What’s Real in Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman?

imageShirley Jackson’s  Hangsaman is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.  Published in 1951, it begins like a cozy English comedy, reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s l Capture the Castle, albeit crossed with adulterous cocktail parties from a 1950s novel by John O’Hara.

American novels rarely stay cozy, which is why I always go back to Smith, the uncloyingly charming novelist whose characters may be slightly peculiar, but are never found chatting with imaginary friends while in a psychotic state.  Jackson may tread lightly at first, but she is very dark.

Like Smith’s adolescent heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer, Jackson’s heroine Natalie Waite is a writer’s daughter who wants to write. But Natalie’s family is neurotic.  She tries bracingly to maintain a comic view of life, as she wobbles between the struggle for approval from her  father, a writer who criticizes her grammar and syntax and openly disdains his wife,  and her sympathy for her misanthropist mother who prepares the food for Mr. Waite’s Sunday cocktail parties and then hides upstairs.  Mrs. Waite trusts nobody.

Jackson has a light touch, when she wants to.  But Natalie struggles with identity and refers to herself in the third person.

Natalie Waite, who was seventeen years old but who felt that she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen, lived in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions. For the past two years—since, in fact, she had turned around suddenly one bright morning and seen from the corner of her eye a person called Natalie, existing, charted, inescapably located on a spot of ground, favored with sense and feet and a bright-red sweater, and most obscurely alive—she had lived completely by herself, allowing not even her father access to the farther places of her mind. She visited strange countries, and the voices of their inhabitants were constantly in her ear; when her father spoke he was accompanied by a sound of distant laughter, unheard probably by anyone except his daughter.

When Natalie is sent to an elite women’s college, Hangsaman turns into Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a horror story about the annual stoning of a person chosen by lottery.  (I haven’t read this since junior high, but that’s the gist.) Natalie’s resistance to hazing guarantees her friendlessness.  Sherarely eats, because she is afraid to sit in the dining room, where she is shunned.

She tries to disguise this in her letters, which her father critiques as though they are literature.

Strange, Natalie thought, in all his wisdom my father never found from my letters that I get along badly with people; I suppose it’s the first thing my mother fears, just as she is afraid that I have been visited with all her sorrows, because those she is better able to heal in me than she could in herself.

Things take a very strange turn when Natalie makes friends with Tony.

What’s real? What’s not?

This is a book I’ll return to, because there’s so much here.  It’s superb but also horrifying!  And it makes you think twice about the Seven Sisters schools that have spawned some of my favorite writers.