Monday, November 10, 2008

The Big Read IV: Shirley Jackson's "The Witch" + "The Renegade"

The Lottery: And Other Stories The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

The Witch (read it here)

Oddly, I was reminded of the beginning of The Book Thief in which the mother, the girl, and her baby brother travel by train. Here we have a mother, a boy, and baby sister traveling by train. I kept expecting the baby sister to die. Perhaps the mother thinks she is a good parent, but her strapping of the baby girl so she doesn't need to hold her up, and her half-hearted replies to the bored little boy say to me lazy parent.

Still, I wonder if I will like the boy when he would say "Hi" to passing people, but he would be unhappy when they would "sometimes ask the little boy if he were enjoying the train ride, or even tell him he was a fine big fellow. These comments annoyed the little boy and he would turn irritably back to the window."

The boy narrates the journey. He placates his baby sister. He tells a story.
"I saw a witch," he said to his mother after a minute. "There was a big old ugly old bad old witch outside." This earns her non-committal reply.

A man comes along who asks the boy what he's looking for. "Witches....Bad old mean witches."
"I see," the man said. "Find many?"

He begins the man-to-boy chatter somewhat innocuously, but then tells the boy he killed his sister, cut off her head, among other things, and put her head in a cage with a bear. The good mother cannot abide this scary talk. The boy is quite amused. Finally someone who speaks his language!

This could be read more than one way. Either the man is serious, and this possibility scares the mother, or he is not, and is simply entering the child's world in which fairy tales are real and not-real at the same time. The two can laugh about people eating each other because this is all talk of imaginary worlds, not something they would actually do. The mother does not put herself in the child's view and so she is alarmed, thinking the man is putting strange ideas into the boy's head, and who knows what this stranger might do to her family.

Then I take a look at a more fanciful interpretation. As noted by other Big Readers, certain names show up in these short stories, especially Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris is the daemon lover, and if I play around with the thought that Mr. Harris could always be the daemon strolling through the little universes of these stories, well, he's the one that deflates everyone's balloon. He's the young man in The Villager who pokes a pin in Miss Clarence's little bubble of reverie. He's the man who horned in on David's date with Marcia, pushing the haus-herr out while Harris and Marcia had a grand ol' time. He's not named here, but he could be the man the boy says could well be a witch. Maybe he really did cut up his little sister, and wouldn't that make him a mischievous daemon? This teacher certainly interprets the man as diabolical.

The Renegade

I know I've read this before, but can't recall when or where.

Mrs. Walpole wants to get her kids and her dear husband off to school and work on time. She hasn't even had her coffee yet. She gets a phone call: her dog has killed her neighbor's chickens. Her neighbor Joe White was the one who identified the dog.

"The dog," the voice said. "You'll have to do something about the dog."
A sudden unalterable terror took hold of Mrs. Walpole. Her morning had gone badly, she had not yet had her coffee, she was faced with an evil situation she had never known before, and now the voice, its tone, its inflection, had managed to frighten Mrs. Walpole with a word like "something."
She has her coffee, and some breakfast. Too depressed to do her laundry, she seeks help from her neighbor, Mrs Nash. That moment, when the terror took hold...remember that moment.
Mrs. Walpole, stepping into Mrs. Nash's kitchen, was painfully aware of her own kitchen with the dirty dishes in the sink. Mrs. Nash was wearing a shockingly clean house dress and her kitchen was freshly washed; Mrs. Nash was able to fry doughnuts without making any sort of a mess.
So Mrs. W has difficulty keeping a neat house, and Mrs. N does not. What does that say about their personalities? I think it unfolds with the the business of the dog becomes ever more sinister, and Mrs. W is more horrified, and more the outsider from all her neighbors, it begins to look like while she is the most unconditioned by the norm of the community. Everybody down the line knows her dog killed chickens, and everybody down the line has something harsh for her to do with the dog. Mrs. Nash is the nicest, with the suggestion the dog must be chained in the yard. Mrs. Nash identifies the caller, the aggrieved neighbor: the Harrises.

It is Mrs. Harris that delivered the first moment of terror, the moment which changed Mrs. Walpole's day, indeed her life in the country, irrevocably. My theory about Harris being the pin-pricking daemon still holds.

Moving on. Remedies include tying a dead chicken around the dog's neck until it rots enough to fall off, or setting the dog loose with a mother hen defending her chicks. These remedies are delivered with seemingly cruel laughter. It is a matter of fact in their world that something must be done, and it doesn't matter how it hurts the dog. It matters to Mrs. Walpole. It matters that they are all quite cavalier, while she is horrified by her bloody dog, and by their somethings that could be done.

The capping touch is that her children have also already heard, and they also are quite cavalier about the death of the dog.
"All around," Judy said. "Let me tell it, Jack. You hammer these nails all around so's they make spikes inside the collar."
"But it's loose," Jack said. "Let me tell this part. It's loose and you put it around Lady's neck..."
"And--" Judy put her hand on her throat and made a strangling noise.
The children really do drag out the telling of this remedy. They relish it. Don't they have feelings about this dog? But they already fit into this little world. Their dog does not, nor does their mother. The dog gets a long rope, and is encouraged to go after chickens. When she gets close, they puuuuuull on the rope.
"And--" Judy made her strangling noise again.
"The spikes cut her head off," Jack finished dramatically.
Jack completes the separation of Mrs. W. the renegade from their inclusion with the locals.
"Cut your head right off," Jack was saying.
The ending is just chilling and amazing:
Everything was quiet and lovely in the sunlight, the peaceful sky, the gentle line of the hills. Mrs. Walpole closed her eyes, suddenly feeling the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat.

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