Shirley Jackson Jackson, Shirley - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1233 words.)

Helen E. Nebeker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 579 words.)

John G. Park

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)