Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman

Posted: January 19, 2014 in books, Uncategorized
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Hangsaman

Thanks to Penguin Classics, many of Shirley Jackson’s long out of print eary novels are being reprinted. Written in 1951, Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman ,is a coming of age tale with the psychological hauntings one finds in her later works. Lacking the subtle, but unnerving chills of The Haunting of Hill House, or the macabre humor of We’ve Always Lived in the Castle, the novel rather foretells the greatness to come.

The book revolves around Natalie Waite- a young woman with a vivid imagination, whose father is training her to be a writer. Stressed by her father who seems to want to turn her into a mirror image of himself, and terrified of becoming like her neurotic mother, Natalie seeks her own identity inside of daydreams.

But a traumatizing event occurs which nearly shatters her already fragile persona.

“The danger is here, in here, ” Natalie thinks, “just as they stepped inside and were lost in the darkness.” Assaulted shortly before going away to college, she admonishes herself, “I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened.”

Determined to move on, Natalie enters the liberal college with enthusiasm, but soon finds herself surrounded by cliques, hazing, and petty cruelities. Snubbed by the other girls, she slips further and further into her own mind until the reader wonders how much is of her own willing, her imagination- or whether she is truly suffering from mental illness.

“Remember, too, that without you I could not exist: there can be no father without a daughter. You have thus a double responsibility, for my existence and your own. If you abandon me, you lose yourself,” her father writes in one of his letters to her.

It is shortly thereafter that she begins to wonder if she is real at all. ”Perhaps- and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her- suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arthur Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?”

The only one who understands Natalie, and shares her visions of the world, is the strange girl named Tony whom she befriends. Ethereal ,and cryptic in speech, it is up to the reader to decide whether Tony is real or not.

“Will you come somewhere with me?” Tony asks her. ”It’s a long way.”

Whether Tony is an imaginary friend or not, hardly matters, for it is Natalie’s trust in her, and/or in herself that gives her the courage to embark on a surreal trip through the city and into the woods where she faces her greatest fear- being alone- and comes out triumphant.

Elegiac, yet also brimming with an undercurrent of optimism by its engaging protagonist, Hangsaman unfortunately falls short of what Ms. Jackson semed to be aiming for. Elements of it working better than the whole. A fantastic read for people already fans of Jackson, but not a good place to start.

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Comments
  1. Hi Tasha, I will always say that your writing always pull me in. Sound like a very nice book.

  2. Oh thank you, Lora! That’s one of the nicest compliments you can give me. 🙂

  3. Haystack says:

    This is great. Shirley Jackson is one of my top five, but I didn’t know about this one.

    I don’t know if you remember recommending The Fingersmith to me many ages ago (this is Haystack of Victorian Gothic), but I finally got to it. I loved the very clever plot twists all through the book.

    Have you come across “The Crimson Petal and the White,” by any chance? If not, preview the first few pages on Amazon and see if it doesn’t hook you.

  4. Hi Haystack!

    It’s great to hear from you. I’d be interested in what you think of Hangsaman if you come across it. And yes, I do recall recommending Fingersmith.. Glad you enjoyed it!

    It’s hard for me to buy many English language novels where I am now, but Crimson is going on my birthday wish list. 😉

    I just realized now that I started this new blog, I don’t have your blog on my blogroll and there’s no link when I click under your screen name. Could you paste the link in comments when you have a chance?

    • Haystack says:

      It’s victoriangothic.org, though I’m no longer updating it. It became too much of a distraction from the actual fiction writing that I was ostensibly doing the research for to begin with.

  5. Love Jackson, but wasn’t aware of this one. I’ll have to search it out!

  6. I’d be curious of how you find it.. There were elements that I greatly admired, and other parts that were slow and under-developed. I found it difficult to explain that in my review without giving anything away.

    But as a fan, I loved seeing the beginnings of her genius.

  7. Diane Dooley says:

    I went on a Jackson mini-binge recently, reading Castle and a volume of her short stories back-to-back. Such a unique and powerful voice. Time to investigate the lesser-known work, methinks.

  8. Hi Diane,

    They’re also going to be re-releasing some of her other earlier works. I’m looking forward to reading, The Bird Nest.

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