Shirley Jackson’s Two Worlds

Starting in the late 1970s, Revlon (in)famously peddled its fragrance Enjoli to working women by asserting a woman wearing this scent could not only ...

Starting in the late 1970s, Revlon (in)famously peddled its fragrance Enjoli to working women by asserting a woman wearing this scent could not only “bring home the bacon,” but also “fry it up in a pan.” The celebration of the woman who “had it all”—that is, a personal and a professional life—seemingly represented the fruits of 1960s- and 1970s-era feminist activism, which had resulted in a reconsideration of men’s and women’s roles and, theoretically, a restructuring of American life, both public and private.

Except, of course, it was never so easy, and there were plenty of women in America who could have testified to that fact. Even before the Second World War brought a flood of women into the workforce, nearly 25 percent of American women worked full or part time jobs. That number climbed to almost 38 percent by 1960. By the time that Arlie Russell Hochschild named the problem of the “second shift” in 1989—the likelihood that working women would follow their professional workday with an evening of domestic labor, a “second” job that they shouldered no matter how much bacon they brought home—it was the lived experience of generations of American women.

Long before the Second Wave, as Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, demonstrates, working women struggled to balance their domestic tasks with their careers or creative passions. Jackson wed Stanley Edgar Hyman in 1940, gave birth to the first of her four children in 1942 and the last in 1951, and died in 1965. It was during these childbearing and child-raising years that Jackson, the family’s predominant breadwinner, produced six novels, two memoirs about childrearing, four children’s books, and dozens of short stories. Jackson’s life sheds light on the longer history of working women’s often undocumented efforts to balance domestic and professional demands, as well as the challenge that this attempted balance presented in the face of narrow conceptions of appropriate embodiments of American womanhood. The difference for women of Jackson’s era is that there were virtually no voices suggesting that her domestic responsibilities should be anyone’s but hers (and certainly not her husband’s).

Jackson said “writer.” The nurse taking her information responded, “I’ll just put down housewife.”

Franklin chronicles Jackson’s emergence as a writer, going back to her California youth when she voraciously read fantasy tales and penned multiple diaries as she tried on different personas. After her family’s move to upstate New York and a false start at the University of Rochester, Jackson came into her own at Syracuse University, where she met Hyman, who, for all his failings (chronic cheating and sometimes staggering insensitivity, to top the list), championed Jackson as among the greatest writers of her time and place. The bulk of Jackson’s writing came in short story form, appearing in publications as diverse as The New Yorker and Story and Good Housekeeping. The stories toyed with the darkness of domestic life, the petty cruelties allowed (and often endorsed) by convention, and, occasionally, the pull of the surreal or supernatural.

It was the 1948 publication of “The Lottery,” argues Franklin, which put Jackson firmly on the map of esteemed contemporary American writers and ushered in the era of sustained critical consideration of her work. The story infamously unfolds in a small, seemingly idyllic town, before revealing that the friendly-seeming townspeople ritually stone to death one of their own each year, a victim chosen by drawing lots. But what did Jackson mean with this story? Readers sent letters to the New Yorker en masse (the most the publication had ever received to a work of fiction, to that time), demanding an explanation. While most readers (and most critics) admired it, the primary result was that audiences were deeply unsettled by the story.

The same was true of much of Jackson’s fiction. While Franklin sees “The Lottery” as a commentary on a community’s proclivity for casual violence and humankind’s capacity for grave inhumanity, she balks at Jackson’s own claim that she chose the target of the story’s lottery at random. The fact that Tessie Hutchison, a wife and mother, was the lottery’s victim, Franklin suggests, was “a parable of the ways in which women are forced to sacrifice themselves: if not their lives, then their energy and their ambitions.” This is Franklin’s overarching estimation of the central theme not only of Jackson’s body of work, but of her life and the lives of so many women at midcentury. Franklin suggests the longer arc of this theme in noting “how contemporary” she found the “intersection of life and work” tenuously negotiated by Jackson.

But for all of the darkness of Jackson’s stories and novels, she didn’t live in a world of darkness. Writing was one world; her marriage, her family, and her home provided her with another. It was a world that often filled her with delight, as evidenced by her chronicles of her children’s antics and misadventures, immortalized in stories published in ladies’ magazines of the age and, most famously, in Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). These collections were a tremendous success, among Jackson’s best-selling works. But these tales in no way put Jackson or her children upon a pedestal. Jackson’s mother—a constant critic—bemoaned her daughter’s penchant for airing the family’s dirty laundry and representing her household in such a chaotic light. The vision of Jackson painted by Franklin is of a loving and attentive and creative parent, but one who also was busy with other things. Multiple reminiscences indicated a house that, while not filthy, was not clean (and a perfectly kept home in one of Jackson’s stories often signaled something was amiss). The image of the happy housewife, trim and beautiful and dedicated to domestic tasks performed to perfection, peppered the pages of the ladies’ magazines for which Jackson sometimes wrote. But while Jackson was aware of this figure, it was not one she attempted to embody.

Male critics wondered why someone so skilled in her craft wasted her time with domestic drivel or “ephemeral fluff.”

And yet that model, famously identified in Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963), was there. Jackson was not immune to the cultural expectations of the world in which she lived. When she arrived at the hospital to deliver her third child and was asked her occupation, she responded “writer.” The nurse taking her information responded, “I’ll just put down housewife.” In interviews and publicity, she often framed herself as a wife and mother who also wrote. Money earned from her writing often went to domestic ends: new kitchen appliances, a washing machine, an outdoor playhouse for the children. Her hospitality was famous, and one friend, remembering being entertained at the Hyman-Jackson home, noted, “She did everything as though it was not the least bit of trouble.” Until the end of her life, Jackson endured her mother’s ongoing criticisms of her appearance and especially her weight. She endured the double standard that enabled her husband as a skirt chaser and left her wondering about her inadequacies.

But while Friedan critiqued writers like Jackson for publishing stories in women’s magazines that suggested they were “just housewives,” Jackson was hardly paralyzed by Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” As Franklin notes, the imperfection of Jackson’s family tales, in pulling back the curtain and allowing for a view of domestic dysfunction, served a subversive function. Jackson was not perfect, and her stories suggested other women likewise were not and need not be. The world would not end were a floor unscrubbed or a dish unwashed. Children, while a joy to her life, were not made to be the center of the Hyman-Jackson universe. As for her appearance, Jackson suffered from insecurity, but not enough to stop her from indulging in drink and all the “beautiful and lovely and fascinating foods mankind has devoted himself to inventing.” Women could be aware of the ideal, they could feel its pressure, but as demonstrated by Jackson, they could accept and reject elements to fit their individual proclivities.

Beyond eschewing the vision of womanhood celebrated by media and critiqued by Friedan, Jackson also serves as a representative of the many working women that Friedan’s evaluation failed to consider. By 1960, after all, a significant minority of women were engaging in paid labor. But while many women had jobs, part time or intended as supplemental to their husband’s income, Jackson had a career. And it brought her tremendous satisfaction. When she hired domestic help, she reveled in the freedom it allowed. She took great pride in her writing and loved to talk about her trade. In Jackson’s life, there is little evidence of the guilt working women were assumed to have.

For all of the darkness of Jackson’s stories and novels, she didn’t live in a world of darkness.

Was she less guilty because the nature of her work kept her at home? It bothered her that people assumed writers sat down to a blank sheet and began to write or type and that was how writing took place. When raising four children, Jackson conceived of her stories as she cooked a meal or washed the dishes or did the grocery shopping. Characters developed and plotlines emerged as she fulfilled her domestic duties. The sitting down to type was merely about getting the physical words on the page. Until her children were school age (and even then), Jackson had to find the time to sit down to type. Hyman provided virtually no support to domestic endeavors. Jackson, rather than facing a clearly delineated second shift (with household and professional tasks obviously demarcated), often fashioned makeshift moments for work whenever she found a respite from household responsibilities. In that sense she fits in a long line of “scribbling women” (in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dismissive phrase) from the 18th century onwards.

Where Jackson channeled different parts of herself to fulfill her domestic and then her professional responsibilities, she seemed also to possess different voices in her craft. Just as Jackson engaged in both public and private life, performing domestic and professional tasks, so too did she balance very different kinds of writing. And this befuddled literary critics. How, they wondered, could this woman write a story as masterful and unsettling as “The Lottery,” suggesting the darkest impulses lurking in the minds of humankind, and then write a light-hearted story about a family’s Christmas morning? Male critics, in particular, wondered why someone so skilled in her craft, capable of nearly perfect prose and sophisticated plotlines, wasted her time with domestic drivel or “ephemeral fluff.” Jackson’s skill, of course, remained the same. The topics are what varied. One world was valued; the other, not. Jackson insisted on writing about both.

Jackson lived very fully in two worlds, one of writing and agents and deadlines and publicity, and another of children and dinners and boarding schools and trumpet lessons. She was one woman, but of at least two minds. The Bird’s Nest, Jackson’s 1954 novel, chronicled a woman suffering from multiple personalities. Jackson balked at reviews that focused on Elizabeth, the main character, as insane or schizophrenic. Elizabeth’s splintering, Franklin assesses, “is an exaggerated form of a universal condition,” and an especially universal condition for midcentury women, expected to satiate themselves with domestic mundanities even as they longed for—or, like Jackson, lived—something more. icon

Featured image: Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, California, 1942. Photograph by David Bransby / Library of Congress