illustrated portrait of American author Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

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Jackson, Shirley 1919–1965

Jackson was an American novelist and short story writer. She is best known for her stories which blend supernatural elements with ordinary domestic settings. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Stuart C. Woodruff

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No doubt many readers who helped to put Miss Jackson's novel on the bestseller lists for a long time read the book … as a mystery or whodunit lacking only a detective to solve the crime….

There is, however, considerably more to We Have Always Lived in the Castle than [this] …; Miss Jackson's novel is, in fact, a finely patterned work whose thematic concern is not really mystery or horror at all. To be sure, there is a conventional mystery of sorts—the identity of the poisoner—but unraveling it could hardly be said to strain our powers of deduction. And there is an element of horror as well, although, strangely enough, it is not caused by our discovery that a twelve-year-old girl has dispatched no fewer than four members of her family …, and has left an uncle crippled for life from the aftereffects of arsenic poisoning. Parricide on such a scale is certainly regrettable, but the real horror in Miss Jackson's novel originates elsewhere. (p. 152)

In Merricat's opening description of one of her weekly trips to the village we begin to sense the kind of world the castle is a defense against. So mean and small is that world, so lacking in love and understanding, that we soon come to share Merricat's distaste and to approve of the castle-dwellers' self-imposed isolation. The village, representative of the normal outside world, is initially characterized by its dirt and ugliness…. More important than the physical squalor and ugliness is the moral dry rot of its inhabitants. The village is a loveless, predatory place, filled with "flat grey faces with … hating eyes," with "rotting hearts" "coveting our heaps of golden coins." (pp. 153-54)

In radical opposition to the grubby village and its equally grubby inhabitants stands the castle, guarded by Constance, and in the polar contrasts between the so-called "normal" world of the village and the "abnormal" world of the castle we discover the novel's underlying pattern or design. Whereas the villager is grey and grimy, the castle appears to bask in perpetual warmth and sunshine….

Constance—her name, of course, is emblematic—epitomizes the regenerative power of love and selfless devotion; she is the kind of person the sentimentalist would describe as "too fine" for this world. If she seems not quite believable as a character, like Esther Summerson of Bleak House, it is only because she is too good to be true. (p. 154)

Protected by Constance's love and concern, Merricat finds further refuge in her rich fantasy life, particularly in her dream of a "house on the moon."… Merricat's imagination insulates her against the world's lovelessness and greed, just as Constance has created a way of life which comes close to matching her sister's lunar fantasy. Since Merricat is the novel's narrator, we see through her eyes only, and soon become accustomed to her point of view. Gradually we find ourselves sharing that point of view. In our growing preference for life at the castle, we discover the moral of Miss Jackson's persuasive fable. For it is Miss Jackson's purpose to convert us, to make us feel the moral superiority of life "on the moon" to a drab and mean existence in the village…. If life at the castle is demented and "unrealistic," Miss Jackson implies, then by all means let us have more of it.

In fact, as sympathetic...

(This entire section contains 1233 words.)

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moon-dwellers we find the concepts of normal and abnormal behavior highly ambiguous, if not actually reversed, not because Merricat is unable to distinguish between them, but because the novel's angle of vision forces us to find all that is good and meaningful in the lives of three recluses scorned by the community at large…. As we pick up clues as to what happened that night at dinner, as we gain insight into the motive behind the parricide, we even come close to feeling that Merricat herself did the right thing…. The purpose of the novel is not to shock us with Merricat's bizarre crime, but to define the quality of new life that is its aftermath.

Because we share so fully Merricat's small but brightly illuminated world, we share as well—or at least sympathetically comprehehend—her one great fear; that Constance may return to the normal world as represented by the village. (pp. 155-56)

Just how real that subject is becomes apparent through Cousin Charles Blackwood's visit to the castle, for it is in the antagonism that immediately springs up between Merricat and her cousin that the conflict between two worlds—two value systems—is most fully dramatized. (p. 156)

Paradoxically, what Jim Donell and the others do [in their destructive rampage at] the Blackwood house makes less sense to us than Merricat's poisoning of her family, and perhaps this is Miss Jackson's point. She is not trying to justify what Merricat did, but to make us understand why she did it. And somehow we do understand, and we do forgive, just as Constance has understood and forgiven, and just as the villagers cannot understand and cannot forgive. In the final violent clash between the village and the castle, Miss Jackson makes it clear that the true source of life's horror and madness is to be found in the so-called "normal" world of ordinary people. (pp. 159-60)

In this moment of crisis, Constance is shown to be as dependent upon Merricat as Merricat has been upon her; together they exemplify the reciprocity of love and devoted concern. (p. 160)

If we regard Miss Jackson's novel as asking us to love young girls who poison their parents, and older sisters who cover up for them, and to despise as louts ordinary people denied such exotic experiences, then the author is perhaps guilty of some rather special pleading. But the novel has no such palpable designs upon us and involves no more special pleading than any fictional world which asks us to submit for a time to given conditions and premises. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the conditions and premises are certainly persuasive enough. Through the figure of Constance we are shown qualities of human concern and sacrificial love rare enough to be either missed or misunderstood by the common run of mankind, rare enough to require withdrawal from the quotidian world for their preservation. In contrast, the everyday world is shown to be an often unlovely place in which to pass our existence, an insight that should hardly surprise most readers…. [The] difference [between the villagers and the castle-dwellers] becomes a vehicle for exposing man's scarcely latent capacities for violence and cruelty. By crowding warmth and love and devotion into the habitable remains of a burned-out mansion, Miss Jackson shows how fragile and precious such values are, and worthy of being preserved at any cost. (p. 161)

In a way Miss Jackson's own avowed interest in [the world of the bizarre] is unfortunate, for she is apt to be labeled as a writer of supernatural fiction. This would be somewhat misleading; even in The Haunting of Hill House she goes considerably beyond the mere mechanism of terror by exploring psychological dilemmas that work upon her protagonists from within. And in her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, she achieves a significantly new dimension in both theme and technique. (pp. 161-62)

Stuart C. Woodruff, "The Real Horror Elsewhere: Shirley Jackson's Last Novel," in Southwest Review (© 1967 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1967, pp. 152-62.

Helen E. Nebeker

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Numerous critics have carefully discussed Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in terms of the scapegoat traditions of anthropology and literature, pointing out its obvious comment on the innate savagery of man lurking beneath his civilized trappings. Most acknowledge the power of the story, admitting that the psychological shock of the ritual murder in an atmosphere of modern, small-town normality cannot be easily forgotten. Nevertheless, beneath the praise of these critics frequently runs a current of uneasiness, a sense of having been defrauded in some way by the development of the story as a whole. (pp. 100-01)

Perhaps the critical ambivalence … stems from failure to perceive that "The Lottery" really fuses two stories and themes into one fictional vehicle. The overt, easily discovered story appears in the literal facts, wherein members of a small rural town meet to determine by lot who will be the victim of the yearly savagery. At this level one … recoils in horror. This narrative level produces immediate emotional impact. Only after that initial shock do disturbing questions and nuances begin to assert themselves.

It is at this secondary point that the reader begins to suspect that a second story lies beneath the first and that Miss Jackson's "symbolic intentions" are not "incidental" but, indeed, paramount. Then one discovers that the author's careful structure and consistent symbolism work to present not only a symbolic summary of man's past but a prognosis for his future which is far more devastating than the mere reminder that man has savage potential. Ultimately one finds that the ritual of the lottery, beyond providing a channel to release repressed cruelties, actually serves to generate a cruelty not rooted in man's inherent emotional needs at all. Man is not at the mercy of a murky, savage id; he is the victim of unexamined and unchanging traditions which he could easily change if he only realized their implications. Herein is horror. (pp. 101-02)

Jackson does not, however, attack ritual in and of itself. She implies that, as any anthropologist knows, ritual in its origin is integral to man's concept of his universe, that it is rooted in his need to explain, even to control the forces around him. Thus, at one time the ritual, the chant, the dance were executed precisely, with deep symbolic meaning. Those chosen for sacrifice were not victims but saviors who would propitiate the gods, enticing them to bring rebirth, renewal, and thanking them with their blood. (p. 104)

Shirley Jackson has raised … lesser themes to one encompassing a comprehensive, compassionate, and fearful understanding of man trapped in the web spun from his own need to explain and control the incomprehensible universe around him, a need no longer answered by the web of old traditions.

Man, she says, is a victim of his unexamined and hence unchanged traditions which engender in him flames otherwise banked, subdued. Until enough men are touched strongly enough by the horror of their ritualistic, irrational actions to reject the long-perverted ritual, to destroy the box completely—or to make, if necessary, a new one reflective of their own conditions and needs of life—man will never free himself from his primitive nature and is ultimately doomed. Miss Jackson does not offer us much hope—they only talk of giving up the lottery in the north village…. (p. 107)

Helen E. Nebeker, "'The Lottery': Symbolic Tour de Force," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), March, 1974, pp. 100-07.

John G. Park

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Showing her ability to find pity and terror in the ludicrous and the ludicrous in the terror, Jackson creates a fantasy of the end of the world [in The Sundial], which parodies the apocalyptic imagination while portraying it. (pp. 74-5)

The novel is concerned with the nature of belief, with the way desperate people grasp a belief and make it their truth, with how belief and madness combine and lead to desperate behavior, with how belief is a form of madness itself, making people into grotesques. (p. 75)

Mrs. Halloran's hubris blinds her to her own limitations, causing her to miscalculate, to gamble for the highest stakes in a situation she could not control…. Mrs. Halloran sought control over the future the way she tried to control the present and failed at both. (p. 78)

Mrs. Halloran sees quite clearly the ridiculousness of the True Believers but cannot see that her own belief is lunacy also. Perhaps to the eyes of the non-believer all belief contains madness. (p. 79)

Waiting for the end with Mrs. Halloran, her invalid husband, Richard, and the apocalyptic Aunt Fanny are nine of the strangest people ever expected to be gathered in one place…. Most of these people share several important qualities. They fear and hate the world and are unable to function independently within it. They have no clear sense of their future and grasp eagerly at Aunt Fanny's apocalyptic visions, for which they willingly bet thier lives. Not only weak, they are also utterly selfish, self-centered, and greedy…. Because they are in the twilight zone of waiting, neither the present nor the future world is quite real to them, and they do not know what to do. (pp. 79-80)

Much of Aunt Fanny's madness … stems from her experience of childhood loss and betrayal, when she was abandoned and neglected, causing her to create a world of fantasy within. (p. 82)

Evocative of the tone of some of Hawthorne's tales, such as "The Ambitious Guest" and "Ethan Brand," is Essex's confession to Arabella, whose density protects her from any comprehension, that he is filled "with a kind of unholy, unspeakable longing." Essex has looked inward and is sickened by what he has found—a heart of longing beyond appeasement. He speaks of it as a form of original sin: "It is abominable to need something so badly."… All within the Halloran house feel such longing in varying degrees, the very basis for their belief in Aunt Fanny's visions. It continues to animate the contagion which gives cohesion to a disparate group, creating a "they-versus-us" syndrome. It reinforces Mrs. Halloran's power of coercion when various members of the group begin to doubt and desire to leave…. The longing of the group reinforces Aunt Fanny's belief in her own revelations as well. (pp. 82-3)

House imagery, a common feature of the gothic tradition, in the form of doll houses, little houses in the forest (as in Mrs. Halloran's dream), houses within houses, and the mansion itself, recurs throughout the novel and generally serves to indicate the presence of a deadly narcissism. (p. 84)

We can see in The Sundial several features of what Irving Malin calls the new American gothic. First, a microcosm serves as the arena where universal forces collide. The gothic house functions as an image of authoritarianism, of imprisonment, of "confining narcissism," as well as a receptacle of lost values. The voyage—as when Julia attempts to flee to the city—is an attempt to escape the cloying authoritarianism of the house. The journey is also dangerous and terrifying, as Julia finds out. Nearly all of the characters of new American gothic are narcissistic, in one form or another, weaklings who try to read their own preoccupations into reality, as do the followers of Aunt Fanny's vision. Thus, for them "reality becomes a distorted mirror." Especially apropos of Mrs. Halloran, "new American gothic uses grotesques who love themselves so much that they cannot enter the social world except to dominate their neighbors." In new American gothic the family is frequently used as a microcosm and is the source of the members' disfiguring love. The family tends to stunt the full development of its members, who become arrested in narcissism and are unable to grow up, as we see in Aunt Fanny. The reflection, another convention of the gothic, occurs frequently in The Sundial. Essex hates mirrors because of his awareness of duplicity. Gloria's many visions in the mirror reflect the narcissism of the whole community that it has been chosen to survive the holocaust and inherit a new world. Most of the characters of new American gothic, Malin argues, are isolates who are unable to belong to the world outside their family or home. While they would like to be a part of the big world, they are too afraid to leave the little world, as is certainly the case of the Halloran group. (p. 85)

The Sundial is a nicely woven novel, where imagery and technique work together well. Through the use of various motifs, such as the house imagery, references to time, Jackson is able to juxtapose character, theme, and incident in startling and ironic ways. One such motif is the reading of Robinson Crusoe to the senile Mr. Halloran by his nurse. The passages often contrast ironically with the increasing madness of the characters in the novel. As in her other work, Jackson employs a deft kind of cinematic focusing, creating a simultaneity of effect and capturing well a roomful of conversation. The novel satirizes a human condition where gullibility, cupidity, and culpability reign virtually unrestrained by moral principle and create a community of the survival of the worst. The satire is not without rich humor. (p. 86)

In The Sundial Shirley Jackson portrays the elitism of the apocalyptic mind that sees only itself as being worthy of survival and salvation. Such an imagination is essentially nihilistic because it forsakes positive reformatory action for a passive waiting that can easily move into despair, and it accepts powerlessness and surrenders human responsibility to what it regards as an overpowering destiny, in the name of which all crime is possible. To the Halloran household the world will end and begin again with itself as the inheritor, an example of the "presumptive eschatology" of a secular imagination which sees a simple continuation of history after the cataclysm. Here, we have no sense of judgment and renewal in connection with the cataclysm as in traditional apocalypse. A new world is expected, but no personal renewal is promised or demanded, which, as Fancy suspects, will mean no change at all in the human condition. The people gathered in the Halloran mansion have indeed experienced the loss of world and suffer the debilitating effects of anomie.

Apocalypse, properly conceived, is a message of hope for a people in stress and crisis, for it provides a context for the faithful to understand themselves and to act. Such understanding of apocalypse, essentially theological and biblical, contrasts sharply with the apocalyptic pretensions of the Halloran party. They long for a revelation without theology, a revelation without judgment and thus without renewal as well. Because they lacked courage to live responsibly in the present world and because they lacked hope for the future, they abdicated their humanness for the apocalyptic visions of a mad woman and chose to live appearances for reality, a dangerous fiction for life. (pp. 87-8)

John G. Park, "Waiting for the End: Shirley Jackson's 'The Sundial'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XIX, No. 3, 1978, pp. 74-88.


Shirley Jackson Short Fiction Analysis