The Irrepressible Individual in the Works of Shirley Jackson Throughout her life, Shirley Jackson struggled with a conflict between her dogged individuality and society's requirement that she adhere to its norms and standards. Jackson saw a second level of human nature, an inner identity lurking beneath the one which outwardly conforms with society's expectations. Society's repression of her individuality haunted Jackson in her personal life and expressed itself in her writing through the opposition of two levels of reality, one magical and one mundane, but both equally real. All of the various dichotomies that make up Jackson's double-sided reality can be traced to the hidden human nature, the repressed individual she saw within each of us. From an early age, Jackson did not feel completely comfortable in the society around her. She preferred to sit in her room and write poetry rather than play with the other children in her neighborhood (Oppenheimer 16).
Alone in her room, Jackson explored the magical worlds, the alter-egos which her family did not understand. 'I will not tolerate having these other worlds called imaginary,' she insisted (Oppenheimer 21). Jackson did not satisfy her mother, a wealthy socialite who wanted her daughter to be beautiful and popular and was disturbed by her talk of 'other worlds.' Relations between Jackson and her mother were tense throughout her life, paralleling the conflict between Jackson and the society in which she found no place for herself. 'I will not tolerate having these other worlds called imaginary' -Shirley Jackson Jackson's mother wrote to her once that 'you were always a wilful child' (Oppenheimer 14). This careless statement captures Jackson's stubborn assertion of her individuality, as well as her mother's disapproval.
Jackson's obesity particularly troubled her mother, who suggestively sent her corsets even after she was married (Oppenheimer 14). Being overweight symbolized Jackson's rebellion against her mother and the standards of fashionable society. Her obesity demonstrates the connection Jackson made between her unique individuality and the 'freakish and abnormal, the 'grotesque and arabesque'' (Sullivan n. pay. ). The abnormal second reality Jackson contemplated in the seclusion of her room was to her supremely ironic.
Jackson rarely ends her stories with a resolution of the plot; instead, a dramatic incident or revelation serves to illustrate the irony she sees in the world. In her most famous short story, 'The Lottery,' Jackson takes pains to describe a village of hard-working, upstanding Americans. Each of the villagers speaks of the lottery reverently, and it is implicitly compared to such decent and American activities as 'the square dances, the teenage club, the Halloween program' (Magic 138). Critics Clean th Brooks and Robert Penn Warren have compared Jackson's short stories with fables or parables in which the reader identifies with the plain, seemingly ordinary characters, and learns a lesson or moral from them. Thus, when the violent reality of the lottery is exposed our discomfort is augmented by the empathy we have gained for the all-American villagers (Brooks 72-73). Jackson's use of irony in this case is so effective that the publication of 'The Lottery' by The New Yorker in 1948 provoked an unprecedented torrent of mail from readers believing that the ritual described in the story was factual and demanding to know where it was practiced ('Morning' 1195).
As Mary Kittredge has commented, abrupt endings which expose an abnormal reality beneath the superficial order demonstrate that 'the line between the cruel and the comedic is sometimes vanishingly narrow' (qt d. in Votteler 249). To the cruel and the comedic may be added the magical and the ordinary, as well as true human nature and societ ally regimented order. Irony in Jackson's writing works together with several recurrent motifs serve to illustrate her message.
Jackson's theme of double-sided human nature represents a philosophy similar to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and both employed similar motifs. Jackson, like Rousseau, was occupied with how society alters the natural state of man, though the two differed in that Jackson did not view natural man as inherently good, a 'noble savage.' Both of these thinkers based much of their observations of the individual on the concept of the child as a pure and unspoiled specimen of humanity (Rousseau 1006). In fact, children and childishness appear frequently in Jackson's work as metaphors for individuals liberated from the single, ordinary reality imposed by society. The basis for the motif of children in Jackson's work may be traced to her personal life through her two works of non-fiction, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.
These autobiographical comedies center around Jackson's children, her so-called demons, whom she cared for in a surprisingly conventional role as housewife and mother. Unlike her fiction, these texts are not ominous or morbid, but the episodes of family humor are nonetheless conveyed in the same ironic style as her fiction. Recounting her eldest son's first week of school, Jackson describes how he deceives her into believing that a fellow classmate, Charles, is acting up in class when, in the end, we learn that there is no Charles and Jackson's son, Laurie, is the real culprit. In his mischief, Laurie demonstrates his freedom from society's regulation. Whereas Rousseau might have viewed Laurie as innocent, Jackson shows that children, who do not understand the difference between right and wrong, have not yet been indoctrinated with society's values and so express the uninhibited cruelty and abnormality of human nature.
'The line between the cruel and the comedic [in Jackson's work] is sometimes vanishingly narrow.' -Mary Kittredge As samples of raw human nature, children in Jackson's work are associated with the supernatural of her 'other worlds.' When Laurie tells his parents of a friend's adventures in a haunted house down the street, they recall nostalgically the haunted houses of their own childhoods. The parents, however, must act in society's name to impose order. 'My husband and I found ourselves repeating the same amused platitudes about boys who went into haunted houses that our parents had used to us,' Jackson says. (Magic 490). In fact, she regards her son's free spirit with more than simple parental caution; she indicates that 'I personally have always believed in ghosts' (Magic 490), showing that for Jackson, the demons of the human spirit are not just figurative devices. The story of the haunted house exemplifies Jackson's association of magic and the supernatural with the uncorrupted individual.
Like Jackson's children, the children in her short fiction must be taught the mores of their society. In 'The Lottery,' fitting in to the village society means blindly following tradition and accepting the yearly lottery despite its horrible consequences. The children in this story are the first to gather for the ritual, piling stones as if they were playing a game without understanding why. As the villagers begin to attack the victim of the lottery, 'the children had stones already, and someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles' (Magic 145). Davy, the son of the victim, is apparently too young to understand that he must help kill his mother, so the adults show him what he must do (Kosenko 32).
In 'Flower Garden,' a boy who is new to the town quickly learns the racial prejudice that characterizes the society. The new boy joins his friend in eagerly shouting slurs at a black boy, creating a scene chillingly.