A Letter to the Editor from Shirley Jackson: A Thematic Analysis

A Letter to the Editor from Shirley Jackson: A Thematic Analysis

A Letter to the Editor from Shirley Jackson

By Chloé Coyne

For Shirley Jackson and the Horror Tradition with Prof. Kristopher Woofter

 

*This thematic analysis was written as a creative option for a final essay.

Dear Editor,

I am writing to you about my new novel while it is still in the works, as you had a few questions about how it will fit in with my previous novels. I’ve written up six chapters so far, but I assure you the ending is already prepared, as you will find out at the end of this letter. “Come Along with Me” follows a newly widowed woman trying to make a new life for herself. She decides to light out to a new town and gives herself a new name, Angela Motorman. She moves into a new home and rents a room from Mrs. Faun, who has a crippled son. “Come Along with Me” is tied to The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle through characters that are involved with the occult, a connection that influences their struggles with identity. I will assert these similarities through three main points. First, Mrs. Motorman will demonstrate character traits similar to the other women in my novels. These traits will include self-awareness, playfulness and toying with other characters, and awareness of the supernatural world. Second, Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House and Mrs. Motorman from “Come Along with Me” each deal with the supernatural. Merricat practices Black Magic to protect her home and to bring good fortune to herself and those residing with her. Eleanor has less control and awareness, but nonetheless deals with the callings of the haunted Hill House. Mrs. Motorman is explicit from the beginning about being a clairvoyant by telling Mrs. Faun, “I dabble in the supernatural” in response to a question about her employment (“Come Along with Me” 18).  Third, each of these three characters wants to feel a sense of belonging as they struggle figuring out who they are. They each believe that their identity is strongly linked to where they live. Merricat wants to live on the moon and for her fantasy of a perfect life to become reality. Eleanor also fantasizes about having the perfect home that will give her a perfect life, which she hopes she will find when she goes to Hill House. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Motorman immediately seeks out a new town to live in and to reinvent herself.

As I introduce Mrs. Motorman, it is apparent that she has a likeness to my other characters in previous novels. Although she is much older, she still carries a sense of playfulness and hyper-awareness of herself and the occult. Theo from Hill House identifies as a psychic and holds a similar disposition to Mrs. Motorman. Theo entertains herself by cracking jokes, sometimes at Eleanor’s expense, and enjoys toying with her. Her demeanor is playful, as both Theo and Mrs. Motorman feel the need to be entertained when they are not busy with the supernatural world. I’ve decided to push this playful characteristic further with Mrs. Motorman. I feel that her humor will keep readers engaged and will inevitably add to the story. Merricat is also teasing and mischievous, and I’d like to think that I’ve made her dealings with black magic more evident in Castle. Merricat also holds a strong sense of how she is perceived by others, specifically the villagers who often antagonize her. I believe it is important to convey how one might feel when they are aware of the supernatural, as they end up being hyper-aware of their own image as well. While Mrs. Motorman and Theo are seemingly more confident and carefree, every woman experiences feelings of insecurity. They still feel the need to present themselves a certain way. Eleanor is the best example of this, as she must regularly distinguish herself from others, to get a grip on reality. Sometimes she even does it aloud: “I am the fourth person in this room; I am one of them; I belong. […] ‘You are Theodora,’ Eleanor said, ‘because I am Eleanor.’ An Eleanor, she [tells] herself triumphantly, who belongs, who is talking easily, who is sitting by the fire with her friends.’” (43). Eleanor is easily distracted, and therefore feels that she must reassert her identity. I added this character trait in Castle as well. Merricat, a witch, must constantly distinguish herself from outsiders. She views the villagers and her visiting cousin, Charles, as if they are enemies. The only thing she needs to care about is herself living in her house on the moon with her sister Constance, her cat Jonas, and old Uncle Julian. Mrs. Motorman will be different from Eleanor and Merricat. She is meant to stand as a more evolved witch. She acknowledges and shares her involvement with the occult, which allows her to switch up her identity to suit her needs. I must note, however, that she is still conscious of how her decisions will be perceived, hence her thoughtful choice of a new name. Mrs. Motorman is a progression from previous characters; this is not only shown through her maturity and development, but also the way she deals with her clairvoyance.

All of my novels have female protagonists who “dabble in the supernatural’ (Come Along 18). I wanted to pursue my interest in this for Come Along with Me, but I want it to be central to the story. In Hill House, the occult presented itself mainly though hauntings. While Eleanor did interact with the supernatural callings, I don’t believe that her dealings with the supernatural world are as evident compared to Theo and Merricat. Even with Theo, I feel as if I only hinted at this part of her character. I didn’t find it necessary to push it further. For Merricat, I made her black magic rituals part of her daily routine, and I believe that showing her dependency on her beliefs is vital, to provide an explanation for her actions. To refresh your memory, while for me it does not seem so long ago, Merricat would bury special items around her estate. It is a small detail to some, but it holds a lot of importance. She believes that they would protect her and those residing with her. One of the reasons she is hostile towards her cousin Charles is because she found a “bad omen” right before he came knocking on the door (Castle 53). I wanted to explore this idea even further for my new novel. This idea of predicting the future and using items that belonged to the dead for magic is fascinating to me. Admittedly, it strays from witches and black magic and goes more into clairvoyance, which is why Mrs. Motorman identifies with it. Whether it is hauntings, black magic, or seances, I think that the occult is essential to the portrayal of my female protagonists.

Women are expected to be housewives, and it is no surprise to say that not everyone wants to be tied to that label. Having characters who deal with the occult is, in my opinion, a way of rebelling against those expectations. Nonetheless, Mrs. Motorman, Eleanor, and Merricat all have identities strongly linked to their home. They each crave to shape their own lives and have an ideal house to go with it. As a result, they struggle with fitting into the real world. This is a recurring conflict in my work, and I find that no matter their age, people will always struggle figuring out who they are and how they belong. Merricat only wants to be on the moon and Eleanor wants to have her apartment with stone lions. In my new novel, Mrs. Motorman takes action to build an ideal life by packing up and reinventing herself in a new town. She gives herself a new name and attempts to create new habits; for example, she tells shopkeepers when she’s “just trying [her] hand at shoplifting” (Come Along 22). She’s excited about creating this new identity, just as Eleanor and Merricat would have been if they had the chance.

If it would help to convince you that Come Along with Me fits in with my other works, I am entrusting you with a summary of the ending of the story. The other residents from Mrs. Faun’s house begin showing their faces less and less. Mrs. Motorman continues to hold seances, but they get more and more burdensome. The small sneak peek of Mrs. Motorman’s aggressive side has already come out in her first seance, as she thinks of telling participants, “ I hate you I hate you” (Come Along 17). I assure you that there is plenty more of this behavior to come.  However, Mrs. Motorman then struggles to distinguish participants from spirits. As the residents of the house continue to disappear, Mrs. Motorman struggles to realize that none of them were real people. Mrs. Faun’s little boy, Tom, is the only one who knew about them. Tom never thought to tell Mrs. Motorman that none of those people were real, that they are spirits. I won’t spoil exactly how she reacts to this, but I will say that Mrs. Motorman finds herself all alone in the house at the end of the novel. And she is happy. Just as both Eleanor and Merricat are.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Best,

Shirley Jackson

 

 


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