HangsamanMy review of this novel by Shirley Jackson could perhaps be summed up thusly:

?????? What even was that?

Not much of a post, though, so I guess I’ll say more. Hangsaman (what does that title even mean??) is the story of Natalie Waite, who is 17 years old and preparing to go to a college for women. Her home life is strange and creepy in a way I can’t put my finger on, other than to say her father is a domineering ass who has taken great care to mold Natalie into precisely the daughter he wants. When Natalie goes away to college, she struggles at first to make friends, but then eventually finds herself in a small circle that includes a popular English professor, his wife, and two older students. The unease continues. Then she makes a solitary friend, a fellow student named Tony. They decide to go on an adventure together, and it is all unease all the time, and then a thing happens, and I don’t even know what it was.

Yet I liked this book.

There are several things that I think made this book work for me, regardless of how baffled I am by it. First, Jackson does sinister weirdness extremely well. She could write a book in which nothing bad at all happens, and it may still give me the creeps. Second, much of the narrative about Natalie’s journey to figure herself out seemed really true to life and very wise about the difficulty of extricating yourself from parents and finding your own way. Natalie, for lots of reasons, is not well-equipped to do that. Her father manipulates her well, and she’s dealing with a secret trauma that would throw anyone off. (At least, I think she is. Pretty sure she is.)

As unsettling as Natalie’s mind is, I enjoyed some of the things she did. One of my favorite scenes involved her being drawn into an initiation ritual and just refusing to participate. It doesn’t do her much good, but I loved it. And there’s something beguiling and understandable about her drive to solitude, her way of taking possession of her room and seeing it as a refuge. It’s only late in the book that we learn that her form of taking possession involves things like having most of her furniture removed and hanging her wastebasket out the window. As the underlying feeling of strangeness builds and builds, it’s hard to tell what is actually happening.

I don’t know if it’s fortunate or not that I read this immediately after Human Croquet, in which an incident with a tree sets a story in motion. This book, similarly, has a wood that appears near the beginning, where Natalie is (probably) sexually assaulted, and there’s another near the end where Natalie and Tony go together. When I got to that final scene in the wood, I kept flipping back wanting to see the connection between these two woods, but the dots are never quite connected. The echoes are strong, however, strong enough for me to wonder how much of the story actually takes place in the wood. And then there’s this, the morning after she’s first attacked (seduced? raped?) in the woods. Natalie is at the breakfast table, observing her family and thinking about what happened:

She knew, incredibly, that if she spoke she would tell them what had happened; not because she so much desired to tell, that she wanted to tell even them, but because this was not a personal manifestation, but had changed them all in changing the world, in the sense that they only existed in Natalie’s imagination anyway, so that the revolution in the world had altered their faces and made their hearts smaller.

If you’ve read Hangsamen, what did you make of it? Was any of it even real? Have you ever really enjoyed a book that made no actual sense?

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14 Responses to Hangsaman

  1. Elle says:

    This sounds amazing. It’s certainly made me want to read it!

  2. lailaarch says:

    I really liked this book and was also left wondering how much of it really happened. I was pretty certain that she was assaulted near the beginning of the book. The ending was what confused me most – was her new friend Tony even real? I tore through the final chapters due to the break-neck pacing. I filed it under “weird-but-i-liked-it” on my Goodreads shelf. It would make an excellent book group choice, I think.

    • Teresa says:

      I think she was assaulted at the beginning, too. There are a couple of references to it later, and I think it explains some of her reaction to the initiation as well. But I’m still puzzling over what else was real. I kind of wonder if it all was a dream, but I think the Tony stuff was for sure. I wondered if Tony were an alternate version of herself, able to cut herself off from caring what people think. I even had the wild notion that she was pregnant and Tony was her baby. It would be fun to try to tease out the possibilities in a book group.

  3. I have, for sure, read books that I liked despite not understanding them. Hangsaman wasn’t reeeeeally one of them, though? I was really excited for it and then underwhelmed in the event. :(

    By contrast, Helen Oyeyemi’s book White Is for Witching remains my favorite of hers, even though I couldn’t swear at any point in the book that I truly know what’s going on. The house is evil for SURE.

    • Teresa says:

      Good call on White Is for Witching! I didn’t understand it either, and it was weirder than this was. But I liked how real life in this offered its own horrors, which is something I noticed that Jackson does well in her stories. Everything is creepy, even when there’s no reason for it.

  4. This is the only Jackson book I’ve run across that I just couldn’t get into and DNFed. It made me so sad to do that, but the pure WTFery was too much for me at the time. I’m glad that it ultimately worked out for you!

    • Teresa says:

      I think what kept me interested was that I did enjoy her insights about dealing with family and learning to make friends. The book’s weirdness just added a layer that made it unique.

  5. Stefanie says:

    You have me utterly intrigued and wanting to read this book now!

  6. Thomas says:

    I gotta keep my eye out for this one. Sounds crazy.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I very much enjoyed this book. I think you have to put yourself into the era of when this was written as you are reading it. It was a different time back then for women. Jackson put some of herself into this book – read up on her – she was an interesting character, someone I would be interested in meeting.

  8. I’m so glad to see this book reviewed here; the internet is surprisingly weak on interpretations of the final portion of the novel. Here was my take: Natalie became more fragmented as a personality until “Tony” revealed herself as a dissociated component of Natalie herself, and that the journey into the woods, the diner, etc. culminates in Natalie either reintegrating or leaving the “Tony” behind in the woods.

    Against that theory is one line where Elizabeth Langdon says to her “I thought I saw you with someone outside”—otherwise no character with any standing in the novel interacts with Tony except for Natalie, and Natalie returns seemingly alone. Of course that leaves questions unanswered: where did the missing money, the cigarettes, the angora sweater, all of the lost items—go? Is the Peeping Tom in the raincoat actually Natalie (see later in the novel when Natalie finds an unexplained cigarette burn in her own raincoat).

    I admit that I raced through the last section of the novel, because Jackson’s painfully beautiful, deliberate, stylized and filigreed sentences got to me like molasses…I loved them but no longer had the patience for them.

    The increasing creepiness of the father is hard to fathom; he has to be one of the worst fathers I can think of, whose crime is neglect and dismissal to the point of cruelty. The banal repetitious dialogue during Natalie’s last visit home is just odd.

    So, I tried to make sense of it, but was ultimately left wanting. I expected something ambiguous but comprehensible along at least one, if not more, lines of reasoning. But here as I tried to develop a solution, I always found at least one thing against whatever avenue I pursued. That anyone published a novel so transgressive toward established patterns of expected behavior for women in 1951 is astonishing: the only unsurprising element is that it was written by the incomparable Shirley Jackson.

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