Shirley Jackson Short Fiction Analysis
Shirley Jackson’s stories seem to center on a single concern: Almost every story is about a protagonist’s discovering or failing to discover or successfully ignoring an alternate way of perceiving a set of circumstances or the world. Jackson seems especially interested in how characters order their worlds and how they perceive themselves in the world. Often, a change in a character’s perspective leads to anxiety, terror, neurosis, or even a loss of identity. While it is tempting to say that her main theme is the difference between appearance and reality, such a statement is misleading, for she seems to see reality as Herman Melville’s Ishmael comes to see it, as a mirror of the perceiving soul. It is rarely clear that her characters discover or lose their grasp of reality; rather, they form ideas of reality that are more or less moral and more or less functional. For Jackson, reality is so complex and mysterious that one inevitably only orders part of it. A character may then discover parts that contradict a chosen order or that attract one away from the apparent order, but one can never affirm the absolute superiority of one ordering to another. In this respect, Jackson’s fictional world resembles those of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps the major differences between her fiction and theirs is that her protagonists are predominantly women; she explores some peculiarly feminine aspects of the problem of ideas of order.
Jackson’s middle-class American women seem especially vulnerable to losing the security of a settled worldview. Their culture provides them with idealistic dream visions of what their lives should be, and they have a peculiar leisure for contemplation and conversation imposed upon them by their dependent roles. Men in her stories seem so busy providing that they rarely look at and think about the order of things. Her career women are more like these men. In “Elizabeth” and “The Villager,” the protagonists succeed, albeit precariously, in preserving ideas of themselves and their worlds despite the contradictory facts that seem increasingly to intrude. In these two stories, one sees a sort of emotional cannibalism in the protagonists as they attempt to preserve belief in an order that reality seems no longer disposed to sustain. Several stories show a woman’s loss of an ordering dream. These divide into stories about women who experience the terror of loss of identity and those who may find a liberating and superior order in what would ordinarily be called infantile fantasy.
Among those who lose a dream are the protagonists of “The Little House” and “The Renegade.” In “The Little House,” a woman’s first possession of her own small country house is ruined by the terrifying insinuations of her new neighbors; they leave her alone on her first night after relating to her their fears that the previous owner was murdered and that the murderer will return. In “The Renegade,” a mother discovers an unsuspected cruelty in her neighbors and even in her children when her dog is accused of killing chickens. Although Jackson’s humorous autobiographical stories are of a different order, the often anthologized “Charles” tells of a mother’s discovery that the nemesis of the kindergarten whose antics her son reports each day is not the mythical Charles, but her own son, Laurie.
Perhaps the most successful escape into fantasy is Mrs. Montague’s in “The Island.” All her physical needs are provided by a wealthy but absent son and the constant attendance of Miss Oakes. Mrs. Montague lives in her dream of a tropical paradise, virtually untouched by her actual world. This escape is judged by the ironic frame of Miss Oakes’s relative poverty and her inevitable envy, suffering, spite, and ugliness; she has no chance of such an escape herself. Some movements into fantasy are terrifying or at least ambiguous. In “The Beautiful Stranger,” Margaret resolves a tension in her marriage by perceiving the man who returns from a business trip as a stranger, not her husband. By the end of the story, this fantasy has led to her losing herself, unable to find her home when she returns from a shopping trip. A similar but more ambiguous situation develops in “The Tooth,” in which a woman escapes into a vision of an island to evade the pain of an aching tooth. Many of Jackson’s protagonists conceive of an island paradise as an ideal order when their control of the immediate is threatened.
Some ideas of order remain impenetrable. In “Louisa, Please,” a variation on Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” a runaway daughter returns home after a long absence to discover that her family has built a life around her loss and will not be convinced of her return. In “Flower Garden” and “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” protagonists find themselves unable to change or to abandon racist ideas because the ideas are too strong or because of community pressure.
A closer look at three especially interesting stories reveals more about Jackson’s themes and give some indication of her technical proficiency. In “The Visit,” Margaret comes to visit a school friend, Carla Rhodes, for the summer. The beautiful Rhodes estate includes a dream house with numerous fantastic rooms. The house seems not quite real; nearly every room is covered with tapestries depicting the house in different hours and seasons, and there is a mysterious tower of which no one speaks. For Margaret, the house and the family are ideal, especially when Carla’s brother, Paul, arrives with his friend, the Captain. This idyll lasts until the evening of Paul’s departure, when Margaret discovers that Paul has been a hallucination or a ghost, for the Captain is Carla’s brother and no one else has seen Paul. This revelation clarifies several mysteries that have developed, especially that of Margaret’s strange visit to the tower. Paul has told Margaret that an old aunt often secludes herself in the tower. When Margaret pays her a visit, she undergoes a not really frightening but certainly haunting experience with old Aunt Margaret. At the end of the story, the reader must conclude Aunt Margaret to be an apparition, that she is probably the Margaret who died for love and whose...
(The entire section is 2561 words.)