When I’m looking for new books to read, I tend to stay within my comfort zone; I usually fall into the trap of relying on a fantasy or adventure novel to get my reading fix. But this summer, I thought about experimenting and exploring different genres to broaden my horizons. While doing so, I came across Shirley Jackson’s “Hangsaman” (1951), a landmark work of Gothic literature whose unsuspecting characters and suspenseful story sent me on a grueling roller coaster ride. At the end of Jackson’s novel, she invests a touch of optimism that made the experience rewarding and strangely bittersweet.
“Hangsaman” revolves around an introspective and introverted 17-year-old college girl named Natalie Waite. Throughout the novel, she struggles to define herself amid the influences of her egotistical parents and manipulative friends who try to impose their will on her. Natalie’s inability to meet the expectations of others causes her to become toxic to herself, compromising her already low self-esteem. Such cases push her mental state to the brink, as she can no longer distinguish herself from the machinations of those around her. Her story on its own is gripping, as her struggle to understand her identity merges almost tragically with her loose grip on reality, to the point that I couldn’t help but read on to find out how her story comes together. is unrolled.
There are various other characters in “Hangsaman” whose creepy, intriguing, and at times depressing personalities are equally vibrant. For example, Natalie’s father, who charms with his sarcastic remarks, is actually an absolutely horrible individual. His relationship with Natalie is defined by his misogynistic view of the role of women in society, which he uses to justify the constraint of his life. Another notable character is Arthur Langdon, a selfish English teacher at Natalie’s College who students adore for his laissez-faire style. He is also a renowned womanizer who values fellowship with his students and uses his position of power to manipulate them into questionable situations. These characters and more are what makes “Hangsaman” such a deeply engaging novel, as Natalie’s interactions with these corrupt and terrible people end up unraveling her psyche.
Perhaps what makes “Hangsaman” such a compelling read isn’t just the characters, but the setting of the novel: the United States of the 1950s. It speaks to how far we’ve come and where we are as a society. . Natalie’s journey into adulthood to discover her true identity is hampered by a deeply misogynistic society that views women’s intellectual advancement as secondary to family duties. The novel is in part a scathing critique of the marginalization of women and entrenched gender norms in the United States in the 1950s. Without a doubt, we have made giant strides in breaking down barriers to access and empowering the women. Yet even today, women face systemic inequalities, which manifest themselves unequal To pay, inadequate protections against violence and inability to access health care Where education, as well as sexist perceptions that degrade or objectify women. Jackson demonstrates how we as a society have solved some glaring issues, but we still have a long way to go to truly create an equal society for people of all gender identities.
Jackson’s novel also directs fire on the waning soul of college education. As Natalie struggles to define herself, one of her biggest hurdles is a college system overly preoccupied with increasing profit margins, normalizing education, and suppressing individuality. In this sense, Jackson’s work is a poignant reflection of what some institutions of higher education have become today: companies concerned with ticking boxes for a brochure rather than cultivating a passionate heart that seeks wisdom.
At its core, Jackson’s “Hangsaman” is a suspenseful and thought-provoking novel that tackles big issues. While Natalie’s story is certainly one that strikes a chord, her story is poetic as she takes a Herculean stance to define herself in the midst of a society that sees her as inferior because she is a woman. Yet the best part of Natalie’s journey is that Jackson forces you to ask yourself who you are, why you are this way, what you can become and encourages you to rage through thick and thin to forge your own path.
Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.