You Might Never Find Your Way Back: Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman


To readers in 1951, Shirley Jackson’s second novel Hangsaman (reissued this year by Penguin with an introduction by Francine Prose) must have come as quite a shock. It lacked the smooth, consistent tone of her first novel The Road Through The Wall and the distancing, parable-like qualities of “The Lottery,” both published in 1948. Reading Hangsaman is like entering a dark labyrinth, only to discover that you have always been it, and that the novel has merely awakened you to this fact, something you have tried all your life to forget. How and why is this so? How does a book whose ostensible plot is as simple as young-woman-goes-to-college-and-awakens-to-herself assume gigantic, monstrous proportions in your mind? It’s impossible to say, of course; that’s the weird magic of the book. So instead of a review or an attempt to decode Hangsaman‘s tightly framed hall-of-mirrors interior logic, here instead are thoughts on some of the elements that contribute to the novel’s spell.

The dark uneasiness of the story—the feeling it gives of falling forward in the dark—can’t be separated from its telling. Although the narration is third person, you’re likely to recall it as first person. There are no scenes without Natalie Waite, the seventeen-year-old protagonist who leaves home for a progressive (although this is relentlessly and subtly mocked), Bennington-like college. The entire darkly charmed, creeping, death-washed worldview of the book is from Natalie’s perspective, and yet she speaks not as the narrator. Like Henry James’s What Masie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Beast in the Jungle (1903), Hangsaman acts like a novel narrated by its protagonist. It becomes difficult to tell where the narrator leaves off and Natalie begins: has Natalie’s voice infected the narrator’s, or the other way around?

Hangsaman is a crash and burn example of free indirect discourse—or what might be better called infected narration—which combines direct discourse (a character’s direct speech) and indirect discourse, such as a narrator’s commentary. Free indirect discourse—a mainstay of so much experimental modernist fiction—is the radical blending of these modes, an attempt to capture the flowing thoughts and language of the main character as well as the invisible third-person narrator, the God-like entity that has the power to designate characters as “he” or “she.” Literary theorist Roy Pascal has written that “the great value of the term indirect is that it indicates that both a character and a narrator are involved… the mingling, even fusion, of two voices in a dual voice, neither simple narrator nor simple character.” What’s remarkable about Hangsaman is that it’s unclear, right from the beginning, whether Natalie’s voice infects the narrator’s or the other way around. Natalie has a running conversation in her mind, for instance, with a detective who accuses her of murder. She toggles between internal conversation with him and with her parents in this scene:

Natalie, fascinated, was listening to the secret voice which followed her. It was the police detective and he spoke sharply, incisively, through the gentle movement of her mother’s voice. “How,” he asked pointedly, “Miss Waite, how do you account for the gap in time between your visit to the rose garden and your discovery of the body?”
“I can’t tell,” Natalie said back to him in her mind, her lips not moving, her dropped eyes concealing from her family the terror she also hid from the detective. “I refuse to say,” she told him.
Mr. Waite spoke patiently. “You serve cocktails,” he said . . .
“I didn’t invite them,” Mrs. Waite said.
“I didn’t invite them,” Mr. Waite said.
“I called them,” Mrs. Waite said, “but you made out the list.”
“You realize,” the detective said silently, “that this discrepancy in time may have very serious consequences for you?”
“I realize,” Natalie said.

The morning after she is either accosted or raped by a guest at her father’s party (the text is ambiguous, though highly suggestive of some form of sexual violence) Natalie races through denials in her head, as if chanting something that has been repressed:

“I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened.”
Slowly she knew she was sick; her head ached, she was dizzy, she loathed her hands as they came toward her face to cover her eyes. “Nothing happened,” she chanted, “nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened.”

There’s an eerie echo here of the ending of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! as Quentin’s denials affirm a darker truth:

“I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it, he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!

Those last four instances of I dont (there is no apostrophe) are not in quotation marks that would indicate Quentin’s direct discourse. Instead, they are—impossibly—free-floating, as if the invisible, third-person narrator and Quentin had merged, both speaking through one voice. It’s a radical example of infected narration, something that Hangsaman also experiments with in the section just before Natalie’s adventure with Tony, as Natalie, roaming the campus on a dark, rainy November night, imagines the dorms and faculty houses as miniatures, doll houses, with the people inside as mannikins. For several paragraphs there is no narratorial “She thought” or “She said.” Instead, we enter fully and seemingly unguided into her mind, as if the narrator and she had melded into the same, swirling voice. This culminates in the violence of one long, tour de force sentence:

Then the stairs, step by step, and all this while the mannikens inside run screaming from each section of the house to a higher and more concealed room, crushing one another and stumbling and pulling frantically, slamming doors behind them while my strong fingers pull each door softly off its hinges and pull the walls apart and lift out the windows intact and take out carefully the tiny beds and chairs; finally they will all be together like seeds in a pomegranate, in one tiny room, hardly breathing, some of them fainting, some crying, and all wedged together looking in the direction from which I am coming, and then, when I take the door off with sure careful fingers, there they all will be, packed inside and crushed back against the wall, and I shall eat the room in one mouthful, chewing ruthlessly on the boards and the small sweet bones.


The novel sweeps up in its currents all sorts of mid-twentieth century taboos and scatters references them throughout its pages, giving us glimpses of topics rarely addressed in mainstream fiction of the era. Some are mild and elliptical, such as Natalie’s response to her father’s playful letter, which he addresses to her as “My dear captive princess.” Natalie’s response to her father?

Dear Sir Knight,

It was not you, then, caroling lustily under my window these three nights past?

Others are also double-coded, such as the several references to the intimacy between Natalie and Tony. After having spent the night together in Tony’s bed, for instance, “they went down the hall full of the sounds of sleep from rooms on either side, into the showers, where they bathed together, washing one another’s backs and trying to splash without sound.” And yet others are more direct, including references to suicide, venereal disease, and abortion (which was, in the 1950s, still a topic—let alone a word—that was not commonly evoked in mainstream literature). Here is part of Natalie’s description of the goings-on of campus:

“An unnamed girl, also in another house, was said to have died in an abortion, and several people knew the name of the baby’s father.”

Although the reference is in passing, it introduces an element of realism in a novel dominated by Natalie’s intense, super-heated subjectivity. While the topic of abortion itself was not all that uncommon in early- to mid- twentieth century fiction, it was usually referenced obliquely and euphemistically, as in Hemingway’s 1927 story “Hills Like White Elephants,” where the procedure is referred to as “letting the air in.” A few other notable Hangsaman-era explicit references to abortion can be found in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (1950):

Had Guy lied about her being pregnant? But Guy wouldn’t lie. Bruno’s mind swam in contradictions. He stared at Miriam with his head cocked. Then something made a connection in his mind before he was aware of looking for it: if something had happened to the child, then all the more reason why he should erase her, because Guy wouldn’t be able to get his divorce. She could be walking around now if she had had an abortion, for instance.

And in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952):

“You—you [Dr. Tilson speaking to Cathy] try to stab yours [baby] with a knitting needle. All right,” he cried, “you won’t speak—you don’t have to. But I’m going to tell you. The baby is safe. Your aim was bad. And I’m telling you this—you’re going to have that baby. Do you know what the law in this state has to say about abortion?”


There are so many small moments that make Hangsaman such a deeply unsettling novel that it’s hard to identify just what it is that catapults it out of the familiar and into the Unknown Dark Nameless Territory where it resides. Reading it I felt—unaccountably—as if I was in a sandstorm, waiting for the final grain, finally, to choke me. How to keep track of all the small, unrecorded moments that drag us down, at last, back into the mud? I had to put the book aside every few pages to shake my hair, the grains of sand falling out like thunder. Turning its pages, traces of Natalie stained my fingertips. The cover of the new Penguin Classics edition shifted in my peripheral vision, revealing and then concealing Natalie’s eyes on the cover. The date of her letter adressed “Dear Dad” depicted on this very same cover—dated July 12—references a letter she writes to her father from college at the beginning of her freshman year, in the fall. Not the middle of summer. What is going on here? (I have another copy of the book, a 1964 pulp Ace edition, whose cover, I think, depicts hooded figures apparently following/chasing Natalie, referencing the occult—perhaps Satanic—hinted at in the final section.)

Part of the novel’s dark tone hinges on the ordinary, everyday, familiar world that Natalie inhabits while, at the same time, her mind is spinning narratives of the most spectacular, unreal sort. Like Catcher in the Rye (published the same year as Hangsaman) and Lolita (1955), the references to real-time, everyday Americana show Jackson beginning to plow the pop culture territory that David Foster Wallace and other postmodern-era authors would explore in later decades. Here, for instance, is a moment from Natalie’s and Tony’s journey into the center of town, near their college:

On one corner, here, was a new grocery, all chromium counters and great glass windows, with red and black and white signs shouting, “Veal chops, special,” and “Our coffee is the best in town,” and, “Holiday bargains”. . . . Here one might find the better dress shops, here were a candy store and a bookstore—which also sold novelties and souvenirs—here were the restaurants with Men’s Grills and Business Men’s Lunches.

In this same section Natalie and Tony come across “the town’s one movie house,” where, we learn, films such as Blood of a Poet, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and M play. In fact, Blood of a Poet, a 1930 avant-garde film by Jean Cocteau, is mentioned twice in Hangsaman, and serves as a sort of sly reminder of the experimental nature of Jackson’s novel, which masks its avant-garde soul in the generic cloak of a girl’s coming-of-age story. In fact, one central sequence in Blood of a Poet shares a weird correspondence to Jackson’s novel. In the scene, an artist is taunted by a talking statue to cross over into a large mirror hanging on a wall. In one remarkable, violent cut, the artist, standing in front of the mirror, falls into the mirror which, for a few seconds, has transformed into a pool of water. This threshold, this porous boundary between one reality and another, between interior and exterior, between one self and other self, is the secret engine that powers the novel.


There are other odd, improbable, tenuous connections, as if Hangsaman had a secret way of speaking to (or through) other artifacts beyond its time. There is no movie adaptation of Hangsaman, but if there was it would be Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, which is also about the pleasures and terrors of subjective identity, doubles, and, more significantly, how to render such things on the screen or page. The last section of Hangsaman, especially—as Natalie and her “friend” Tony venture off campus, through the town, and eventually into the wilderness—maps weirdly with Gerry

Even more strangely, the extended game that Natalie and Tony play is a one whose contours and rules are only barely visible to us as readers:

“Imagine,” Tony said softly once, “imagine that we live here, just halfway down that block. That house with the wide porch is familiar to us; we live there. You sweep the porch and I dust the living room just inside. . . . And now we are going past our stop. . . . Beyond this corner, everything is wilderness.”
“That’s why it’s so bad to be carried past your stop,” Natalie said. “You might never find your way back—you’re in someone else’s territory, places familiar to the person who gets off at the next stop. Their grocery stores.”

Natalie and Tony talk of “territory” as if the world itself was a game board, and, as in Gerry, they slip in and out of these conversations in such a way that the reader (or viewer) isn’t ever really sure where the boundaries are between their real talk and their game talk. In Gerry this is most pronounced in the campfire scene, as Casey Affleck begins describing to Matt Damon a series of conquests and adventures he’s participated in, without ever acknowledging or mentioning that he’s been talking about his experiences not in the real world, but in a video game, Zeus: Master of Olympus. (The fact that the video game or any video game is, in fact, part of the real world insomuch as the experience of playing it is real is a further turn of the screw and gives lie to the distinction between the real world and the artificial or imaginary world. In fact, in both Hangsaman and Gerry the protagonists project their own narratives, their sense of danger and play, onto the found world, which is, in a sense, also the job of a novelist or filmmaker.) Lost, sitting by a fire in the desert at night, Casey Affleck begins, out of nowhere:

Affleck: I conquered Thebes.

Damon: When?

Affleck: Two weeks ago.

Damon: How’d you do it?

Affleck: Well, I got more than that, actually. Such a Gerry. I ruled this land for 97 years and uh, and uh, I had, like . . . I had all the sanctuaries built.

Like a shifting territory that refuses to be mapped, Hangsaman keeps on moving long after you’ve finished it; as if, having activated the novel, you have set in motion a unfamiliar machine whose miniature gears are right there beneath your fingertips, underneath the words on the page, in some subterranean part of the book that always threatens to reveal itself but never, thankfully, does.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →