Above all Jackson is a storyteller; her stories aim to entertain. Yet the entertainment value of her fiction masks a pessimistic view of human nature; social criticism, overt or implicit, is central to every one of her works. Humankind is more evil than good. The mass of men is profoundly misguided, seemingly incapable of enlightenment. Lacking either the capacity to reason or the strength to act upon moral convictions, their lives are dictated by habit and convention. They often behave with callous disregard of those around them. Set against this backdrop are the victimized protagonists. They may be victims of society, of family or friends, or victims of their own fragmented and disintegrating personalities. Yet even in the novels and stories that deal almost exclusively with the private worlds of individuals, the isolation of these lonely figures is intensified by the sense that the world surrounding them is cruel--peopled with weak or malignant characters. Emotional warmth and closeness are rare in Jackson's fictional universe; there is little to sustain a healthy personality.
The origin and development of Jackson's vision of society and mankind necessarily remain speculative, since she was reluctant to discuss either her fiction or her life before the public. The daughter of Leslie Hardie Jackson and Geraldine Bugbee Jackson, she was born into a family of successful San Francisco professionals. She seemed to have wanted to be a writer from an early age. She wrote poems and kept journals throughout her childhood. These journals reveal an interest in superstition and the supernatural, and one entry (a 1933 New Year's resolution) is interesting and perhaps revealing: "seek out the good in others rather than explore for the evil."
When Jackson was fourteen, the family moved from California to New York. After one unhappy year at the University of Rochester, she dropped out of school to spend the next year (1936 to 1937) at home, pursuing a career as a writer. She set herself a quota of at least a thousand words a day and established a disciplined routine that she was to follow the rest of her life. The following year she entered Syracuse University, where she made her first acquaintance with the texts of anthropology, including James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), which were to influence her later work. She also published both fiction and nonfiction regularly in campus magazines. Her editorials championed the underdog and denounced prejudice on campus, particularly against blacks and Jews.
Upon graduation in 1940 she married fellow student Stanley Edgar Hyman and moved to New York City. A clerical job she held there became the subject of her first nationally published short story, "My Life With R. H. Macy." Over the next few years she continued to publish short fiction regularly, despite the birth of her first child, Laurence, in 1942. In 1945 a daughter, Joanne, was born, and in that same year she and her growing family moved to North Bennington, Vermont, where she was to remain, apart from brief absences, "comfortably far from city life" for the rest of her writing career. The Hymans had two more children: Sarah in 1948 and Barry in 1951.
The first few years in Vermont were outwardly less productive ones, but in 1948 The Road Through the Wall, her only novel set in suburban California, was published. Several households on the same block form the subject of the novel, and the rather spiteful interactions between individuals and between families become the basis for the plot. The characters' lives reflect a certain moral bankruptcy, which is passed from parents to children. The novel was received with moderate acclaim and demonstrated that Jackson could sustain reader interest through the novel form. On 28 June of that year the New Yorker printed "The Lottery." The story occasioned so much public outcry that Jackson's reputation--and notoriety--were assured from then on.
"The Lottery" is about the reenactment in contemporary society of an ancient scapegoat ritual. Its genius lies in the juxtaposition of the savage and the modern. A public stoning performed in the town square of an otherwise peaceful community communicates a powerful shock to the reader, an effect heightened by Jackson's unemotional narrative style. A modern fable, "The Lottery" reveals men and women to be timid, conformist, callous, and cruel. Although Jackson published dozens of short stories during her lifetime, she never again produced such a satire of the evil in human nature. She turned instead to studies of individuals, exploring the private worlds of lonely, often mentally ill, characters. Her short stories contain a diversity of themes and employ a variety of techniques, including what may well be her hallmark, a deliberate blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy. Some of these techniques were reproduced to even greater effect in the novels, yet the short fiction is striking in its own right.
"The Lottery" was included in Prize Stories in 1949: The O. Henry Awards. Appearing in Best American Short Stories were "The Summer People" in 1951; "One Ordinary Day With Peanuts" in 1956, and "Birthday Party" in 1965. Jackson received the Edgar Allen Poe Award for "Louisa Please" in 1961. She was honored by Syracuse University in 1965 with the Arents Pioneer Medal for Outstanding Achievement.
In her second novel, Hangsaman (1951), Jackson writes about a young woman who is perilously close to mental disintegration. Natalie is seventeen, highly intelligent, and under the shadow of her father's dominating personality. She enrolls in an exclusive women's college (her father's choice) and, from the first, experiences the sensation of being an outsider. Her keen mind and reserved nature seem to act as a barrier between herself and others, and the passing months only increase her sense of estrangement. Correspondence with her father becomes more strained; her journal entries reveal at least a tendency toward schizoid patterns of thinking. A brief infatuation with her literature professor is quashed when she sees his insensitive treatment of his wife. At this point she meets Tony, a young woman who appears on the campus at unexpected times and places, a seeming loner like herself. Friendship with Tony is at first satisfying and seems to promise relief from Natalie's acute loneliness and rejection by the other girls. The two friends study together, tell each other's fortunes, even sleep side by side. But is Tony real, or a creation of Natalie's disturbed mind? As in the shorter works of fiction, it is difficult to establish her existence for certain.
The novel's final scene has puzzled critics. It is nighttime, and Tony and Natalie have taken a bus to a lonely wooded area outside of town. The bus is making its last route; when it departs the girls will be stranded. Natalie is frightened and wants to return to the college, but Tony, laughing at her fears, leads her deeper into the woods. Natalie loses sight of her in the dark. She calls out. When Tony refuses to answer, the uneasiness which she has always subconsciously felt with Tony surfaces, and Natalie succumbs to pure panic. Tony reappears then, and coaxes her into an embrace. Surprised and bewildered, Natalie runs away. When she regains control of herself she finds her way back to town, and the novel ends on a hopeful note: "She was now alone, and grown-up, and powerful, and not at all afraid."
Interpretations of Hangsaman vary, depending upon whether the reader accepts Tony as Natalie's real or imaginary companion. On a realistic level, the book has been regarded as a study of adolescence, a perceptive tale of a young girl's initiation into adulthood. In this context, a possible implication is that Natalie has rejected a homosexual liaison with Tony, and that this is part of her growing-up process. If, on the other hand, Tony is a figment of Natalie's imagination, then the book becomes an exploration of the private world of a schizophrenic. If the reader is meant to believe that Natalie has recovered her sanity at the end of the book, critics have noted that the return to normality is too abrupt, and her full recovery seems implausible. If her recovery at this point is implausible, the optimism in the last lines becomes extremely ambiguous.
Whatever Jackson intended in Hangsaman, she clearly set out to fictionalize a dissociated personality in The Bird's Nest (1954). This book was the fruit of Jackson's extensive study of mental illness, and the multiple personality of Elizabeth-Beth-Betsy-Bess is based on an actual case history she turned up in the course of her research. The book is divided into six sections, each assuming the point of view of one of several characters, including Elizabeth's aunt and Elizabeth's attending psychiatrist, Dr. Wright.
The first section of the novel establishes the basic situation. Twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth works on the third floor of a museum which is in bad need of repair but nevertheless provides the perfect refuge for "cringing scholarly souls." Subject to severe headaches since her mother's death four years before, Elizabeth lives with her aunt and seems to do little besides eat, sleep, and work. Her life is vague and undirected. She has no friends.
Elizabeth begins to discover quasi-obscene letters in the carriage of her typewriter. Is she writing them to herself? This is the first indication to the reader that another personality is about to disturb the surface of Elizabeth's uneventful life. The second, then the third and the fourth personalities emerge. They wage a terrific struggle for dominance, distorting Elizabeth out of all recognition. She is now under the care of Dr. Wright, whose journals describing his progress with his patient form the greater part of the book. The juxtaposition of his point of view with Betsy's is extremely effective; to plunge back into the point of view of the fragmented personality after dwelling in the saner world of Dr. Wright is disturbing and frightening.
Jackson's mastery of effect is evident in The Bird's Nest. She shapes what would in any event be a fascinating case study into a dramatic tale of psychological suspense. The story climaxes in a dreary New York hotel room, where Betsy, the most vicious of the personalities, attacks the passive Elizabeth. In other words, one of the inner selves actually destroys the other, and Elizabeth nearly loses her life in the process. She wakes up in a hospital, is rescued by her aunt and doctor, and returns home. Eventually, she gets well. Aided by the basically kind, if erratic, attentions of her aunt, and by two and a half years' therapy with Dr. Wright, Elizabeth's recovery is convincing, unlike Natalie's in the previous novel.
In spite of the harrowing subject matter, The Bird's Nest sparkles with wit and humor. The book was well received critically, even hailed as "a kind of twentieth-century morality play." In this novel the problems which plagued Hangsaman were less evident, in that there was less room for ambiguity in the interpretation of the central character. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased film rights and eventually made a movie of the book. The film was released in 1957 under the title Lizzie.
Jackson's fame received another boost when MGM purchased film rights to a novel published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House . The movie, The Haunting, was released in 1963. In this book, the themes of isolation, loneliness, and emotional deterioration are explored through the character of a young unmarried woman, Eleanor. A ghostly manor is the setting, and at first the novel seems to conform to the pattern of the formula Gothic. Thirty-two-year-old Eleanor, orphaned and drab, is on the threshold of an adventure. Because of an association with a poltergeist phenomenon in her childhood which led to some small stir of publicity in her hometown, she has been invited by Professor Montague to participate in a study of a supposedly haunted house in New England, some distance from her home. She, along with two or three others, will assist the professor in his investigation into the psychic spirits which he believes inhabit Hill House.
Eleanor is the first member of the group to arrive at Hill House. From the moment that she sees it, the looming manor fills her with foreboding. An inner voice warns her that she must get away at once, but she stays nevertheless, held by a sort of fascination for the place and, even more pathetic, a need to belong to someone, or to something. Dr. Montague, a young woman named Theo, and Luke, the nephew of Hill House's owner, arrive soon after. They make themselves ready for a stay of several weeks. With frightening promptness the spirits of Hill House manifest themselves. During the second night of their stay, Eleanor is awakened by a violent pounding down the hall. She creeps into Theo's adjoining bedroom and the two of them huddle against the sudden draft of supernatural cold, listening to the hammering on the wall, then to the "small seeking sounds" at their very door. This is no human agent, nor can natural explanations account for the words HELP ELEANOR PLEASE COME HOME she finds scrawled on the wall the next day.
The spirits continue to scrawl messages and hammer on walls and to despoil clothing, singling out Eleanor as the weakest, most vulnerable member of the group. The pleas to COME HOME ELEANOR may be playing upon Eleanor's guilt for her imagined neglect of her invalid mother prior to her death three months before, or the messages may be referring to Hill House. When she first meets the other members of the group at Hill House she is happy--happier, one suspects, than she has ever been. She experiences a brief infatuation with Luke and appears to be making friends with Theo. But both attempts to bridge the lifelong isolation between herself and others are doomed to failure. Luke proves disappointingly weak; he is drawn to her primarily as a mother figure, and Theo turns out to be narcissistic and insensitive to the point of cruelty toward Eleanor. Furthermore, Luke and Theo begin to form a romantic attachment which conspicuously excludes her. Eleanor becomes more and more lonely and isolated. Her retreat into a private world of fantasy is pathetic and as chilling as any of the more flamboyant supernatural effects in the novel.
At last Dr. Montague asks Eleanor to leave. Her mental disturbance is evident but he believes she will be better when she gets away from the atmosphere at Hill House. Luke and Theo simply wish to be rid of her. Once again, as in other Jackson works, a thin veneer of sympathy and kindness hides a layer of human nature that is fundamentally uncaring. Eleanor, dazed and humiliated, is escorted to her car. Driving down the long driveway away from the house, convinced that at least the ghostly inhabitants of Hill House wish her to remain even if the human ones do not, she accelerates her car wildly and crashes into a tree. "Why am I doing this?" she thinks with terrifying lucidity as she dies. "Why don't they stop me?" That plea is a clue to what may well be a weakness in Jackson's fiction. There are few close, warm human ties in any of the stories or novels. The characters are nearly always seen in isolation from one another, and the predominating emotions are fear and anxiety. Nor is there a God in Jackson's fictional universe. Even in The Sundial (1958), a novel which comes closest to exploring metaphysical questions and the issues of belief and faith, no mature interpretations of the meaning of life are proffered by any of the characters.
In The Sundial the Hallorans and a few select associates are waiting for the end of the world. The spirit of Father Halloran has notified them, through the agent of eccentric Aunt Fanny, that on 31 August the world outside the walls of their estate will be consumed by storm and fire. Only those persons who take refuge in the Halloran house will survive the catastrophe. Father Halloran is the patriarchal founder of the family, and it is he who designed the estate, including the sundial from which the novel takes its name. This sundial is inscribed with the motto WHAT IS THIS WORLD?
With the aid of a few unexplained phenomena, such as the timely appearance of a brightly colored snake and the mysterious shattering of a plate glass window, the lunatic prophecy is accepted by the group as truth. Curiously apathetic, they allow themselves to be dictated to by the strong-willed Mrs. Halloran, wife of Father Halloran's son Richard, who is confined to a wheelchair. They burn all the books in the library (except a World Almanac and a Boy Scout handbook) and cram the empty shelves with crates of canned olives, antihistamines, and plastic overshoes. The only one who seems to have doubts about any of it is Essex, a young man who was originally hired some months before to catalogue the library. But like other young men in Jackson's fiction, he proves ultimately weak and bows to Mrs. Halloran's more powerful personality.
With everything readied for the world's end, they have nothing to do but wait. They are a nasty, irritable bunch, riddled with small sins. To pass the time they play bridge and squabble about who is to do what in the next world. That this singularly unenlightened group of people is to replenish the earth is of course the final irony. But the statement the novel makes about the hollowness or sheer idiocy of human beings is a pessimistic one. Critics were not sure whether The Sundial was written primarily for entertainment or intended as a serious satire. Some reviewers said that the lack of counter-balancing qualities of strength or goodness in any of the characters weakened the novel. Most agreed that it was not one of Jackson's better books.
Jackson returns to the theme of mental pathology in her last completed novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Writing in the first person, a technique she rarely employed, she develops the central character of Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat), a sociopathic girl who, at the age of twelve, poisoned four members of her family, including mother and father, with arsenic. The exploration of the mind of this queer and oddly pathetic character is considered by many to be Jackson's finest fictional achievement. Certainly the novel is more consistently successful than any of her previous works, sustaining a tone that can only be described as eerily poetic.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
The excellence of this opening passage has been justly remarked. With arresting precision the exact quality of Merricat's voice is established--disarmingly simple and childlike; clever, but crippled with queer logic. The last sentence twists like a knife. It hints at the unpredictable turns of thought which are the clue to Merricat's pathology and the source of the novel's suspense.
The setting is the Blackwood house, six years after the murders. Like the houses which are central to other Jackson novels, the Blackwood estate is at a distance from the nearest village and surrounded by a wall. Isolated and aloof, the Blackwood family has long been the object of community jealousy, which turned to outright persecution after the sensational scandal which attended the poisoning. Constance, the eldest daughter, was tried and acquitted of the deed, but the village is only too ready to believe her guilty. Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian now live as virtual recluses. Only Merricat goes into the village to shop. Merricat dwells in a highly imaginative world of her own making. The walk to town, for instance, becomes like a children's board game in which "there were always dangers"; and indeed, the villagers taunt her cruelly. Magic and superstition also play a role in her make-believe world. Events are omens of good luck or bad; to ward off evil she buries small objects--a doll, or blue marbles--or nails them to trees. She cares only for her cat Jonas and for Constance, whom she loves with fierce possessiveness.
Constance is loyal to Merricat too, although she seems to know that her younger sister is guilty of the murder of their parents and siblings. At any rate, they live in undisturbed domestic harmony until Charles, a young male cousin, comes to visit. Infatuated with Constance, he nearly convinces her to leave her secure retreat and venture into the real world. But Merricat, instinctively fearing change, determines to drive him away by the force of her "magic." In the process she accidentally sets the house on fire. The blaze is put out before the entire house burns, but the villagers who have come to help extinguish the blaze, in a burst of pent-up hate toward the Blackwoods, vandalize the rest of the house. While the fire rages around him, Charles seems only concerned with preserving the family safe, which is too heavy to move. When the mob leaves he goes too. The Blackwood house is in ruins.
Alone, with only two or three cups and spoons, Merricat and Constance barricade themselves in the kitchen at the back of the house. A few villagers, apparently conscience stricken, begin to leave food on the doorstep. Yet these offerings are not likely to continue indefinitely and at the end of the novel the sisters' fate is uncertain. Merricat, however, has what she has always wanted: Constance. The queer force of her personality triumphs over the potentially healthier personality of her sister. Without a moral sense, Merricat will never be tortured by guilt for the murders, nor aware of the sacrifices Constance has made for her. "We're on the moon at last," she announces to Constance in satisfaction. She has won.
During the writing of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson suffered from a number of health problems, including arthritis, colitis, asthma, and anxiety. Yet she worked with great care on this book and spent more time on it than on any other. Almost universally recognized as her finest novel, it was nominated for the National Book Award. It became a best-seller and was adapted for a Broadway production. The play had a short run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1966.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was lauded especially for its imaginative treatment of Merricat, who is far removed from a textbook sociopath and made into a believable, even sympathetic, character. Though at the end of the novel the two sisters are sleeping on the floor and living behind boarded windows, their absolute dependence on one another is made to seem oddly appealing. Their narrow existence does not lack warmth, laughter, and kindness. The reader, though recoiling from a world which he logically knows to be grotesque, is brought to view the sisters with sympathy, even to share some of their happiness, which is no easy task for a writer.
But again, some readers may be left with the uneasy feeling that there are no choices for the characters. The world outside the Blackwood estate offers little to Constance and Merricat. That world is filled with the same weak or malignant characters who peopled "The Lottery." The reader has been entertained by the novel, even moved; but it is clear that Jackson's fictional world must be taken on its own terms.
In between the publication of her fiction, Jackson was writing humorous sketches of domestic life for publication in various women's magazines. These were later arranged chronologically and collected in two autobiographical works, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). Together they form a domestic saga spanning from the time of her family's first house in Vermont until the year her youngest child enrolls in school. Ostensibly autobiographical, the anecdotal accounts of life in the Hyman household clearly have been embellished for the reader's entertainment. Lighter in tone than her fiction, they celebrate in an unsentimental way day-to-day life in a large and active family. They also reveal Jackson as a comic writer who at her best belongs in the ranks of the great American humorists.
At the age of forty-six Jackson died suddenly of heart failure. She had been active during her last years, delivering lectures at colleges and writers' conferences; three of the lectures are included in the same volume with the novel she was working on at the time of her death, Come Along With Me (1968). Two of these lectures, "Biography of a Story" and "Notes for a Young Writer," discuss the art of writing. Written for her daughter Sally, the latter imparts information and advice that should interest any writer or student of Jackson's fictional technique.
In Jackson's children's book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village (1956), she attempts to explain in necessarily simplified terms the "seeming madness" that swept seventeenth-century Salem. Men and women are susceptible to evil, Jackson seems to suggest. It surges up in society at certain times and in response to certain social conditions, then subsides again. But all elemental mystery also surrounds the presence of evil. There is no completely satisfactory cause for it, and no cure. It will spread until people "simply stop believing"; until, remorseful and repentant, they are "sick with the weariness of it all."
This children's book illuminates her fiction, touching upon many of her fundamental themes: superstition, community scapegoat rites, social prejudice, conformity, mass hysteria, violence. But development of themes is only part of Jackson's message. In "Notes for a Young Writer" she makes it very clear: the writer's only real job is to catch the reader's attention and hold it, to tell a good story. Some of her works have been aptly labeled "psychological thrillers," but others provide acute insights into the minds and hearts of her characters and have the magic power to move the reader as well as to entertain.
From: Ragland, Martha. "Shirley Jackson." American Novelists Since World War II: Second Series, edited by James E. Kibler, Gale, 1980. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 6.