House of Leaves, an unconventional novel written by Mark Z. Danielewski, can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. One interpretation is that the story is a tale of horror, as a house comes alive, swallows its inhabitants, and even the retelling of the story can force the reader to madness. Another interpretation is the book is a parody of literary criticism, as sources are endlessly cited, made up, and used in such excess that the book is more literary criticism than actual original content. However, the most dramatic interpretation is the novel functions as a character study, where the inhabitants of the house have their character tested and changed by the house they inhabit. One of the most dramatized characters is Karen Green, the long-term girl friend to Navidson, and the mother of his children. Throughout the course of the novel, Zampanò, one of the novel’s narrators, makes the case that through the events relating to the house, Karen was changed from a self-centered and flawed individual dependent on Navidson into a far more independent woman, no longer dependent on Navidson. However, while Karen may have gained some independence, she fails to separate from Navidson, indicating that Zampanò overstated the depth of the change Karen went through.
At the start of the novel, Zampanò makes it explicitly clear that Karen is not the perfect suburban mother. The initial move to the house is shown to be the result of an ultimatum by Karen to Navidson (10), and even once moved-in, film critics have noted that Karen and Navidson still fail to seriously interact. They may live together, but they don’t truly act as a couple. Combined with this is Karen’s focus upon herself. As indicated from her exposition, and her disgust with the hair Navidson pulls out of her hairbrush, Karen is still focused on personal appearance, even though she is past her modeling days (11). She cares about her finances, her looks, and issues concerning her, and yet fails to commit to Navidson (16). While Karen effectively runs the household, in terms of managing the kids, the cleaning, and forcing Navidson’s career change, she is still reliant on Navidson being there, as seen when she is relieved when he comes home (Page 12). The issue appears that Karen is not able to effectively convey to Navidson her feelings, leaving him feeling distant, and Karen saddened because Navidson is distant.
Karen is not perfect, by any means. Apart from being emotionally distant to Navidson and mildly neglectful of her children (she often forgets about them during the events concerning the maze), Karen is known for her affairs. Different commenters have described her as “promiscuous”, and even “a slut” (16), and yet, Navidson is able to move past this. Karen goes so far as kissing Wax after his first exploration, while Navidson was still in the house (92). Contrasting with her known indiscretions, Karen is extremely jealous about Navidson’s imagined indiscretion. Zampanò goes to lengths to prove that Navidson, even while on long trips away from home, always stayed faithful, Karen is constantly suspicious of Delial (17). The name Karen knows, but the story behind it is a mystery. Karen projects her own insecurities on a name she cannot describe (and we later find out was more personal to Navidson than initially realized (368)). Karen is also highly timid and reluctant to face reality. When first confronted with the discrepancy in house measurements (30), Karen would rather ignore it and move on, instead of finding the cause of the aberration. She skates over rough patches instead of solving them, initially. Zampanò attributes much of this behavior to a traumatic childhood experience involving rape, which froze her emotionally (247). Karen looks to external solutions that strictly avoid dealing with the problem head on, including Tarot and Feng Shui. (60)
Zampanò makes an effort to show, as he believes, that Karen has started to individuate herself from her husband, and was beginning to act individually. The first hint is when Karen talks to Tom on the radio while Tom is in the maze. She is finally to communicate that she loves Navidson (albeit through Tom) (225). This marks a departure from Karen’s normally cold exterior, who is distant from Navidson. She also begins to think about the children more often, and made plans to leave immediately after the exploration of the house (320). Her independence grows as she is acting outside of Navidson’s wishes, whereas all her previous actions were focused on the actions of Navidson. When Navidson finally comes back, she is not as dependent upon him, and sees his return as allowance of her freedom (322). After the house’s demise, Karen is able to separate from Navidson, and takes the kids to New York, the apparent final sign of Karen’s transformation.
However, no matter how strongly Zampanò tries to paint Karen’s new-found independence, there are significant vestiges to Karen’s old self that prevent acceptance of a full transformation. Once such situation occurs right as the house begins to act upon its inhabitants, and Karen is finishing packing. Instead of ensuring her kids are in the car, or making sure all valuables or objects of sentimental value are packed first, we see Karen packing up her beauty supplies, objects she still deems important (341). Following that, she is struck by the house, unable to protect her children, and is again reliant on Navidson, as he saves her from the house (342). After leaving Navidson for New York, she again falls into a pattern of suggested promiscuity (Zampanò states the sources are unverified and describe differing levels of activity), and reliance on her beauty for attention (evidenced by her continued love letters to and from suitors, and the gifts they delivered (349)). And no matter how she tries, she is unable to distance herself from that house, and continues to partake in editing the documentary Navidson is putting together. Her short parts of the documentary, “What Some Have Thought” and “A Brief History of Who I Love”, are focused on Navidson’s work and Navidson himself, respectively. Neither work goes into detail about any of the events, as they pertain to the changes to herself or her family. Instead, she is singularly focused upon Navidson. What this means for her character is that while she gained some independence and the confidence to do things by herself, she has yet to completely separate herself from Navidson. At this point, Navidson remains the creative center of her life, and she has not found her own identity. Zampanò claims that through her time in New York, Karen was finally separated from Navidson, both emotionally and spatially, yet, from the evidence, it is clear that a large part of her remains with Navidson.
What Zampanò fails to tell us is exactly why Karen decides to reconcile with Navidson (369). If he had been able to find exactly why she had chosen to reconcile with Navidson, perhaps his stance on her transformation would be stronger. However, in light of Karen’s personality at the beginning of the book (being dependent on Navidson), and on the timing of her decision to reconcile (right after she was finished with her contribution to Navidson’s work), it seems that Karen goes back to Navidson based more on her need to be close to him.
As a character study, Zampanò aptly describes Karen, but fails to draw the right conclusions concerning the eventual state of her character, and overstates the depth of her change. Karen is able to assert her independence as a woman as the novel progresses, but she fails to separate herself from Navidson sufficiently. She is still focused upon his actions, and his work, and what was his goal of a documentary, while she follows along. While she may act independently, Karen is still not her own person.
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print