Shirley Jackson and Being in Control

I adore Shirley Jackson. I particularly love The Lottery and Other Stories, which was published in 1949. You’ve probably read The Lottery, maybe in high school English–it’s a deeply disturbing story about how our society might function in the future. People actually sent hate mail to The New Yorker after it was published (in 1948) and cancelled their subscriptions.

The Lottery and Other Stories is a collection of 25 unrelated (sort of) stories. There’s a few themes that run throughout, but here are my two favorites: James Harris and women who can’t control their lives.

James Harris shows up in most of the stories, either as Mr. Harris, or Jim, or Jamie, or James, or an unnamed, shadowy man. They might all be the same James Harris. James Harris might be the Devil’s pseudonym; James Harris was a devil in an old English ballad. However you want to interpret him, he’s everywhere and nowhere and hard to find and wonderful and horrible. As you read the stories and meet him over and over again, you look forward to seeing him again, but you also dread it, because nothing good happens when he’s around (and nothing good really ever happens in a Shirley Jackson story).

The female protagonists in Jackson’s stories tend to have trouble controlling their own lives. In one story, “The Tooth,” a woman travels to the city to have a tooth extracted, meets “Jim” on the bus, and falls down a rabbit-hole of memory loss and madness. In another, “The Daemon Lover,” a woman waits for her fiancé, Jamie, to pick her up on their wedding day, and, not to spoil anything,  but it doesn’t go well. It’s not always James Harris who ruins things, though–it’s often the women themselves. In one story, “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” a little boy brings his black friend home for lunch, and his mother, in an effort to be helpful and kind to those she perceives as less fortunate, overcompensates and treats the boy very poorly. She’s determined that the boy, Boyd, absolutely must be in some sort of desperate need, despite his instance that he is cared for and loved at home. She becomes offended that he won’t accept her help–she’s trying not to be prejudiced, but in her efforts, she is

In short, this book makes me want to take control over my life, because these women are fighting against societal pressures to be dainty, good, young, and perfect. They have to be gracious, and bake a good cake, and be good hostesses at all times (and at all costs). These stories show the horror in the reality of life, especially in women’s lives, and how our interactions can be terrifying on a daily basis.

I absolutely love this collection, and for some reason, the spring is the perfect time to pick it up again.

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