So I love me some Shirley Jackson, but it wasn’t until I recently finished A Bird’s Nest that I had perhaps the belated revelation that Shirley Jackson writes primarily about young women who are suffering from some sort of arrested development.
Consider Eleanor Vance, from Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House. One of the first lines in the novel is:
“Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.”
If that’s not a description of someone who is emotionally stunted, I’m not sure what is. Eleanor is consistently unsure of herself and lacks self confidence in the worst of ways. While she is supposed to be thirty-two, her character often feels no older than sixteen or seventeen. Her self consciousness is exacerbated by the stresses of Hill House, makes her teeter even more off balance than she was before.
Looking at Eleanor next to the lively and confident Theodora, one has to stop and wonder what emotional juxtaposition that Jackson was going for. Does Theodora genuinely become irate and hostile towards Eleanor or is this completely happening in Eleanor’s perception?
Next we have both Merricat and Constance Blackwood, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Merricat is supposed to be eighteen years old, but her rhetoric and behavior make that incredibly hard to remember. It took several close readings before I realized that she wasn’t supposed to be a thirteen year old adolescent. While Constance does play a central mother figure in the novel, girl hasn’t left the house in six years. At the climax of the story instead of pushing forward and growing into themselves, we see both women retreat farther into themselves, continuing to stunt their emotional growth and we are left wondering how they can possibly survive.
Finally, we have Elizabeth Richmond, from The Bird’s Nest. Meant to be 23, Elizabeth is tormented by three other personalities of varying ages. This is a novel about dissociative identity disorder (not to be confused with schizophrenia, don’t cross Heather on this one). Interestingly, this book also has a mother figure that is less than motherly with Aunt Morgan. I find Aunt Morgan interesting the same way that I find Theodora interesting, she seems to care for Elizabeth, but at times she seems downright hostile. Is she? Ah, the wonder of unreliable narrators and partial information.
I’ve probably read The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle five or six times each, but this was my first go at A Bird’s Nest, and if you look at the publication date, you realize that Jackson pre-dates the modern tropes of multiple narrators and psychological fiction nearly twenty years before Sybil made it popular.
Anyway, Reader. What do you think of women in Shirley Jackson’s novels? Do her other novels conform to these patterns? What does it mean?