Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

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.

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Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, The Revolt of Mother & Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was a late nineteenth-century American writer.  Her stories are  set mostly in New England and deal with the lives of ordinary people, especially women.  This collection contains eight of her best known works spanning twenty years of her career.

The impression I was left with after reading the stories was ambivalence: ambivalence about the place of women under patriarchy, about female sexuality and about relationships between men and women.  This ambivalence is often played out in Freeman’s work through the doubling of a passive, self-effacing, devoted woman, with another woman, who is aggressive, demanding and determined to ‘do for herself’ in life.  ‘Gentian’ and ‘The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin’ both feature sisters, one married and subservient to her man, and the other, who is an assertive, independent spinster.  The question underlying the latter story is whether Amelia has actually damaged her family through her self-sacrificing behaviour.  In ‘One Good Time’ we have a trembling, weepy mother and her assertive daughter, and in ‘The Butterfly’, a devoted daughter with a mother who we never see, but whose questionable sexuality haunts the story.  The title story, ‘The Revolt of Mother’ is probably the most straightforward in its joining of these two female positions in the figure of a farmer’s wife, who after years of devoted submission to her husband finally insists that he fulfil his promise to give her the one thing she’s ever asked him for, a new house.  In almost all the other stories, though, there is a splitting of female subjectivity into different figures.

In two of the stories, ‘A New England Nun’ and ‘Old Woman Magoun’, this ambivalence and sense of splitting becomes positively sinister.  In the first story, gentle Louisa has waited 15 years for her fiancée to return from making his fortune overseas, only to find that when he does come to claim her, she doesn’t want him disrupting her perfectly ordered life of embroidery, cream teas and distilling essences.  Louisa’s double, however, is not another woman, but an old yellow dog chained up in the overgrown part of her garden.  This dog once bit somebody and Louisa is afraid that if she marries Joe, it will get loose and go on the rampage through the village.  There is something terrible about this uncanny canine symbol of repressed female sexuality (or perhaps, of the way female sexuality has been viewed).

‘Old Woman Magoun’ is another haunting story about a grandmother (one of Freeman’s assertive angry women) who takes drastic measures to prevent her sweet, innocent granddaughter coming under the influence of her father, who the grandmother believes wants only to sexually corrupt the girl.  Is this the tale of a loving grandmother forced to an extreme act to save her granddaughter, or is it something worse, a story about a power struggle between a man and a woman over the body of a child in which both adults are actually cruel abusers?

Most of the stories can be read from more than one perspective: is Amelia Lambkin a self-sacrificing wife and mother, or is she actually the power in her family controlling everyone through rendering them helpless? Is the daughter in ‘The Butterfly’ right to choose her father over her mother? Is the wife in ‘Gentian’ right to return at the end to the husband who has dominated her entire life? These stories present no easy answers and ultimately the women who people them remain oddly resistant and elusive.

Brilliant stories that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading.  My only complaint is that they didn’t include the eerie Gothic story ‘Luella Miller’ which goes even further, presenting passive femininity as parasitic, even vampiric.

Academic Texts Meme

My recent efforts at tagging have rebounded on me.  Irrational Point has honed the book meme and challenged me to list the academic texts (no set number this time) that have had the most impact on me.  Here goes:

1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, The Will to Knowledge (1976)

2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

3. Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ (1980)

4. Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (1984)

5. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (1996)

6. Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life (2000)

7. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Ninteteenth Century Literary Imagination (1979)

8. Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (1984)

9. Diana Fuss ‘Inside/Out’ (1991)

10. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919)

Ok, I re-tag Andygrrrl.

I’ve left off the academic books that I included in the book meme.

George Eliot, The Lifted Veil (1859)

This is the great realist, George Eliot’s, one and only attempt at Gothic fantasy/Sensation Fiction.  It is the story of a young man named Latimer who develops clairvoyant abilities and becomes sexually infatuated with his brother’s fiancée, Bertha, because she is the only person whose mind he cannot read.  The older brother conveniently dies and Latimer marries Bertha, only to find that when her mind is finally revealed to him (the veil lifted): “I saw myself in Bertha’s thought […] a miserable ghost seer, surrounded by phantoms in the noon-day, trembling under a breeze when the leaves were still, without appetite for the common objects of human desire, but pining after moonbeams’ “(32). Unsurprisingly, Bertha and Latimer becomes increasingly estranged and it all builds towards a very melodramatic ending.

In recent years this novella has attracted a lot of attention, especially from feminist literary critics, who argue that it has great significance in Eliot’s canon. Gilbert and Gubar give it an entire chapter in The Madwoman in the Attic.  I’m afraid I don’t buy that argument and I think there was a good reason why she didn’t generally write this kind of fiction – she just wasn’t that good at it. The story has no tension, which is an essential component of gothic and sensation fiction — and the selfish, whining Latimer is so repellent that you really hope Bertha will get away with poisoning him before the end. I’m with Terry Eagleton when he exclaims “If only we could hear Bertha’s side of the story”.   I think the story in an interesting curiosity and tells us something about Eliot’s lesser known interests in mesmerism, phrenology, clairvoyance and revivication, as well as the gothic and fairy stories.  It also contains interesting nineteenth-century anxieties about gender — are men being emasculated by a wealthy consumer society? Are women becoming harder and more competitive?  In some ways, Bertha seems like a less well-developed model for that other dangerous blonde with snake-like coils of hair — Rosamund Vincey in Middlemarch.

Maybe I’m not getting something, but I just don’t see the deep meaning in this story that some critics have ascribed to it; to me, it seems all surface, which is fine such as it is, but Middlemarch, or The Mill on the Floss, it is not.

Cross posted to Flaming Culture

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

Cover of the Penguin edition of Bleak House

I first read Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) when I was in my teens and it sent me into hysterics (not the “ha ha” kind either, the Victorian kind). I thought I was doing fine as Dickens piled on the pathos, but when Esther Summerson woke from her illness to find the mirror removed from her room, that was it, I freaked.

Aside from my lack of enthusiasm to repeat this experience, I wouldn’t have chosen to read Bleak House again because, at close to 1,000 pages, it’s a monster and there are so many other books I ought to read. Still, in this case I’m glad I was forced to re-read it for work.

Bleak House is a huge, ramshackle, labyrinth of a novel with a divided narrative and a complicated double plot held together by intricate connections.  Dickens, with his incredible appetite for writing, couldn’t seem to pick a genre and stick with it, so we have realism, romance, melodrama, satire, the gothic, and crime fiction all thrown in together.  This makes it difficult to interpret because the way we read books for meaning depends on our knowledge of the genre in which we place the work.  I tend to agree with the critics who read it as a story about the power of secrets and dangers of obsession, as well as the helplessness of the subject under the tyranny of the law. It has been compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

The title is not deceptive: it’s definitely bleak and I’m not surprised that I had hysterics the first time around. There are nine deaths in this book. It abounds with the grotesque figures Dickens was famous for, but there isn’t much humour.  He interprets Victorian England as a sick, decaying society in which the misery of the poor caused by social injustice spreads to infect everyone, just as Jo the crossing sweep gets “moved along” and infects Esther with the smallpox that disfigures her beyond recognition.

When I first read Bleak House I had very little patience with Esther’s syrupy “Angel in the House” narrative, but now I see its construction as quite psychologically astute on Dickens’s part. Esther’s low self-esteem and self-depreciating remarks should be read in relation to the stigma of her illegitimacy, which is also signified by her scarred face.  It makes sense that a woman with no name, legal relations, or status in society would feel the need to trade in goodness because her only chance in life is to make people love her.  She has nothing else to offer.

The first time around I liked the benevolent John Jarndyce who takes Esther and the other wards of court into his home, but this time I experienced him as a creepy control freak who can’t stop trying to orchestrate other people’s lives.

I remember hating the opening (boring!), but now I think it’s one of the best things Dickens ever wrote.

Victorian feminism makes an appearance in the vicious representation of Mrs Jellyby, the irresponsible do-gooder with a squalid house full of neglected children and a husband who spends his time leaning his head against the wall in despair. Towards the end of the novel it is sneeringly remarked that she’s turned her attention to women’s rights to sit in parliament.**

Despite this surface disdain for women’s rights, Bleak House is actually very interested in gender and the position of women.  The entire book is gendered, with half the narrative told from a self-depreciating feminine position by Esther, and the other half by a presumptively male, confident but cynical, narrator.  Then Dickens can’t help being fascinated with the icy Lady Dedlock who finds her secrets catching up with her and he represents the frightening lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn as an outright misogynist.

Overall it was worth the effort, but I don’t think I’ll be going for a third attempt anytime soon.

If you can’t face reading the entire book, the BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson is pretty good.

** By Dickensian coincidence there’s a post up at Hoyden About Town about  Caroline Chisholm. Chisholm was allegedly the model for Mrs Jellyby.

Cross posted to Flaming Culture

The Best Literary Theory I read in 2008

Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny

As a lover of Gothic Horror, I have an interest in the uncanny, what Freud described as the haunting sense that something which ought to be repressed is coming to light. Royle’s highly theoretical, imaginative and ambitious book works with Freud but isn’t overwhelmed by him:

The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural. The uncanny involves feelings of uncertainty, in particular regarding the reality of who one is and what is being experienced. Suddenly one’s sense of oneself (of one’s so-called ‘personality’ or ‘sexuality’, for example) seems strangely questionable.  The uncanny is a crisis of the proper […] It is a crisis of the natural, touching upon everything that one might have thought was ‘part of nature’ : one’s own nature, human nature, the nature of reality and the world (p. 1)

It’s also a good read for anyone interested in Derridean deconstruction.


Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)’

In which Cixous analyses Freud, unravelling his own essay about the uncanny and reading it against itself.  This is a challenging piece (from which it’s all but impossible to pull a representative quote) but an important exploration of the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis. Cixous effectively draws out the uncanniness underlying Freud’s own text and by implication all fiction.

Thank you to the kind person who sent me this essay when I couldn’t manage to wrest it from JSTOR.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

Original illustration from A Christmas Carol of the Ghost of Christmas Present


What can be said about Dickens’s linguistic virtuosity beyond calling it ‘inimitable’? Perhaps all that can be done is to put ‘Wow!’ in the margins of the text or adjacent to a citation’ (J. Hillis Miller)

I spent yesterday afternoon under a blanket with a hot water bottle reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  I’ve read this book, I don’t know how many times, and I never get tired of it. When I was younger, only the death of Tiny Tim in the Christmas future caused me shed tears, but these days I read with a lump lodged constantly in my throat, crying my way through Fezziwig’s party and the Cratchitt’s dinner and Scrooge’s final redemption.  I also watch the BBC adaptation with Patrick Stewart every year on Christmas Eve and I’ll cry again then.  I have to teach it this year, so let’s hope I can hold it together for that.

I wonder why this story still has such emotional power.  Its politics are conservative, it celebrates the dominant values of Victorian society (home, heterosexuality, marriage, family), it treats women as little more than sexual objects and doesn’t even call for any radical social change.  Dickens seems to be campaigning for a more benevolent form of capitalism in which rich people engage in charity, which isn’t a very realistic solution.

But on one narrative level, its lure is quite simple. This is a story about renewal, about getting a second chance in life.  Actually, I remember seeing an interview with Patrick Stewart in which he bursts into tears when he tries to talk about this aspect of the text.  The Christmas Carol, it seems, can make even Captain Picard cry.

Like the best Christmas fictions, the Carol is powerful because it’s built on terrible darkness. Scrooge is standing at the edge of the abyss, not only the abyss of social isolation and lonely death into which he will fall if he doesn’t change his ways, but also the abyss of poverty and degradation, the “ignorance” and ”want” that people like him depend upon.

What I noticed most this time around was the emphasis on memory.  This is a story about a man who has forgotten how to feel and in order to be redeemed, Scrooge first has to learn how to remember.  In particular, he has to remember what it feels like to be a child (Dickens believed that our moral and spiritual welfare is dependent on keeping in touch with childhood).  With its strangely intimate narrative voice (“standing in the spirit at your elbow”), A Christmas Carol puts us in touch with the heightened empathy and emotional response associated with childhood.  Is this capacity something we lose as we grow older, or is it beaten out of us? A Christmas Carol encourages us to indulge in the remembrance of feeling.

Cross posted to Flaming Culture