Psychosexual dynamics infuse Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel Hangsaman

Shirley Jackson
Penguin Classics

Shirley Jackson’s second novel was first published in 1951; what is remarkable (not to say distressing) is how relevant its themes and situations appear to a reader in 2017. Hangsaman represents something of a departure for an author more frequently associated with dark allegories like “The Lottery” or supernatural tales such as The Haunting of Hill House. Though there are occult undertones to the novel (two key characters share a fascination with tarot cards), Hangsaman is nominally a campus novel by way of that particular staple of much contemporary fiction, the coming-of-age story.

The protagonist of Jackson’s novel is Natalie Waite, a 17-year-old living at home with her father, mother, and younger brother. Natalie finds her home life oppressive, and though she is afraid to go away to college, she considers the prospect of remaining in the company of her mother even worse: “Terror lest she be left alone with her mother made Natalie almost speechless.” She eventually does flee to an all-girls college, but the combination of her abject loneliness, malign treatment at the hands of the other students, and an uncomfortable sexual attraction to a married professor conspire to take a heavy psychic toll on the young woman.

It is in part Natalie’s attraction to her professor, Arthur Langdon, that lends the novel such uncomfortable contemporary resonance. The book is set at a time in which relationships between teachers and students at a university were common; indeed, the professor’s alcoholic young wife is one of his former pupils. These liaisons were not precisely condoned – they were more often the subject of furtive gossip and innuendo – though they were also not perceived as toxic to the same extent as is the case on a 21st-century campus. That said, there is no mistaking the bitter irony in the observation that the college founders “had thought they were cutting their problems in half, originally, by eliminating men from the student body and women from the faculty.”

The other aspect of this relationship that provokes an aura of discomfort is the extent to which Arthur Langdon resembles Natalie’s father, Arnold Waite (even their given names chime unmistakably). Mr. Waite – not Natalie – is the first person we encounter in the novel, and his pompous, overbearing presence persists throughout, most especially in his creepy, quasi-sexual interactions with his daughter, who remains in his thrall. (Natalie, to a greater degree than most other characters in American fiction, suffers from daddy issues.) This is clear from an early interview in which Mr. Waite critiques a writing exercise he has set for his daughter (the assignment is to write a literary portrait of Mr. Waite), and made even more explicit in the letters addressed to Natalie while she is away at school. One in particular, dedicated to “My dear captive princess,” provides an undeniable frisson:

It is as much as any knight can do, these days, to keep in touch with his captive princesses, let alone rescue them. For one thing, I find my armour much too tight; it has rusted since I last wore it in combat, and I cannot for the life of me remember where I last saw my sword. I think of you, princess, languishing in your tower, peering anxiously forth from the narrow windows, wringing your long white hands and pacing the floor in your long white gown, looking constantly out at the long winding road below, out to where it disappears among the mountains far beyond your tower … I keep thinking of you looking, and waiting, with no knight coming.

Leaving aside the romantic associations contained in the mock chivalric tone, the reference to “where I last saw my sword” is liable to send any committed Freudian into conniptions. The provenance of these letters is left open to question: their tone becomes more overheated the longer the novel goes on, suggesting that they may play a part in the mental break Natalie experiences while away in school. Regardless, the language and presentation here is unmistakable.

The psychosexual aspects of Jackson’s narrative are pervasive, and provide a grounding in naturalistic horror to counterpoint the more uncanny aspects of the story, which gets darker and more expressionistic the longer it goes on. It is clear from the start that Natalie’s psyche is fragile; her mental state fractures even further following an encounter with a male partygoer at one of her father’s Sunday fêtes. The incident occurs offstage, though the implications that Natalie is raped are fairly strong. The next morning, Natalie is full of remorse and self-flagellating guilt, both psychologically typical of survivors of sexual assault:

The most horrible moment of that morning, and of that day – horrible in itself by being, horrible with its sidelong (suspicious? knowing? perceiving?) looks from her mother and father, heavy amusement from her brother, horrible with remembered words and impossible remembered acts, horrible with its sunlight and its cold disgusting hours – the most horrible moment of that morning or any morning in her life, was when she first looked at herself in the mirror, at her bruised face and her pitiful, erring body.

And at breakfast that same morning: “I wish I were dead, Natalie thought concretely.” The adverb is telling for its complete lack of guile; it also emphasizes the intertwining of eros and thanatos – of sex and death – that runs throughout the novel. (This commingling is embedded in the book’s very title, and the epigraph from which it springs: “Slack your rope, Hangsaman, / O slack it for a while, / I think I see my true love coming, / Coming many a mile.”)

The unsettled nature of Natalie’s psyche is made explicit in the opening section of the novel, during which she engages in imagined dialogues with a fictional detective who asks her melodramatic questions as though he is investigating the family. These obviously concocted conversations seem incongruous at first; only in retrospect does their presence make sense on a narrative level. Once at college, Natalie’s loneliness and accumulated psychological trauma begins to affect her to the extent that she starts inventing characters and situations to assuage her; these may include – at least intermittently – an eccentric loner on campus and a one-armed man in a diner. The imagined detective in the first part of the novel is Jackson’s cue to the operation of Natalie’s mind; in the second and third parts, the author ceases to be explicit about which aspects of Natalie’s experience are real and which are figments of her overheated imagination.

Natalie does not – as might perhaps be expected – narrate her experience in the first person; she cannot herself be considered an unreliable narrator. Rather, the reader is presented with a third-person narration that simply refuses to provide clarification about many of the key incidents in the story. This is a bold gambit on Jackson’s part, and one that pays off in rendering the novel that much more macabre and ominous.

In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Francine Prose writes about wanting to include Hangsaman on a university course she once taught that focused on “strange books.” Prose came to the novel too late to include it in her syllabus (any course that incorporated this text in 2017 would need to append a large number of trigger warnings to the book), but she nevertheless praises it as “wildly strange, strong, and original.” To these, one might add psychologically acute, eerie, and almost profoundly disturbing. And astounding in that, six and a half decades after its first appearance, it retains its power to startle and surprise.

Psychosexual dynamics infuse Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel Hangsaman
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