The Bird's Nest 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.

  KEVIN WILSON is the bestselling author of The Family Fang and the recipient of a Shirley Jackson Award for his story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, and elsewhere. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, and is an assistant professor at The University of the South.


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  First published in the United States of America by Farrar, Straus and Young 1954

  This edition with a foreword by Kevin Wilson published in Penguin Books 2014

  Copyright 1954 by Shirley Jackson

  Foreword copyright © 2014 by Kevin Wilson

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  Jackson, Shirley, 1916–1965.

  The bird’s nest / Shirley Jackson ; foreword by Kevin Wilson.

  pages ; cm.—(Penguin classics)

  ISBN 978-0-14-310703-3

  ISBN 978-0-698-14821-5 (eBook)

  1. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

  PS3519.A392B5 2014

  813'.54—dc23 2013033710



  About the Author

  Title Page


  Foreword by KEVIN WILSON


  1. Elizabeth

  2. Doctor Wright

  3. Betsy

  4. Doctor Wright

  5. Aunt Morgen

  6. The Naming of an Heiress


  Shirley Jackson was, and continues to be, one of my greatest influences, a writer who suggested a way to engage with the strangeness of the larger world and yet stay true to whatever complicated ideas I wanted to express. I first read “The Lottery” when I was a preteen, still one of the most transformative reading experiences of my life, which led me to Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, then her earlier works, as I searched for every written word that Jackson created, and ended when I finally read, long overdue, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson has remained the writer I look to when I want to understand the darkness of the world and how human beings internalize that darkness or, perhaps even more terrifying, create it themselves. The larger world has always been difficult for me to process, a constant source of anxiety, and Jackson’s work gave me a blueprint for how I might navigate that world without succumbing to paranoia; her stories were cautionary tales in which I somehow lived comfortably. The Bird’s Nest, though written early in her career, showcases what I find so engaging about Jackson’s work: her ability to create situations of quiet chaos that, no matter how much the reader seeks to find a tangible explanation, defy our attempts to categorize or fully understand it. The world, I understood through Jackson’s novels, could never be fully explained, and it was in those mysterious places that resisted definition that offered the most interesting stories.

  • • •

  The Bird’s Nest opens on a building in need of repair, a museum that features an “odd, and disturbingly apparent, list to the west.” When I reread this novel, the image immediately reminded me of Jackson’s exceptional later novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, where the reader encounters ominous structures, domiciles that house strange and fascinating characters. A few pages into the story, we meet our main character, Elizabeth Richmond, a quiet, lonely young woman mourning the recent death of her mother, and we learn the possibility that “Elizabeth’s personal equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor” of the museum, where she works in the clerical department. Elizabeth’s office is on the highest floor of the museum and now, thanks to the renovation project, offers an open hole in the wall next to her desk that exposes “the innermost skeleton of the building” and induces the temptation to “hurl herself downward into the primeval sands upon which the museum presumably stood.”

  For those of us who love Jackson’s work, this is familiar territory, and we are prepared for the listing structure to slowly drive Miss Richmond mad. Darkness enters the narrative when we learn that she is receiving threatening letters that exacerbate her recurring headaches and back pain. All of the elements are now in place and then, a testament to Jackson’s genius and a reason why The Bird’s Nest remains one of my favorite novels, Jackson shifts the narrative into a new and altogether more interesting direction. Elizabeth Richmond possesses multiple personalities, one of which leads her to sneak out of the house she shares with her aunt and into all manner of unsavory activities. The threatening letters have no source other than Elizabeth’s own hand. She admits to being unaware of these terrible events, but she can’t be sure. We now see that the structure housing strange and fascinating characters is not the museum but, rather, Elizabeth’s own body. And thus we discover the true focus of Jackson’s genius: the mysterious contents within all of us, the self-destructive tendencies that threaten to ruin the structure that keeps them hidden from the rest of the world.

  • • •

  As we leave the museum behind and enter into the unique workings of Elizabeth’s mind, the story becomes an examination of mental illness, the darkness inside us that we struggle to understand and keep at bay. Like Constance in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie of Hangsaman, Elizabeth is a fragile, isolated young woman, but Jackson experiments with voice by revealing each distinctive personality, each one broken in some unique way. While sections of the novel are given over to Elizabeth’s sometimes unwilling psychiatrist, Dr. Wright, and her aunt Morgen, who possesses her own secrets, my favorite passages focus on the difficult inner workings of the mind of Elizabeth, or whichever personality currently inhabits her form. Jackson has always written with such precision about the delicate nature of our psyches, and as someone who has struggled with mental illness for my entire adult life, I think that there are few writers who know the ways in which our minds betray us as well as she does. When Betsy, Elizabeth’s most problematic and difficult personality, sneaks away from the care of Dr. Wright and Aunt Morgen to run off to New York in search of the mother she believes is still alive, the novel becomes electric and disturbing; it is hard to tell exactly what is happening, as Betsy’s thought processes are jumbled, but the world becomes a dangerous place, every human interaction fraught with the possibility of violence, every landmark simply another space that remains unknown to Betsy. It is som
e of the most thrilling and terrifying writing found in any of Jackson’s work.

  While the good doctor’s work with Elizabeth, especially his use of hypnosis to treat multiple personalities, might provide the occasional breakthrough, I don’t believe Jackson intends to suggest that he truly holds sway over the bottomless depths of Elizabeth’s own mysterious desires and behaviors. The doctor in fact has an edge of something ominous in his own manner, played nicely against his self-deprecating humor. His interior complications explain his horror when he is confronted with the true nature of Elizabeth’s darkness. The doctor is merely a lion tamer attempting to subdue the human psyche, and one can’t help inferring Jackson’s opinion on the lasting success of domesticating such a wild animal.

  While the book ends with the suggestion of happiness, or at least temporary calm, there is no happy ending. The threat of the world around us and the even more potent threats inside us cannot offer much in the way of happiness. Elizabeth, whatever her fate, is a sympathetic character, entirely human in her desires and actions, however strange they might be. This explains why, much like The Bird’s Nest itself and, in fact, all of Jackson’s work, it is so unsettling to see the darkness and chaos beneath the surface. We encounter a world where, thanks to Jackson’s talent, we recoil from the danger and then move closer to see it more clearly.




  Although the museum was well known to be a seat of enormous learning, its foundations had begun to sag. This produced in the building an odd, and disturbingly apparent, list to the west, and in the daughters of the town, whose energetic borrowings had raised the funds to sustain the museum, infinite shame and a tendency to blame one another. It was at the same time a cause of much amusement among the museum personnel, whose several vocations were most immediately affected by the decided slant given to the floors of their building. The proprietor of the dinosaur was, as a matter of fact, very humorous about the almost foetal tilt of his august bones, and the numismatist, whose specimens tended to slide together and jar one another, was heard to remark—almost to tedium—upon the classical juxtapositions thus achieved. The stuffed bird man and the astronomer, whose lives were spent in any case almost out of earthly equilibrium, professed themselves unaffected by the drop of one side of the building, unless driven toward a kind of banking curve to offset the natural results of walking on tipped floors; walking was, in any case, an unfamiliar movement to either of them, one tending toward flight and the other toward the complacent whirling of the spheres. The very learned professor of archeology, going inattentively along the slanted corridors, had been seen hopefully contemplating the buckled foundations. The contractor and the architect, along with the ill-tempered daughters of the town, endeavored to blame first the inefficient materials supplied for the building and second the extraordinary weight of some of the antiquities contained therein; the local paper printed an editorial criticizing the museum authorities for allowing a meteor and a mineral collection and an entire arsenal from the Civil War, dug up just outside of town and including two cannon, to be lodged all on the west side of the building; the editorial pointed out soberly that, had the exhibit of famous signatures, and of local costume through the ages, been settled on the west side, the building might not have sagged, or might at least not have done so during the lifetimes of its sponsors. Since the local paper—current and impermanent—was not permitted below the third, or clerical, floor of the museum, the exhibits were allowed to retain their impractical arrangements unmoved by the editorials, although the clerical employees on the third floor read the comics daily and studied the front pages hoping to discover the manners of their deaths. They were given, on the third floor, to meditation, and they believed almost everything they read. In this, of course, they differed in almost no way from the educated inhabitants of the first and second floors who dwelt among unperishing remnants of the past, and made little wry jokes about disintegration.

  • • •

  Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest, as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s personal equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that it was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that they began to slip at about the same time.

  The instinctive thought of every person connected with the museum, up to and including the paleontologist, had been to repair, to patch together, to reconstruct, rather than to build anew in a new site, and in order to repair the building at all the carpenters had found it necessary to drive a hole the height of the building, from the roof to the cellar, and had chosen Elizabeth’s corner of the third floor to effect an entrance to their shaft. On the second floor the hole in the wall was discovered through a sarcophagus, and on the first floor, not unreasonably, behind a little door marked “Do not enter”; Elizabeth’s office allowed of no concealment, and so she came to work of a Monday morning to find that directly to the left of her desk, and within reaching distance of her left elbow as she typed, the wall had been taken away and the innermost skeleton of the building exposed. She was the first person in the room that morning; she hung her coat and hat neatly on the coat hanger just inside the door, and then went across the room and looked down with a swift sense of dizziness and an almost irresistible temptation to hurl herself downward into the primeval sands upon which the museum presumably stood; far below her she could hear the faintly echoing voices of the guides on the first floor; today was an Open Day and the guides were apparently cleaning their fingernails. The complaining voice which, slightly louder, seemed to come from the second floor may have been that of the archeologist, outside the tomb, finding fault with the air. Elizabeth, looking down, sighed because she had a headache, and because she had a headache nearly all the time, and turned to her desk to contemplate a letter offering the museum a model skyscraper made of matchsticks. The faint sense of holiday, inspired by not having a fourth wall to her office, had faded almost entirely by the time she opened the third letter on her desk. When she had read the letter once, she got up and looked down again into the cavity of the building, and then returned to her desk and sat down, thinking, I have a headache.

  “dear lizzie,” the letter read, “your fools paradise is gone now for good watch out for me lizzie watch out for me and dont do anything bad because i am going to catch you and you will be sorry and dont think i wont know lizzie because i do—dirty thoughts lizzie dirty lizzie”

  • • •

  Elizabeth Richmond was twenty-three years old. She had no friends, no parents, no associates, and no plans beyond that of enduring the necessary interval before her departure with as little pain as possible. Since the death of her mother four years before, Elizabeth had spoken intimately to no person, and the aunt with whom she lived required little of her beyond a portion of her weekly pay and her prompt presence at the dinner table. Although she had arrived daily at the museum for two years, since her employment the museum had been in no way different; the letters signed “per er” and the endless listings of exhibits vouched for by E. Richmond were the outstanding traces of her presence. There were half a dozen people who spent their time in the same office, and half a dozen others who occupied other offices on the third floor, and all of these knew Elizabeth, and said “Good morning” to her, and even “How are you today?”—this on particularly bright spring mornings—but those of them who, in philanthropy or mortal kindness, had endeavored to become more friendly with her had found her blank and unrecognizing. She was not even interesting enough
to distinguish with a nickname; where the living, engrossed daily with the fragments and soiled trivia of the disagreeable past, or the vacancies of space, kept a precarious hold on individuality and identity, Elizabeth remained nameless; she was called Elizabeth or Miss Richmond because that was the name she had given when she came, and perhaps if she had fallen down the hole in the building she might have been missed because the museum tag reading Miss Elizabeth Richmond, anonymous gift, value undetermined, was left without a corresponding object.

  She had not chosen employment at the museum because of a passionate fondness for learning, or in the hope of someday managing a public institution of her own, but because in her usual undirected way she had followed the information given by a friend of her aunt’s, and found a job at the museum open, and because her aunt had added, most pressingly, that Elizabeth might very well try it, since it was necessary for Elizabeth to work at something now that she was old enough to be self-supporting. Her aunt forbore to comment upon her own uneasy sense that it might be easier to identify Elizabeth in some firmer manner if Elizabeth were located in a concrete spot (my niece Elizabeth, who works at the museum) rather than being merely herself and so very obviously unable to account for it. She went to work, then, with no further direction than this crossing of two lines to determine a point, and was taken on at the museum because the clerical work on the third floor required no very sparkling personality, and because her abilities, whatever her disadvantages, included a clear written hand and a moderate speed at the typewriter, and because whatever was given Elizabeth to do, if she understood it, was done. If she took any pride in anything, it was in the fact that everything about her was neat, and distinct, and right in a spot where she could see it. Her desk and her letters were squarely arranged; she came to the museum each morning at the hour she had been told to come, taking always the same bus to work and hanging up her coat and hat where they belonged; she wore always the dark dresses and small white collars which her aunt assumed were proper for an office worker, and when it came time to go home Elizabeth went home.

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