Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“Dearest dearest darling most important dearest darling Natalie—this is me talking, your own priceless own Natalie.”

Alice in Wonderland meets The Bell Jar in Shirley Jackson’s much overlooked Hangsaman.
The first time I read this exceedingly perplexing novel I felt confused. Although Hangsaman shares many similarities with Jackson’s more well known novels (yet again we have a disaffected, hypersensitive, and alienated heroine), this is her most elusive work.
A second and third reading however made me much more appreciative of this peculiar anti-bildungsroman. What I previously thought of as being a confounding narrative with an unclear storyline became a clever take of the three-acts typical of a monomyth.
Hangsaman is focuses on Natalie Waite, a troubling young woman whose intolerance towards others makes her retreat into a series of disturbing fantasies. The narrative chronicles Natalie’s attempts to navigate the murky waters of adulthood. However, Natalie’s journey into adulthood is not only essentially negative but concludes ambiguously. Readers will find Natalie’s self-alienation, which dictates her behaviour and thoughts as well as shaping her worldview and imagination, alienating, as we are left wondering just how unreliable a narrator she is.

At the age of seventeen, Natalie believes that “she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen” and 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”. Forced into daily tête-à-têtes with her pompous writer-father—who enjoys disparaging Natalie’s creative writing—and made to listen to her neurotic and alcoholic mother’s diatribes against marriage, Natalie’s relationship with herself and others is already mired in ambivalence.
In order to please her father Natalie has spent most of her life pretending to be someone she is not, and her self-alienation partly stems from this forced concealment of her ‘real self’ The disjunction—or split—between Natalie’s “inner” self and her outer “personality” causes her to feel divorced from her own experiences and leads to her self-alienation, forcing her to create a provisional ‘new’ personality.
On campus, Natalie’s only connection to her father is through their correspondence, and in these letters she glamorizes her college experience. In reality, college is not the ‘new start’ Natalie had hoped for. As she is constantly in the presence of other girls, Natalie struggles to maintain a ‘personality’ akin to those whom she regards “trivial people” and “mediocre” . Her self-alienation induces her to view her own personality as ‘alien’, permeating her the way she thinks, perceives, feels, and behaves with a sense of unrealness. No longer under her father’s watchful eye, Natalie’s unease increases and her unfixed personality distorts her worldview, leading her to speculate whether her name is truly Natalie or if she as appropriate another girl’s identity. She is scornful of sororities, rejects offers of friendships, and regards with contempt the books, subjects, and theories that she is meant to be studying.
In an attempt to find and assert her own individuality, she seeks refuge in her own writing, deriving strength from this process, and in her make-believe magic. Although she becomes briefly involved in the domestic life of one of her professors (this particularly rocky marriage seemed rather autobiographical) it is only when she meets the mysterious and alluring Tony that Natalie is able to connect to someone.

The confounding narrative of Hangsaman is peppered by odd interactions and monologues that are often as amusing as they are bizarre. The storyline begins with an extended scene in which Natalie’s parents are hosting a party at their house. The party is not a fun affair, and Natalie is involved in an incident that may or may not have actually happened (yeah, I know). The details around this episode remain blurry, and readers will have to draw their own conclusions. Although at college Natalie becomes increasingly divorced from her self—unsure of her name, qualities, and her very existence—it is this very act of self-doubting which drives Natalie’s quest for a suitable identity. As she grows contemptuous of the people she interacts with—students and professors alike—she attains self-validation through her own writing and imagination where she can contemplate grandiose visions of her self. Since Natalie, similarly to Jackson herself, equates normalcy with a loss of individuality, in her imaginary worlds she examines the depths of her own awareness and identity by endowing herself with magical gifts and powerful personalities (she is a ‘mercenary’, ‘gladiator’ and ‘creator’). The subversive components of her fantasies, which often build upon her fears—such as dying—and desires—such as being revered—enable her to exorcise personalities and futures that do not resonate with her. Natalie’s exploration of her self, and of the different realities that may or may not be attainable, is spurred by her self-alienation. Within these narratives, Natalie confronts the dangerous and alluring world of maturity alternating between being a victim and the perpetrator of violence. By proving to herself—and the readers—that she has the strength to defy, resist and even harm others, Natalie can finally become enfranchised from her controlling father and depressed mother.
Jackson’s narrative, fraught with ambivalence, culminates ominously, leaving readers wondering what was real and what wasn’t. In spite of the many disquieting and or perplexing moments/scenes in this novel, Jackson’s offbeat humour makes for a truly entertaining read.

Note: the first time I read this I gave it 3 stars. This third time around I am giving it 5 stars. While I now consider it an all time favourite, I did not know what to make of it the first time I read it….so perhaps you should approach this novel with caution. Although it has many Jacksonesque motifs (female doubles, themes of alienation and paranoia, dark humour, misanthropic characters, witchcraft) it is a far more slippery creature.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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