Ever since I finished reading the stories in this collection, I’ve been trying to articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers. If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.
Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”. Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, that is, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing oneself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in a very unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.
Two of the famous stories feature female protagonists for whom the boundary between fantasy and reality, self and other, appears eerily dissolved, but this dissolution is brought about not by a double as such, but by a daemon lover. In the story entitled ‘The Daemon Lover’, a lonely woman searches for the fiancée who seems to have abandoned her on their wedding day, but did this fiancée ever really exist, or is he a figment of her imagination? Perhaps he is a real man who has abandoned her – you can certainly read it that way. But my gothic imagination experiences him more as a narrative produced by the projection of the protagonist’s own desires and fears. I say this because,as she wanders around looking for her fiancée, she seems to be creating a story about him based on information fed to her by the people she questions. Is this “daemon lover” internal or external? This theme reappears in the surreal fantasy of ‘The Tooth’ which follows a suburban housewife on a trip to the city for dental treatment. High on painkillers, she seems to encounter a mysterious man who proposes to take her away from her restricted life. Perhaps the “daemon lovers” represent the repressed desires that haunt these women’s lives and the freedom, especially the sexual freedom, denied by the selves they are expected to maintain. The ending of ‘The Tooth’ might imply that freedom lies in allowing the boundary between self and other to dissolve.
Jackson is interested in power dynamics and, especially, in the question of what makes us vulnerable to being overpowered by other people. I think she suggests that the answer lies in our own tendencies to use egotism, denial and self-delusion to shore up our sense of ourselves and also, perhaps most chillingly, in the possibility that this leads people to prefer being miserable to being frightened. In ‘Like Mother Used to Make’, a young man who prides himself on his hosting abilities finds himself ejected from his apartment by his guests. These people are easily able to overwhelm him because he simply cannot give up the neurotic performance of being the “perfect host”. In ‘Men with their big shoes’, a pregnant housewife finds herself increasingly dominated by the woman she employs to help her out around the house. She is doomed by the denial she is required to engage in to maintain to the illusion of a perfect life. In order to stand up to the woman who torments her, she would have to face reality, and it seems she would rather concede defeat than do that. ‘Come Dance with me in Ireland’ is a biting story about the selfish, egotistical impulses that often underlie the performance of helping others. How often is it really about making ourselves look and feel good? ‘Elizabeth’ is a tremendous, and really horrible, tale of self-delusion in which a bored, bitter literary agent will do anything to protect her fantasy of being successful and powerful, leading her to bully others and squander her own life. Like the housewife in ‘Men with their big feet’, Elizabeth, it seems, would prefer to live a miserable, limited life, than experience the fear that would come with facing up to reality. ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ is another story in which the bitterness caused by a wasted, repressed life leads someone to engage in an act of vindictive cruelty.
Two of the stories take racism as their theme and, as in the stories I’ve already mentioned, the characters’ denial of their racism is as much a problem as the racism itself. In ‘After you my dear Alphonse’, a child innocently reveals a woman’s “benevolence” as the petty racism that it really represents, leading her to turn on the object of her “kindness”. ‘Flower Garden’ explores the issue in more depth, depicting an entire community that would rather scapegoat a woman and her child than admit to their own racism. This links in with the broader theme in Jackson’s work investigating how our need to shore up our own fragile, insecure egos leads us to project our fears onto others, reject possibilities for meaningful connections and, at worse, engage in victimizing those who we believe we need to defend ourselves against.
The exclusionary construction of self is a trap that comes with a very high price tag attached. The question that seems to resonate in the stories is, why are people prepared to pay so much to stay in their traps? Why do people cling so desperately to lives dependent on denial, self-delusion, repression, prejudice and scapegoating?
‘The Lottery’ unites these themes in one of the greatest short stories of the twentieth century. It is, along with Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Ones who walk away from Olemas’, one of the most powerful stories ever written about the horrors underpinning the maintenance of our comfortable lives. A community holds an annual lottery to select one person to be stoned to death. It’s horrifying idea, but is it really so extreme? What are we prepared to tolerate in the name of convention and tradition? Why do we have empathy for some and not for others? Who is being “killed” right now so that some people can live privileged lives? And what horrors are we prepared to tolerate, even enact, so long as they are not being visited upon us directly? “It’s not fair” screams Mrs Hutchinson just before she dies. It’s fair, Jackson seems to be saying, as long as it’s not happening to us. But there’s an even more chilling warning in this story. No one is safe in any society based on the belief that some must be trampled in order for others to live. We all have tickets in this “lottery”.
See also, from Brain Candy, The Haunting of Hill House