Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson



  SHIRLEY JACKSON was born in San Francisco in 1916. She first received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. Her novels—which include The Sundial, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, The Road Through the Wall, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House—are characterized by her use of realistic settings for tales that often involve elements of horror and the occult. Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are her two works of nonfiction. She died in 1965.

  FRANCINE PROSE is the author of more than twenty books including Blue Angel, a finalist for the National Book Award, and the nonfiction New York Times bestseller Reading Like a Writer. She is a former president of PEN American Center, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



  Foreword by FRANCINE PROSE



  Published by the Penguin Group

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  First published in the United States of America by Farrar, Straus and Young 1951

  This edition with a foreword by Francine Prose published in Penguin Books 2013

  Copyright Shirley Jackson, 1951

  Foreword copyright © Francine Prose, 2013

  All rights reserved. No part of this product may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


  Jackson, Shirley, 1916–1965.

  Hangsaman / Shirley Jackson ; foreword by Francine Prose.

  pages ; cm.—(Penguin classics)

  ISBN 978-1-101-61676-5

  I. Title.

  PS3519.A392H27 2013



  For my children:

  Laurence, Joanne, and Sarah


  About the Authors

  Title Page




  Foreword by FRANCINE PROSE


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3


  In the fall of 2010, I taught a college literature course I decided to call “Strange Books.” For the reading list, I chose the fifteen strangest books I could think of, starting with the stories of Gogol and Kleist and ending with Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten and Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. All of these books were, and have remained, among my favorite works of fiction.

  One of the reasons I regret not having read Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman until now is that I wish I could have added it to that list, on which it so clearly belonged.

  Hangsaman is indeed a very strange novel, but what it shares with the others on my list (works by Jane Bowles, Henry Green, Wallace Shawn, and Roberto Bolaño, among others) is not only oddity but beauty, originality, a certain visionary intensity, and the ability to make us feel as if we have been invited into a private, very intimate world with striking similarities to our world, whatever that might be.

  The book is so full of surprises that it’s daunting to write about without the fear of spoiling them, so let me try to explain, a bit generally, what Shirley Jackson does so well. She writes brilliantly about consciousness—how the mind reacts to, adjusts, embraces, or recoils from experience. More specifically, she reminds us of what it’s like to be seventeen years old, developing an adult consciousness, and at the same time being exquisitely, even painfully, aware of that development process. The everyday reality of Jackson’s teenage protagonist is repeatedly interrupted by bursts of awareness and alienation so complex that it would be reductive to call them “out of body” moments. I kept thinking of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem, “In the Waiting Room,” whose speaker—waiting for her aunt to be released from the dentist’s chair—is shocked by a startling apprehension of reality, of the physical world, and of the deceptively simple but ultimately mysterious fact of her own existence.

  In addition, Jackson’s heroine, Natalie Waite, is a psychically fragile flower, which adds several layers of nuance and an element of danger to what transpires in the book. How will this shaky sapling withstand the gale winds blowing around her, at home (where she lives with her hilariously vain, pompous, self-important writer-father; her neurotic, miserable, absent alcoholic mother; and a brother who has wisely absented himself from the entire situation), or away from home at the expensive and exclusive college in which she enrolls in the second section of the novel. Well-mannered, cliquish, privileged, the girls at Natalie’s school are at heart little better than the proper townspeople who ritually sacrifice their human victims in Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery.”

  At moments Natalie sounds a bit mad, and at others coolly rational and incisive. “Strange, Natalie thought, in all his wisdom my father never found from my letters that I get along badly with people; I suppose it’s the first thing my mother fears, just as she is afraid that I have been visited with all her sorrows, because those she is better able to heal in me than she could in herself. 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” (163–64).

  But finally what makes Natalie’s consciousness so consistently interesting is the fact that Jackson is such a good writer. She’s an elegant prose stylist who expands and compresses language into complex, cadenced sentences, occasionally reminiscent of Henry James, of whom Jackson was apparently a fan. She uses words in new and unexpected ways that seem precisely right—the “asthmatic” buses wheezing at the bus stand. And she’s acutely observant of how the world looks through Natalie’s eyes. Here, for example, the exterior of a movie theater provides a mini-narrative within the larger narrative:

  the movie now being shown inside was old, and apparently past any redemption by adjective, so that the management had simply, resignedly let the pictures into the frames outside the theater, and were now presumably hiding away somewhere inside, beyond reach of irate patrons. One of the pictures showed a glorious scene between a man in a cowboy hat and uncomfortable pistols, who backed against a door to face a darker, equally weaponful villain; in the background a damsel wrung her hands and all three seemed to turn anxiously to the camera, which alone could justify the violent emotions they ravished themselves to feel. It was plain from the picture that it was near the end of the day; the sun was setting dramatically outside the backdrop window; the hero had the look of one who would shortly remove his guns and his spurs and go home in a car he had bought but could not afford; the heroine seemed to be thinking, under her beautiful look of fear and concern, that perhaps she should keep the children out of school until this chicken-pox scare was over. (191)

  I suppose you could say there is social satire in the novel, but these expertly orchestrated and often terribly funny scenes go deeper than what the word satiric normally conjures up. Near the novel’s beginning
is a scene so intense, so well done, and so absolutely awful that after a while I realized I was holding my breath until it ended:

  Natalie’s blowhard father is helping her with her writing: private tutorials during which he involves her in a seductive conspiracy against her mother, who, they agree, is uninterested in Natalie’s notebooks (in which Natalie has written about her mother) or in Mr. Waite’s articles. He says, “I never could have found anyone else so unsympathetic as your mother, and so helpful” (10). They share a laugh about that. Now Mr. Waite has given Natalie another assignment, to write an essay about him. He modestly critiques it (“‘Not handsome, Natalie. That I absolutely disclaim.’” [12]) and they proceed to discuss it—in a highly civilized and totally bloodcurdling way.

  Over the past weeks, I’ve been reading aloud to friends the heartbreaking, hilarious rant of Natalie’s mother, who, each Sunday, is forced to host parties to which her husband invites large but unspecified numbers of people. During one such gathering, Mrs. Waite gets drunk and retires to her room to complain about her marriage and her awful husband:

  “It all starts so nice,” Mrs. Waite said, twisting her face into a horrible look of disgust. “You think it’s going to be so easy. You think it’s going to be good. It starts like everything you’ve ever wanted, you think it’s so easy, everything looks so simple and good, and you know that all of a sudden you’ve found out what no one ever had sense enough to know before—that this is good and if you manage right you can do whatever you want to. You keep thinking that what you’ve got hold of is power, just because you feel right in yourself, and everybody always thinks that when they feel right in themselves then they can start right off fixing the world. I mean, when I used to listen to him talking about what kind of people we were, then I used to believe him.”

  “Mother . . .” said Natalie.

  “First they tell you lies,” said Mrs. Waite, “and they make you believe them. Then they give you a little of what they promised, just a little, enough to keep you thinking you’ve got your hands on it. Then you find out that you’re tricked, just like everyone else, just like everyone, and instead of being different and powerful and giving the orders, you’ve been tricked just like everyone else and then you begin to know what happens to everyone and how they all get tricked. Everyone only knows one ‘I,’ and that’s the ‘I’ they call themselves, and there’s no one else can be ‘I’ to anyone except that one person, and they’re all stuck with themselves and once they find out they’ve been tricked, then they’ve been tricked and maybe the worst of it is that it isn’t like anything else; you can’t just say, ‘I’ve been tricked and I’ll make the best of it,’ because you never believe it because they let you see just enough about the next time to keep you hoping that maybe you’re a little bit smarter and a little bit . . .”

  “Mother,” Natalie said. “Mother, please stop. You’re not making sense.”

  “I am making sense,” Mrs. Waite said. “No one ever made sense before” (34–35).

  The middle of the book’s three sections suggests what I suppose one could call an academic novel. It’s funny, as they often are, institutional pretenses and pretensions being so easy to make fun of. Though again, Jackson digs deeper, and is at once odder and more thought-provoking than surface mockery or humor. Here is how she captures the ethos of Natalie’s newly founded college:

  Anything which begins new and fresh will finally become old and silly. The educational institution is certainly no exception to this, although training the young is by implication an art for old people exclusively, and novelty in education is allied to mutiny. Moreover, the mere process of learning is allied to mutiny. Moreover, the mere process of learning is so excruciating and so bewildering that no conceivable phraseology or combination of philosophies can make it practical as a method of marking time during what might be called the formative years. The college to which Arnold Waite, after much discussion, had decided to send his only daughter was one of those intensely distressing organizations which had been formed on precisely the same lofty and advanced principles as hoarier seats of learning, but which applied them with slight differences in detail; education, the youthful founders of the college had told the world blandly, was more a matter of attitude than of learning (47).

  As in “The Lottery,” Jackson is attuned to the hideously discordant frequencies of power and group dynamics. While the citizens in “The Lottery” act communally in a single, unpredictable way, the students at Natalie’s college act in little groups and in various predictable ways. Yet the results are no less brutal, if not so literally bloody.

  In a series of expertly orchestrated scenes, two monstrous spoiled-brat students, Vicki and Anne, one of whom is having an affair with their English professor, conspire to torment the English professor’s sad pretty wife, herself a former student. (Readers will gather that this was written at a time before changing academic mores made this sort of thing less common, at least on the surface.) Jackson assumes that we will register, without excessive prompting, how much Hangsaman’s unfortunate academic couple resembles a younger version of Natalie’s parents—just as we have noted the irony of Mr. Waite’s questioning Natalie’s “whole attack in regard to the problem of description” (12) when in fact Natalie possesses almost preternaturally precise descriptive powers.

  Natalie is lonely at school. And because of who she is, and because of what kind of novel this is, her loneliness is terrifying. The dangerous power of awareness, quotidian social brutality, loneliness, and existential fear propel Hangsaman toward the edge of becoming a psychological thriller, rather like one of Patricia Highsmith’s, only less physically violent, funnier, more lyrical, imaginative, and interior.

  I hesitate to reveal very much about the final section. Let me simply say that Natalie makes an extremely strange new friend. From this point on, we are tempted to read quickly to find out what will happen and at the same time hold ourselves back from reading too rapidly, because the sentences are so good, and because there are so many extraordinary scenes, including (to name just one) a meeting with a one-armed man who asks Natalie to butter his bread in a cafeteria.

  The final sections generate yet another sort of tension, partly because they are seeded with traces of the occult; Natalie and her new friend are heavily into the tarot. And though by that point I was willing to follow the novel pretty much wherever it took me, I would have been disappointed to see it go any number of the ways I could imagine it going. In fact, the ending is a sort of triumph, absolutely in character with the rest of the book—the work of an author who not only writes beautifully but who knows what there is, in this world, to be scared of.

  Another reason I regret not having read Hangsaman earlier, besides not being able to teach it in my “Strange Books” class, is that I’m sorry to think of all those years (the book was first published in 1951) when I could have been recommending it. It’s a mistake I will try to correct, starting now.

  Hangsaman is a wildly strange, strong, and original novel. Read it.


  Slack your rope, Hangsaman,

  O slack it for a while,

  I think I see my true love coming,

  Coming many a mile.

  Mr. Arnold Waite—husband, parent, man of his word—invariably leaned back in his chair after his second cup of breakfast coffee and looked with some disbelief at his wife and two children. His chair was situated so that when he put his head back the sunlight, winter or summer, touched his unfaded hair with an air at once angelic and indifferent—indifferent because, like himself, it found belief not an essential factor to its continued existence. When Mr. Waite turned his head to regard his wife and children the sunlight moved with him, broken into patterns on the table and the floor.

  “Your God,” he customarily remarked to Mrs. Waite down the length of the breakfast table, “has seen fit to give us a glorious day.” Or, “Your God has seen fit
to give us rain,” or “snow,” or “has seen fit to visit us with thunderstorms.” This ritual arose from an ill-advised remark made by Mrs. Waite when her daughter was three; small Natalie had asked her mother what God was, and Mrs. Waite had replied that God made the world, the people in it, and the weather; Mr. Waite did not tend to let such remarks be forgotten.

  “God,” Mr. Waite said this morning, and laughed. “I am God,” he added.

  Natalie Waite, who was seventeen years old but who felt that she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen, lived in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions. For the past two years—since, in fact, she had turned around suddenly one bright morning and seen from the corner of her eye a person called Natalie, existing, charted, inescapably located on a spot of ground, favored with sense and feet and a bright-red sweater, and most obscurely alive—she had lived completely by herself, allowing not even her father access to the farther places of her mind. She visited strange countries, and the voices of their inhabitants were constantly in her ear; when her father spoke he was accompanied by a sound of distant laughter, unheard probably by anyone except his daughter.

  “Well,” Mr. Waite customarily remarked, after he had taken his stand as God for another day, “only twenty-one more days before Natalie leaves us.” Sometimes it was “only fourteen more days before Bud goes off again.” Natalie was leaving for her first year in college a week after her brother went back to high school; sometimes twenty-one days resolved itself into three weeks, and seemed endless; sometimes it seemed a matter of minutes slipping by so swiftly that there would never be time to approach college with appropriate consideration, to form a workable personality to take along. Natalie was desperately afraid of going away to college, even the college only thirty miles away that her father had chosen for her. She had two consolations: first, the conviction from previous experience that any place becomes home after awhile, so that she might assume a reasonable probability that after a month or so the college would be familiar and her home faintly alien. Her second consolation was the recurring thought that she might always give up college if she chose, and simply stay at home with her mother and father; this prospect was so horrible that Natalie found herself, when she thought confidently about it, almost enjoying her fear of going away.

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