Shirley Jackson Essay - Critical Essays

Shirley Jackson American Literature Analysis

Jackson’s works do not fit easily into any single category. On one hand, her horror stories and gothic novels are chilling ventures into the worlds of tormented minds and supernatural evil. On the other hand, she became popular in the 1950’s for her “domestic” works, humorous stories about family life in a small New England village. Jackson’s writing melds horror and humor in a unique way: Her most frightful tales are shot through with wry jests, while her household stories contain elements of darkness.

In one of Jackson’s essays about the art of story-writing, she emphasizes that every character, no matter how seemingly minor, must play some role in setting atmosphere or moving the plot forward. Each character should be well drawn, never sketched. In her major characters, she reveals the psychological depths of disturbed, if not downright psychotic, minds. For example, Natalie Waite, the seventeen-year-old undergraduate of the novel Hangsaman (1951), gradually descends into madness. Elizabeth Richmond of The Bird’s Nest (1954) develops multiple personality disorder. Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House becomes one with the ghosts that live there. Mary Catherine (Merricat) Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a rather charming psychotic. These women protagonists serve not only to illustrate psychological themes but also social ones. There is always a hint in Jackson’s writings that society lends a decisive hand in destroying the mental lives of these women.

Interestingly, houses can be actual characters in some of Jackson’s works. Coming from a line of architects (both her great-great-grandfather and grandfather were respected architects) may have influenced Jackson’s depiction of houses as prominent narrative features. Her opening description of Hill House as “not sane” immediately lends psychological characteristics to a structure of wood and stone. The Blackwood home is Merricat’s castle, a target for village hatred, and a prison all at the same time. In The Sundial (1958), Jackson’s love of eighteenth century gothic novels informed the structure, decorations, and formal gardens of the mansion, wherein an entire family waits for the end of the world.

Social evil is another major theme in Jackson’s books and stories. She was sensitive to prejudice, bias, and snobbishness. Early on in her writing career, Jackson championed the cause of disenfranchised African Americans in the college magazine The Spectre. In the short story “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” she wryly exposes prejudices and ignorance about African Americans. Beyond bigotry, Jackson probed the blind injustices wielded by social groups. The most famous of her short stories, “The Lottery,” depicts the thoughtless perpetuation of evil traditions.

In Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall(1948), suburban snobbishness and self-absorption leads to cruelty which is accepted mindlessly. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the shunned Blackwood sisters have their house torn apart by a mob of villagers. Jackson was sensitive to society’s power, the forces that can uplift individuals through community belonging but can also destroy people who do not follow the norm.

Jackson’s choice of supernatural subject matter placed her outside the literary mainstream. She called herself a witch, and the media dubbed her the “queen of the macabre.” She owned hundreds of volumes of books on witchcraft and was known to make little voodoo dolls of people who offended her. While the extent of Jackson’s beliefs in the supernatural may never be fully known, her fascination with the subject is apparent. The Haunting of Hill House is an obvious example, a haunted house story of classic proportions.

In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat practices her own eclectic version of witchcraft by nailing an old book to a tree and burying marbles and coins to protect the Blackwood home. In a sense, the villagers of “The Lottery” are paying homage to sympathetic magic: One human sacrifice equals another good year of crops. The novel The Sundial begins with a warning from a dead patriarch that the world is coming to an end. The spirit world easily impinges on ordinary reality in many of Jackson’s stories.

Themes of anxiety, psychosis, and horror made Jackson famous, but her bread and butter throughout the 1950’s were the “domestic” tales published in magazines such as Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping. Collected into two books called Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, the stories relate humorous episodes from the Hymans’ family life. Jackson’s dry wit keeps the stories from becoming saccharine.

Whether her theme is dark or light, Jackson mastered the technique of presenting the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Her tone and language are low-key; her style is elegant and trim. She presents a voice of normalcy, at first. Then, as if by magic, she introduces the twist: a divided mind, a warped suburban enclave, a human sacrifice, a child’s imaginary classmate. Jackson slowly leads the reader down into a tangled labyrinth where human psychology meets the supernatural, and the lines between them blur.

“The Lottery”

First published: 1948 (collected in The Lottery: Or, The Adventures of James Harris, 1949)

Type of work: Short story

Modern villagers practice an ancient rite of sacrifice.

Jackson once indicated that if she had never published any other work, she would be remembered for “The Lottery.” After the story came out in The New Yorker in 1948, Jackson received hundreds of letters, most of which were overwhelmingly negative. The letter writers were shocked, bemused, and, in some cases, frankly abusive. Many people wanted to know where and when the lottery was held so that they could witness it. Set in modern times in what some readers assumed was Jackson’s home of Bennington, Vermont, “The Lottery” caused a nationwide stir and made the author famous in her own time.

Jackson begins the story with typical understatement. The sun is shining on a summer’s day. Children are not in school, and they are the first to gather in the village square. Their parents join them as the hour for the lottery approaches. Soon everyone in the village is present (with the exception of Clyde Dunbar, who has a broken leg). Mr. Summers, who runs a coal business, is the master of ceremonies. He and the postmaster, Mr. Graves, set a black box on a stool in the middle of the square. There is an air of...

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