Learning Disorientation from "The Tooth" by Shirley Jackson
Updated: Jan 2
Writing a disoriented character can be a lot of fun. Scenarios that disorient a character can include one suffering a mental breakdown, a high fever, a hangover, perhaps a terrible spell. Contrary to what some writers may believe, disorientation can be accomplished through the third-person which is what I will be covering today. You may be familiar with the works of Shirley Jackson. She is the brilliant mind behind The Haunting of Hill House, "The Lottery", and my personal favorite, The Sundial.
Shirley Jackson has a tendency to write characters that are emotionally vulnerable and suffer disillusionment from reality. As much as I love the examples listed above, "The Tooth" takes the cake when it comes to establishing disorientation. Jackson employs dizzying textual effects and writes everything through the perspective of Clara, who may or may not be suffering an overdose from the medications she has taken to quell the pain in her jaw.
Let's investigate how Jackson establishes her first warning sign - Clara's blunt and unconcerned expression to her husband while they wait for the bus:
"I feel so funny," she said. "Light-headed, and sort of dizzy." "That's because of the dope," he said. "All that codeine, and the whisky, and nothing to eat all day." She giggled nervously. "I couldn't comb my hair, my hand shook so. I'm glad it's dark." "Try to sleep on the bus," he said. "Did you take a sleeping pill?"
(Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, p. 207)
Notice the absence of character actions and lack of physical description. The husband has practically no character at all in his speech. Jackson deliberately neglects emotion by confining the husband to 'said' rather than expressive words like 'sighed' or 'chuckled'. The straightforward dialogue also denies any notion of concern between both parties. Clara is more glad that it is dark so her unkempt hair can go unnoticed rather than worried that she is physically unable to perform the simple task of combing her hair. Her husband is just as guilty; he acknowledges that Clara had whiskey and codeine without anything to eat. What he does not do is confront the dangerous conditions of having alcohol with codeine, not to mention having an empty stomach for either. And to top it all off, he asks if she has taken a sleeping pill.
So... we are off to a strong start!
The reader should anticipate an unreliable narrator. Which is fair, especially in the works of Jackson. There are two things that I want to point out in this next close reading. Of course, we know the character's name is Clara, but the next scenes mostly address her as "she", which makes the reading turn plain, underwhelming, and even confusing, as all of these "she saw", "she did", "she sipped", becomes very repetitive and starts to take the shape of its context. This leads to my next point - Clara will develop an exhausting pattern of sleeping and drinking coffee, to the point that it does not seem like Clara is all together:
She could feel the sleeping pill pulling at her; the throb of the toothache was distant now and mingled with the movements of the bus, a steady beat like her heartbeat which she could hear louder and louder, going on through the night. (p.210)
She got up and followed everyone else out, all but her eyes still asleep, her feet moving without awareness...She saw a seat at the end of the counter and sat down, now aware that she had fallen asleep again when someone sat down next to her and touched her arm. (p.211)
She nodded and he pointed to the counter in front of her where a cup of coffee sat steaming...She sipped at it delicately; she may have put her face down and tasted it without lifting the cup. The strange man was talking. (p.211)
She was so deeply asleep that she stirred uneasily without knowledge, her forehead against the window, the darkness moving alongside her (p.212)
Once more she slept, and once more the bus stopped and she woke frightened, and Jim brought her again to a restaurant and more coffee...she found the little bottle of codeine pills and she took two while Jim watched her. (p.213)
She went in and sat down at a table, and a waitress was standing beside her frowning. "You was asleep," the waitress said accusingly.
"I'm very sorry," she said. It was morning. "Poached eggs and coffee, please." (p.214)
There is no thrill, no building of tension, no scenic transitions. Everything shifts bluntly and without ceremony. It is almost the opposite of how someone would describe a lucid nightmare or an acid trip. Strangely, these blunt actions and the plain and repetitive text almost accomplish the feelings of a fever dream. The gaps in between events and Clara's wakefulness are so vague it is difficult to imagine the occurrences surrounding her. It is like the reader is trapped in the blank consciousness of the narrator.
Straightforward writing and emotionally distant characters can leave the reader reaching for some sense of reality. When details are absent in an extensive text there is also an absence of comfort. Not to say the details of something disgusting or terrifying are comforting, but at the very least they are more familiar.
If you plan to write a scene of confusion among characters or you intend to confuse the reader, there are definitely many methods of doing so. Technical writing loaded with scientific jargon for example. If Jackson was still alive, I would much like to ask her what made her turn a trip to the dentist into an identity crisis. (Any of you who have read to the end of "The Tooth" might agree and would ask the same thing.)