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Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
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Hangsaman (1951)

by Shirley Jackson

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3101035,978 (3.59)54
  1. 10
    Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates (CarlosMcRey)
    CarlosMcRey: Each book tells the story of a precocious young woman attending college in a Bennington-like college where she is drawn into dark undercurrents.
  2. 00
    Eileen: A Novel by Ottessa Moshfegh (sturlington)
    sturlington: Moshfegh's style reminds me of Shirley Jackson; both novels had young, unreliable narrators.
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» See also 54 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
A disconcerting book. Hangsaman focuses on a young woman who leaves home to go to college. She has an active imagination before she leaves home, but after arriving at college, and finding herself alienated and alone, her imagination takes over to the point where neither she nor the reader is sure what actually is happening and what is in her imagination, ( )
  DrApple | Feb 3, 2016 |
A most oddly staged story, loosely based on the disappearance of teenager Paula Jean Welden, in Vermont in 1946. An internal decent into madness that Jackson does so well. ( )
  noblechicken | Aug 6, 2015 |
I love Shirley Jackson. If she were still alive, I would want to marry her and have her babies. Seriously. This is the third novel of hers that I have read, and I loved it, though Hangsaman is extremely hard to classify. It’s not a gothic horror like her better known, later, works The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A young woman’s coming-of-age / meditation on what is reality / illustration of mental illness, Hangsaman is more along the lines of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The writing is beautiful and complex, offering deep submersion into the highly observant, highly imaginative mind of our seventeen-year-old protagonist, Natalie Waite. She is, I think, one of the most realistically complex portraits of a human being I have ever read. Weird, certainly - aren’t we all? Don’t we all sometimes, in the secret privacy of our own minds, have such bizarre thoughts as what if the college grounds were dollhouses and I was a giant . . . . Natalie is clearly gifted, intelligent, but perhaps also paranoid, perhaps also some personality disorder I can not name (I would be curious to read a psychologist’s interpretation of this book.)

”She did not really prefer the garden to several other spots in the world; she would rather, for instance, have been alone in her room with the door locked, or sitting on the grass by a brook at midnight, or, given an absolutely free choice, standing motionless against a pillar in a Greek temple or on a tumbril in Paris or on a great lonely rock over the sea, but the garden was closest, and it pleased her father to see her wandering morning-wise among the roses.” (p. 7)

Jackson has the most fantastic sentences and paints a vivid portrait of life in the late 1940s. Her perception of people and situations is so acute that I find everyone startlingly recognizable. These are not cliches. More like, “Oh! I’ve known people like that” and somehow I am still surprised to see them rendered so unerringly on the page, especially from a book written 60 years ago! While details of our daily life, dress, hobbies, etc, have changed in the intervening 60+ years since this book was written, Jackson’s insight into human beings means these characters still feel like people you have met.

Natalie Waite is a young woman of seventeen, just starting to come into her own and understand herself and the world and the wonderful shock of existing for real in reality. Or not - what if it’s all an ether induced dream and she should wake up to find herself in a hospital or psychiatric ward or prison?

Well, as the novel opens, it is a few weeks before the start of college and her parents are throwing a dinner party. Her father, Mr. Arnold Waite, is a somewhat arrogant writer who likes to invite dozens of his literary-minded friends to these dinner parties. Can I just say that I loved the character of her father? I don’t understand the summary on the back of the (Penguin Classics edition) book that claims he is “domineering” nor the forward by Francine Prose which labels his discussions with his Natalie as “blood-curdling” - how? Why? Am I so wounded, so desperate for such a relationship myself, that I am missing something? Perhaps. What I saw was a vain and egotistical man, yes, but one with a genuine interest in his daughter, in bonding with her, in communicating with her and encouraging her talent and her continual growth.

Perhaps I have missed some sinister undercurrent other readers are picking up on? But when we first meet him he jokes with his son and attempts to joke with his wife and he always sets time aside, each day, to meet with his daughter and talk with her.

Natalie’s mother is, of course, very sad and has every right to be. Though I see her husband as oblivious rather than malevolent. When Natalie’s mother breaks down in front of her daughter, trying to explain the pain she feels, being trapped in her stifling, exhausting and unfulfilling marriage and Natalie is simply not able to connect or understand her mother's point of view at all, it is very sad, but also felt very realistic. How often are teenagers able to really connect with their parents and understand this type of thing? How much more realistic is it, as in Natalie’s case, to be self-absorbed and intensely introspective, at that age? The pain Natalie’s mother is going through is partly an accurate reflection of women’s lives in the 1940-50s, but the fact that she feels invisible to her spouse, that her dreams and desires no longer matter, that she was “tricked” by the institution of matrimony and family life and betrayed by the system - those emotions are still relevant and relatable today.

Anyway, the first third of the novel ends with the dinner party thrown by her parents and something very terrible happens to Natalie at the party. This catapults us suddenly into the middle portion of the book, wherein she is a college freshman. Natalie is not the normal everywoman. She does not get along well with people and does not really want to, either. She observes those around her clinically detached, constantly analyzing them and thinking and over-thinking her own words and actions in response to them. She seems, by turns, to think herself incredibly above them and then also be terrified of them. She sees things others don’t see, or others wilfully ignore and does not understand the complex rituals, the “unwritten rules” of teenage girl society. But then the “adult” society is no better. A burgeoning infatuation with her English teacher dissipates when, upon meeting him in his study to talk (as she has so often done with her father) he destroys himself forever in her eyes with his foolishness.

The third part of the book transports us to yet a different world. This time, we see Natalie, the college girl who no longer attends her classes. She spends all her time with a strange girl, Tony, who stands out in the dark under trees and knows about Tarot cards, and has some sort of mysterious occult aura about her. There is obvious whispering and rumours going on around the two girls and their closeness; the hint of possible lesbianism is apparent. This culminates in the novels climax, wherein Tony lures Natalie out into the dark woods near an abandoned amusement park at the edge of the city. Natalie seems to realize, at the last minute and with horror, that Tony wants her and means to seduce her. But when she refuses the other girls advances it is Natalie who feels rejected, who begs Tony to come back with her.

I have to say that, as a modern (and bisexual) reader, I was disappointed with the horror-element attributed to Tony’s homosexuality. She is the predator, leading Natalie off into the dark woods to prey on her. She is the occult witch, with her pack of Tarot cards and Natalie didn’t realize the danger until nearly too late. However, I can forgive it on account of 1) it was written in the 1940s and 2) Natalie doesn’t seem to hate Tony at the end, nor was she any more repulsed by her than she was by anyone touching her/attempting to touch her. Natalie doesn’t like men flirting with her or in her personal space, either. 3) Natalie wanted Tony to go back with her and seemed to feel disappointed in herself that she could not give Tony what she wanted. Natalie labels herself as unworthy for not being able to reciprocate Tony’s feelings.


The novel does feel very uneven, but it is one of Jackson’s earliest works. In the first part of the novel, Natalie has flights of imagination that bleed into hallucinations and begin to merge the real and the unreal, as a detective continually harasses her about a murder in her father’s study as he speaks to her about her writing, and she imagines the blood on her hands. This doesn’t really go anywhere, though I suppose it shows how imaginative she is and how this borders on the edge of possible psychosis. This made me think of Merricat in Jackson’s final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and although of course Natalie is not Merricat, it is interesting to see what I believe are the earlier seeds of that character’s mental framework, experimented with in these pages.

The last third of Hangsaman does seem to unravel a bit. Tony comes out of almost nowhere (she was mentioned, very, very briefly beforehand) and the plot with the English professor, his young pretty wife, and the girl students who are trying to seduce him - a plot central to the middle of the book - is utterly dropped. Though I still can’t bring myself to say it doesn’t work, because, through whatever strange magic Jackson weaves, it does. I liked this book. I liked Natalie Waite and getting to see inside her mind and peer into her innermost thoughts and feelings, her contradictions and wild imaginings and idiosyncrasies.

I was fascinated with the glimpse into 1940s America and the parallels I found in my own life today to many of Jackson’s wry observations. I feel like I will re-read this novel again for her amazing descriptions, turns of phrase and sharp insights. There are flaws with this novel, but I love it. ( )
1 vote catfantastic | Feb 14, 2015 |
When I first finished this novel, I was left with the feeling of, what the heck just happened? This was a combination of reading the last fifth or so, where the story takes an interesting turn, during a fit of insomnia, which helped contribute to the sense that the story had gone off the rails. However, in the couple of days since finishing it, the turn in the story has begun to seem less jarring and more haunting. (I wonder how many of the people who fired off angry letters to the New Yorker in reaction to Jackson's The Lottery found themselves pulled under its spell only a couple of days afterwards.)

Hangsaman tells the story of seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite as she leaves home to start college. Natalie is smart and literate--it is unclear to what extent her own literary ambitions are the result of her father's own self-absorption--and she feels out of place at college. She is befriended by the wife of one of her professors, who was herself a student only a few years beforehand, as well as the professor himself, though Natalie is not the only student he has befriended. (And this is an all-women's college.) Finally, Natalie befriends another student, with whom she finds a special bond.

Though Natalie is no Merrikat, she's an engaging protagonist, and Jackson's talent for depicting a social sphere laced with anxiety is as sharp as always. For the majority of the novel, Natalie just seems a little out of place, not sure how to maneuver the world in which she moves, lonely and alienated. And at the end, with her special friendship, there is a sense of something slipping in her relation to the world, and suddenly the novel takes on the feel of one of Ms. Jackson's short stories, where the reality of the situation is indeterminate, unnerving. It was a little jarring at first, though it does leave the book off in a very eerie place.

Overall, I'd have to say I rank this below We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, or even the lesser-known The Sundial, but it still has some intriguing characters, sharp dialogue and wonderful writing. I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Shirley Jackson--in fact, feeling like a bit of a Jackson completist myself, I am not sure it would be fair to recommend it to anyone not already under her spell to some extent--but it has enough of that eerie magic one can expect from her work. ( )
  CarlosMcRey | Jan 3, 2015 |
Well written, but very disturbing. I think this is the only book of Jackson's that I won't read more than once. ( )
  BooksCatsEtc | Sep 27, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Shirley Jacksonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Prose, FrancineForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Slack your rope, Hangsaman,
O slack it for a while,
I think I see my true love coming,
Coming many a mile.
Dedication
For my children, Laurence, Joanne, and Sarah
First words
Mr. Arnold Waite—husband, parent, man of his word—invariably leaned back in his chair after his second cup of breakfast coffee and looked with some disbelief at his wife and two children.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0445031174, Mass Market Paperback)

This is the 1976 Popular Library paperback edition of this 1951 novel. "Hangsaman," Jackson's second novel, contains certain elements similar to the mysterious real-life December 1946 disappearance of 18-year-old Bennington College sophomore Paula Jean Welden of Stamford, Connecticut. This event, which remains unsolved to this day, took place in the wooded wilderness of the Glastenbury Mountain near Bennington in southern Vermont, where Jackson and her family were living at the time. The fictional college depicted in Hangsaman is based in part on Jackson's experiences at Bennington College.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:50 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn't bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything--even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.… (more)

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