The Taser's Edge

Life Among the Savages

Last night, before bed, after a delicious dinner (savory crepes and salad, and chocolate ganache tarts for dessert) at Skyler and Tim’s, and after consuming an entire chocolate tart that Skyler sent home with us, I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages.  It was a mixed bag of hilarity (described by Jackson herself as “a disrespectful memoir about my children”) and still-under-my-skin matter-of-fact portrayal of 1940s household gender roles.  First the under-the-skin part: it is not clear from this book that Jackson’s husband does anything.  Anything.

During this period of their lives, both were trying to establish their writing careers.  Jackson went on to write short stories such as the heavily anthologized classic, “The Lottery” (available in full here), and the lesser-known but still widely acclaimed “The Possibility of Evil”, in addition to novels such as the 1960 National Book Award nominee The Haunting of Hill House (you may have seen one of several unsatisfying movie adaptations) and 1962’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (selected by Time magazine as one of the top ten books of that year).

(To follow a brief diversion here, consider what kind of novel you had to write in the 1960s for people to take critical notice.  Jackson’s National Book Award nominee class of 1960 included works by folks such as John Updike, William Faulkner, Philip Roth (who won the award that year for Goodbye, Columbus), Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, and John Hersey.  And then look at 1962, when Time lauded We Have Always Lived.  Other folks who published new works of fiction that year include James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Powell, Katherine Anne Porter, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Kurt Vonnegut, Elie Wiesel, and Herman Wouk.)

Back to the main thread, Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (never named in the book) was at the same time establishing himself as a literary critic.  But daily life looks like Jackson attending to everything around the household, not only the things you might assume–childcare, cooking, and cleaning–but also things you would think traditional gender roles might hand to Hyman–finances, car repair, etc.  Jackson’s characterization makes him look like a head-in-the-clouds, slightly-overwhelmed-by-life-and-especially-life-with-lots-of-children kind of guy, trying to find various niches where he can get a handhold (coin collecting, for instance).  Today, fifty or sixty years on, it is hard to see him charitably (even though Jackson doesn’t ever talk about any family arguments or tensions that might have gone on between her and Hyman).  (Another strange omission in a book about family: there is never, except in passing, any extended family in their life.)

But I promised you fun too, and I will offer it after this break…(note to copyright police, this extended excerpt is for educating my readers (FAIR USE!) and can only help sell your books)…

It was when Jannie was nearly five that the question of her name became desperately important.  When she was born her father wanted to name her Jean and I wanted to name her Anne, and we compromised upon an arbitrary Joanne, although I frequently call her Anne and her father very often calls her Jean.  Her brother calls her Honey, Sis, and Dopey, Sally calls her Nannie, and she calls herself, variously, Jean, Jane, Anne, Linda, Barbara, Estelle, Josephine, Geraldine, Sarah, Sally, Laura, Margaret, Marilyn, Susan, and–imposingly–Mrs. Ellenoy.  The second Mrs. Ellenoy.

The former Mrs. Ellenoy–I have this straight from my daughter–was a lovely woman, mother of seven daughters, all named Martha, and she and Mr. Ellenoy used to be very angry with one another, until one day they grew so very angry that they up and killed each other with swords.  As a result my daughter is the new Mrs. Ellenoy and has inherited all the Marthas as stepdaughters.  When she is not named Jean, Linda, Barbara, Sally, and so on, but is being Mrs. Ellenoy, her daughters are allowed to assume these names, so that there is a constant bewildering shifting of names among them, and it is sometimes very difficult to remember whether you are addressing Janey Ellenoy or a small girl with seven daughters named Martha…

For example: I glanced out of the kitchen window one Sunday morning and found my older daughter up to her knees in a mud puddle.  “Joanne,” I said sharply, rapping on the glass in traditional manner with my wedding ring.  She turned and smiled and I dried my hands on the dish towel and made for the back door.  “What are you doing in that mud?”

My daughter looked at me, amused, “This is Mrs. Ellenoy,” she said.  “I’m over there.”  And she pointed.

One trouble about all this is that it is extraordinarily easy to be taken in by any particular comment.

“Joanne,” I said, addressing the empty air where she was pointing, “get out of that mud puddle this minute.”

“Get out at once,”  Mrs. Ellenoy added emphatically.  “Joanne, I’m ashamed of you.”  She turned to me.  “I don’t know what we’re going to do with her,” she said.  “Joanne,” she added again, “you heard your mother.  Get out of that mud puddle right now.”  She nodded reassuringly at me.  “She’ll be right in,” she said.  “I’ll stay out here and wait for her.”

I went back inside, talking to myself, and after a minute Mrs. Ellenoy poked her head in through the kitchen door.  “Martha’s out here,” she said, “and she won’t stop crying until you give her a cookie.”

“I’m not giving a cookie to any little girl covered with mud,” I said.

Martha’s not covered with mud,” Mrs. Ellenoy said reasonably.  “That was bad Anne.  Martha’s been playing quietly under the apple tree all this time.”