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Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic
Darryl Hattenhauer
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.
$21.95, £15.75, 236 pages, ISBN 0-7914-5608-0 [ paperback].

Nephie Christodoulides
University of Cyprus

A very thorough and thought-provoking work, Darryl Hattenhauer’s Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic regenerates interest in Shirley Jackson and her work. As Hattenhauer puts it, the book “argues that Jackson’s reputation should be restored to the lofty position it occupied during her life” [p. 2]. Hattenhauer manages not only to “restore” Jackson but also to cast into sharp relief the proto-postmodernist characteristics of her work. To discuss these characteristics, he does not rely on one theory or method, but employs several critical theories, mostly Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism without much theoretical elaboration, albeit in notes. Justifying this multiple-method technique and perhaps attempting to eschew the accusation of opportunistic theoretical use, Hattenhauer contends:

This study follows the injunction of Jackson’s friend Kenneth Burke that critics should use all that is there to use—that they should not necessarily stick with one method or theory. [p. 13]

Hattenhauer occasionally relies on Jackson’s biography to discuss her work, in particular in his discussion of subject formation in Chapter 1. His unjustified equation of life and work could be problematic for some readers who may not see how Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism can be married to “biographicalization.”

Starting with Jackson’s short story collection The Lottery or The Adventures of James Harris, he discusses its proto-postmodernist characteristics, making perspicacious observations about aspects such as her “use of architecture as a metaphor for the self” [p. 29], the double, figuration of the Other [p. 35], as well as the use of the deceptive third-person narrative, which other critics saw as a fallacious technique, “in league with destabilized characterization” [p. 45].

Further, Hattenhauer’s excellent reading of the much anthologized and discussed “The Lottery” provides a new insight into the story. Without dismissing previous readings (e.g. Kosenko), Hattenhauer feels that “The Lottery” “exposes the reactionary tendencies not only of the mythy modernists, but also of the myth and symbol school of literary criticism and its cohort, the consensus school historians” [p. 46]. An important element that makes his reading particularly interesting is the observation that the story involves “writing about writing,” which as will be seen in the rest of the book becomes a characteristic of Jackson’s other work, as well.

In the third chapter Hattehhauer reads Jackson’s Come Along with Me, elaborates on her writing about writing and introduces other aspects, such as subject formation, the phallic mother, the disintegration of the self, and most importantly her manipulation of the instability of the subject.

In the fourth chapter, Hattenhauer focuses on Jackson’s posthumously published collection Just an Ordinary Day (1996) in which he sees variations of proto-postmodernist themes and forms such as class, gender, the unstable self, fable, parody. Hattenhauer’s most commendable interpretation is his reading of Jackson’s novels, starting with her 1948 published The Road Through the Wall. With this appraisal, he demonstrates that Jackson is not just a prolific producer of long expired potboilers, but can be placed among canonical authors. He very aptly observes that the novel expresses Jackson’s views on gender, ethnicity and class and could be said to be a sample of modern realism much more than her other novels. Another important aspect that does not escape his sharp observation is the issue of subject formation and its association with language. His reading of the novel is fascinating but it could be a bit problematic for the reader who is not well versed in critical theories.

His discussion of Jackson’s second novel Hangsaman (1951) is equally penetrating, especially in light of the fact that now he sees her advances on proto-postmodernist as more explicit and noteworthy [p. 99]. He observes that the novel clearly portrays the theme of the double, but although he borrows many psychoanalytic terms to discuss Natalie, the heroine, he does not touch upon the theoretical background [pp. 106, 107, 110]. This chapter, however, is particularly interesting in that Hattenhauer observes and further elaborates on the issue of language and writing, and the discussion becomes even more interesting when he delves into the intertextuality of the novel.

Hattenhauer finds Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest (1954) to be her most psychological novel, which more than any of her other novels focuses on textuality and subject formation. He notes the way Jackson uses the building as a metaphor for the self and in his detailed discussion, he employs terms such as the Imaginary or the Symbolic without much theoretical elaboration. Conversely, he makes explicit references to Morton Prince’s The Dissociation of a Personality, which he sees as her inspiration, “the most important nonfiction work enabling” the novel [p. 130]. Again, Hattenhauer does not fail to elaborate on the novel’s intertextuality. His discussion is continued in the next chapter, in which he discusses The Sundial and its allusions to the dominant culture’s social text. His discussion summons the reader to see the novel as “an allegorical satire on the central myths of America’s dominant culture: that America is God’s favorite nation (a city upon a hill, a beacon to all humankind)” [p. 137] something that is strongly reminiscent of the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, and the exposed vulnerability of the American nation to terrorism. As Hattenhauer says: “For its cultural work, this novel is Jackson’s greatest achievement;” it eclipses “The Lottery’s” exposure of American assumption and “anticipates the beginning of postmodernism’s outpouring of satirist absurdist fiction” [p. 153].

Hattenhauer’s discussion of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) strongly recalls the Kristevan theory of subject formation, with its emphasis on the role of the mother in the process itself as well as in the acquisition of the Symbolic language; his discussion, however, is strongly informed by Judie Newman’s article “Shirley Jackson and the Reproduction of Mothering: The Haunting of Hill House.”

Finally, with his insightful reading of Jackson’s last novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), Hattenhauer makes the last additions to his detailed analysis of aspects such as writing about writing, textuality, the architectural metaphor of the house as depicting the self, and the subversion of myth criticism.

Overall, despite its inadequate coverage of theoretical background, the book is strongly recommended as an indispensable tool for both scholars of the female Gothic, as well as students who are initiated into, or wish to be further immersed in Shirley Jackson’s work.


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