Shriley Jackson Essay, Research Paper
The Irrepressible Individual in the Works of Shirley Jackson
Throughout her life, Shirley Jackson struggled with a conflict between her dogged individuality and society’s requirement that she adhere to its norms and standards. Jackson saw a second level of human nature, an inner identity lurking beneath the one which outwardly conforms with society’s expectations. Society’s repression of her individuality haunted Jackson in her personal life and expressed itself in her writing through the opposition of two levels of reality, one magical and one mundane, but both equally real. All of the various dichotomies that make up Jackson’s double-sided reality can be traced to the hidden human nature, the repressed individual she saw within each of us.
From an early age, Jackson did not feel completely comfortable in the society around her. She preferred to sit in her room and write poetry rather than play with the other children in her neighborhood (Oppenheimer 16). Alone in her room, Jackson explored the magical worlds, the alter-egos which her family did not understand. “I will not tolerate having these other worlds called imaginary,” she insisted (Oppenheimer 21). Jackson did not satisfy her mother, a wealthy socialite who wanted her daughter to be beautiful and popular and was disturbed by her talk of “other worlds.” Relations between Jackson and her mother were tense throughout her life, paralleling the conflict between Jackson and the society in which she found no place for herself.
“I will not tolerate having these other worlds called imaginary”
Jackson’s mother wrote to her once that “you were always a wilful child” (Oppenheimer 14). This careless statement captures Jackson’s stubborn assertion of her individuality, as well as her mother’s disapproval. Jackson’s obesity particularly troubled her mother, who suggestively sent her corsets even after she was married (Oppenheimer 14). Being overweight symbolized Jackson’s rebellion against her mother and the standards of fashionable society. Her obesity demonstrates the connection Jackson made between her unique individuality and the “freakish and abnormal, the ‘grotesque and arabesque’” (Sullivan n. pag.).
The abnormal second reality Jackson contemplated in the seclusion of her room was to her supremely ironic. Jackson rarely ends her stories with a resolution of the plot; instead, a dramatic incident or revelation serves to illustrate the irony she sees in the world. In her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” Jackson takes pains to describe a village of hard-working, upstanding Americans. Each of the villagers speaks of the lottery reverently, and it is implicitly compared to such decent and American activites as “the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program” (Magic 138). Critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren have compared Jackson’s short stories with fables or parables in which the reader identifies with the plain, seemingly ordinary characters, and learns a lesson or moral from them. Thus, when the violent reality of the lottery is exposed our discomfort is augmented by the empathy we have gained for the all-American villagers (Brooks 72-73). Jackson’s use of irony in this case is so effective that the publication of “The Lottery” by The New Yorker in 1948 provoked an unprecedented torrent of mail from readers believing that the ritual described in the story was factual and demanding to know where it was practiced (”Morning” 1195). As Mary Kittredge has commented, abrupt endings which expose an abnormal reality beneath the superificial order demonstrate that “the line between the cruel and the comedic is sometimes vanishingly narrow” (qtd. in Votteler 249). To the cruel and the comedic may be added the magical and the ordinary, as well as true human nature and societally regimented order.
Irony in Jackson’s writing works together with several recurrent motifs serve to illustrate her message. Jackson’s theme of double-sided human nature represents a philosophy similar to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and both employed similar motifs. Jackson, like Rousseau, was occupied with how society alters the natural state of man, though the two differed in that Jackson did not view natural man as inherently good, a “noble savage.” Both of these thinkers based much of their observations of the individual on the concept of the child as a pure and unspoiled specimen of humanity (Rousseau 1006). In fact, children and childishness appear frequently in Jackson’s work as metaphors for individuals liberated from the single, ordinary reality imposed by society.
The basis for the motif of children in Jackson’s work may be traced to her personal life through her two works of non-fiction, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. These autobiographical comedies center around Jackson’s children, her so-called demons, whom she cared for in a surprisingly conventional role as housewife and mother. Unlike her fiction, these texts are not ominous or morbid, but the episodes of family humor are nonetheless conveyed in the same ironic style as her fiction. Recounting her eldest son’s first week of school, Jackson describes how he deceives her into believing that a fellow classmate, Charles, is acting up in class when, in the end, we learn that there is no Charles and Jackson’s son, Laurie, is the real culprit. In his mischief, Laurie demonstrates his freedom from society’s regulation. Whereas Rousseau might have viewed Laurie as innocent, Jackson shows that children, who do not understand the difference between right and wrong, have not yet been indoctrinated with society’s values and so express the uninhibited cruelty and abnormality of human nature.
“The line between the cruel and the comedic [in Jackson's work] is sometimes vanishingly narrow.”
As samples of raw human nature, children in Jackson’s work are associated with the supernatural of her “other worlds.” When Laurie tells his parents of a friend’s adventures in a haunted house down the street, they recall nostalgically the haunted houses of their own childhoods. The parents, however, must act in society’s name to impose order. “My husband and I found ourselves repeating the same amused platitudes about boys who went into haunted houses that our parents had used to us,” Jackson says. (Magic 490). In fact, she regards her son’s free spirit with more than simple parental caution; she indicates that “I personally have always believed in ghosts” (Magic 490), showing that for Jackson, the demons of the human spirit are not just figurative devices. The story of the haunted house exemplifies Jackson’s association of magic and the supernatural with the uncorrupted individual.
Like Jackson’s children, the children in her short fiction must be taught the mores of their society. In “The Lottery,” fitting in to the village society means blindly following tradition and accepting the yearly lottery despite its horrible consequences. The children in this story are the first to gather for the ritual, piling stones as if they were playing a game without understanding why. As the villagers begin to attack the victim of the lottery, “the children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles” (Magic 145). Davy, the son of the victim, is apparently too young to understand that he must help kill his mother, so the adults show him what he must do (Kosenko 32). In “Flower Garden,” a boy who is new to the town quickly learns the racial prejudice that characterizes the society. The new boy joins his friend in eagerly shouting slurs at a black boy, creating a scene chillingly reminiscent of the children piling stones in “The Lottery.”
Whereas her short stories present children as blank slates ready to learn to live in society, Jackson’s novels explore the original, unadulterated human nature of the child. Though the age of Jackson’s heroines is not always stated explicitly, the tone of the characters’ voices often reflects a child-like mind as well as an abnormal mental state underlying their seemingly benign appearance. Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a young girl and the first-person narrator who describes the world around her in the black-and-white simplicity of a child. The reader is won over by her innocence, sympathizing with Merricat’s fantasy-like life of seclusion from the nasty village society. The creeping realization that Merricat has murdered four members of her family produces a sharp contrast with the picture of a sweet girl victimized by a cruel society (Woodruff 152). Constance, Merricat’s sister who represents, as her name suggests, the saner half of Merricat’s psyche, is older and more susceptible to the repression of society. Merricat’s concern through much of the book is keeping her sister in the “castle,” safe from the society, represented by the village, from which they fled after their family’s death.
Merricat’s tone reveals a manic optimism about the world that characterizes the mental instability of many of Jackson’s characters. Even as she and her sister sit in their burned-out and looted house at the end of the novel, Merricat reassures Constance; “We are so happy,” she says (214). The seeming madness of characters like Merricat symbolizes the abnormality of the individual psyche in Jackson’s work. Jackson herself suffered from intermittent bouts of depression and mental illnes, causing her to drop out of college (Kittredge 3). Jackson’s depression, which stemmed from her failure to fit in to society, no doubt served as the motivation and the inspiration for her treatment of insanity as an expression of individuality in her fiction.
Magic and the supernatural are recurring symbols for hidden realities in Jackson’s work. The doctor’s wife in The Haunting of Hill House uses a ouija board like the one at right to communicate with this world. Jackson herself believed in magic and had an extensive collection of books on the supernatural.
Image source: The Hallowed Halls of Ouija At age thirty-something, Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House is technically older than Merricat. Yet Eleanor’s psychotic insecurity and childish behavior, and the fact that she has lived out most of her life caring for her mother, indicate that she is a parallel symbol for natural man. Eleanor’s arrival at Hill House represents an escape from the ordinariness of her existence with her family, similar to the escape of the Blackwoods or of the heroine of “The Tooth” who sheds her domestic identity when her inflamed tooth is extracted. “During the whole underside of her life, ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House. Caring for her mother,… Eleanor had held fast to the belief that someday something would happen…. Eleanor, in short, would have gone anywhere” (7-8).
Hill House is Eleanor’s fantasy and an extension of her insane mind. Eleanor’s stay at the house amounts to an exploration of her double-sided psyche. The line between the real supernatural apparitions of the house and the fabrications of Eleanor’s imagination is blurred by the biased narration, oscillating between statements by Eleanor and by an omniscient third-person narrator (Sullivan). The manic style of the narration, as in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, reflects Eleanor’s unstable psyche. The ghosts of Hill House may be real or may be manifestations of Eleanor’s madness; the ambiguity is intentional. To Shirley Jackson the supernatural and the insane are both part of a magical “other world,” the repressed human nature within us.
As is usual in Jackson’s fiction, The Haunting of Hill House is not resolved by the final plot twist. In Hill House Eleanor finally finds her inner identity, however psychotic it may be. As she decides to kill herself rather than leave the house and once more lose her identity, Eleanor says, “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).
In addition to the motifs of children and mental illness, Jackson takes from her personal life a view of domesticity and the family as institutions designed to impose conformity. “The Lottery” portrays a town of rigid moral sensibility in which adherence to the family and social roles assigned by society is viewed as necessary in order to prevent a breakdown of the social order. This rigidity is supported by superstition and tradition and enforced by fear. According to Peter Kosenko, it is the fear of some unlucky event, such as being selected in the lottery, which motivates the men to work for the benefit of the town’s business elite and the women to remain in a position of inferiority within the family and society. The ritual of the lottery itself mirrors this social structure; the lottery is controlled by the town’s leading businessmen, and women are dependent upon their husbands to choose the family’s lot.
Clara Spencer, the protagonist in “The Tooth,” escapes the repression of her family life, a repression that is represented by a toothache which has afflicted her ever since she met her husband. As Clara travels to New York City to have the tooth removed, the journey takes her farther from her home and farther from her domestic identity. A fantastic and fleeting stranger, the opposite of her down-to-earth and unromantic husband, approaches Clara in her drugged stupor, offering to take her to a utopia “even farther than Samarakand” (Magic 124). There, it is implied, she may forget her family obligations and live a life of self-centered pursuit of pleasure. At the end of the story, Clara “[runs] barefoot through hot sand” (Magic 136), suggesting that she has escaped to a tropical paradise of free love in place of marital rigidity and open individualism in place of ordered conformity (Pascal).
Clara’s symbolic journey from her small town to New York exemplifies the recurrent contrast in Jackson’s fiction between the repression of the village and the freedom and individuality of the city. Indeed, the contrast between city and village originates in Jackson’s real life as described in Life Among the Savages. The book begins with an account of her move from New York to a small town where the villagers offer advice to newcomers on how to properly behave in order to conform to the society. “The Renegade” mirrors Jackson’s personal experience, describing a woman who, upon moving to the country, struggles to gain acceptance by conforming to the proper role of a country woman as a housewife. She is unwilling to sacrifice her personal values, however, when the villagers demand that her dog be put down for killing some chickens. The story closes as the heroine describes feeling as though it is her life and individuality, not the dog’s, which are being strangled by the repressive society.
City and country, child and adult, magical and ordinary, individual and communal: all these dichotomies express Shirley Jackson’s theme of a hidden reality beneath the surface of our everyday lives. “The identity is all-important,” Shirley Jackson once said of her beliefs in writing (Oppenheimer 14). The many levels of human nature and the several faces of reality conflicted with society’s demand for conformity and order in Jackson’s life, and their clash drives her work.