Shirley Jackson

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Title: Hangsaman
Author: Shirley Jackson
First published in 1951

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

Hangsaman was Jackson’s second novel, after The Road through the Wall, which was published in 1948. Published in 1951, Hangsaman is nominally a bildungsroman about a college freshman named Natalie Waite who attends a Bennington College-like institution. She is the daughter of a second-rate writer and a mother who is a rather desperate housewife. Broken into basically three sections, the novel begins with Natalie at home, on the cusp of going away to college. The second part deals with her first weeks at school, and her fragility and difficulty adjusting to the changes. The third part is a frankly strange look at Natalie’s devolution into what appears to be mental illness. The ending is cryptic and unresolved.

There are several important women in this book. The male characters are largely superfluous to the story – being entirely self-absorbed and interacting with the women primarily as extensions of themselves, Eves to their Adams, created from their ribs, without independent significance. Natalie herself, as a college student, is in a state of limbo, as a young woman who has left the shelter of her father’s home but hasn’t yet transitioned to the shelter of a husband. She is very much in a waiting period – hence, probably, the last name that she was given. Her role in the community and in the larger world is unclear to the reader, and it is unclear to Natalie.

Her interactions with her father show disturbing and inappropriate amounts of enmeshment and a cavalier attitude towards Natalie’s autonomy. Confronted with her unhappiness, her father responds:

There is no doubt but what the class of girls you have as friends is not a representative one, but my plans for you never did include a broad education; an extremely narrow one, rather—one half, from the college, in people and surroundings; the other half, from me, in information. My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while.

Natalie’s relationship with her mother is even more tenuous and fraught than her relationship with her father. The first section focuses extensively on a party which her mother is hostessing, which her father has arranged, and there is a long discussion between Natalie and her mother in which her mother explains to her all of her father’s faults, and warns her against marriage. The party itself is excruciating and bizarre, with Natalie interacting with the guests and simultaneously carrying on a mental conversation with a detective who has, in her imagination, accused her of murder. And then there is the sexual assault, alluded to but unexplained, which occurs when one of the guests takes her into the woods behind her home and does something which is never described, nor really referenced again, but which hangs like a pall over the rest of the book.

Both of her parents only see her in relation to themselves, and not as an independent entity.

“It seemed that perhaps her father was trying to cure his failures in Natalie, and her mother was perhaps trying to avoid, through Natalie, doing over again those things she now believed to have been mistaken.”

In addition, Natalie’s fellow students, mostly women, largely dislike her as they jockey for social position, and at least one of her peers is involved in a sordid affair with a professor who is already married to an emotionally fragile ex-student who has grasped the brass ring (marriage, to a handsome intellectual, like Natalie’s mother. Or Shirley Jackson herself) and yet found her prize hollow, retreating into an alcoholic haze to cope. The other young women are superficial, dismissive, and occasionally even mean, but they are brashly capable of navigating a world that is causing Natalie to fall apart completely. Jackson was writing this book in 1951, while her husband was a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont, and as such she would have been intimately familiar with young women in Natalie’s position. There are references, some off-handed, some less so, about conflict between young women living in dormitories, about affairs, sometimes with professors, and suicides, and pregnancies and abortions. As the novel progresses, Natalie’s very grasp on reality seems to splinter, until, after her trip home for Thanksgiving, she is on a bus back to college , and

She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature—when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness . . . and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her—her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts like jewels never seen . . .

The narration changes, briefly from third person to first person. Even now, looking back, I don’t know what any of this means – who is the narrator of this passage? Is he – she – real? Natalie’s imagination, again? When Natalie returns to campus, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes almost a thriller, with midnight wanderings and a terrifying plunging through the dark Vermont woods.

Jackson was adept at plumbing the psyches of disturbed, repressed young women – Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie. This is an unsettling book, with its look backwards at the cost that society imposed on young women who didn’t fit into the roles that society prepared for them. Not a ghost story, not a murder mystery, Hangsaman is something more abstract but in some ways even more terrifying – a narration of the mental disintegration of a sensitive young woman in a society that neither makes an effort to understand her, nor cares little for her psychological well-being.

Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Previously published on August 19, 2015

Title: Persuasion
Author: Jane Austen
First published in 1818

Summary from Goodreads: At twenty-seven, Anne Elliot is no longer young and has few romantic prospects. Eight years earlier, she had been persuaded by her friend Lady Russell to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a handsome naval captain with neither fortune nor rank. What happens when they encounter each other again is movingly told in Jane Austen’s last completed novel. Set in the fashionable societies of Lyme Regis and Bath, Persuasion is a brilliant satire of vanity and pretension, but, above all, it is a love story tinged with the heartache of missed opportunities.

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s final book. She died before completing the editorial process, which means that it is, perhaps, a little bit less polished than her other books, all of which were shined to a glass-like finish before being submitted for publication.

There are echoes of her other stories: Anne is a beaten down version of Lizzie – what Lizzie would have been if someone persuaded her to turn down a poorer Darcy in spite of her deep love for him. Captain Wentworth is an angrier Darcy – still resentful of the fact that his beloved was insufficiently strong-willed to stand up for herself and take him in spite of her family. William Elliot is an even more nauseating version of Mr. Wickham or Mr. Willoughby – more successful at being a self-serving, amoral douche, more adept at hiding his true nature.

Persuasion is darker and sadder. Anne has no one to look out for her best interests. Sure, Lady Russell means to do the job, but she is so easily swayed by appearances that, as it turns out, her advice is worse than useless, but is actively subverting Anne’s happiness albeit unconsciously. And by the time the tale opens, Anne is firmly on the shelf, a woman of eight and twenty who has lost her looks and her charm and is no more than a body to support others, as all unmarried ladies are.

Her father overlooks her, her elder sister disdains her, and her younger sister uses her. And because she has a fine sensibility and intellect, she is perfectly capable of discerning these things and understanding that this is her life. Potentially forever. Unloved, unimportant, expected to simply extinguish herself in the service of others, becoming essentially a non-person. And because she is a non-person, she isn’t even allowed to resent the advantage being taken of her, but rather, must respond with relentless chirping appreciation that she still has a place to live, even if her place is as little better than a kitchen maid.

It is truly difficult to decide who is the least likeable character in this book. Austen has sharpened her pen, but she has also become more subtle with age. None of these people are caricatures – there’s no Mrs. Bennett, with her well-meaning but completely insane approach to marrying off her daughters, no Miss Bates, sweet but vacuous to the point of vacancy, no Lady Catherine DeBourgh, with her relentless self-absorption and superiority, no Mr. Collins, endlessly diverting with the intensity of his obsequiousness. The antagonists in Persuasion are still unlikeable, but they maintain a pretense of realism. And because of this, Persuasion is much less comic than Austen’s other work, and much more painful.

And Anne, well, Anne is a bit difficult to admire. She is all that is admirable, but still, she feels weak. She was in love with Wentworth. Truly, deeply, madly in love, and she let him go because she was persuaded by her family to withdraw her acceptance. What does this say about her? And then, years later, she is forced to watch him pay attention to other women, to potentially fall in love with other, younger women. It hurts to be her – heck, it hurts to read about it.

She is not, however, guilty of the grievous sin of inconstancy that he has laid at her door. She has repined for Wentworth, never stopped loving him. And once he realizes that her sin is really an over-abundance of filial respect, as opposed to fickleness, the way is cleared for them to reunite.

Everyone knows Darcy’s words from Pride and Prejudice, when his love for Lizzie overcomes him:

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.””

Many fewer know Wentworth’s impassioned words to Anne:

““I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”

Has there ever been a better description of the exquisite disorientation of love than “I am half agony, half hope?

I’ve read Persuasion many fewer times than I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, or even Sense and Sensibility or Emma. Prior to this reread, I would’ve said that it is my least favorite Austen save Northanger Abbey, which I have also never liked. I don’t think that is still true.

I also loved the fact that Austen took aim at the broader cultural silencing and disempowerment of women (tongue firmly in cheek, of course, as the pen was in her hands):

Captain Harville: “But let me observe that all histories are against you — all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

Anne Elliot: “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Thank you Jane Austen, giving a voice to women for 200 years.