Shirley Jackson’s Unsettling Freedom

June 27, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Posted in fiction | Leave a comment

In October, I decided on a whim to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959): because it was “in my period” (20th century American), because it was written by a woman, and because it seemed appropriately “Halloweeny.” Since then I’ve been on a minor streak: a few months ago I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1963), and I’ve just finished Hangsaman (1951), by far the strangest of the three. It seems that her books’ popularity is more or less in inverse proportion to their strangeness, which is a pity, because their strangeness is precisely what makes them so compelling. For example, The Haunting of Hill House, by far her most popular novel, would be not very different from any other ghost story were it not for the radical uncertainty of how much of the haunting is in the main character’s imagination — and this uncertainty is what makes the book truly creepy. Jackson is a master of what might be called, rather than “the uncanny,” “the unsettling.” Her stories literally unsettle us, they shake us up a bit and make us uncomfortable. They’re told in simple enough prose that I recently recommended them to a friend looking for “young adult fiction,” but they resist cohering in the expected ways, and their relatively straightforward style makes their deep weirdness somehow even weirder. All three of the books I’ve read so far have young female protagonists who are varying degrees of crazy, so you might call them “unreliable narrator” stories, except that the narration is in the third person, which contributes a lot to the creepiness: the liberal use of free indirect discourse makes it deeply unclear what is being reported by the narrator as fact, and what is skewed by the protagonist’s thoughts.

These books are therefore really interesting windows into young women’s minds, and reveal what odd places they are. All minds, surely, are odd, but the minds of girls becoming women in the 1950s offer Jackson a particularly rich sea of strangeness to draw from: the question of expected behavior vs. individual autonomy plays out in all three of these books in a variety of bizarre ways: in Hill House, accepting the invitation to visit the haunted house is the first independent choice Eleanor has ever made; in Castle, the Blackwood girls struggle with the question of whether to re-integrate with the community or continue to live defiantly on their own; and Hangsaman is quite literally a going-off-to-college, coming-of-age story, though a very weird one. Hangsaman in particular provoked shocks of recognition in me at regular intervals, as I realized I’d perhaps never read a book that captured so well the oddly self-absorbed marveling at the world that characterized my teenage years:

The sight of the mountains far away was sometimes so perfectly comprehensible to Natalie that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it — she was, of course, adequately hidden from the windows of the house — or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal to set up against the simultaneously real-and-unreal batterings of her family. (23)

What kills me in this passage is the word comprehensible — not incomprehensible, but comprehensible. This isn’t the overwhelming sublime, this is a feeling of mastery somehow, of being able to contain and understand the spectacle. Natalie must force the tears into her eyes, she must actively “turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it.” I’m not sure I could have articulated until now that a lot of my imagination in my late childhood and adolescence consisted of making the world significant, because I wanted it to be, because I was told (by fiction, I guess, and movies and TV) that it ought to be, and because on its own, it really wasn’t: I was just a kid, seeing normal things, living a normal life of very little consequence. But imagining my routine life into a life of significance was a way of exerting a measure of control over it: I could make boring things interesting, and I could make things forced on me feel like things intended for me by some kind of mystical fate rather than by mundane rules and expectations.

As I mentioned before, Hangsaman is a coming-of-age story with some standard markers of that plot, but the execution of that plot is “unsettling” in that it doesn’t actually hang together very coherently. The third act, in particular, comes seemingly out of nowhere and I kept thinking that I might have missed a crucial plot point that tied it all together — particularly since I read the middle hundred pages in the fog of an endless delay parked in an airport bar. But more than articulating a coherent plot, Hangsaman is concerned with feeling its way around the odd, drawn-out process of coming to own and control all of yourself: it operates on a stranger and more philosophical register than most coming-of-age stories. Following immediately after the above passage, we get this:

There was a point in Natalie, only dimly realized by herself, and probably entirely a function of her age, where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities. (23)

Exploring this point “where obedience ended and control began” is the central issue in this book. Natalie draws away from her overbearing father and enters a college world where she is socially defined in two very different contexts, which gives her a very unstable sense of her own identity: she is reviled by the girls in her dormitory, but becomes a pet of a fashionable young professor and his wife and therefore has some social standing among a different, older set of girls. Both social groups are governed by strict (and somewhat conflicting) norms which demand “obedience” (just as the rules of her father did) and Natalie rebels against both as she tries to figure out what part of her is really her own. This all is complicated by her near-hallucinogenic imagination, and to make matters worse and weirder, a sexual assault that Natalie experiences early on casts a pall over the whole book — it’s certainly a profound experience of the loss of control. In the last third of the book, Natalie suddenly finds that she has a (female) best friend named Tony, and the two of them go off on a journey away from the college and into town, skipping their classes, which is a dizzying experience of freedom and control for both of them (and is also, I theorize, meant to recapitulate the assault scene to a certain degree — but discussing this in more detail would give away too much). In the following passage, drunk on free will, the girls engage in some familiar solipsism:

“I wonder what the rest of them do with their time?” Tony said absently. “Do you think they go to their classes as usual? Or has the whole college faded away or blown into dust or collapsed — ”

” — or crumbled or snapped out like a light — ”

— Just because we’ve gone? Tony thought. “We are on a carpet,” she announced soberly. “It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.”

“The immediate spot where we are walking is the only immediate spot there is,” Natalie said. (185)

This passage, and the book as a whole, does a marvelous job of capturing what freedom is: an eternal but very narrow present. In the film Donnie Darko, we are occasionally shown watery, tentacle-like projections that emerge from characters and seem to draw them along their expected paths:

We’re meant to understand that it’s habit, intention, fate, or some combination of these that draws Donnie inevitably toward the refrigerator. The tentacle concretizes how expectations literally shape the future, and can give us an almost psychic ability to see it. When Tony and Natalie skip class and walk into town instead, they reject a planned, visible future in favor of a nebulous “red carpet” (as Tony says), or perhaps more accurately, in favor of simply an “immediate spot” (as Natalie decides). The rest of the world falls away: there is you and your will and the present moment. This pure world, free from consequences and complications, is not really the one we live in — as the girls quickly discover. Nor would we want it to be, I hope: functional societies and meaningful relationships both entail obligations as well as consequences for ignoring them. Yet we continue to hold “freedom” as a central American value, relatively uninterrogated in popular discourse. What Jackson excels at is bringing into focus is the narcissism, terror, and sociopathy that accompany freedom in its purest form. If that’s unsettling — well, it should be.

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