There are too many people in these stories by Shirley Jackson—people who watch, people who judge, people who insinuate themselves into your life, people who leave, people who throw stones. Almost every story unearths some little bit of darkness in urban or suburban life, life that on the surface seems perfectly genial.
Before reading this collection, “The Lottery” was the only one of Jackson’s stories that I could remember having read. If you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. On first read, if you don’t know what’s happening, it’s a shocker, but the story is so embedded in American culture that it has lost some of its shock value. However, experiencing it as the capstone of a collection about secret darkness in people and communities brought some of its power back. It’s a story that shows how far things can go when ritual goes unquestioned and cruelty goes unchecked.
Most of the other stories, however, are about more commonplace cruelties. “Charles” is probably the lightest story of the bunch and one I think I’d come across before. Did she adapt it from Life Among the Savages? It’s one of those “kids do the darndest things” kinds of stories about a little boy telling tales about a naughty classmate. Couched in the midst of these uncomfortable and oppressive stories, it looks a little more sinister than I remembered it being.
I was surprised to find two stories—“After You, My Dear Alphonse” and “Flower Garden”—that made race a topic. The white suburban woman at each story’s center has certain expectations about the lives and roles of their black neighbors. These women are perfectly nice and polite, but they see blacks and whites having proper places and roles and see no reason to change that.
These are almost all stories about women, single women, married women, women with jobs, women at home. Mostly unhappy women. “Elizabeth,” for example, has a job that has gone nowhere, although she pretends differently. Similarly, the title character in “The Villager” has built a life that she’s happy with, unless she lets herself think about the life she meant to have. For these women, the pain comes from within and the difference between what they planned and what they have.
The lead character in “The Demon Lover,” which Ana and Chris both wrote about this week, is also dealing with dashed hopes as she waits for her lover on their wedding day, all the while fretting over whether she’s wearing the right thing and what people will think. As Ana notes in her review, it turns out that she was right to worry because when she finally ventures out, people smirk at her and treat her with barely concealed scorn. And by the end of the story, we’re pulled right along with them as we’re given reason to wonder how real her lover is.
As I think of the final image of the protagonist in “The Demon Lover,” I come back to Tess Hutchinson’s wail of “It’s not fair” at the end of “The Lottery.” This is, I think, a book full of (mostly) women crying inside that “it’s not fair.” But this isn’t a book all about damning the patriarchy. It’s more complicated than that.
Sometimes, for example, women are the ones doing the oppressing. It’s a woman who weasels her way into a man’s life in “Like Mother Used to Make.” Interestingly, however, she is able to do so because he takes on traditionally feminine roles while she grabs the power (and the house). The housekeeper in “Men with Their Big Shoes” similarly draws herself into an unwilling host’s home, this time by putting on a sort of sisterly camaraderie that the story’s protagonist doesn’t know how to refuse. People wanting to be polite is a problem in these stories. It’s being polite that keeps them in their places. And again, I return to Tess crying that “It’s not fair” even though all the rules were followed. Everything was done as it should be, and that is her doom.
I think, mostly, this is a book about people being made miserable by other people. The protagonists are mostly women, but it’s not just women who suffer. We rub up against each other in this world, and rubbing causes friction. Some people push their way in (like the neighbor in “Trial by Combat”), and others do mean things without a thought (like the man who buys the book he doesn’t even want in “Seven Types of Ambiguity”), but sometimes just going about our business (crossing the street in “Pillar of Salt”) makes life impossible for others. These are unsettling stories about how hard it is to live in the world. They’re perfect in their uncomfortableness.
I read this collection for the Shirley Jackson Reading Week hosted by Simon, Jenny, and Ana. Thanks to you all for giving me the impetus for pulling this off my shelf. I think all of the stories at once was a bit of an overdose, but a Shirley Jackson overdose is a good kind of overdose!