“The House of Stairs”: Probing the Depths of a Manipulative Mind

“The House of Stairs”

By Ruth Rendell (Writing as Barbara Vine)

(Source: http://www.penguinreaders.com/pdf/downloads/pr/teachers-notes/9781405879620.pdf)

About the author

‘Barbara Vine’ is the pen name of the world-famous crime
writer Ruth Barbara Rendell. Rendell was born in 1930
in London, the only child of an English mother and a
Swedish father. She spent many holidays in Scandinavia
and can speak Danish and Swedish fluently. Although
both her parents were teachers, Rendell chose instead to
become a journalist after leaving high school. She found
a job at a local newspaper, where she met (and worked
under) her future husband, Don Rendell, with whom she
now has a son. However, after writing about a social event
that she hadn’t attended, and discovering later on that the
main speaker had died in the middle of his speech, she
resigned from the newspaper before she could be fired.

Rendell has been writing fiction ever since her hurried
departure from the newspaper. She has been called the
‘Queen of Crime’ and ‘the best mystery writer in the
English language anywhere in the world’. She has written
more than fifty-five novels, as well as several collections of
short stories and a handful of novellas. She published her
first book in 1964 — “From Doon with Death” — a crime
novel featuring Inspector Wexford, who would become
the central figure in her hugely popular detective series.
Rendell has won numerous awards for her books, and
many of her novels and short stories have been adapted for
television. In addition, two of her books have been made
into feature films by French and Spanish directors.

Rendell says that she wrote the first Barbara Vine book,
“A Dark-Adapted Eye” (1986), for fun — to see if she could
write a different kind of detective story. She chose to use
a different name, Barbara Vine, so that she could write a
darker, more complex kind of psychological thriller. She
says that she doesn’t like to be limited to one genre.

In fact, many credit Rendell — along with another successful
English crime writer named P.D. James — with changing
mystery novels from ‘whodunits’ into ‘whydunits’. In
other words, she has helped to shift the focus of mystery
novels from trying to determine who committed the crime
to trying to find out why the person or persons chose to
commit it. Rendell’s detectives don’t just look for external
facts. They also delve into the minds of the criminals and
search for internal reasons. In short, Rendell has added
psychology to the genre of mystery writing.



“The House of Stairs” starts with the narrator of the story,
Lizzie, running into Bell Sanger in a street in London.
Lizzie begins to recount the terrible events leading to Bell
being sent to prison fourteen years earlier. Meanwhile, in
the present-day story, Bell and Lizzie start to renew their
old friendship — a friendship that is fraught with mystery
and intrigue.

In the background story, Bell appeared almost from out
of nowhere. Using her charm and attractiveness, she
managed to win over the affections of Lizzie and her
friend and substitute mother, Cosette. However, Lizzie
and Cosette knew very little about Bell or her background,
and Bell resisted telling them the truth about herself.

In fact, Bell wasn’t who she appeared to be. Inspired by the
story of a well-known book, she had formed a secret, evil
plan through which she hoped to become rich. However,
her plan went terribly wrong and ended in a tragedy that
affected everyone living in the House of Stairs.

More than a decade has passed since the dark days at the
House of Stairs, and Bell has been freed from prison for
her crimes. However, it remains to be seen if she has truly
been rehabilitated — or if she is destined to return to her
old ways.


Background and Themes

Not the usual detective story: The House of Stairs isn’t
a conventional detective story — instead, it is a rich and
complex psychological thriller. Vine explores the series of
events that lead to a murder. The truth about the tragedy
is gradually revealed as the story jumps backwards and
forwards in time. It is dark and mysterious, making it
hard for the reader to stop turning the pages. The book is
psychological in that the author is interested in how things
happen as a result of her characters’ personalities.

She wants to see what it takes to push someone over the edge
and commit a terrible crime. She shows us how seemingly
insignificant events can lead certain personalities towards

A complex read: The House of Stairs is a complex book
because the reader doesn’t know what facts are important
and what facts aren’t — even though he or she has been
given all the information needed to understand the basics
of what is happening in the story. The reader knows
that something is going to happen, but he or she doesn’t
know what, when or to whom. The plot has many layers
to it, and it makes back and forth between the past and
the present, so the reader must always read carefully to
keep up with the twisting and turning storyline. The
complexity of the story compels the reader to want to keep
reading in order to straighten out the story’s plot. In fact,
the story is so complex that it even makes the reader want
to read the book a second time. By reading the book a
second time, the reader can finally put all the pieces of the
puzzle into the right places.

Unreliable narration: One way in which Vine achieves
the psychological tension in The House of Stairs (for which
she is well known) is that she uses a first-person narrator.
However, Lizzie isn’t very reliable as she often interprets
events incorrectly. Although the reader is led to believe
Lizzie, the cleverness of the writing makes him or her
suspect that occasionally the truth may lie elsewhere. For
example, when Lizzie’s father comes and talks about the
future, Lizzie fails to understand Bell’s look.
However, the reader is likely to know exactly what Bell is
thinking because of what he or she already knows about
her character. This technique, in which the reader often
feels that he or she knows more about a character than the
narrator, creates an almost unbearable tension throughout
the story.

Mother-daughter relationships: An important aspect of
the psychology embedded in The House of Stairs is Vine’s
exploration of the mother and daughter relationship and
what happens to people when — through some twist of
fate — their mothers are absent from their lives. Lizzie
and Bell are both ‘motherless’. Lizzie replaces her own
mother, whom she lost to a fatal illness, with Cosette, who
becomes the most important person in her life. However,
even Cosette ends up disappearing, and Lizzie loses a
mother for a second time. Bell’s mother failed to prevent her child from committing an evil crime, starting a pattern of behaviour that is destined to repeat itself throughout Bell’s life. Vine seems to be saying that both characters
have lost their way due to the absence of good mothers. It
raises the question: how would the characters have turned
out if they had grown up with mothers in their lives?

Life imitating art: An interesting theme in The House of
Stairs is the way in which life imitates art. In a calculated
and perhaps cynical way, Bell dresses up as Lucrezia
because she sees that Lizzie will be charmed by seeing the
portrait come to life. However, Lizzie, who is educated
and literate, doesn’t understand how literal an uneducated
person like Bell can be. For Bell, the plot of “The Wings of
the Dove” is a clever idea for making some money, which
she then proceeds to act out in the real world. Lizzie, on
the other hand, recognizes the plot as a good idea for a
novel. The final irony is that at the end of the book, it is
Lizzie — and not Bell — who finds herself in the position
of the life-threatened Milly Theale from “The Wings of the




noun: manipulation; plural noun: manipulations

The action of manipulating something in a skilful manner.

“The format allows fast picture manipulation”

The action of manipulating someone in a clever or unscrupulous way.

“There was no deliberate manipulation of visitors’ emotions”


This blog is solely dedicated to probing the depths of a manipulative mind. Manipulative people, unfortunately, are everywhere – they surround us in our daily lives and interactions, whether we choose to accept this fact or not. We cannot avoid them, but we can learn to recognize such unscrupulous persons for who they are and what they represent and we can learn to deal with them accordingly.

Manipulative people have very many negative qualities and several flaws in their character & personality. Any positive characteristics that such people might possess are invariably overshadowed by the negativity of the entire picture.

  • Manipulators often put on a veneer of charm and charisma to make themselves likeable and attractive to other unsuspecting people – except that when this mask of falsehood inevitably falls, they show their true, ugly selves. Most people thoroughly dislike manipulators and they may even go so far as to hate them.
  • Manipulators feel no qualms in telling lies. They tend to avoid confrontation because they know that in such a circumstance, their lies will give them away.
  • They lure people into their ‘affections’ by affecting false charm and charisma.
  • Manipulators are intelligent people who use their intelligence the wrong way, for all the wrong reasons and always to suit their hidden motives.
  • They tend to be insincere, inconsiderate and mean-spirited people. They feel no qualms in betraying another. In fact, they would happily repeat the same destructive behaviour, again and again, without blinking an eye. They do have a conscience – they are very well able to distinguish Right from Wrong; but they willfully continue with their wrongdoing, without any scruples whatsoever because it suits their hidden agenda.
  • Manipulators have very few (or no) friends or acquaintances, worth the name. The manipulator is actually highly insecure but he/she tends to hide this insecurity by becoming a dominating, control-freak.
  • He/She is, quite often, a cowardly bully and such a negative-minded person is known to actively seek out other people who they can “latch onto:” he/she preys upon the innocent and the naïve, especially people who are perceived as being weak, vulnerable, insecure and gullible.
  • The manipulator is vain and greedy and he/she would like to obtain as much as possible for himself/herself with little or no financial inputs, efforts, etc. from his/her side. They are invariable “free-loaders,” hangers-on” and “time-servers.” They are ruthless people who shamelessly make use of  their unsuspecting victims. Once they realize that their victim has seen through their charade, the manipulators drop them like a ton of bricks, before moving on to look for another unsuspecting individual, who can ‘be of use to them.’
  • They are very selfish, self-centered and self-opinionated people; they like ‘to be seen and heard’ at all times. They like to think of themselves as being extremely honest people – the truth is that their ‘so-called frankness’ invariably borders on bluntness and rudeness. The fact is that they are thoroughly outspoken and are often obnoxious.
  • Manipulators are very secretive about their own lives and happenings. They will seem to be telling the truth outwardly but it will invariably turns out to be a “half-truth” or a complete lie. Their basic inquisitiveness for other people borders on intrusiveness. This behaviour is seen as being highly irritating and offensive to the opposite party because of the lack of flow of equal information from both sides. In that sense, they are unscrupulous opportunists.
  • They have little (or no) feelings for anyone besides themselves; they are extremely narcissistic and cold-hearted people. For them, what matters always is, “Me, Myself and I.”
  • They are evil, devious, sly and sneaky people; they are ‘smooth talkers’ who get by under their mask of attractiveness. They can be extremely persuasive if they so wish – this persuasion is a tool that is often used, by them, to satisfy their own hidden agenda and ulterior motives.
  • Manipulators are always restless; their mind is never at rest nor at peace – they are forever scheming about how they can dupe another and gain from it.
  • Such persons are as enigmatic as they are charismatic. They tend to exude an aura of mystery. Manipulators tend to be very secretive about themselves and the details of their own life but they are very curious and intrusively inquisitive to know all about their ‘victims’ and their lives.
  • Do not expect an apology from a manipulator anytime soon – they rarely, if ever, feel remorse nor do they have a sense of repentance. This destructive lifestyle suits their purposes and they have every intention of continuing in the same way, for a long time to come.
  • Manipulators are, on the whole, wholesomely obnoxious people. The best that you can do is to distance yourself as far as possible from such people because their behaviour is harmful and destructive to themselves and to others.


The question that finally arises is, “Can manipulators be rehabilitated at all?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” The problem inevitably is NOT whether these persons can be made to change their ways and become better people; the problem lies in the fact that the manipulator is very content in his/her destructive lifestyle.

Ruth Rendell

 The House of Stairs

The problem, thus, is not WHETHER manipulators CAN be made to change their ways for the better; the basic issue is whether they WANT TO change for the better.


In the end, it all boils down to one important fact – it is to be noted that NOT everything in Life is about you and what you want; other people matter too. Learn to look beyond the end of your nose. There is a world of people out there, just in case, you failed to notice it.


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