Saturday, December 06, 2008

Not What I Expected From Shirley

Shirley Jackson's main connection to YA literature is probably through the short story The Lottery, which many students read in high school. I think it's considered attractive to kids because it's scary and surprising. So a lot of readers think, "Oh, Shirley Jackson. Creepy." As Jonathan Lethem said in the Salon article Monstrous Acts, "An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and just one of her novels, "The Haunting of Hill House," contain a suggestion of genuinely supernatural events". That is definitely the case with the short story collection The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. (This is the original title of the 1949 book and it appears that way on my old paperback published in 1969.)

What struck me about these stories when I reread them last month is that many, if not most, of them are about women. Specifically, they're about women's lives. I'm not talking about a writer making some kind of feminist statement with her writing. (Though her story Elizabeth might be of particular interest to feminists.) I'm talking about a writer showing us women's experience during a particular point in time and in a particular place--mid-twentieth century America. The women in Jackson's stories live extremely claustraphobic, narrow lives. They are almost always referred to as Mrs. Something or Another or Miss Something or Another. They are thus defined in terms of their relationships--or lack thereof--with men. How often do we see Mrs. or Miss or even Ms. used these days the way Jackson uses those honorifics? She creates a very definite feeling of oppression with them.

Jackson's female main characters in these short stories are almost always alone. They are also often trapped emotionally in some way. And many of the stories involve a city woman who has moved to the country, where she is, once again, isolated and trapped.

The Lottery appears at the end of this collection, which is a very good place for it. After having read the other stories, The Lottery doesn't seem all that surprising. Instead, it fits in rather well with Jackson's other stories of women trapped in worlds from which they cannot escape.

It's still scary, though.


Sam said...

I came to dig S.J. through the book "We Have Always Lived in the Castle."
But I later got an anthology of her work, much of which seemed to be about raising kids and such. It was in fact, a little dull.
But there was one incredible story in there about a woman trying to make a return at a department store, which was so brilliantly written that it felt like a horror story. (And not in a silly way. In a really unsettling way.)

Gail Gauthier said...

A lot of Jackson's short stories present mundane, domestic situations as unsettling.

She wrote two memoirs about raising her children. Though I read a lot of her work when I was a teenager, I can't remember whether or not I've read those two because I get them mixed up with Please Don't Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr, which I also think I may have read. Kerr's book is from the same era, but according to Wikipedia, Jackson's Life Among the Savages came first.

After I wrote my first book, My Life Among the Aliens, an acquaintance told me she thought it was going to be about raising my kids. I don't know if Life Among the Savages is all that well-known, but I think the concept of that kind of title now is.

Anonymous said...

I've read Life Among the Savages and found it disturbing as well. It's dry and funny, but underneath the funny is this sense that the narrator, Jackson herself, is as trapped as any of her characters. I got the feeling that she laughed about things because it was socially acceptable, but complaining wasn't. Jokes were the only way to talk about what was wrong with her life.

Gail Gauthier said...

Oh, I have to read that now. There's a biography available, too. Will I live long enough to read all the things I want to read?

noochinator said...

You sold me, I'm going to give Shirl a whirl. I see she got the Lib. of America treatment (just like Cheever!), which is either a great honor or an embalming (or maybe both)....