Shirley Jackson has often been relegated and denigrated to the status of being just a writer of “horror” but to do so is not only to underestimate the importance of horror fiction, but how Jackson expanded beyond the genre. Too often the critical view of Jackson has leaned toward the dismissal of her as merely a gothic writer “who never managed to develop her ‘craft and sullen art’ to the high level” promised in her most famous story. If Jackson can be said to write horror, then it must be admitted and accepted that society is a horrifying concept because her best fiction always managed to hold a mirror up to what was taking place around her. The conflict always at play in Jackson’s work is the struggle between society and the individual and in her work she often personified this struggle by having it take place entirely within the individual. In doing so, she hints at an element of fantasy and role-playing that harkens back to childhood and imaginary friends who often play the role of conscience…or tempter.
It is fitting that an internal relationship not unlike that between a child and an imaginary friend hovers over Jackson’s writing, since so much of her writing bears the stamp of psychological trauma she experienced in childhood. Jackson exhibited signs of withdrawal and detachment as a child that today might earn her a trip to the shrink and concerns about developing a schizoid personality disorder. Jackson preferred her own company to young friends, finding childhood joy not in running wild and free outdoors, but in the acting of writing while secluded in her bedroom. It was in that room that the genesis for the grotesque that she would later write about took place, and it was also one her first acts of rebellion against a repressive conformism.
Shirley Jackson’s first taste of American-style conformity was the same as countless millions of other little girls: the expectation that they should grow up to be pretty and popular. Jackson may have had it slightly worse than some of those other millions of girls in that her mother was wealthier than other mothers and was herself a social butterfly who had fully bought into the conformity and reveled in it, while expecting her daughter to do the same.
The relationship between Shirley Jackson and her mother, already strained by the daughter’s rebellion against expectations, was compounded by the inability of the mother to fully understand her daughter’s expressions of imagination. And in a development that is almost as surreal as some of the stories she would later write, Shirley then committed the truly unpardonable sin of becoming obese. The stark division between mother and daughter seems to be symbolized by Jackson’s almost willful attempt to complete her rebellion by transforming herself into a figure so at odds with the social circle to which her mother wanted her to belong that she is actually forcing her mother to reject those desires. Beyond her relationship with her mother, Shirley Jackson’s obesity also bears the stamp of rebellion against all of society that expects all little girls to dream of growing up to look and act like a doll.
That is one way of looking at Jackson’s obesity; as a rebellion against conformist expectations. But rebellion is never so easy at that because a rebellious personality is formed by anxiety. If Shirley Jackson ate to a state of obesity as a result of anxiety, it would also explain her later dependencies on alcohol and drugs. While engaging in this type of behavior might not be considered rebellious in women now that was certainly not the case when Jackson became addicted. But if anxiety is the engine driving rebellion, there seems little doubt that conformity was the object of that rebellion if one is judge by her most famous works.
Rebellion against conformity can take two paths; in one, the rebel famously has no cause and is simply rebelling to rebel, but in the other the rebel hopes to elucidate what is primally wrong with the institution against which the rebellion is directed. Shirley Jackson is surely no rebel without a cause. Jackson’s stories often read like parables; lessons that her characters may not learn from, but which it is hoped her readers will. Her stories are usually short, peopled by ordinary characters in an ordinary time and place, but faced with extraordinary circumstances or events. Her stories noticeably have a veneer of normalcy to them, taking place in small town America and involving people of no particularly unusual talents. But lying not terribly deep beneath that veneer there is usually an unsettling and grotesque mockery of accepted institutions.
The premiere case, of course, is her masterpiece “The Lottery.” It has been suggested that one of the reasons Shirley Jackson was never embraced by American readers is because she reveals a very disturbing unpleasantness about us: our tendency to only see evil as something outside ourselves and as something that must be destroyed by the devout protectors of all that is good and right in the world. It is a problem that is being expressly manifested today in the way in which the war on terror has been taken outside the shores of the country despite the fact that the second worst terrorist attack was committed not only by a homegrown boy, but a crew-cutted, God-loving soldier. It is a particularly insidious and dangerous sort of conformity that so many Americans believe with all their heart that if it is being done by us, it must be right.
Shirley Jackson takes that mistaken assumption to task in “The Lottery” by asking a question that needs to be asked more today than ever: when does silent acquiescence to tradition and majority opinion cross the line from preserving culture to destroying it? “The Lottery” takes place in a small town that could be anywhere in America and it is at first a portrayal of how a certain level of conformity is a necessity for any society. People must obey certain rules, laws, and conventions or else the result would be anarchy. But at what point does adherence to this conformity stop being a necessity and instead become a danger to the very ideal of individuality?
For Shirley Jackson, it occurs at the moment when people no longer stop to ask why? The stoning of an innocent woman that is the climax of “The Lottery” is not the real horror for Jackson; it is the fact that nobody remembers how it started or questions why it should continue. That horror, which seems so grotesquely detached from reality and which serves to make the story palatable, is enacted every day. “The Lottery” is a reminder that we as a society are outraged by the horrific and barbaric human sacrifices of ancient civilizations, while turning a blind eye to state-sanctioned murder in the form of criminal executions. But one can go further than that and extend the analogy to the almost utter lack of outcry from Americans when Pres. Bush launched a massive attack against a country that had not attacked our shores, that was incapable of winning a war against its neighbor Iran, and that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Those who urgently and insistently cry out even today that it doesn’t matter whether any WMDs were found in Iraq or not might be very welcome in that town holding that lottery every year. Old Man Warner’s reply when it has been mentioned that other towns have quit holding their lotteries succinctly encapsulates Jackson’s point. “There’s always been a lottery,” he says, as if that is reason enough to continue it. One might as well say, there’s always been unnecessary wars in order to justify the latest one as well as the next one.
The theme of this story and many other of Jackson’s stories is not that certain institutions or beliefs are necessarily or inherently wrong, but that as societies adopt them and naturalize them no one dares question when it becomes clear they are becoming outdated or obsolete. Conformity isn’t merely about containing society and holding it together, of course, it is also about control and domination. It is to the benefit of those at the top of the power structure that individualization be repressed or else the questioning of authority might extend beyond the traditions and to the executors of those traditions. Shirley Jackson’s writings in general and “The Lottery” in particular speaks directly to that fear. Genuine and authentic nonconformity is rare in America; too often, what passes for nonconformity is nothing more rebellious than a taste in clothing or art. Jackson proves herself to be an authentic nonconformist by rejecting the traditional path to literary acceptance and embracing her outsider status by writing far more profoundly in the horror genre than such contemporaries as Hemingway and Norman Mailer did in so-called acceptably literary endeavors.
What can be learned from the legacy of Shirley Jackson is that truly simple writing about complex societies can permeate into the American consciousness far deeper than literary pseudo-simple writing that don’t achieve nearly the level of complexity as Jackson’s so-called low level of Gothic writing. One can also learn the value of standing up against the repression of a conformity that survives by inculcating an atmosphere of complacency.