Shirley Jackson’s best known works – The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived at the Castle – have placed her oeuvre firmly within the Gothic Horror genre. However her writing is more subtle than that label suggests and The Bird’s Nest highlights the difficulty in pigeon-holing her work and emphasises a vein of ice-cold humour that often runs through her writing.
The Bird’s Nest is about a young woman called Elizabeth Richmond. Following the death of her rebellious and unpredictable mother, she has lived with her overbearing but kindly Aunt Morgan and led the quietest of lives. She has ‘no friends, no parents, no associates, and no plans’ and as such has no real sense of who she is. She develops headaches which get progressively worse and more debilitating, while at the same time, she starts to receive strange anonymous notes suggesting that she is being watched.
In an attempt to cure her relentless migraines, she is sent to the fastidious Dr Wright, who soon discovers that Elizabeth has had a breakdown which has manifested itself in several distinct personalities.
There is Lizzie, the most prominent and the most passive; Beth, a sweet and attractive personality with little agency; Betsy, who is the most lively and impudent; and the sneaky, clever Bess who is obsessed with keeping Elizabeth’s inheritance safe and convinced that everyone is after her money. Each personality has manifested itself at a different stage in Elizabeth’s life meaning that Betsey believes her mother is still alive while Bess thinks her mother has only been dead for a few months.
‘And the headaches?’, I repeated, a little sharp.
She looked at me squarely for the first time, dull, uninterested, stupid, turning her hands one within the other.
‘And the headaches?’, I said.
As though I had reminded her, she put one hand to the back of her neck, and closed her eyes; ‘And the headaches?’, I said, and she looked at me, her eyes wide and aware of me, and said loudly, ‘I’m frightened’.
The novel is written in the third-person and is interspersed with Dr Wright’s journal. Jackson’s real skill here is to allow the four warring personalities to share time on the page, leading to some genuinely unnerving sequences. In one instance, the angry, money-obsessed Bess rants at Dr Wright while the mischievous Betsey scrawls undermining messages on a piece of paper at the same time. Betsey, believing that her mother is still alive and living in New York, takes a fraught bus trip to the city, placing herself in several instances of real danger while she looks for her mother.
Elizabeth’s dissociation also leads to some very darkly farcical moments as each personality jostles for position. Elizabeth can no longer be taken to visit her Aunt’s friends as she begins to say exactly what he thinks of them and at one point, Aunt Morgan watches in mounting horror and disbelief as each of Elizabeth’s personas take a bath, one after the other, unaware of the actions of the others.
Jackson subtly suggests that Elizabeth may have suffered trauma around her mother’s death, or that there may have been some kind of inappropriate relationship with a man called Robin, who was a ‘friend’ of her mother. What becomes clear is that each of Elizabeth’s personalities are exhibiting the suppressed wants, frustrations and sense of grief that Elizabeth as a woman, has been socially conditioned not to express.
Dr Wright believes that he can ‘cure’ Elizabeth by bringing his personal favourite of her manifestations – Beth – to the fore, thus assimilating Elizabeth’s personality into a brand new individual who most embodies what he believes to be the perfect patriarchal idea of womanhood.
I saw myself, if the analogy be not too extreme, much like a Frankenstein with all the materials for a monster ready at hand, and when I slept, it was with dreams of myself patching and tacking together, trying most hideously to chip away the evil from Betsey and leave what little was good, while the other three stood mockingly, waiting their turns.
The theme of entrapment, is a powerful one in Jackson’s novels, be it in the ghostly environs of Hill House, the confined and confining walls of the Castle, or through the strict rules of community that exist in The Lottery. Here, Elizabeth is entrapped within her own body, even within her own mind, suggesting that no matter what the outcome of her treatment, she will never fully escape what is expected of her, or fully understand her own mind.
The Bird’s Nest is a clever, dark and often very funny exploration of the manifestation of a mental illness, however I didn’t find it just as successful as the previous Jackson novels I have read. There are some pacing issues, particularly when the narrative is told through Dr Wright’s journal. The doctor is an unpleasant character – as he should be – but it means that these sections are not as driven or interesting as the rest of the novel.
What propels the novel is a wonderful sense of ambiguity, both in what has happened in Elizabeth’s past and what will happen in her future and a sense of unease about how women twist their own personalities to fit society’s expectations.
The Bird’s Nest explores themes of isolation and identity, mental disturbance and unconformity yet rather than presenting the reader with any big shocks, Jackson is more interested in that sense of prolonged tension that is never fully resolved.
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