The Women of Shirley Jackson

The Women of Shirley Jackson

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The Women of Shirley Jackson

 
     Throughout her life, Shirley Jackson refused to fit into society's limited concept of a woman's role.  Her works feature female protagonists who are punished for seeking a more substantial existence than that of the traditional wife or mother.  In most cases, these characters are condemned as witches, ostracized by society, and even killed for their refusal to conform.

 

     From her youth, Jackson was an outsider.  Always self-conscious about her obesity and plain appearance, she preferred spending time alone in her room writing poetry to socializing with other children (Oppenheimer 16).  As an adult, she struggled to fulfill her role as a mother without sacrificing her career as a writer.  Kathleen Warnock writes:

 

[Jackson] served as chauffeur for her children and hostess for her husband's university colleagues at Bennington College [where he was a professor]. . . .  But she also set aside time each day for her writing.  "There was always the sound of typing," her children wrote, "pounding away into the night (10)."

 

 Jackson's husband, writer and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, felt threatened by her talent and tried to discourage her by preoccupying her with housework.  This, however, only made Jackson more determined.  Her writing became a form of rebellion against her husband (who was allegedly unfaithful) and, ultimately, against a male-dominated society.

 

    This element of rebellion in Jackson's works led to its poor reception by contemporary critics and readers alike.  According to mythologian Barbara G. Walker, "Any unusual ability in a woman instantly raise[s] a charge of witchcraft" (1078).  In the flood of mail that followed the publication of "The Lottery," Jackson was labeled "un-American, perverted, and modern" (Sullivan 71).

 

     Rumors of supernatural events concerning Jackson began to circulate.  According to David Gates, Jackson was "widely believed to have broken the leg of publisher Alfred Knopf by sticking pins into a voodoo doll" (67).  Bennington College student Elizabeth Frank recalls "a rumor that. . . [Jackson] had turned a certain male faculty member into a pumpkin" (6).  Jackson's extensive library of witchcraft as well as the mystique that arose from her agoraphobic tendencies added to this characterization.  Her house became a cave, her small social circle a coven, and her many cats "familiars."

 

     In the words of Jack Sullivan, "Jackson's real witchcraft is her fiction" (71).

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  Indeed, the similarities between Jackson and her female characters are striking.  In many works, Jackson portrays heroines who detest their menial existence.  In searching for themselves, they rebel against their husbands and are subsequently punished for their disobedience.

 

     One example is the protagonist of "The Lottery", Tessie Hutchinson.  Her name is an allusion to Anne Hutchinson, the American religious dissenter who was excommunicated despite an unfair trial. Tessie questions the tradition of the lottery as well as her humble status as a wife.  It is this insubordination that leads to her selection by the lottery and lynching by the angry mob of villagers.

 

    Throughout the story, a complex social structure is revealed.  Peter Kosenko writes, "[The] most powerful men who control the town, economically as well as politically, also happen to administer the lottery" (261).  The villagers subscribe to a strict convention of gender roles.  Whereas the boys collect stones for the lottery and the men discuss farming and other matters, the girls stand aside and the women engage in a gossip session (Lottery 292).  Even the rules of the lottery itself favor a woman who knows her place and has borne several children; in a large family, each person has less of a chance of being chosen (Oehlschlaeger 268).

 

     Kosenko describes Tessie's defiance as follows:

 

Tessie's rebellion begins with her late arrival at the lottery, a faux pas that reveals her unconscious resistance to everything the lottery stands for. . . .  When Mr. Summers calls her family's name, Tessie goads her husband, "Get up there, Bill."  In doing so, she inverts the power relation. . . between husbands and wives. . . .  Her final faux pas is to question the rules of the lottery which relegate women to inferior status as the property of their husbands (264).

 

Thus, Tessie's stoning is more than just the fulfillment of a ritual.  The villagers are punishing Tessie for heresy in an event not unlike the Salem Witch trials.

 

    Clara Spencer, protagonist in "The Tooth," comes from the same breed of characters as Tessie.  Eran Mukamel writes:

 

[Clara] 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 (n. pag.).

 

Clara's pilgrimage is both a rebellion against her dull life as a homemaker and a search for a more exciting existence.  She finds temporary happiness when, in a drugged daze, she comes upon a fantastic stranger who takes her to a place where she "[runs] barefoot through hot sand" (Lottery 286).  It is left to the reader to decide whether this fantasy world is truly the utopia Clara seeks or a hell where she is to be punished for her sedition.

 

    Like Clara, Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House is also searching for an identity.  Eleanor, now thirty two, had nursed her recently deceased mother for twelve years.  Her duties to her mother, along with the repressive policies of her sister and landlady Carrie, have prevented her from fulfilling her own desires.  Eleanor uses Dr. Montague's invitation to Hill House as a pretext for her escape.  As she travels to Hill House, Eleanor refers to the "magic thread of road. . . [that] could lead her from where she was to where she wanted to be" (17).

 

    Upon her arrival, Eleanor is elated by what she sees as a potential love interest in the doctor.  Additionally, some critics argue that Theodora, another resident of Hill House, is a lesbian and is attracted to Eleanor (Friedman 124).  However, throughout Eleanor's stay, she realizes that her true partner is not her human company but the house itself.  She becomes consumed with the spirits that haunt the house and, as Mukamel writes, "[t]he 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" (n. pag.).

 

    When finally forced to leave Hill House, Eleanor is unable to return to her former life at her sister's house.  Instead, she chooses to remain with the house's spirits forever.  Her suicide represents a consummation with the house in a twisted matrimony.  When 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), it is evident that she has finally found her true identity.

 

    This theme of identity is also prominent in the short story, "The Renegade."  The protagonist, Mrs. Walpole, struggles to maintain her New York ideals when her family moves to a small town.  The townspeople's bitterness toward her is represented by complaints that her dog is killing their chickens.  By accusing Mrs. Walpole's "familiar," the villagers indirectly attack Mrs. Walpole herself.  Her symbiosis with the dog is made apparent when, as a mob of villagers kill it, Mrs. Walpole "close[s] her eyes, suddenly feeling the [villagers'] harsh hands pulling her down. . . [and] sharp points closing in on her throat" (83).

 

     A similar conflict between women and society occurs in Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  In this work, sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood live with their mentally ill Uncle Julian in their family's old mansion.  The three are the only survivors of the arsenic poisoning through which Merricat killed the rest of her family.

 

    After six years of living in isolation, Merricat sees the house as a womb.  Her childish behavior and refusal to talk about the past suggest that she has been protected from the outside world to such a degree that she is not susceptible to such a fundamental force as time.  Constance, however, is torn between her need to care for Merricat and Julian and her desire to return to society.  Her obsessive preoccupation with domestic duties illustrates how she has given up her identity to assume an earth-mother-like role.

 

    Jackson plays on the Western tradition of witchcraft in Merricat's characterization.  According to Walker, characteristics of witch religion include the deification of females and a cyclical notion of time (1090).  Merricat refers to the moon, berries, and mushrooms (all symbols of femininity) as icons, thus deifying the female; further, Julian's senility and dependence represent the reduced, pathetic state of the family's former patriarchy.  Merricat's eternal childhood and desire to live in the house forever likewise suggest a cyclical view of time.  Additionally, her relationship with her cat Jonas resembles that between a witch and her "familiar."    

 

    The girls' relationship to the villagers also suggests that they have been condemned as witches.  They are the subjects of gossip and taunting.  When their house catches on fire, several people suggest that the firemen let it burn.  After they reluctantly put out the fire, the villagers ransack the house in an episode much like Tessie's stoning.  This forces the girls to board up the windows and doors, thereby further isolating themselves from the village.  The baskets of food that the villagers then bring are offerings intended to appease the girls and to prevent them from having to return to the village.

 

    Harvey Breit explained Jackson's works by saying that she "was able to be natural even about the supernatural" (117-118).  This element of reality in her paranormal tales comes from her thorough character development which, in turn, comes from her own experience as a discontented housewife and societal outsider.  By telling the traditional Gothic story from the unique perspective of the outcast, Jackson evokes sympathy for the women and hatred toward the society that condemns them.  In placing mythic tales of scapegoats and witch-burnings in modern America, Jackson creates poignant criticism of her society's sexism.

 

 

Works Cited

Breit, Harvey. "Shirley Jackson."  The New York Times  June 26, 1949, 15.  Rpt. in Modern American Literature, Vol. II.  Ed. Dorothy Nyren Curley et al.  New York: Continuum, 1989.

Frank, Elizabeth.  "The Sorceress of Bennington."  The New York Times August 7, 1988, 6-7.

Friedman, Lenemaja.  Shirley Jackson.  Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Gates, David.  "Hard Lives, Lasting Prose."  Newsweek  August 22, 1988, 66-67.

Kosenko, Peter.  "A Marxist/Feminist Reading of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery.'" New Orleans Review  Vol. 12 No. 1, Spring, 1985,  27-32.  Rpt. in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 9. Ed. Thomas Votteler.  Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Jackson, Shirley.  The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin, 1959.

    .The Lottery, or The Adventures of James Harris. New York: Farrar, 1949.

    .We Have Always Lived in the Castle. New York: Penguin, 1962.

Mukamel, Eran.  "The Irrepressible Individual in the Works of Shirley Jackson."  The Bag Lunch. http://www.bcsd.org/BHS/ENGLISH/mag97/papers/jackson.htm,  May 1999, n. pag.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz.  "The Stoning of Mistress Hutchinson: Meaning and Context in 'The Lottery."  Essays in Literature Vol. XV, Fall 1988. 259-265.  Rpt. in Short Story Criticism, Vol. 9.  Ed. Thomas Votteler.  Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Oppenheimer, Judy.  Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson.  New York: Putnam, 1988.

Sullivan, Jack.  "The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson."  Twilight Zone August 1994, 71-74.

Walker, Barbara G.  The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.  San Francisco: Harper, Collins, 1983.

Warnock, Kathleen.  "Meet the Author: Shirley Jackson."  Literary Cavalcade February 1997, 10.

 
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