“‘The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and no one can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were'” (Franklin, 389).
I first read “The Lottery” in Mr. Durkin’s junior English class, many years ago. I remember the real electric jangle that shot down my spine when I realized what was going on. That story, which started out in such a relaxed and friendly humdrum way, so matter-of-fact and recognizable, devolved into the most grotesque kind of horror–the kind that has friends and neighbors, almost bored, demolishing a human life.
What must it be like, I wondered with a shiver, to live inside THAT writer’s head? It was a purely rhetorical question: I didn’t want to know.
Years later, out of college, I was indulging in one of my favorite pastimes: looking for unsung treasures on the shelves of the public library. I found a book called Life Among the Savages, about a family that moves from The City to the wilds of New England. It was a funny book, self-deprecating and wry. I thought I’d look for more by the writer.
“Isn’t it funny,” I remarked to the librarian, when I returned Life Among the Savages, “that THIS writer has the same name as the woman who wrote ‘The Lottery’?”
“It’s not funny at all,” said the librarian, a little pityingly, peering at me over her half glasses. “She’s the same person.”
WHAT? I was stunned. How could the same person write so winningly about her children’s antics—and about neighbors nonchalantly stoning one of their own to death? Cozy things on the one hand, and horror things on the other. I could not reconcile it.
I just read Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. In that biography, Ruth Franklin answers the question for me. All of Jackson’s writing, Franklin says, centers around the theme of ‘home.’
Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment, the decade of the 1950’s, when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction came close to boiling over, triggering the second wave of the feminist movement (Franklin, 409).
Jackson was an awkward girl who could never please her attractive mother. She was always too fat or too florid, too odd or too frumpily dressed. And, in her high school years, her parents moved the family from their comfortable California home all the way across the continent; they settled in Rochester, New York, where the snow was as unexpectedly cold as some of Shirley’s new classmates. Jackson felt like a misfit, the odd one out, the one one who was forcibly separated from her home.
Jackson, who, it seems, was clear-eyed about wanting to write from a very young age, attended Syracuse University, where she met Stanley Hyman. Hyman was a critic and a writer, and her intellectual equal–a man who supported her writing. Ironically, Jackson’s writing also supported him: throughout their married lives, her writing would always be the higher paid. He would supplement his wife’s earnings by teaching at Bennington. He would undermine his wife’s confidence with his serial adultery.
So Jackson was a woman, a mother, and a betrayed wife. Her hilarious, rollicking stories of bringing up wayward kids in the country were gloss poured over true pain. Her eerie, terrifying novels were all the stories of young women, flawed or trapped, searching for a place to call home.
Jackson herself acknowledged that, in the novels, the houses themselves were characters. One of her ghost stories is even called “Home,” and the place where the protagonist settles does not seem like a very safe place for her to be.
Franklin’s biography is really well-written; it is paced and fluid and reads like a novel, and my sympathy for Jackson was completely and thoroughly engaged.
And I have been thinking about the concept of home, lately, even before I stumbled on the biography at my favorite library and knew I had to take it home and read it. Home should be refuge and safety; every child, I feel strongly, deserves to grow up in a real, nurturing home. And, emerging from childhood, we need ‘home’ more than ever–the place where we are loved and safe, where we can lick our wounds and cower till they heal.
I believe that we, as society, have lost sight of the importance of home, although I do not believe that the model of wife-at-home and hubby-at-work is always the ideal. I believe that we each need to decide what ‘home’ means to us, and, as we mature, we need to provide that for ourselves…as well as for those we solemnly pledge to nurture.
Shirley Jackson tried to do this, I think–tried to make the big old house she rented for her husband and kids a warm, inviting place–a place where friends gathered and spirits flowed, where she always made sure the butter on her children’s toast was spread carefully right to the edges. In her fiction, she pushed the envelope, exploring the cost of being lost and away from home, or of being deluded into embracing the wrong home. And that includes, writes Franklin, the home we create within our minds, as well as the physical one.