Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
Reviewed by L. Timmel Duchamp
12 July 2010
Joyce Carol Oates may not provide an introduction for Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, but she nevertheless makes her presence felt in this Library of America volume. Oates chose to include two novels that together total only 322 pages but almost all of Jackson's short fiction. Jackson's oeuvre is not enormous, and thus my first impression, on opening the volume, was of what Oates chose to exclude from its 827 pages. I noted, for instance, the exclusion of The Sundial, a novel that's long been out of print (and is the only novel by Jackson I've not yet read), and wondered why, in addition to the collection titled The Lottery and several "uncollected" stories, the stories characterized as "unpublished" had been included instead. After reading the volume, though, I am struck by how Oates's selections work, read in the order they appear in the volume, as a set to amplify the power of each individual piece, particularly the two novels she does include, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It is that power, as much as the pleasurable experience of Jackson's mastery, that will drive many readers, by the time the volume has finished with them, to seek out the rest of her work.
Two themes run through most of the fiction in the volume: the volatility of group dynamics and the collusion of social silence with psychological and even physical violence against individuals who are outsiders or have been excluded from the in-group. Jackson's fiction is for the most part not actually fantastic, but she frequently depicts behavior and psychological violence that is not acknowledged as such at the conscious level of the narrative, and in doing so presents mundane reality as troubled with sinister currents that can lead, unpredictably, to bizarre and even dangerous situations beyond the individual's control. Jackson's treatment of mundane reality, that is to say, casts into sharp relief the artificiality of the style known as "realism."
Take, for instance, the brief black comedy "Like Mother Used to Make." Day by day, David Turner devotes himself body and soul to transforming the tiny New York apartment he rents into his cherished dream home. His control over the circumstances of his life seems iron. But one night he finds himself expelled from his apartment when his neighbor, whom he has had over for dinner, invites her friend Mr. Harris (who has dropped by to see her) to join them and without batting an eyelash plays along with Mr. Harris's assumption that the apartment is Marcia's and that she has been giving David dinner. David's sense of the proper role of host (which he takes great pride in fulfilling) fairly compels him to play along, too, until he find himself saying goodnight and retiring to Marcia's cold, dirty, cluttered apartment. The most interesting—and disquieting—aspect of this story is that Jackson makes clear that Marcia and Mr. Harris have not conspired to do this. Rather, the illusion occurs as a mistake, and its force sweeps over the characters willy-nilly, enlisting David to maintain it. One could ask whether this story is fantastic or realist, but to do so would be to give rise to a whole series of questions about fantasy, reality, and the possible that would completely miss the point of the story. Jackson is playing a game of "what if" in this story—with its subjunctive term being a social illusion rather than an SF novum.
Using the story's own logic, I'd posit that although David could easily have countered Mr. Harris's false assumption at the outset, the longer the three of them maintain the illusion, the greater the effort and force are required for one of them to smash it. One might argue that even if David had been willing to drop the role of perfect host to challenge Harris's assumption, he might still have lacked the necessary degree of forcefulness to stand up to Harris. But I'd reply to that that the situation Jackson depicts is classically Goffmanesque (avant la lettre): the roles the characters have cast themselves to play in the scene exercise more force than the ordinary social being is able to resist. Once a social reality has been established, Jackson seems to be suggesting, facts alone can't alter it.
In the brilliant "Flower Garden," one of Jackson's longest pieces of short fiction, she depicts another sort of collusive silence, one that enforces the operations of racism in a small rural town in Vermont. "Young" Mrs. Winning (to be distinguished from her mother-in-law, "old" Mrs. Winning) lives in an extended family ruled by tradition. When a young widow and her son move into a nearby cottage, young Mrs. Winning develops a fascination with both the cottage and Mrs. MacLane and goes out of her way to insert herself into the widow's life. But everything changes from the moment that Mrs. MacLane sees Billy Jones, whom she characterizes as a "beautiful child . . . like a young statue" (p. 93). Mrs. Winning reacts by cautioning her: "the Jones children are half-Negro" (p. 93). At that moment Mrs. Winning's son Howard calls Billy "nigger," and the younger Davey, Mrs. MacLane's son, mimics him. Appalled, Mrs. MacLane chastises Davey and apologies to Billy; Mrs. Winning speaks then sharply to Billy (though not to her son Howard, whom she sends home). A socially tense scene ensues, culminating in Mrs. MacLane's hiring Billy's father to work in her yard. At home, Mrs. Winning's mother-in-law warns young Mrs. Winning to set Mrs. MacLane straight. Mrs. Winning reflects, "she [i.e., Mrs. MacLane] shouldn't have done it" (p. 96) (i.e., hired Billy's father). Mrs. Winning then drops hints to MacLane that are too oblique for her to get. A few charged scenes later, on the receiving end of loaded looks and remarks from her neighbors, Mrs. Winning thinks, "I've got to do something pretty soon. They'll stop coming to me first" [to complain about Mrs. MacLane's impropriety]. They'll tell someone else to speak to me" (p. 101). What Mrs. Winning does is avoid Mrs. MacLane and treat her like a stranger. But the earlier association seems to stick. Before throwing a birthday party for her child, the Winnings' neighbor asks Mrs. Winning, "Would it be all right with you if I didn't invite the MacLane boy" (p. 103). "Something bad has happened," Mrs. Winning thinks. "Somehow people think they know something about me that they won't say . . . this has never happened to me before; I live with the Winnings, don't I?" (p. 103) Mrs. Winning then publicly trashes Mrs. MacLane to her neighbors. When Mrs. MacLane asks her to explain why no one speaks to her now, Mrs. Winning thinks, "This is childish. This is complaining. People treat you as you treat them" (p. 105). In the eyes of the town, a single woman is not "nice" if she employs a black man in her home. Mrs. MacLane, an outsider, has no idea that she's no longer "nice." She is supposed to know without being told, since explicit telling would shine a light on the town's hypocrisy, and so her asking Mrs. Winning to do so is unforgivable.
Racism figures in another story, the very short "After You, My Dear Alphonse." Mrs. Wilson's boy, Johnny, has brought Boyd, a black child, home to play and then in to lunch. Mrs. Wilson makes the assumption that Boyd's family is poor, purely on the basis of his skin color. She says things like "Now eat as much as you want to, Boyd, I want to see you get filled up" (p. 71). But the role of poor boy is unfamiliar to Boyd, so when Mrs. Wilson tells him that he can have some of Johnny's suits and winter coat and some dresses for his mother to alter for herself, he's puzzled. He politely declines and says his mother doesn't know how to sew and "I guess we buy about everything we need" (p. 72). This makes Mrs. Wilson angry. And when Boyd says he doesn't mean to make her mad, she says, "I'm just disappointed in you, that's all" (p. 72). Neither of the boys have a clue about what's just happened. And the source of Mrs. Wilson's "disappointment"? Rather than recognize this factual challenge to racial stereotype, Mrs. Wilson can only resent the little boy who doesn't play the role she believes has been assigned him. (His refusing to play the role, despite its falseness, makes him uppity, of course.) Here the force of social roles fails because two of the three players haven't yet learned to play them.
The force of social roles and the volatility of group dynamics take on particular intensity in Jackson's best-known novel. The Haunting of Hill House is one of those works so rich that every reading produces a different story. I first read Hill House in my early twenties, as a gothic. I next read it in my thirties, as story of a neurotic woman losing it. In my forties, though, I was certain it was a lesbian ghost story. This reading, however, I find myself obsessed with the complex depiction of an outside force/ghost (a house and its history) thrusting roles on the members of a small group assembled to examine reported supernatural phenomena, a group in the process of developing a set of intense (if short-lived) relationships, as small groups brought together for a week or a month usually do). The narrative moves fluidly between close third person from the point of view of Eleanor Vance and third-person objective. The passages in third-person objective give the reader a baseline for judging Eleanor's perceptions and interpreting the story's events—and allow the reader to pick up on Eleanor's frequent duplicity and misrepresentations to the other characters. The thirty-two-year-old Eleanor is what would have been called "high-strung" at the time of the novel's publication in 1959. Her mother has recently died, releasing her from the burden of caretaking that has hitherto claimed all of her adult life. Her references, therefore, are constantly to her mother and the life she shared with her. It is therefore significant when one of the characters, Luke, says of Hill House, "It's all so motherly. Everything so soft. Everything so padded. Great embracing chairs and sofas which turn out to be hard and unwelcome when you sit down, and reject you at once and hands everywhere" (p. 390). Eleanor can't bear for Theo, the other woman in the party, to touch her feet because she associates that touching with her mother. And when the poltergeist—which somehow is the house—wakes Eleanor, she thinks at first that her mother is calling her. On the one hand, we have Eleanor's preoccupation with her mother, which colors everything; on the other hand, we have the third-person objective narrative associating the house with a malevolent mother. Similarly, we know from the "facts" presented via third-person objective passages that a lesbian couple once lived in it, and it seems likely that the poltergeist is the lover who survived her partner and then hanged herself; while we gather from passages of Eleanor's point of view that Theo is a lesbian about whom Eleanor feels deeply ambivalent, sometimes associating her with her mother, sometimes imagining her as the best friend she never had. All of these tensions, intensely pervading the narrative, invite readings like those I've made in the past myself—as gothic, as neurotic woman having a breakdown, as lesbian ghost story.
But having just read "The Lottery" again only the day before Hill House, I was struck by the novel's reversal of the short story's trope of the one elected to be the scapegoat and outsider. The group in Hill House does not elect Eleanor to be the outsider; rather, Eleanor embraces the role (so familiar) and actually rejoices in being chosen by the house/poltergeist and gloats that the house chose her and not the others. She is (demonically) possessed by the role, and her possession causes the dissolution of the group in an attempt to save her. Whereas in "The Lottery," being chosen to be the outsider strengthens the group, here being chosen to be the outsider destroys it. The house is antisocial—Jackson both opens and closes the novel with the statement that Hill House is insane because "no organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality" (p. 243). It has been solitary and contained and not been allowed to dream. The house can tolerate only those who uphold its order and do not challenge its regime. (It easily tolerates, for example, a woman who cannot perceive the poltergeist's manifestations and plays blithely with a planchette.) Eleanor isn't made an outsider by the group, but, it would seem, is picked off by the poltergeist as the group's weakest link. For Jackson, clearly, the relationship of individual to group is never simple.
I hadn't read We Have Always Lived in the Castle since my first encounter with it in the early 1970s. Reading it the day after I read Hill House (and two days after reading "The Lottery") without question changed my experience of the novel. While Hill House can be read as having a supernatural element, The Castle cannot, even though its adolescent narrator believes she practices magic. And yet, like many of Jackson's stories, non-realist conventions—in this case Gothic—allow Jackson to explore aspects of social reality that in 1962, at least, would have been declared implausible (not to say have been denied the possibility of nuanced treatment) had she confronted them head-on. The narrative is in the first person, in the voice of Mary Katherine Blackwood, aka Merricat, a disturbed eighteen-year-old who tells the truth as she knows and perceives it. Overtly, the narrative poses the question of who killed Merricat's parents and Aunt Dorothy with arsenic poisoning, which it answers long after most readers will have done so for themselves. Covertly, however, the narrative poses another question, one it does not explicitly answer but which the novel's Gothic style hints strongly at—viz., what terrible secret dominated Blackwood family life before the mass murder? The survivors of the murderous night are Merricat, her older sister Constance, and Uncle Julian, one of her father's brothers (who though he survived the arsenic poisoning recovered with serious physical and mental damage). A wealthy patriarch, John Blackwood fenced off the land that the villagers had been accustomed to pass through as a shortcut, kept a book listing all debts (monetary and otherwise) he believed people owed to him, constantly humiliated Julian and Dorothy, indigent relatives living with the family, and frequently punished Merricat by sending to her room without dinner (as had happened the night of the murder). John Blackwood's wife, mother of Constance and Merricat, played the harp, refused to cook or garden, forbade her daughters to enter her drawing room except to clean it, and was responsible for her husband's decision to fence off his land. Despite their wealth, they seem not to have had servants. Reading between the lines, we can assume that even before the murders, Constance mothered Merricat and took responsibility for all household duties. In the post-murder household, Constance and Merricat are compulsive about keeping everything as it has always been, Constance feels responsible for all of them, and Julian speaks about the past—about which Merricat and Constance cannot themselves speak. From Merricat's point of view, the only downside of their life is the need for her to go to town twice a week to shop. The townspeople hate the Blackwoods and believe that Constance, acquitted of murder, is a murderer who has gotten off scot free. Although we get only Merricat's side of the story, it seems likely that to the townspeople, the Blackwoods represent arrogance, privilege, and wealth—and the impunity from the law that privilege can buy. The Blackwoods may be outsiders vis-à-vis the townspeople, but the townspeople no doubt feel themselves to be outsiders vis-à-vis the Blackwoods and their social circle (from whom Merricat and Constance sustain curiosity-driven visits).
True to its Gothic style, the post-murder status quo is ruptured by the arrival of a cousin, Charles, a dead ringer for John Blackwood, who covets the Blackwoods' wealth and property and makes swift, effective moves to assume the role of patriarch. This Merricat can't tolerate, for Charles does not hide his intention to marry Constance and expel Merricat and Julian from the household. Charles bans all discussion of the past, so it's uncertain who he thinks committed the arsenic poisoning (or why). In Merricat's eyes, by threatening to restore patriarchal rule, Charles is an intruder and disturber of order, a polluter of the good life that the survivors share. Interestingly, Charles positions himself as belonging to both the townspeople and the Blackwoods—using the former as allies in his assault on the castle. It would seem likely that had Charles succeeded in his assault, he would have turned his back on the townspeople and assumed John Blackwood's role. Jackson does a wonderful job showing how both Constance (who is agoraphobic) and Merricat regard the house as their refuge, despite their previous experience there of patriarchal rule. Although neither Blackwood sister has any interest in the wealth they are sitting on, it is that and the class history of the Blackwoods that make the townspeople their enemies—and Charles's ally. The new status quo established after the novel's dramatic denouement suggests that Jackson saw class resentment (and not cultural or social misunderstanding or fear of a murderer) as key to understanding that enmity, which is interesting for a novel written during the Red Scare.
A few of the stories that follow The Castle in the volume struck me as anticlimactic and weak, but I'd like to mention a couple that particularly struck me. The 1952 "A Visit; or, The Lovely House" (a story that has been published as both "A Visit" and as "The Lovely House,"), in which an almost infinitely large, even recursive house's residents are possessed by the house, endlessly re-playing the house's history, absolutely ravished me. I began it expecting to meet Gothic conventions but instead, slowly, realized it was a ghost story—a gentler, kinder ghost story than Hill House. By contrast, the 1950 "Summer People," which is perhaps Jackson's second most famous short story, utterly chilled me. In this tale, the Allisons unwittingly take a step into the twilight zone when they they decide that because they so enjoy living in their summer cottage they won't return to the city the day after Labor Day as they (and all the other summer visitors) always do. The tale is distinctly science-fictional in its literalizing of the metaphor that "summer people" have no place in the local ecology/economy except in the summer, when their presence is tolerated (and exploited). Not only the locals, behind their bland facades, but even nature and technology turn against the Allisons when they stay where they didn't realize they don't belong, out of place and in violation of the natural order. At the end of the story the Allisons listen to their radio, as the announcer "spoke to them, in the summer cottage, quite as though they still deserved to hear news of a world that no longer reached them except through the fallible batteries on the radio, which were already beginning to fade, almost as though they still belonged, however tenuously, to the rest of the world" (p. 607). Nothing, in Shirley Jackson's worlds, can be worse than to be out of place.
Jackson wrote (and for the most part published) most of the fiction selected for this volume between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s, a time when the U.S. literary establishment of the day wholeheartedly embraced the notion that literature should be about what goes on in an individual character's head rather than about the workings of society. U.S. writers of that period often wrote in genre or borrowed genre conventions because genre allowed them to create incisive depictions of their social reality. Rather than moving entirely into genre as, say, Philip K. Dick did, Jackson adopted another strategy—that of using a pallette of genre conventions embedded in the ordinary to address what could not be tackled head-on. Her characters, though often individuals at odds with the (or a) group, are interesting not as individuals but as participants in social processes, which Jackson found endlessly fascinating and even mysterious. Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories gives us an intense, lingering look at not only to the fine brushwork of her depictions, but at her artful use of that palette as well.