House of Stairs
House of Stairs
by William Sleator
THE LITERARY WORK
Five sixteen-year-old orphans are mysteriously placed in a bizarre labyrinth of interlocking stairs, at the center of which is an unusual machine that dispenses food. When the machine wants the youths to earn their food by being cruel to one another, three of them consent and engage in warfare. Two of the youths, however, choose to go on a hunger strike rather than be slaves to the machine.
Born February 13, 1945, William Sleator pursued first music and then English at Harvard University. In 1974, when Sleator wrote House of Stairs, he was wavering between a career as a writer—he had already had a few stories for young adults published—or as a pianist for the Boston Ballet Company. House of Stairs was his fourth of more than seventeen books for this audience. The novel’s main themes, a questioning of authority and an illustration of the dangers of behavior conditioning, reflect the counterculture sentiment of many young people during the early 1970s.
The science of behavior modification
Russian scientists at the turn of the twentieth century conducted research into an aspect of behavioral science known as conditioning—that is, the practice of teaching a subject to behave in a certain way. The American scientist B. F. Skinner, among others, greatly extended this research in the 1940s and 1950s. Skinner focused on the conditioning of behavior through some type of response being reinforced by a positive result—such as the act of pressing a lever being rewarded with food. The repeated appearance of the reward reinforces the particular behavior—in this case, pressing the lever. By the late 1950s and early 1960s scientists were applying this type of conditioning in psychology to clinical treatment of people with behavior problems and using it for educational purposes. In psychology the goal was to alleviate or remedy a maladaptive behavior such as excessive drinking, for example. Behavior specialists agreed, however, that conditioning could lead to a positive or negative end: “This, they said, is because behaviors are learned, maintained, and modified by the same principles independent of whether the actions are … ’normal’ or ’abnormal,’ ’healthy’ or ’sick’” (Kazdin, p. 204).
As this field of research expanded, behavior specialists proceeded to experiment with different techniques and evaluate the results of their experiments. Various approaches developed, all attempting to change a person’s overt behavior. One of these approaches concentrated on altering the normal assumptions and thought processes of the person, an approach that seems to be used in the House of Stairs. By the end of the novel, fighting, an activity once considered negative and something to refrain from, is regarded by most of the subjects of the fictional experiment as positive and something to engage in because fighting elicits the reward of food.
Real-life behavior specialists have noted that a person’s drive to maintain control of his or her own behavior is strong. In fact, it is so strong that “[a]n individual may respond in a way counter to obtaining some tempting and immediately reinforcing consequences” (Kazdin, p. 329). In other words, a person determined to maintain self-control may do so at the expense of forgoing a reward—even one as desperately needed as food. The two rebels who fail to conform to the machine’s wishes in the House of Stairs do so despite the threat this poses to their survival.
Behavior modification therapy became widespread by the mid-1960s, but also raised some disturbing ethical questions. Should a person have the right, for example, to agree to or refuse these types of treatment? While scientists discussed the legal and ethical issues, novelists created stories that raised such issues as well and carried the process to some devastating hypothetical conclusions. There was a fear that detractors and ill-intended individuals could misuse the research to reshape society to their own diabolical ends. Popular books such as Brave New World postulated a world in which progress in behavioral research would lead to minority control over the behavior of the majority. Meanwhile, terms used by the specialists—control, conditioning, and modification—helped feed such fears.
There are, however, checks in place to prevent the misuse of behavioral methods. Court cases have rendered some key decisions to protect the rights of people being subjected to these methods. In 1972 Wyatt v. Stickney specified that conditions to which a person is subjected must be humane, including the right to a comfortable bed, well-balanced meals, and one’s own clothes. Protective measures mounted. In 1974, the year House of Stairs appeared, the U.S. Congress arranged for a special commission to draft ethical guidelines for research with human subjects; child subjects were considered deserving of special attention. Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association issued guidelines of its own, declaring that “experimenters must avoid exposing subjects to physical and mental discomfort, harm, or danger, and must secure consent if the possibility of experiencing such risks exists” (Kazdin, p. 381). Though the theory behind the scenario created in House of Stairs had a basis in reality, such a heinous experiment would have been impossible to carry out given the guidelines existent at the time Sleator wrote it.
The Vietnam War and American protesters
To use military language, in House of Stairs five orphans are drafted into a strange behavior-conditioning experiment. The goal of this experiment is to turn the five undisciplined young people into obedient soldiers who follow orders without questioning them. If the experiment proves successful, the participants will conform to some clearly defined, strict group rules. They will respond to the conditioning imposed upon them with the aid of a machine. This belief in conformity and behavior conditioning reflects the principles followed by the United States Armed Forces in conditioning its soldiers for warfare at the time.
By 1974, U.S. military involvement in Vietnam had largely ended, with a complete U.S. retreat by 1975. But in the years leading up to the publication of House of Stairs, the war in Vietnam was in the forefront of American concerns. During the post-World War II Cold War, American military and intelligence forces sought to limit the spread of communism worldwide. As early as 1950, communist North Vietnam had been viewed as a threat to its democratic neighbor, South Vietnam. And in the early 1960s, when communist-supported guerrillas aggressively invaded the South Vietnamese jungles, President Kennedy took action and sent advisors, and then troops, to South Vietnam. By the time Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, there were 16,500 American troops in South Vietnam to fight communist aggression there (Smith, p. 41). During this period, casualties were relatively small and the American public had not yet focused its attention on this overseas conflict. But when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration dramatically increased the number of American troops in Vietnam, they began to draw international attention, and a national debate over the U.S. presence in Vietnam began. Johnson’s administration increased the U.S. presence in Vietnam to 184,000 troops in 1965. The number climbed to 385,000 in 1966. Over the next few years sometimes violent antiwar demonstrations would erupt across the United States.
Many antiwar protesters felt that the U.S. had no business intervening in a small country that was thousands of miles away and represented no immediate threat to their own nation. Protesters also condemned the killing of thousands of innocent women and children through air-raid bombings and vicious ground attacks. There was discontent, too, over the fact that the war was largely being fought by poor and undereducated Americans. “Those from disadvantaged backgrounds were about twice as likely as their better-off peers to serve in the military, go to Vietnam, and see combat” (Becker, p. 127). In Sleator’s book, the “drafted” group of teenagers are likewise disadvantaged—all are parentless. And two of the orphans, Lola and Peter, rebel against the dictates of the machine. These rebels, in effect, parallel the real-life protesters of Sleator’s day, who rebelled against “the system” and conformity to values, including the commitment to the Vietnam War, that society had chosen for them.
Sleator’s pair of dissenters resemble members of the American “counterculture” that developed in the 1960s. Comprised mostly of the swelling number of teenagers and young adults born during the prosperous “baby boom” era following World War II, the counterculture movement renounced mainstream goods, goals, language, and dress. The movement hadits origins in the “beat generation” of the 1950s, whose leaders—for example, poet Allen Ginsberg—were critical of society and its emphasis on materialism and consumption. In keeping with this position, members of the counterculture outspokenly rejected establishment values and prejudices.
Typically, members of the counterculture and the related student movement spoke out against the Vietnam War and violence of any kind; the word “peace” became a common greeting as well as a frequent subject for contemporary songwriters and poets. Attempting to create a nonviolent society set apart from what they perceived as a violence-ridden establishment, many members of the counterculture joined communes and “dropped out” of society at large. They set out to live in harmony and peace, abiding by their own values rather than submitting to the values of others—which were primarily those of the previous generation.
In Sleator’s novel, Lola, a tough and independent leader, teams up with Peter, who is peaceful and introspective, and together the pair stands apart from the majority, who submit to the demands of the machine for violence. It is Lola who realizes that they must stand up against the machine if they are to retain control over their own lives. At the end of the novel, the society that created the machine judges Lola and Peter as “misfits”—much as American society at large commonly judged members of the student movement and the counterculture—without considering the worthiness of the choices the “misfits” made for self-determination. They were risky choices. In the novel Lola and Peter are in danger of starving to death because of their defiance. In real life two protesters were, for example, shot to death (along with two bystanders) at an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970.
Watergate and Nixon’s operatives
In the early 1970s the Republican administration of President Richard Nixon became embroiled in what would eventually be called “a national nightmare,” the Watergate scandal. If the war in Vietnam prompted Americans to question their government and the politicians who ran it, the Watergate scandal of 1974 created an environment of complete distrust and, in some cases, even contempt for national leaders. For the first time in U.S. history, a president was forced to resign in disgrace because of his involvement in a series of illegal actions that included politically motivated spying and an attempted cover-up at the highest levels.
In House of Stairs, scientists oversee a sometimes cruel experiment that has one goal: to produce conditioned subjects who blindly follow orders based on intense conditioning and behavior-control techniques. A 1974 review of the novel by Pamela D. Pollack connects it to the Watergate scandal. The novel has someone orchestrating the training of an elite corps who will “follow unquestioningly any order given to them and not get caught” (Pollock in Senick, p. 200). In the real-life Watergate scandal, Nixon re-election aides behaved like obedient foot soldiers in an orchestrated scheme; only they were caught, and Nixon’s tape-recorded links to them led to his downfall.
The Watergate scandal began in 1972, when, at the end of his first term in office, Nixon faced a re-election campaign against Democratic challenger George McGovern. In June of 1972, five men were arrested when they were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at Washington’s ritzy Watergate office building and residential complex. They were attempting to gather information about the McGovern campaign by wire-tapping the telephone of McGovern’s campaign manager. Initially the burglary attempt was viewed by the public as an insignificant, almost laughable incident meaning little. But as revelations emerged over the months that followed, a complex paper trail led aggressive journalists at the Washington Post and led governmental investigation committees to the Oval Office itself. Nixon and some of his top aides, it appeared, had been somehow involved in the political espionage. In time, the president was forced to turn over audio tapes he had made of conversations that implicated him in blatant cover-up attempts.
By mid-19 74, the president was aware that the House of Representatives, led by public outrage and ever-increasing indications of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, would move toward a constitutional impeachment. But he thought he still might have a chance to win over the Senate. On August 7, 1974, Senate and House members met privately with the president, and grim-faced, told him that the Senate, too, would be voting to impeach him. The president summoned his family and staff, and tearfully informed them of his decision to resign. On August 8, President Nixon addressed a stunned American television audience and announced his resignation, which officially occurred at noon the next day.
Peter is the first of a group of five sixteen-year-old orphans mysteriously deposited into a strange world of white stairs. As his unknown captors remove Peter’s blindfold, he sees dozens of flights of steps that seem to be interconnected and stand as one large entity that floats in a white spacious void. The stairs go up, down, and sideways, but don’t seem to lead anywhere. In the distance, all Peter can see are more stairs, and no doorways or exits. He can’t tell how high he is off the ground, but he has fears of falling down. Peter proceeds to cling to any flat landings he can find and forces himself to sleep. He dreams of better times at the orphanage with his best friend, Jasper. Peter seems lost and hopeless, until another person arrives.
Lola appears in the stair world. Tough and independent compared to Peter, she quickly explores the stairs in an effort to find her way out. She proves to be a dominant, leader type, her personality contrasting greatly with Peter’s quiet submissiveness. The two become friends and decide to find an escape together.
At this point, they encounter another abandoned orphan—an obese girl named Blossom with curly locks of hair and a frilly dress. She appears to be obsessed with a machine that she’s facing. Although she doesn’t understand why, when Blossom sticks out her tongue, the machine flashes a light and then dispenses a small piece of food. Lola, who is quite hungry at this point, forces Blossom to hand over some of the food for her and Peter. Lola’s bossy manner upsets Blossom, and the two quickly become enemies. Blossom, it turns out, knows as little about this strange stair world as Lola and Peter do.
Suddenly a new female voice is heard coming down from the steps above. The voice belongs to Abigail, another sixteen-year-old orphan who has been left in the stair world. The group acquaint themselves with one another, and Lola heads off on her own to find a source of water and a bathroom.
Once she’s out of earshot, Blossom starts to tell the others how mean she thinks Lola is and tries to turn the rest against her. She then starts to talk about her secret life with her family. While she is, in fact, an orphan, her parents died only a month ago in a car crash. Before her parents died, she says, her family “lived in A house. With real grass around it, and a live growing tree” (Sleator, House of Stairs, p. 32). Blossom further explains that her mom used to cook real food, and that the family even had a dining room and swimming pool. This contrasts sharply with the backgrounds of the others, who have lived in massive residential megastructures and eaten synthetic foods.
Finally, Oliver, a new boy, appears and explains to the group that he somehow was dumped into this stair world as well. Abigail instantly notices that Oliver is good-looking. He also exudes an air of confidence and strength that the others find attractive. Even Peter finds himself staring at Oliver in admiration. Lola returns and finds Oliver dancing and singing with the rest of the group. Oliver seems like a born leader, but Lola somehow threatens his sense of superiority. Lola’s investigation has been successful. She has located a toilet, which can also serve as a source of water for them, since there is no other. Oliver is angry that her return to the group has disrupted their fun; tension grows between the two.
Blossom’s tongue trick is now failing to make the machine dispense food. Oliver takes stock of their plight. He decides that to be dominant in the group, he must be the one to make the machine work. Having nothing to eat for nearly one full day, the group is now hungry. They try to make the machine give them food—but nothing works. By accident, the group notices that they have the power to make the machine dispense food by dancing for it after it starts humming. Soon the group’s around-the-clock job is to wait for the machine to start humming. When it does, they begin to dance and they usually get fed. When the machine does flash its light and give them food, they eat ravenously—especially Blossom. As weeks pass, members of the group develop coping patterns that reflect their personalities. For example, Peter retreats into a dream world in which he sleeps most of the time and thinks about his good friend Jasper. Blossom barely moves and spends all her time staring at the food machine and fighting with Lola. Oliver starts to become slightly abusive with Abigail. Highly independent, Lola begins each day by exercising up and down the stairs. She is determined to stay in top shape, both mentally and physically.
The group starts to sense that the machine wants more than mere dancing. In time they are no longer rewarded for this activity. Disagreeing over whether they should continue their dancing, they notice that the machine starts rewarding them for their contentious behavior. It seems to reward them with extra food whenever they are fighting. Picking up on this, the group decides to experiment. Blossom tells the group that Lola has been saying cruel things about them. By revealing these secrets, Blossom makes everybody feel bad, and Lola becomes the object of their hatred. After this outpouring of negative feelings and hatred, the food machine gushes forth with rewards for the hostages. Everyone realizes what they must now do. Lola thinks about the implications of the machine’s violent urges. She decides that the only intelligent thing to do is to get away from the machine. She retreats to her own area and urges the rest to join her in a strike against the machine.
Peter soon follows her. He says that he’s tired of always daydreaming and going along with the group. He wants to fight the machine the way Lola is doing. He suggests that a united front of two people will be more effective than just one. Lola and Peter attempt to get the other three participants to partake in their strike. But the others refuse.
The three orphans remaining near the machine try to find creative new ways to be cruel to one another. Oliver slaps Abigail’s face. Blossom steals Abigail’s food from her lap and throws a shoe at her. Soon the three are bruised and battered, and they run out of cruel tricks to play on one another.
They proceed to torment Lola and Peter, who by now are near complete starvation. Oliver, Blossom, and Abigail taunt the two rebels with food and begin to actually beat them up. The three return to their bountiful food supply and are rewarded with more food, while Lola and Peter, quite weak, draw closer to death.
At this point, Dr. Lawrence, the scientist conducting the experiment, decides to end it. He sends an elevator to rescue the five orphans and brings them to his lab, where they are all nursed back to health. He explains that they were, in fact, part of a behavior-modification group. According to Dr. Lawrence, the participants who fought for the food are successes. Lola and Peter, who fought the system, are “misfits” and will be confined to a misfit camp.
As the novel ends, the three “successes,” who have been released, see a flashing red street light (like the machine’s light) and instantly, they start to dance for their food. Lola and Peter look on sadly.
Lola and Peter fight authority
In Sleator’s novel, Lola and Peter wage a hunger strike against the powerful lure of the food machine. They do this in spite of near-fatal starvation and brutal physical violence inflicted on them by the other young people. But they seem to be driven by a force that is more powerful than hunger and violence—their own determination to maintain control over themselves rather than forfeit it to an outsider—in this case, a machine.
At one point, Lola tries to explain to Peter the power of the unknown forces that are controlling the food machine:
This thing we’re fighting, this place, the people who are doing it, whatever the hell it is, it’s tricky, it’s real tricky. And it’s in control. Everything is on its side. They have all the machines in the world and they’ve got us trapped, and they can do whatever they want to us. And we don’t have anything. We have nothing to fight with except ourselves, our own bodies and our brains.
(House of Stairs, p. 105)
Using their bodies, their brains, and their resolve, Lola and Peter emerge from the experiment as individuals who cannot be conditioned or brainwashed. They are viewed as failures by the scientist who conducts the experiment. But the reader is led to understand that Lola and Peter are in fact the real winners, for they have retained self-control. The so-called winners—Oliver, Abigail, and Blossom—are portrayed as pitiful slaves to their conditioning. The sad image of the three dancing even for a flashing street light at the end of the novel shows a bias toward the attitude demonstrated by the two rebels—Lola and Peter—in resisting the machine’s conditioning. This same preference is conveyed through positive attributes attached to their characters. Throughout the story, Lola is presented as strong and self-reliant, and Peter is portrayed as kind and loving. Though he retreats into sleep and his dreams to escape the horrors of the stair world, he ultimately shows strong resolve by joining Lola’s hunger fast. The three “winners” on the other hand, possess negative or unattractive attributes. Oliver abuses Abigail—even before the machine rewards him for doing so—and Abigail submits to his abuse, while Blossom proves to be gluttonous, greedy, and manipulative. In the end, the novel presents conditioning as a potentially destructive force and suggests a relation between its impact and the character traits of its subjects.
William Sleator says that “House of Stairs was an attempt to get away from where I’ve been and it was a totally different setting” (Ro-ginski, p. 201). He adds that he prepared for the book by doing extensive research in the field of behavior modification. In writing the novel, he started by carefully planning each of his five teenage characters: “I did sit down and map out each character way ahead of time and figure out who each character was” (Roginski, p. 199). As with some of his other novels, in House of Stairs Sleator uses a strange, fantastic setting to highlight the inner workings of adolescent social relationships.
Looking back at the 1974 novel, many critics refer to House of Stairs as a youth classic and a career highlight for Sleator, who went on to write more than twenty books. Upon its original publication, many critics spoke highly of the book. Pamela D. Pollack called the novel “an intensely suspenseful page-turner par excellence” (Pollack in Senick, p. 200). A Publisher’s Weekly review referred to the book as “extremely interesting” and noted that “Sleator is saying some deep things here about privacy and courage and the rights of the individual” (Publisher’s Weekly in Senick, p. 200). Finally, critic Sheila Egoff termed House of Stairs “Kafka-like” and added that “the story is one of the most brutal in science fiction, all the more sickeningly compelling because of its finely controlled, stark writing” (Egoff in Senick, p. 200).
Becker, Elizabeth. America’s Vietnam War: A Narrative History. New York: Clarion, 1992.
Dickenson, William B., ed. Watergate: Chronology of a Crisis. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1974.
Kazdin, Alan E. History of Behavior Modification. Baltimore: University Park Press, 1978.
Roginski, Jim. Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and YoungAdults. Chicago: Libraries Unlimited, 1985.
Senick, Gerard, ed. Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 29. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Sleator, William. House of Stairs. New York: Penguin, Puffin Books, 1974.
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