Shirley Jackson Marathon Week 3 – Hangsaman

Natalie Waites goes to the college her father chooses for her and gradually comes unravelled. This novel was based on the true story of a college student who disappeared in the town where Shirley Jackson lived, but it is her entirely dark, psychologically chilling take on the situation. This is a very complicated novel to unpack.

First and foremost I want to drive a pin through the notion that the assault Natalie is implied to have been subjected to is the cause of her distress. That does not help her situation, but the problems she has come from long before that. Her family is a dysfuncional unit, her failed novelist father is controlling and her mother is a neurotic mess, only her brother Bud seems to be stable. Natalie is decidedly not.

Right from the start we discover several things about her. One: she’s only felt ‘conscious’ since the age of 15. Two: since 15 she’s finally seen herself as a person, but sees that person as outside of herself. Separate. Three: since 15 she’s finally been able to keep some things secret from her father (hello signs of a deeply unhealthy relationship). Four: she’s seeing things that aren’t real, that she knows are not real, a fantasy world she is already favouring over and above the real world. Five: she is terrified of going to college but has experienced being somewhere she didn’t want to be before and becoming used to it out of necessity. With these things clearly demarcated, it is obvious to the reader that Natalie is not stable.

The assault then happens, the evidence of it is summarily ignored by her family, and off she goes to college, where she finds herself severely isolated and unable to connect with her peers. This makes her so unhappy that at one point she begs to come home, but her father’s response, far from his description of himself (and her confirmation of it) as her knight, tells her he planned it this way and expected her initial unhappiness. She has been abandoned, like the person on the gallows in the Hangman song quoted at the beginning of the book.

In her unhappiness and her abandonment, her fantasy world gradually widens and she loses the ability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. As she is our narrator, it also becomes more difficult for the reader to determine what’s going on. In my interpretation of the book, I see the last chapter as a fantasy, because I think by that point her absolute inability to pinpoint what is fantasy is clearly defined and it is obvious no good can come of it. If you’ve read the book you may have another opinion, please share it with me!

I would highly recommend this brilliant exploration of the unravelling mind that cleaves more rigorously to fantasy as it comes undone. It is an astonishing book. Visceral and strange and heart-rending. Read it.

You can buy this book in the UK here

And in the US here

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