A Stoned Solitude
If Shirley Jackson is famous for the darkness of her stories (one collections goes by the title of Dark Tales, her most famous novel is the Haunting of Hill House), then the life can seem darker still, without any help from the supernatural elements that sometimes find their way into her fiction. Articles by Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Review of Books and by Zoe Heller in the New Yorker illustrate a domestic hell within a bohemian bonhomie. Jackson and her tenured Bennington husband might have been the life and soul of the community in the campus town in Vermont, but Jackson was also the downtrodden spouse treated with no more respect than many a woman living in post-war America. Born in 1916 and dead at forty-eight from heart failure, Jackson and her husband lived in a sixteen-room house with four kids and up to a 100,000 books. But hubby Stanley Edgar Hyman also couldn't keep his hands off his students and there is the suggestion that though Hyman thought this was nothing serious, friends noticed the general deterioration in Jackson's health and appearance. At various stages she took Dexamyl, Miltown, Valium, Seconal, and couldn't always get primary access to the typewriter. Hyman was the writer in the house even if it was Jackson's whose books brought in the main income. Jackson was always going to be seen as the domestic drudge in social circumstances that gave men the higher social status as a given.
There are more than a few hints of this status in the work. In Life Among the Savages, the narrator is asked about her occupation. "'Writer,' I said. 'Housewife,' she said. 'Writer,' I said. 'I'll just put down housewife,' she said." In the memoir Raising Demons, Jackson reckons: "A faculty wife is a person who is married to a faculty. She has frequently read at least one good book lately, she has one nice black dress to wear to student parties, and she is always just the teensiest bit in the way, particularly in a girls' college such as the one where my husband taught. She is presumed to have pressing and wholly absorbing interests at home, to which, when out, she is always anxious to return and, when at home, reluctant to leave." Jackson adds: "It is considered probable that ten years or so ago she had a face and a personality of her own, but if she has it still, she is expected to keep it decently to herself."
Reading about Jackson's life we have a woman utterly embroiled in domesticity and a great deal of the fiction hardly ignores it. But there is also in Jackson's fiction, besides the ghostly, the lonely and the solitary, women who have yet to marry, have been 'left on the shelf' or widowed. Whether it happens to be 'The Daemon Lover 'where a woman prepares for her wedding day to a man she hardly knows and discovers she knows not at all, or Elizabeth, where a publishing assistant devotes her life to a small-scale publisher who offers no commitment towards her, Jackson frequently tells stories about women whose lives were quite distinct from her own existence. Heller and Oates talk about her determination on occasion to leave Hyman but she never did, as though the fear of leaving was as great as the apparitions that would appear in her work. In 'Daemon Lover', the central character fusses in her compact apartment over which of her two dresses to wear for the impending wedding. She is no longer so young and perhaps not especially attractive: "Looking at herself in the mirror she thought with revulsion, it's as though I was trying to make myself look prettier than I am; just for him; he'll think I want to look younger because he's marrying me." It may be a staple of creative writing classes that characters don't appraise themselves in mirrors, but what if that appraisal isn't a descriptive cheat for writers narrating in the first person but a third-person anonymity that you want to exacerbate? The central character in the 'The Daemon Lover' has no name (though her prospective husband Jamie does, as do the various other characters she meets or intends to write to), happens to be thirty-four though the marriage licence says thirty, and has to acknowledge the sallowness of her skin and the lines around her eyes. She looks at herself not as a woman in her own right but as a marriage prospect someone who sees in the looking glass the failure that has been her singledom. It is a terrifying prospect and in this fine story the problem is absence not presence. If ghost stories often hinge on the horrible appearance of someone from beyond the grave, 'The Daemon Lover' rests on the tale of a man who has promised her marriage and promptly disappears. 'The Daemon Lover' isn't a ghost story but an impressive tale that exemplifies the contemporary phenomenon referred to as ghosting: the sudden and permanent absence of a romantic liaison without explanation. Yet the story also hints at the Kafkaesque. Near the end, the central character goes to the apartment house where the fiance lives, knocks on the door, sure she can hear voices inside the room: the man with a female companion. The story ends, "she came back many times, every day for the first week. She came on her way to work. In the mornings; in the evenings, on her way to dinner alone, but no matter how often or how firmly she knocked, no one ever came to the door."
It is a story of anxiety rather than fear but then this happens to be the case with many of Jackson's stories as well as The Haunting of Hill House. In the novel, Eleanor is a woman roughly the same age as the figure in 'The Daemon Lover', a thirty-two-year-old who for years looked after her ailing mother and subsequently has no experience of men or of any human tactility. "She disliked being touched, and yet small physical gesture seemed to be Theodora's chosen way of expressing contrition, or pleasure, or sympathy." Eleanor proves very susceptible to the house's demoniacal ways and we might wonder just how much of this is the fear generated in the haunted house environment as opposed to the social anxiety that sits in Eleanor from the beginning of the book. "Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person, without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words." The book suggests that while it might be haunted house tale it is no less a haunted person tale too. Eleanor may be scared in the house but Jackson plays more on the idea that Eleanor's thoughts go bump in the night than that house is especially a malevolent presence. As with much of her fiction she offers events through the third person restricted, with none of the other characters in the novel given the interiority Eleanor possesses. If they had been the paranoiac tinge that runs through much of Jackson's work would have been diluted, while Jackson emphasises the thoughts Eleanor has of others which we must entertain because we don't have access to the motives of the other characters. In a passage quite near the end of the book we are in Eleanor's head again. "She is being spiteful, Eleanor thought remotely; from a great distance, it seemed, she could watch these people and listen to them. Now she thought, Theo is being spiteful and Luke is trying to be nice; Luke is ashamed of himself for laughing at me and is ashamed of Theo for being spiteful." Perhaps, we can only reply: sympathetic to her state but aware that it happens to be no more than her perspective.
Thus as in 'The Daemon Lover', Jackson leaves us in the mind of the central character without giving us ready access to others. Why? Perhaps because Jackson seeks the most vulnerable, anxious and considered position by which to narrate events. Anxiety and vulnerability could easily be apparent in the first person, and the considered an easy property of third-person omniscience. If we so often regard Edgar Allan Poe stories as feverish it lies in the proximity we have with the first-person narrator. Whether getting buried alive or with a pendulum swinging above them, Poe puts us in right inside his characters' heads without much wriggle room for thoughts beyond the predicament. In Jackson's work her stories are third-person nightmares that contain within them everyday anxieties of conformity on the one hand, and loneliness on the other, as if the terror comes not out of the predicament in which they find themselves but the society of which they are a product. Though politics doesn't often play much of a role in her work, there is an Eisenhower-era sense of what is expected of a woman, even that loneliness might even be no more than a consequence of an ideological failure: that a woman who is not married in an age when family life is so lauded must indeed become ostracised and thus lonely. Eleanor so clearly wants to belong, just as the unnamed character in 'The Daemon Lover' so clearly want to marry, so that when in the novel Eleanor realises she cannot stay in the house forever or go and live with Theo, or that the fiance has no interest in marrying our central character in the story, the consequences are devastating. The more that conformity is expected, the more that belonging is demanded, the greater consequences of that rejection.
Jackson didn't only have to worry about a husband whom she couldn't quite leave, while he was constantly, temporarily, extricating himself from her with other women, there was also a mother for whom overbearing seems an example of litotes. Oates and Heller make much of Jackson's mother's cruelty. "I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like" (New Yorker) the mother, Geraldine, says, a remark bad enough from a parent commenting on a child who hasn't combed their hair or put on a clean skirt or trousers, but Geraldine offered such remarks throughout her daughter's life. Oates sees that Geraldine was "clearly the model for the nightmare mother-figures in Jackson's fiction, particularly the embittered invalid-mother of Hill House, Geraldine persisted in criticizing and belittling Jackson long after she had acquired national renown as a writer." (New York Review of Books) Caught between a husband she couldn't trust and a mother she couldn't please, solitude might have seemed a healthy option. But as a mother of four children in fifties America, conformity was likely and Jackson was one of many whose compromise took a pharmacological form. Such a decision deadens feeling, pretends the world is a better place than it is without creating a great deal of enthusiasm for it. If Poe's first-person stories often indicate heightened emotion, Jackson's third-person tales frequently flatten situations out.
One can see this in 'The Possibility of Evil', 'The Good Wife', 'Flower Garden' and 'Elizabeth', where mundane modes of the malicious are as apparent as behavioural conformity. In 'The Possibility of Evil', a little old lady Miss Strangeworth, someone who boasts about having never spent a day outside the town in her seventy-one years, stops and talks to everyone, saying good morning and asking after their health. But at night she writes the various townsfolk nasty letters. In them, "Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion." Mr Lewis now suspects his grandson of theft; old Mrs Foster is now frightened that the doctor operating on her might allow the knife to slip and split the money between himself and her nephew. Nobody in the town is more above suspicion than Miss Strangeworth, which gives her all the more freedom in spreading terrible rumours. Such a gleeful approach to the misdeed is quite distinct from the existential notion of acts gratuit, where someone can push a complete stranger off a train with no suspicion likely to fall on them since there is absolutely no motive for the act. Andre Gide's purpose was to indicate an absurd freedom; Jackson's is to acknowledge the opposite: extreme compliance. The possibility of evil evident in Jackson's title rests on an environment where everybody knows everyone else and where one apparently innocuous figure can generate immense unease.
In 'Flower Garden', the widowed Mrs MacLane moves into a cottage near to the old Vermont manor house at the top of the hill, occupied by old Mrs Winning and her daughter-in-law's family, and where the Winnings have lived for many decades. The daughter-in-law and Mrs MacLane befriend each other but the former can't quite countenance the liberal assumptions of the latter and especially when Mrs MacLane hires a black gardener who also even gets access to the house. In time Winning feels that people in the town are judging her after one of the townsfolk talk about a forthcoming party for one of the children and Mrs Burton says: "I hope you won't mind me asking, but would it be all right with you if I didn't invite the MacLane boy." Feeling sick for a moment, Mrs Winning agrees but wonders why Mrs Burton asked her. "Something bad has happened..." she thinks "...somehow people think they know something about me that they won't say; they all pretend it's nothing, but this never happened to me before." She finds a friend but risks losing a community and clearly the former is unimportant next to the latter. The story ends with Mrs MacLane waving as she calls out hello. "Mrs Winning swung around without speaking and started, with great dignity, back up the hill toward the old Winning house."
There is nothing malevolent in Winning's response but we might wonder whether the collective culpability suggests a certain possibility of evil. Mrs Strangeworth takes full of advantage of the town's tight-knit nature to wreak havoc; Mrs Winning fails to stand up for herself and Mrs MacLane when the town shows disapproval. Strangeworth's vindictiveness may function best in a small town but it wouldn't be fair to blame the townsfolk for Strangeworth's perversity. In 'Flower Garden' there is no personal vendetta but there is a pervasive low-key racism and gender uniformity. As Alexis Shotwell says "Mrs Winning [initially] finds herself acting spontaneously, as she has not for a long time, introducing herself and speaking the first thing that comes to her mind." But this doesn't last as race intrudes and Mr Winning falls back into the community and away from her burgeoning sense of freedom. Shotwell notes, "her experience of her own gendered life is opened and freed, made more joyful in light of her new friendship. In this part of the story, it is as though she does not think of her mother-in-law or of the town while sinking into this relationship with a self-she-could-have-been. All this changes as race enters the story, and Mrs. MacLane steps too far outside the social possibilities." ('Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature')
In 'Elizabeth', the small town gets replaced by the urban centre New York. But Elizabeth comes from elsewhere and has allowed the city instead of invigorating her to wear her down. It hasn't helped that she has worked many years for a publisher, Robert Shax, she also occasionally sleeps with and who has no intention of marrying her. When he employs a new secretary to look pretty around the place, the thirty-one year-old Elizabeth is less than pleased. Robbie asks why he can't "have a good looking girl in the office" and Elizabeth replies "you can...I'd just like one who could type." Elizabeth scores the point but it wouldn't be a lie to say that there is bitterness, and resentment, in her reaction to the hiring of Daphne. "Try to be more orderly in general" Elizabeth says, "you have beautiful hair, Daphne, but it would look more suitable to an office if you wear it more severely." Daphne asks if she can wear it like Elizabeth's. "Any way you please...just so it doesn't look like a floor mop." Professional advice meets personal aside as Elizabeth sees a younger woman who may wish to usurp her. Daphne says she hopes to become a publisher too one day, like Mr Shax. Having for years mixed work and pleasure, often going out of an evening talking shop and eating dinner with Robbie, Elizabeth can hardly separate the two when an attractive young woman joins the tiny firm.
Like the woman in 'The Daemon Lover', Elizabeth is afraid of ending up on the shelf, an admiration for books hardly likely to make her feel any better about a phrase so commonly used to describe women (but of course not men) who remained unmarried. While a man in his thirties may seem available; a woman is past it. A man is a bachelor; a woman a spinster. One needn't be much of a deconstructionist, analysing the privileged term in a binary system, to see that women get a raw linguistic deal. Elizabeth might get the best lines in the story as she sees through Robbie, but what happens if more generally language works against you, leaving women in a subordinate position? As she leaves her one-room apartment for work, she thinks about how drab and untidy her place is and reckons: maybe today I'll stop in and get some bright material for slip-covers and drapes. I could make them evenings and the place wouldn't look so dreary when I wake up in the mornings; yellow I could get some yellow dishes and put them along the wall in a row. Like in Mademoiselle or something..." Can we imagine a similar thought process for a male, even taking into account the short story 'Like Mother Used to Make', where a tidy young man allows his messy female neighbour to use his apartment for an assignation while he finds himself stuck in her untidy place? David in the latter is a mummy's boy the title invokes, someone acting outside the masculine imperative and appearing more than a little fussy in the process. His tidiness is exceptional in a man; Elizabeth's untidiness is a failure in a woman. Binary expectations still hold even if Jackson might turn them around. When we hear late in 'Elizabeth' that "because they were not married, Robbie was reluctant to take her anywhere where he might be embarrassed by her presence" we realise the full weight of the title character's abject existence. It isn't as if Robbie is married and must hide her in case his wife finds out; he does so we might assume because Elizabeth is now "a dried-up old maid", a remark thrown at her by another woman earlier in the day on the bus. Yet Robbie is far from a conventional catch: his business struggles to make money, the office is pokey and Robbie takes up much of it. "When he got out of his chair he had just room to turn around to get to the window of the closet or the filing cabinet; on a pleasant day she might have an amiable remark about his weight." From a certain perspective, Elizabeth might be the one who would be out of Robbie's league, but this is a sport where men make the rules. We might wonder how much of Elizabeth's caustic demeanour comes out of emotional frustration; a young woman, initially twenty, who waits and waits for a man who in most circumstances wouldn't seem worth it, but in fifties America it is he and not she who is embarrassed by a presence in public.
No such problem arises in 'The Good Wife', a tale about the ultimate stay at home spouse. Husband James Benjamin sits drinking a second cup of coffee and turns to the maid asking if his wife has had her breakfast tray yet. Looking at the mail he sees there are four letters including two for his wife, which he duly opens. So far so strange, but it gets a lot stranger when we realise she is more or less under house arrest, with the husband worried over an assumed lover, and that he not only opens her letters but writes the replies too. Here we have a man who knows what is best for his wife and sees himself as thoroughly reasonable in his behaviour. Why wouldn't you lock up your spouse if you had doubts about her fidelity; she is Mr Benjamin's property after all, Jackson suggests. Even if the story is a product of Mr Benjamin's imagination, then is that imagination part of a broader product of patriarchy which allows for such domestic incarceration? We needn't exaggerate our claim, nor Jackson's, but domestic incarceration must have been what many a woman felt in the fifties if even a successful writer like Jackson couldn't easily escape it despite her husband's casual infidelities and his assumed authority. Here was a man who would both hog the typewriter in their early years even if he would all but force her up the stairs to work later on when she became the lucrative earner. Zoe Heller says, "Jackson did the cooking, the cleaning, the grocery shopping, and the child-rearing; he sat at his desk, pondering the state of American letters and occasionally yelling at his wife to come and refill the ink in his pen." (New Yorker) Oates comments, "Jackson nonetheless did all the housework and child care, just as she cheerily tell us; for a while husband and wife even shared a single typewriter, which Hyman 'commandeered'. (New York Review of Books) Yet we should be careful not to assume Hyman was like all men of his time; he was generally seen to be worse as Heller notes: "Hyman's lordly expectations of what he was due as the family patriarch were retrograde, even by the standards of the time." (New Yorker) If Jackson exaggerated her case then it wasn't least because she had her very own monster of masculinity occupying her house and preoccupying her thoughts. Yet Hyman probably didn't feel an exception to the rule but a man entitled to make the rules.
'The Good Wife' doesn't describe a typical fifties marital relationship. If it did it wouldn't seem very untoward that the husband starts opening his wife's mail. But reading the story many a woman might say if this isn't like it was, nevertheless it may well reflect how she felt. Jackson work often inverts all those fifties adverts playing up domestic bliss as the accoutrements of burgeoning post-war capitalism and the onset of consumption that John Kenneth Galbraith would call The Affluent Society in 1958 and Jean Baudrillard examined in his 1970 book The Consumer Society. Baudrillard quotes Time magazine saying: '"consumers went to two million retail stores in search of prosperity...They realised that they could increase economic growth by replacing their fans with air conditioners. They secured the boom of 1954 by purchasing five million miniaturised television sets, a million and a half electric knives etc,' In short, they performed their civic duty." The 'Good Wife' doesn't show us a woman who is surrounded by the things a comfortably off husband can buy as she takes care of home and hearth. It shows us a women bedridden by a patriarchy so virulent that it can seem like a crippling disease. How many were like Jackson not so much locked in the bedroom but incapable of getting out of the house, a member of the consumer society as the medicated: Dexamyl, Miltown, Valium, Seconal? As men returned home from World War II and women reentered the domestic realm, mother's little helpers like Valium and Librium enabled housewives to cope with the mundane tasks of their everyday lives...the Miltown class of drugs became known as solely women's drugs in the 1950s and 60s. (Vice)
Yet what are we to make of Jackson's most famous piece of short fiction, 'The Lottery'? Here in a small village, the locals draw lots to find out who will be sacrificed in a given year. Everybody is included in this truly contingent ritual and at the end of it, when the victim has been announced, everyone else stones her to death. Various interpretations have been offered, and Ted Baily goes through a few of them in 'Sacred Violence. In 'Shirley Jackson's The Lottery'. He observes there have been Marxist readings that see the story as an examination: "to reinforce an inequitable social division of labor", and feminist interpretations where "the choice of a housewife as the scapegoat is invariably emphasized and attention is drawn to the similarity of the victim's name, Tessie Hutchinson, with the New England Puritan rebel Anne Hutchinson, who fought against the tradition of male authority in spiritual matters." Baily chooses to explore it instead through Rene Girard's idea of mimetic desire: "Girard proposes mimesis as a central motivating factor for human behaviour. An individual desires an object not because of its intrinsic value but rather because it is desired by another individual." Baily reckons, "the central mechanism that Girard identifies for avoiding what he terms a mimetic crisis is the scapegoat effect. Cultural order is based on a series of social distinctions that are designed to apportion who gets what in terms of material goods or marriage partners, for example, and thus prevent mimetic desire for coming to a head."
In the story, Tess, married with children, picks the paper with the small black spot on it. No sooner has she done so than her husband immediately forces it out of her hand, showing it to the crowd. She is no longer his wife but the scapegoat safeguarding the community, who unite against her. Jackson's story suggests that personal loyalty is weak next to the communal bond; that no matter how close a person may be to you emotionally, no matter how close the family ties, this is an indulgence next to the broader necessity that means protecting the social sphere. 'The Lottery' is Jackson's most brutal and stripped-down analysis of the herd mentality, a much more aloof account which can't really allow for the third person restricted approach adopted in much of her other work because of the requisite tension necessary and for the purposes of elaborating on the theme. If Tess were so clearly the central character we would be inclined to assume in advance that she would be the victim even if the story doesn't reveal the full extent of the events until the conclusion. The build-up is an abstract tension rather than a concrete fear: we aren't worried about what might happen to someone; we are wondering what is going on. Such an approach works well for the theme of scapegoating that Baily observes, as if a central character is beside the point since what matters isn't the character and causality but community and contingency. It really could be anybody in the village. While many of Jackson's stories rely on perversity or susceptibility, cruelty or loneliness, 'The Lottery' doesn't in this sense have characters at all. It is properly 'structural', an anthropological account that cares less for the motives of the people populating the story than the necessity of a ritual that has been going on for many years. Girard was influenced by Claude Levi-Strauss and vital to Levi-Strauss's work was seeing that just as Saussure noticed that language was essentially arbitrary, that the signifier and the signified needn't have any relationship with each other, neither did certain events necessitate causal reasoning. If Saussure was the source of a structural approach to language that indicated the word dog, for example, had nothing to do with an actual dog in the world that it could be called mud, cod or any number of other words instead and that language was based on differentiation rather than cause and consequence between the thing and the word, so Levi-Strauss anthropologically observed that what matters isn't the organic nature of families but the structure of a society. "As against the idea prevalent since Aristotle that the family of parents and children is a natural self-generated entity and the germ of the larger society, Levi-Strauss argued that no human family could exist if there were not first a society." (American Anthropological Association) 'The Lottery' is the further reaches of such a claim.
Oates says of the characters in the story that "no one speculates on the meaning of the lottery, and no one seems much interested in its origin. Is Jackson's story social satire, religious allegory, a resolutely unglamorous reimagining of ancient fertility rites? There is no explanation for what happens, except that it has happened before and is mandated to happen again." But Jackson herself joked about the 'meaning' of the story in the wake of negative letters the New Yorker received when it was first published in the magazine in 1948: "The number of people who expected Mrs. Hutchinson to win a Bendix washing machine at the end would amaze you." The gap between receiving a stoning or a washing machine might appear enormous but socio-economically Jackson observes in her barbed comment perhaps a certain similarity if we take into account Levi-Strauss's approach to anthropology and remarks made by Baudrillard and Time magazine about the consumer society. Buying consumer goods was central to someone's civic duty in post-war American life; getting stoned to death is the civic duty in the abstract society Jackson proposes. In one, the person might win a washing machine, in the other receive a stoning, but in both we see an arbitrariness that isn't reliant on any organic or moral relationship with the world.
Jackson may have been married with four children and may have frequently written about solitary women who were without a spouse and offspring (those single women in their thirties in 'The Daemon Lover', 'Elizabeth', 'The House on Haunted Hill' and elsewhere), but what brings the women together is a societal expectation that can leave someone miserably burdened and confined or agoraphobic and lonely. Jackson is probably best known as a writer of ghost stories, haunted tales of haunted houses, but there is also and perhaps more interestingly evident in her work a post-war haunting of the self, a person who cannot become the conventional individual the Eisenhower era so admired; instead allowing the interior state to atrophy through legal highs that allowed one to function but was more inclined to generate anxiety rather than happiness. We can see in Jackson's work not only the dark tales that link her to Poe, Lovecraft and Stephen King but also to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Anne Sexton's poetry and the anti-psychiatry movement of the sixties: Laing, Szasz, Cooper and others. 'The Lottery' proposes a momentary sacrifice; American society in the post-war years suggested that the sacrifice wouldn't be a sudden stoning but a state of constantly being stoned: to be lost in a drink or drug-induced state. Two weeks before Jackson's death at 48 of a heart attack, one of her daughters had tried to take her own life, swallowing all the tranquillizers she could find in the house. Two weeks later when Jackson was found lying on the bed her daughter just assumed that she'd taken a few drugs of her own. Jackson had done more than that over the years but this time it wasn't a drug-induced stupor but a failing of the heart. One might want to read into that heart failure a story about a husband who constantly philandered, a domestic environment that left her walled in, or a society that could never quite take her work seriously. Heller quotes Betty Friedan noting that the fifties housewife was a "virtual schizophrenic", and quotes Jackson biographer, Ruth Franklin, reckoning Jackson was "pressured by the media and the commercial culture to deny her personal and intellectual interests and subsume her identity into her husband's." (Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life) She wouldn't have been alone, no matter how lonely she often felt, expressed early on when writing in an unpublished essay: "I used to think that no one had ever been so lonely as I was." It seems many others were, which didn't make the individual loneliness any the less apparent.
© Tony McKibbin