B-Sides: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Farce

Anyone who has spent at least three hours in sole charge of two or more children has stories to tell, but few faculties left with which to tell them. Luckily, we have a ...

Anyone who has spent at least three hours in sole charge of two or more children has stories to tell, but few faculties left with which to tell them. Luckily, we have a genre—I’ll call it “domestic farce”—that documents the trials and tribulations of family life. Major contributors to this minor mode include George Grossmith, Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, and Dave Barry. Towering above them is the genre’s midcentury modern foremother: Shirley Jackson.

Today, most people know Jackson as the author of the much-anthologized tale “The Lottery,” in which a mundane village gathering turns horrific in the story’s final lines. That 1948 New Yorker publication won Jackson instant notoriety and set the tone for two critically acclaimed neo-Gothic novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

During Jackson’s lifetime, however, she was equally famous for vignettes of quirky family life, first published in women’s magazines, then anthologized as Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). They tell the story of a New York City wife and mother transplanted to rural Vermont, where she contends with rambunctious children, strong-willed pets, and uncooperative household objects.

Each story vanquishes chaos through style. Turning mundane drudgery into the stuff of comedy, Jackson makes much of life’s smallest problems in order to make light of them. Farce has a reputation for crude exaggeration, but its choreographed mayhem requires careful planning and skill. The verbal misunderstandings, antic entrances and exits, pratfalls and pie throws on which this comic genre thrives depict loss of control with perfect control. In the hands of writers such as Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, and Shirley Jackson, farce enacts the triumph of formally ordered art over anarchic life—not by containing the mess but by orchestrating it with wicked precision.

A typical farce usually features at least one scene that squeezes many disparate characters into small spaces. Jackson’s tales often jam four very different children, eager to battle their parents and one another, into houses, cars, and trains. Here they are, about to embark on a family trip from Vermont to New York:

It has long been my belief that in times of great stress, such as a four-day vacation, the thin veneer of family unity wears off almost at once, and we are revealed in our true personalities; Laurie, for instance, is a small-town mayor, Jannie a Games mistress, Sally a vague stern old lady watching the rest of us with remote disapproval, and Barry a small intrepid foot soldier, following unquestioningly and doggedly. The two nervous creatures hovering in the background, making small futile gestures and tending to laugh weakly, are, of course, unmistakable. They are there to help with the luggage.

Jackson’s light irony deftly equates “vacation” with a time of “great stress,” but her confident marshaling of commas and semicolons belies the ineffectuality she attributes to her parental characters. Her clauses glide forward with all the smoothness missing from the contentious, lurching train ride that follows.

In serious literature, characters mature as they confront world-historical forces. In farce, regress rules over progress. Any attempt to solve the smallest problem only makes it worse, and we laugh at the human will’s failure to overcome even the tiniest obstacles. One episode starts as a search for a lost sneaker (“day after day after day I went around my house picking things up”) and ends almost exactly where it began: the first shoe found, but its companion misplaced.

Farce thrives on comic pileups, and Jackson excels at household inventories whose sheer length makes them list hilariously out of proportion. “I picked up books and shoes and toys and socks and shirts and gloves and boots and hats and handkerchiefs and puzzle pieces and pennies and pencils and stuffed rabbits and bones the dogs had left under the living room chairs.” Just when you think the pileup has to end, it resumes: “I also picked up tin soldiers and plastic cans and baseball gloves and sweaters and children’s pocketbooks with nickels inside and little pieces of lint off the floor.”

In a genre whose every rule inverts the principles governing tragedy and epic, lesser forces ruthlessly prevail over more august ones. The inorganic thwarts the organic, the childish circumvents the mature, small creatures run rampant while larger ones helplessly observe them. Jackson’s adults are no match for the recalcitrant objects that surround them: refrigerator doors that won’t open, cars and furnaces that won’t start, children with minds of their own. Chapters often begin with the maternal narrator recounting the difficulty she has simply getting herself or her offspring into or out of bed, washed, dressed, seated at a table, settled on a car or train.

Jackson makes much of life’s smallest problems in order to make light of them.

In one story, mice appear, popping out of kitchen drawers, eating salted almonds from a living room dish, running down the narrator’s arm via a ceiling light cord. The family dog flees in terror; the cats leave the room, indignant at having their rest disturbed. The narrator’s four children vote to adopt a third cat and a puppy in the hope that new pets will put up a better fight. The result: even more animals bursting through doors and eating food intended for others. As she often does, Jackson gives a child the punch line: “Why’d we get all these cats and dogs, anyway?” Sally asked. “Seems like it would be easier just having mice for pets.”

Humor is often a weapon of the weak, and readers of Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons may wonder whether Jackson’s comedy is meant to mask rage. Sometimes it does, particularly when directed at the narrator’s husband, who can’t feed himself a cracker, controls every penny his wife spends while indulging a passion for coin collecting, and assumes that his young daughter will sew his shirt buttons when his wife is out of town. Jackson’s farce, though, is more than an outlet for muted resentment. As Ruth Franklin points out in her authoritative biography, these stories also communicate Jackson’s genuine pleasure in her brood, whose inventive imaginations and linguistic wit mirror her own.

The mundane chaos Jackson portrays in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons amuses and comforts us because the author bends time, space, and creaturely life to her writerly will with a mastery equal to the forces that defy her protagonist. The heroine of a domestic farce aims less at getting over her antagonists than at momentarily getting on top of them. Jackson’s impeccable comic technique makes light of everyday difficulties as a wrestler makes light of an opponent. Characters may struggle, but the author stands above the fray. For the precious moments we spend reading these books, we stand above it with her. icon

Featured image: Paul Klee, Southern Gardens (detail) (1919). Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York