:

Many [fantasies of dualism] fantasize a return to a state of undifferentiation, to a condition preceding the mirror stage and its creation of dualism. For prior to this construction, in a state of primary narcissism, the child is its own ideal, and experiences no discrepancy between self (as perceived subject) and other (as perceived object). To get back, on to the far side of the mirror, becomes a powerful metaphor for returning to an original unity, a ‘paradise’ lost by the ‘fall’ into division with the construction of a subject (89).

Just as Jackson suggests, Eleanor progresses through the Lacanian stages in a variation of dualism fantasy. Though at first she chooses not to distinguish herself from the group of strangers that make her feel as if she belongs, she progressively seeks to become an “I” through differentiation, experiencing the division that comes with “the construction of a subject.” At first, this differentiation is pleasurable: “what a complete and separate thing I am, she thought, going from my red toes to the top of my head, individually an I, possessed of attributes belonging only to me” (83). Her possession of self, however, becomes isolating and eventually maddening: “’Then why me?’ Eleanor said, looking from one of them to another; I am outside, she thought madly, I am the one chosen […]” (147). Hill House separates Eleanor from the rest of the group by writing her name several times throughout the story, highlighting the horrific experience of being separated from others in order to become a subjective being.

When Eleanor is horrified by her separation from the group, laughter again becomes mocking, as it is shared by everyone except for her and she perceives it to be at her expense. As she becomes separated from her doubles, she attempts a reunification that will bring her back to “an original unity” that she experienced before the construction of herself as an “I”. At first, she tries to tell Theo that she is going to follow her home after the experiment is over, and then she attempts a love connection with Luke—both attempts fail. It is then that Eleanor embraces her relationship with the house, and recedes back to her playful state, pounding on doors, dancing through the halls, and making Hill House a mother figure that will embrace her and bring her back to the state of being prior to identity formation.

Eleanor’s lack of seriousness and happy silliness as she dances around Hill House, and as she is forced to drive away, activate fear for both the characters and the reader, as her behavior appears to be linked to insanity. Her suicide is possibly another attempt at reunification, a surrendering that will bring her back to a unified sense of being: “I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.” (245). This moment acts as “the returning to an original unity,” as she attempts to “surrender” to the Hill House. This construction of identity ultimately fails, however, as it leads Eleanor into embracing a self that is created through a distorted reality. Up until this very moment, she has constructed her identity on a “distorted” house full of uncertainty and unreality. If Hill House is the dream-like state of insanity, then her actions have been governed by insane notions and silliness, and her identity is as imaginary as the realities she constructed on her drive to Hill House. Her identity is not formed through reason, but through imagination and a complete lack of reason. Eleanor seems to recognize this seconds before she dies: “In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?” (245-246). Eleanor cannot decipher the reasons behind her actions because she has constructed herself out of elements of unreality.

Laughter, silliness, and the overstimulated imagination ultimately have dark implications in The Haunting of Hill House. Just like the statue of the two grinning heads that are “captured forever in distorted laughter” and meet and lock into a “vicious cold” (120), every moment of playfulness in the novel is tainted with chilling fear. For Eleanor, the fear is becoming an isolated adult subject, one that is susceptible to ridicule. It is also leaving behind a childhood that she had recaptured through her interaction with Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague. For the reader, the fear lies in the fantastic and the identification with a potentially mad character. The humorous and whimsical moments of the story promote our uncertainty and hesitation, make us uncomfortable as we question the real, the unreal, and the reliability of the characters, and cause us to examine the power of the imaginary.

Works Cited

  • Egan, James. "Comic-Satiric-Fantastic-Gothic: Interactive Modes in Shirley Jackson's Narratives." Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. Ed. Bernice M. Murphy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005. 34-51. Print.
  • Lootens, Tricia. “‘Whose Hand Was I Holding?’: Familial and Sexual Politics in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting oh Hill House.” Shirley Jackson: Essays on the Literary Legacy. Ed. Bernice M. Murphy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005. 150-168. Print.
  • Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981. 89. Print.
  • Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York, NY: Penguin, 1984. Print.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan. “Definition of the Fantastic.” The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Cornell University Press, 1975. 24-40. Print.

© 2020 Veronica McDonald