I love Shirley Jackson; in recent months I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, Hangsaman (review here) and, of course, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’ve also been familiar with some of her short fiction, having taught The Lottery, Charles and After You, My Dear Alphonse at school for the past few years. I love my students’ responses to these stories, especially The Lottery, as they settle into thinking they know what’s going on, only to be horribly traumatised by the ending. It really makes it worth going to school.
Like Hangsaman, the stories here deal with the boredom and frustration of being a woman in the 1940s, in the desperation of an apparently jilted woman in The Daemon Lover and the existential pain of a precocious but patronised teen in The Intoxicated. I don’t know a huge amount about Jackson’s life (although, once I’ve read all her fiction, I’ll be investing in the recent biography), but it’s easy to view the limited lives of her protagonists as a reflection of her own feelings. Some of the stories are oddly uneventful, like The Villager, in which a woman pretends to be the owner of a home she’s actually visiting to view furniture. I see this uneventfulness as deliberate on Jackson’s part, using stories half told to reflect the lives half lived by women at the time (I thought of that phrase earlier and am embarrassingly pleased with it).
Here, we also see quiet, almost indiscernible battles between women in Trial by Combat, A Fine Old Firm and Flower Garden; women are the centre of all these narratives, and yet are completely isolated in their predicaments, as it clearly isn’t the acceptable thing for any of them to voice their unhappiness. Similarly, Elizabeth shows a woman fighting to keep her place in society, battling against being replaced in her job; although dependent on a man for her career, she’s the most independent of Jackson’s protagonists, and it’s clear how much it costs her emotionally.
Both After You, My Dear Alphonse and Flower Garden show a progressive attitude towards race; the white mother in the former is humiliated by the narrator for her condescending attitudes towards her young son’s black friend, while the latter shows a woman ostracised by her community for daring to treat a black man as a human being. Bearing in mind that these stories were written in the 1940s, Jackson’s themes seem highly modern; while it’s The Lottery that is seen as the controversial one, there’s plenty of other ideas in the collection to be impressed by. The Lottery obviously shocks in its late turn towards ritualistic murder, but other common sinister tropes are on view here too, like creepy children in Charles and The Renegade, in which two young kids gleefully contemplate how their dog might be put down.
I think I’ll have to invest in the Dark Tales collection for more of Jackson’s spooky stories, but there’s real satisfaction to be found here too. There’s so much beneath the surface in Jackson’s writing; the iceberg metaphor often employed to analyse writing is definitely applicable here. If you’ve not read Jackson’s short fiction, do it.
Are you a Shirley Jackson fan too? Or have I convinced you to read her? This would make my day.