Updated: Jan 2
The Power of Imagination and the Metaphysical Qualities in the Works of Shirley Jackson
Literary critic, Joan Wylie Hall, makes an astute observation in “Fallen Eden in Shirley Jackson’s The Road through the Wall.” Noting the symbolic significance in Jackson’s use of gardens and flowers, Hall declares the “painful beauty” of the Eden-like Pepper street, decorated in pink blossoms, is described as painful because the blossoms are only temporary (Hall 3). Much like the corrupted destiny of the garden of Eden. However, I find that Hall’s observation is limited because much of Shirley Jackson’s works embody metaphysical transitions that transpire before a traumatic event and these occurrences do not always rely on the use of symbolism, allegory, or the paranormal. Most of the tragedies that happen in Jackson’s works are caused by her characters. These characters experience psychological breakdowns that arise in imaginative daydreams or an overwhelming stream-of-consciousness that disturbs the narrative with physical manifestations. This topic of the supernormal versus paranormal will cover these themes: Hall’s thesis on Jackson’s symbolism in The Road through the Wall, Margaret’s anxiety-induced reaction to New York City in “The Pillar of Salt”, Eleanor (The Haunting of Hill House) and Merricat’s (We Have Always Lived in the Castle) emotional adolescence and its impact on their reality, Clara’s drug-induced vision in “The Tooth”, and Aunt Fanny’s dependency on her prophecy in The Sundial. Scholars like Zoe Heller in “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson” argues the paranormal has more impact on the metaphysical rather than the imagination of Jackson’s characters, which prompts the question as to which is the most influential force in these occurrences and their eerie connection to a character’s mental/ emotional transitions.
Through Hall’s lens in The Road through the Wall, it is hard to find anything paranormal or metaphysical. The foreboding parts of the narrative have a passive role. There are indirect contributions to a psychological breakdown and a moment of mob anxiety when little Caroline goes missing and is found dead. Between the dialogue of the other characters, the most suspected character for Caroline’s murder is Tod. These accusations can be tolerated because the narrative deliberately alienates Tod upon his introduction, even though Tod’s disturbing actions are not fully realized until halfway through the story (Jackson 33). He sneaks into the Desmond’s house and mutters all of the curses he knows inside of Mrs. Desmond’s closet. Then, on the lawn, corresponding with Hall’s notice of floral significance to lost innocence, Tod destroys a yellow blossom which is “bizarrely linked to Mrs. Merriam’s claim that he raped a dead child.” (Hall 7).
Hall’s claim of symbolism falls short because linking Tod to Caroline’s murder would solely rely on the symbolic transaction between Tod and the yellow blossom he destroyed. When ignoring Hall’s thesis, there are many other potential characters responsible for Caroline’s death. Mr. Merriam, when talking to Mr. Perlman, suspects a tramp killed Caroline Mr. Perlman replies, with the context of Tod’s suicide following his arrest, “the whole thing was too hasty. Far too hasty. Everyone jumping to conclusions.” (Jackson 191). The traumatic events of Caroline’s murder and Tod’s suicide are revealed with a surprising nonchalance that makes any significant symbolic preamble to be unjustifiable and unappreciated. Though there are no hyper metaphysical moments, Tod’s suicide is brought on by the overwhelming consciousness of the narrator and the mob rule of the dwellers of Pepper Street, making this an event resides outside normal circumstances.
Also, it is hard to ignore Shirley Jackson’s background with garden parties and her attention to flowers when it comes to her writing. In Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, she says the Jacksons had a life of comfort, including “country clubs, social teas,” and “garden parties” (13). This way of life carried over into Jackson’s adulthood where she too hosted parties out of habits in luxury (Ibid 178). Because much of Jackson’s works contain some relevance to a garden it can feel significant. However, more often than not the garden is no more active than its presence which could make it hard to create meaning out of it.
Margaret in “The Pillar of Salt” encounters a change in surroundings by traveling from the suburbs to New York City for the first time. It is easy to determine Margaret to be enchanted by her initial impressions. She finds the experience wonderful and exciting (Jackson 187). Later, she realizes how chaotic the city really is. After the night of a dinner party she thinks the apartment is on fire and when she and her husband go to Long Island, they find a person’s leg on the beach. Margret experiences a state of high anxiety when she states that people from the suburbs would be the first to “start to come apart” (Ibid 194). The world around her starts to change; as she becomes dizzy, the windowsill crumples into the sand while stone crumbs fall (195). This shift, in reality, occurs because of Margret’s overwhelming disenchantment of the city. She becomes afraid of the world around her and everything appears to fall apart. Her waking nightmare is only affecting her, not those around her, which removes any paranormal features and replaces the tension with psychological terror. At the end of the story, Margert stands paralyzed and terrified of crossing the street and has to tell herself over and over there is “no sense worrying” even though that is all she does (Ibid.) This heightened experience embraces fear in a mundane condition that has no relevance to the supernatural personality of extreme external forces.
In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat practically behaves six years younger than her age of eighteen. This emotional stagnation may have been prompted by the traumatic event of her poisoning most of her family. Her mental safety relies on her ability to fantasize, like having her “home on the moon” (434). Merricat constantly leaves the house to bury things and recites enchantments to strengthen the barrier of the house to protect her and Constance from the outside world. After the arrival of cousin Charles, Merricat makes many attempts to get rid of him. At one point, she pours dirt and water on his bed and moves her father’s things out of the room and into the attic (502). Later, Charles tries to reprimand Merricat to which she runs away to the summerhouse where her fantasies grow out of control and begins to compete against the physical world. Though the summerhouse is unkempt, Merricat sees her whole family gathered at the table having a haunting discussion about Merricat and their praise for her (510). This appearance has no paranormal qualities only because the transition portrays the emotions and longings of Merricat. She envisions her family having a conversation they have likely never had. Her fantasy takes a metaphysical authority in the narrative due to her creative imaginings that only physically manifest in her behavior, such as the time she accidentally set fire to the house. Her actions are arguably accidental because Merricat had to ask Constance if the pipe she pushed over the newspapers would cause a fire as though she had only just realized what she had done (515). Accident or not, her state of mind is not subject to the supernatural. Merricat is rather supernormal in the matter that her behavior is somewhat psychotic and unhealthy.
Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, is thirty-two years of age when she sets out to go to Hill House, a mansion of supernatural tendencies and a horrible reputation. The supernatural presence of this narrative is stronger and harder to argue because instead of one character experiencing the heightened external forces, the other characters also react to the volatile environment of Hill House. This examination will consider the external factors and follows the events of Theodora’s stained clothes, the picnic, the persistent banging, the hand Eleanor was holding, and Eleanor’s name written in chalk accompanied by the phrase ‘come home’.
After their third morning in Hill House, Eleanor and Theodora go back to their rooms. Eleanor was “ahead of Theodora” and when she gets to her room, she “hesitates” prompting some unspoken passage of time. Without some closure on when Theodora does get to her room, the narrative focuses on Eleanor’s thoughts and actions (350). When Theodora discovers the red writing on the wall and on her clothes, the first thing she cries is “Eleanor” and quickly accuses Eleanor by saying “I don’t know how you managed it.” (351). Though Theodora is having an emotional reaction, her suspicion of Eleanor is not a new development, and Luke and Dr. Montague do little to assuage Theodora to feel otherwise, justifying some mutual distrust toward Eleanor. Eleanor’s calm reaction is similar to Merricat’s when she accidentally set the house on fire. It may be possible that Eleanor was calm during this bloody clothes fiasco because she was responsible. Also, prior to ever finding her name written on the walls, Eleanor was in Theodora’s room before with red nail polish. Theodora paints Eleanor’s toes and says to her, “you ought to go home, Eleanor.” (324). This statement will be important later on.
To further the point, Hill House may be subject to the unreliable narration. With the third-person point of view, there is more showing of detail and emotions than actual telling. This allows the characters less accountability for their emotions. Whatever the narrator chooses to tell becomes subjective. The narration is so stoic and the distant perspective so involved there is a chilling possibility that Hill House is actually the narrator. If Eleanor is responsible for staining Theodora’s room, the reason the circumstance appears supernatural is that the readers are denied the truth and have a limited view of each occurrence.
When Eleanor and Theodora walk along the path outside Hill House, Theodora asks Eleanor “What are you good at?” To which Theodora adds, “Running away?” (366). Before Eleanor replies she starts thinking about how afraid she is, prompting a metaphysical transcending from reality (367). Eleanor starts to see a family having a picnic on a checkered tablecloth which is oddly linked to Merricat’s dress which is made out of a checkered tablecloth (549). As Eleanor watches the family picnic, Theodora screams, “Don’t look-run!” (368). In combination with Eleanor’s anxiety-induced vision and Theodora’s excitement, it is easy to presume Theodora saw the same thing, that is until Theodora and Eleanor come running back to Hill House. Theodora isn’t panicked, she is actually laughing to the point of tears while Eleanor recounts what she saw to Luke and Dr. Montague. Theodora may have been making fun of Eleanor. It is no coincidence that Theodora asked if Eleanor was good at running away and later, she tells her to not look back and run. As though mocking Eleanor, Theodora goes on to say that she “went and looked behind” without confirming anything Eleanor saw (Ibid).
The banging sounds in the hall that occur frequently in the narrative are the most mysterious of the narrative. Though all of the characters agree the house is haunted, not all directly address it and say there is a pounding sound. They do perform reactions to the sounds which may create an undoubtful paranormal occurrence. Heller points out Jackson’s focus on the “demon of the mind” and this frequent banging occurs mostly for the reader. The banging and the doors being nearly shaken off the hinges are told in Eleanor’s perspective and acknowledged by Theodora. But, due to the inconsistent story-telling of the narrator, it is hard to tell if Theodora is only entertaining Eleanor or is truly frightened by the sounds. This manifestation is more unique than the other hauntings because it isn’t exclusive to Eleanor. What makes this manifestation effective as something paranormal is there is little to no room for speculation as to who is responsible for the noises. The closest textual evidence would consider a storm to be responsible for the raucous, but it would not justify the specific banging of the doors. Eleanor calls the brief silence between the banging to be “the calm before the storm” and Dr. Montague later claims his wife “stirred up that storm” during their second encounter with the loud noises (387). Loud thunder and hail may have prompted Eleanor’s waking nightmare of the pounding doors, much like how Eleanor’s internal fright and Theodora’s excitement created Eleanor’s picnic vision.
There is a later demonstration proving Eleanor’s ability to experience loud noises and physical sensations apart from other characters in her presence. It is deeply dark when Eleanor hears a child crying whilst, with both hands, holding Theodora’s hand. Theodora is presumably beside her because the narrator starts by saying, “in the two beds beside each other” (356). With this in mind, when Eleanor wakes herself by shouting “Stop it!” she realizes the “lights were on the way they left them” and Theodora was sitting up in her bed (358). This frightening scene is conclusively a self-haunting experience that had no external influences. The hand Eleanor was holding was dreamt because the lights had been on the whole time. The ‘darkness’ Eleanor experienced was because she was not conscious.
Lastly, Luke and Eleanor become the top suspects when Luke discovers “Help Eleanor Come Home” written in chalk in the hallway. Luke’s faint “smile” after his brief separation from the group suggests some mischievous behavior (344). Though Luke verbally denies ever writing Eleanor’s name, it is revealed later that he and Dr. Montague use chalk and measuring tape to “determine the precise dimensions” of a cold space (348). Eleanor feels less obvious. Few times she would be separated from the group prior to the supernatural phenomena. The most recent occurrence that would allow Eleanor away would be the first night when all of the banging started, which invites the possibility that Eleanor started the banging on the doors as well. With Eleanor’s flighty emotions and unstable perspective as well as some unreliable narration, Eleanor could have written that message the night before. What improves this theory is that Eleanor wrote a response to what Theodora previously told her, “you ought to go home.” (324).
Shirley Jackson once said, that “one cannot fear something that doesn’t exist.” (Franklin 108). If Jackson’s philosophy holds true in the lens of Hill House, then the paranormal is not of any significance. The central figure of fear in the story is Eleanor, who succumbs to her own anxieties about herself and those around her. Eleanor lies about her age and continues to lie about other aspects of her life up until she is forced to leave Hill House (339). Luke attests to Jackson’s philosophy and extends it by saying that we fear “seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” (355). Eleanor’s loneliness is tangible, being that she lost her mother before leaving for Hill House. Then, Eleanor seemingly desperate to amend the severed bond between her and her late mother finds a maternal significance to Hill House (404).
Similar to the observations of Roberta Rubenstein in “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters”, Rubenstein identifies the predatory nature involved in mother and daughter bonds. She calls the relationship preoedipal in which the conflict is embodied in the daughter’s fear or fear for “the spectral presence of a dead-undead mother, archaic and all-encompassing, a ghost signifying the problematics of femininity which the heroine must confront.” (336). Though it is unclarified whether this toxic parallel is attributed mostly to the possessiveness of the mother or the emotional dependency of the daughter, it is fair to say that Eleanor has disturbed her own stability by relying too much on her mother. The first night in Hill House, Eleanor dreams of her mother calling her and it is later revealed that Eleanor feels guilt for having been responsible for her mother’s death, prompting what Theodora often says, “Fear and guilt are sisters.” (Jackson 365). This is significant because the narrative clearly demonstrates the impact Eleanor’s guilt has on her own fear. Eleanor cannot stand her reality and is dealing with crippling disillusionment. Denying the spectral performance of the banging on the walls, the most exhilarating and fearful points of Hill House occur within Eleanor in the form of a self-haunting, a haunting that does not require the overwhelming authority of supernatural forces.
There are other metaphysical transitions to acknowledge outside the trauma-induced. In “The Tooth”, Clara travels to the city to get a tooth examined. She brings codeine and aspirin while frequenting coffee during her trip. The amount of codeine Clara takes is suggestively high, because during the recurrent bus stops it is hard to tell what is real and what is not. Clara often closes her eyes and falls asleep while the newly acquainted Jim talks to her of Samarkand, a mysterious and paradisal destination. Jim is the only possible figure of the supernatural. Though, he is arguably not supernatural, because Clara’s unexamined use of drugs means that Jim may have in fact been real and has an influence on her drug-induced reality.
First, Clara’s overuse and influence of alcohol and drugs. The combination can be deadly and though it is not stated, there is a likeliness of overdose in “The Tooth”. But, because this is an argument on the metaphysical, Clara’s visions will be the central theme of this study. Clara’s constant sleeping without the textual preamble of describing her sleepiness is because her drowsiness is not naturally obtained. Much like being drunk, codeine’s primary side effect is dizziness and drowsiness. Clara’s constant waking and sleeping occur so often, it is nearly untraceable and produces a textually dizzying pattern-like effect. The repetitious use of the word “sleep” and Clara’s rare state of transient consciousness deliberately disorient the reader.
Clara’s disassociation from herself is an alarming contributor to the metaphysical transactions that occur in this narrative. When she is in the bathroom, she cannot find her own face among the other women there. She unknowingly disowns her own face, saying “I hope I’m not the blonde.” (221). Distressed, Clara appeals to the idea that she is not looking at a mirror at all and rather a “window” and she is “looking straight through at women washing on the other side.” (Ibid). It is hard to determine if this is a cry for help or rather the opposite where she is declaring that she wants to leave herself behind.
As mentioned before, Jim has a reputation as a doubtable figure. Even though Clara hears him and sees him, there are moments Jim has a phantom presence. When they make it to New York he “went away” even though Clara did not “see him go” (213). She looks for his blue suit in the doorway and there was “nothing” to be found (Ibid). After relinquishing her identity by throwing her pin with her letter “C” on it into a wastebasket, she runs to Jim who inexplicably “came out of the crowd of people passing” and “took her hand” (223). The city is disregarded as Clara submits to this fantasy where she is running “barefoot through the hot sand.” (224). This vivid and drug-enhanced disillusionment has paranormal characteristics though it is only psychological.
In “A Faithful Anatomy of Our Times”, Angela Hague supports the psychological horrors of female society in postwar America. Her research connects a woman’s role in the nuclear family with the damaging psychological consequences. Citing the studies of Carol Warren, Hague observes the overwhelming feeling of loneliness and depression women experienced during the development of Jackson’s fiction. Characters of lost identity, like Clara in “The Tooth”, reflect the difficulties women faced between the 1940s-50s (83). This study of interest identifies Jackson’s fiction on a more tangible side of reality outside of the supernatural.
Another examination on the lack of supernatural occurs at the Halloran estate in The Sundial. It is hard to pin the cause of Aunt Fanny’s vision, aside from the emotional trauma of losing her nephew, Lionel, possibly at the hands of Mrs. Halloran. This factor would point out the significance of Fanny being acknowledged mostly as Aunt Fanny during the narrative, highlighting her lost role as an aunt. The demise of young Mr. Halloran and the dictatorship of Mrs. Halloran have an unspoken authority behind the inner workings of Aunt Fanny’s prophecy. Also, there may be another occurrence of an unreliable narrator which may cause the reader to doubt the abstract nature of Aunt Fanny’s emotional state and whether her character is capable of conducting false realities. John G. Parks, in “Waiting for the End: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial”, identifies Shirley Jackson’s thesis and validates the narrative’s characteristics of abstract belief and the “parodies of the apocalyptic imagination”, denying the nature of the paranormal.
All of Aunt Fanny’s prophecies are communicated to her by the first Mr. Halloran. The original revelation occurs soon after Mrs. Halloran attempts to remove everyone from the Halloran estate. Aunt Fanny gets lost in the garden maze with Fancy, Mrs. Halloran’s granddaughter. Fancy abandons her and later denies ever being with Aunt Fanny. This prompts the question as to whether Fancy was really there. Investigating this question will introduce the possibility of an unreliable narrator.
Focusing on Aunt Fanny, of all things during her moment of distress that fateful morning in the garden, Aunt Fanny randomly wonders about Essex and how she would like to give him a rose (24). This moment proposes Aunt Fanny’s own denial of femininity which has influenced her troubling reaction to the warm marble and the structure of the “jeering face of a fiend” with “roses growing low against his head, dead petals caught between his thrusting teeth.” (25). Fanny’s initial reaction is to scream again for Fancy. Then, she begins to run toward a voice calling her name, “FRANCES HALLORAN” (Ibid). In the revelation upon seeing her father, Mr. Halloran, he shares with her that “there is danger” and to not let anyone “leave the house” (26). This revelation, noting the operations of Aunt Fanny’s desire to remain with the Halloran estate, has a direct response to Mrs. Halloran’s initial desire to have everyone leave the house except for Fancy.
In regards to the question of reliable or unreliable narration and whether Fancy was really with Aunt Fanny involves the significance of the hedges and the presence of the gardener. Such examination will produce a supernormal effect of unreliable text rather than the supernatural nature of Aunt Fanny’s revelations. Prior to Fanny’s prophecy, Mrs. Halloran is introduced in the narrative while she talks to Richard Halloran, Fanny’s brother. She looks out the window and says to him, “At one time the rose garden was perfectly visible from my terrace, and now I can only see hedges. I want the hedges all cut down. At once.” (4). By some remarkable coincidence, Aunt Fanny claims that she and Fancy encountered a gardener who was “clipping the hedge.” (20). After Aunt Fanny returns to the Halloran estate, in a huff she accuses Fancy of abandoning her to which Fancy denies ever leaving her mother’s side that morning. Alarmingly, when Fanny mentions the gardener, Mrs. Halloran retorts, “There are no gardeners working on the hedges yet.” (30). A self-aware reader would know this to be true, because it was not long ago when Mrs. Halloran noticed the attention the hedges needed. The amount of time that passed between the introduction and Aunt Fanny’s prophecy would not have permitted Mrs. Halloran the leisure of hiring someone for that task. Mrs. Halloran adds that Fanny “could not have seen a gardener trimming a hedge. Not here, not today.” (Ibid). Troublingly enough, the narrator cannot commit to one truth and reveals that “Fancy was a liar” and had been with Aunt Fanny that morning, but did not want to admit that she was teasing the vulnerable (34). Similar to Hill House, this betrayal of narration gives the impression that something else possessed the narrator, one of the characters or an unnamed entity.
Finally, though it is proven that the narration is not reliable, Aunt Fanny’s revelation is either a paranormal encounter or a product of her imagination. Her dependence on this prophecy to be fulfilled echoes Aunt Fanny’s mechanical side and her role as a coordinator rather than a prophet. Her goal is to make her prophecy true and she demonstrates this through the gullible Gloria when the group uses an oiled mirror. Gloria sees and is terrified by the red-eyed peacock in her vision. Quickly after the fright, Aunt Fanny supplies, “That was my father you saw.” (66). When no one confirmed what Fanny said, she enforces, “Gloria, I should have said something, or at least made some gesture to show you recognized him.” (67). To make her prophetic vision hold true, Aunt Fanny takes advantage of moments of vulnerability and mob anxiety.
Parks supports this through Jackson’s thesis that “an abstract belief can only be trusted through its manifestations, the actual shape of the god perceived” later adds, “Not one of the people around Aunt Fanny believed her father’s warning, but they were all afraid of the snake.” (Jackson 33). In reference to the snake that appears after Fanny’s first revelation is the only occurrence that validated her vision in the eyes of everyone around her. Park’s observation of belief and our nature as human beings to deny ourselves and our accountability as people and allow the blame to be thrust upon an external occurrence (Parks 87). This paradigm is more deliberate in the behavior of the paranormal banging in Hill House and the nature of Eleanor in relation to the other characters.
Richard Pascal, from “New World Miniatures”, contends Parks’ claim and states that works of naturalistic realism, such as The Sundial, “caution against complete skepticism about the intrusion of the paranormal into the ordinary.” (99). The aspects of Jackson’s fiction portray relevance to a postwar America, a cult of anxiety and reverence to a nuclear family. Fascinatingly, he avoids the deliberate aspects of the paranormal and observes the literal external factors that impacted Shirley Jackson’s writing choices rather than the personality of her fiction. His inclusion in this study adds to the scandalous invitation that the paranormal cannot exist, because individualism in the face of society is frightening enough.
Heller argues, the paranormal of Shirley Jackson is an aesthetic to further her portrayal of the “demon of the mind” (Heller). Though Jackson’s own background includes tarot cards and a mild enthusiasm for witchcraft from reading the Golden Bough, Jackson’s use of paranormal has proved to be a manifestation of the mind (Franklin 105). Heller clarifies that these evils of the supernatural are only Jackson’s way of expressing her own anxieties and fears which weakens her prior approval of the paranormal events in The Haunting of Hill House.
Ultimately, the metaphysical moments of Jackson’s characters are mistaken as instances of the supernatural. It would discredit the complexities of the human condition to blame the domestic horrors on external forces. With that said, most of Jackson’s characters experience a heightened encounter with disillusionment and fear the confrontation of reality. The consequences can prove fatal or psychologically compressing. As witnessed in a variety of Jackson’s works, the denial of fear and guilt create self-terrors in which the characters themselves create their own evils by seeing themselves transparently and without a guise.
Hague, Angela. “A Faithful Anatomy of Our Times: Reassessing Shirley Jackson.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 2005, pp. 73-96. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4137397.
Hall, Joan Wylie. “Fallen Eden in Shirley Jackson’s The Road through the Wall.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, vol. 46, no. 4, 1994, pp. 261-70. EBSCO host, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN1995070170&scope=site.
Heller, Zoe. “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson: A new biography explores one of the twentieth century’s most tortured writers.” The New Yorker. 10 October, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/the-haunted-mind-of-shirley-jackson accessed 12 June 2019.
Parks, John G, “Waiting for the End: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial.” Critique, vol. 19, no. 3, 1978, pp. 74. ProQuest, https://login.libweb.lib.utsa.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libweb.lib.utsa.edu/docview/1310174070?accountid=7122.
Pascal, Richard. “New World Miniatures: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial and Postwar American Society.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, vol. 23, no. 3, 2000, pp.99-111. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2002531590&scope=site.
Rubenstein, Roberta. “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and Female Gothic.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 15, no. 2, 1996, pp. 309-331. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/464139.