Notes on Hangsaman — Shirley Jackson (1951)
‘Natalie stood in the doorway between the hall and the living room, thinking, This is a party and I’m here already and I must remember that my name is Natalie.’ (Hangsaman, 27)
Hangsaman seems an account of trauma’s aftermath, of the shapes we implore the world to take so that the unpleasant or shocking can be better undergone. Not stopping there, Jackson asks what of those of us who are born into trauma? What of the constitution that experiences daily, mundane living as a type of violence? Such seems to be the case for Natalie Waite, who lives ‘in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions.’ (3)
At the beginning of the novel she is sexually assaulted by a guest at her family home. While this occurs, her father has his arm around a woman who is not his wife – his wife has gone to bed, where she drunkenly explicates how her life has been taken from her. Though Natalie is unhinged by the attack – we read her vehement struggles to repress it – her self-referential thoughts follow the same patterns as before; her status within the haunted cavity of her own intellect goes unaltered. What is Jackson saying here, that the rape of a young woman doesn’t complicate or obscure the mechanisms of her inner life? That the travails of daily living have left her with no further inner point to recede to? What is she saying about the state of the feminine psyche to begin with? As Prose says in the foreword, Hangsaman is ‘the work of an author who not only writes beautifully but who knows what there is, in this world, to be scared of.’ (xiii)
It would seem the initial nature of Natalie’s trauma is that the felt and the ‘real’ do not coincide.
‘..the gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable.’ (23)
This incoherence requires a rupture in her consciousness, an escapist alienation that prevents her from at any stage from being directly present or fully receptive. Though possessing a heightened intelligence, it is persistently redirected inwards where her fantasy life is employed as a restorative; the sinister tone of the novel comes from its concurrent potential to destroy her.
In the kitchen with her mother, Natalie finds herself exhaustively utilised as an emotive receptacle– a pattern to re-emerge throughout the novel. While Mrs Waite speaks,
‘Natalie had discovered that by a slight pressure on a back tooth she could make a small regular stirring pain that operated as a rhythmic counterpoint to her mother’s voice; she would not for the world have told her mother that she had a cavity in her tooth, but it was a pleasant change in her body since the day before, and she enjoyed it.
“Icre cream,” Mrs Waite said. “We always used to have ice cream.”
“Tell me,” the detective said insistently, leaning forward, “tell me how it was done; you may rely on my not using the information against you.”
“I don’t know,” Natalie answered silently. “I don’t remember.” ’ (19)
As the novel progresses and Natalie leaves for college, she increasingly problematizes the very fact of perception;
‘A knock on her door was as strange a thing to her as the fact of the door itself.. odd, she thought, that someone standing outside could look at the door, straight ahead, seeing the white paint and the wood, and I inside looking at the door and the white paint and the wood should look straight also, and we two looking should not see each other because there is something in the way. Are two people regarding the same thing not looking at each other?’ (66)
Her inner life gains ever more appeal as a place of sanctuary, even while it becomes more fractured and its sustaining methods complex:
‘But then, of course, there was always beyond all laughter and beyond all scrutiny her own dear sweet home of a mind, where she was, protected, priceless…’ (69)
‘Natalie heard the back of her mind gibbering obscenities, and thought for a mad moment that she might be saying them aloud and not realizing; perhaps, she thought, I am undressing, or in the bathroom, or looking at myself in the mirror, and only pretending that I am here alone with Arthur Langdon; perhaps I am here with Arthur Langdon and pretending that I am dressing and talking really to myself..’ (101)
In discussing Luce Irigaray, Patricia Elliot writes that with psychoanalysis designating their every psychic move ‘as <regression> to an earlier masculine phase rather than.. as expressions of feminine desire’, hysteria is the only alternative remaining to women (162). Hangsaman does seem to propose if not outright madness that at least neurosis as an alternative means of living. Further in keeping with Irigaray, whereby ‘hysteria is not presented as a failure of normal femininity, it is rather a way of avoiding its effects’(170), Jackson’s portrayal of Natalie comes from a place of persistent empathy; her inner life, however fraught and turbulent, is an understandably preferable place in which to reside. The habitual alienation within her family home, the brazenly scheming superficiality of girls at college: these are understood as correctly intolerable to an intelligent and aesthetically orientated mind. The exterior world produces very little with which to tempt her, and when it does she is incapable of grasping the connotations fully. Again, Irigaray offers us an explanation for the compulsion to look inwards;
‘Woman’s desire can find expression only in dreams’ on account of her inability to express her own desire which has been so ‘repressed and converted into an alienated bodily discourse’ (163)
and we can see Natalie’s tension when operating within the realm of language which requires of her a level of socialisation she simply does not possess. A sense of desperation is implicit as we watch Natalie, not yet present within herself, strive to attain co-presence with others:
‘..”My name is Natalie Waite.” Is it my name? She wondered then, afraid for a minute that she had appropriated the name of the next girl, of or someone she had met slightly once and remembered only in the recesses of her mind which seemed called upon unreasonably to function now, socially, and without experience. The name passed without comment, perhaps because no one was listening, actually, to any name other than her own.’ (55)
How easy to slip beneath the surface and, having slipped, remain.
After all, according to Irigaray, this is not a matter of temporary reprieve: what libido the female does possess ‘has been so curbed, censored and finally inhibited that it can never function’ (162), and Natalie is nothing if not the victim of extreme censorship. Her father insinuates his way into her thoughts under the guise of wise instruction and camaraderie, to the point that their spoken and written communication provokes an existentially incestuous disease;
‘It has been my plan, Natalie, all of it, and when you approach despair remember that even your despair is part of my plan. 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.’ (118)
Of course Irigaray’s reading of hysteria as a means of liberating femininity has been much critiqued, most obviously for reaffirming woman’s place as the unprivileged other with a patriarchal sociosymbolic order, but her logic is compelling in reading Natalie as a girl thrown into the midst of culture who may yet reveal what a precultural version of woman looks like. An extreme version, certainly, but nonetheless one produced out of rampant necessity, rendered in resistance. Her inner life, at times fantastical and strange and at others a saddened haze, can always be read as a struggling process against normalisation.
Are we to believe by the novel’s end that she finds herself strengthened, or that she has inched that final distance into madness and found it gratifying? She certainly enters into and returns from something; having followed a strange companion to a place of ‘deep natural dark which comes with a forsaking of natural light’ (209), there is thereafter a sense of upheaval and of renewed determination. But from what side of the brink does this resolution stem?
Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman, Penguin Classics 2013
Patricia Elliot, From Mastery to Analysis: Theories of Gender in Psychoanalytic Feminism, Cornell University Press 1991