Shirley Jackson and “Safer at Home”

By | December 14, 2020

Guest post by Jill E. Anderson

December 14, 2020 would have been Shirley Jackson’s 104th birthday, and for those of us in the U.S., this day also marks about six months under some version of a forced quarantine. A thought has crossed my mind a number of times that time: what would Shirley Jackson have thought about COVID-19 and all these “safer at home” orders?

I find myself craving Jackson’s take on the pandemic, a Life Among the Savages-style vignette about her children and the woes of being shut in with them and her banally evil household goods. Would the troublemaker Charlie make an appearance to disrupt Zoom schooling? Would all of Janey Ellenoy’s Marthas be allowed to accompany them during their socially-distanced grocery store trips? And would they have enough masks for the seven of them? How would the home’s objects – the forks, the blankets, the cat – rebel when everyone was home all the time? Would “my husband” continue to be so deeply unhelpful in every way? (Very likely.) What magic would our narrator need to craft to survive in so much forced togetherness and get any writing done? If Jackson had been writing in 2020, would she have had the time and mental energy, under the disproportionate domestic burden women face, to produce such works as The Haunting of Hill House? What Jacksons are out there now, unable to carve out the space to write, and whose work will we miss without missing it in the coming years?

Fittingly, a theme that emerges in Jackson’s work repeatedly is a consideration of the conditions of the people, willing or otherwise, who cut themselves off from the outside world: from the upwardly mobile but stagnant residents of insular Pepper Street, which is “charming and fairly expensive and even comfortably isolated,” in The Road through the Wall; to the haunting, destructive type of isolation echoing throughout “The Lottery”, which forces a village’s residents to unquestioningly murder one of their own; to the people participating in the ghostly experiment inside of Hill House where “[n]o live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality” and in which Eleanor feels herself “like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside”; and to Elizabeth Richmond in the intensely claustrophobic The Bird’s Nest, seemingly shut away inside the depths of her mind.

Recent adaptations of Jackson’s work have attempted to bust down the walls Jackson built up around her characters. Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” packs the eponymous house to the rafters with various ghosts to explore the Cranes’ inner hauntings but only loosely uses Jackson’s work as a basis. The 2020 feature film “Shirley,” based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, effectively erases her children from the narrative and focuses on her potential depression, drinking, and agoraphobia along with her toxic, imprisoning marriage.  

But this insularity serves a strong purpose in Jackson’s work, exposing the ways the disturbing world around us is only a reflection of just how horrifying we are as humans. Domestic isolation plays into the action of my two personal favorites of Jackson’s novels: 1958’s The Sundial and 1962’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In the first, the perceived coming apocalypse, voiced by the delusional but convicted Aunt Fanny, brings together a cast of society’s weirdos in her ancestral home. The group includes a woman who murders her only son and a young girl who pushes the same woman (her own grandmother) down the stairs so she can wear the gold crown and be queen of this insulated world. The motley group voluntarily quarantines themselves inside the Halloran mansion in order to prepare, fallout shelter-style, for an apocalypse that might arrive at the close of the book. The pivot point of the novel involves a scene in which Aunt Fanny commands her companions to burn the books in her father’s library in order to make room for cans of spaghetti and peaches. Though the Halloran hangers-on seem happy enough in their seclusion, lording it over the townspeople in a strange garden party just before the end times, they serve as examples of how destructive delusional groupthink can be.

Castle’s Blackwood sisters lock themselves away as a defense mechanism: Connie appears to be agoraphobic and, ostracized by their neighbors for a number of reasons, prefers to see no one from the outside world; and Merricat, who has presumably poisoned everyone in her family but Connie, is the one who ventures out for supplies. She crafts elaborate games to protect herself from the prying eyes of the townspeople, visualizing them in throes of agonizing deaths while she is outside the walls of their mansion. While at home, Merricat casts magic spells to protect Connie from outsiders and engages in rituals meant to spin an impenetrable web around the two. They are deeply in love of each other, to the point of obsession.

The Blackwoods’ sequestration only deepens in the end of the novel when the townspeople attempt to burn the house down. When I taught this novel a few years ago, I asked my students if the sisters got a happy ending. They all disagreed with my assessment that they had—they continue to live, just the two of them and the cat, Jonas, in the unburned kitchen of their lonely mansion, choosing isolation and themselves. It’s happy because they are finally on the moon where:

“We wore feathers in our hair, and rubies on our hands. On the moon we had gold spoons. […] On the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.”

Jill E. Anderson is Associate Professor in English at Tennessee State University, USA. She is co-editor, along with Melanie R. Anderson, of Shirley Jackson and Domesticity. Her work has appeared in Women’s Studies, Margaret Atwood Studies, and the Journal of Ecocriticism, and her latest project is Homemaking for the Apocalypse: Domestic Horror in Atomic Age Literature and Media (2021).

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