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If Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman Were a Coming-of-Age Story

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

By Vivien Adamian

I bought Hangsaman on a whim, since I had a curiosity towards Shirley Jackson’s work and had never really read any thriller novels. Also, I thought it might be appropriate to read a horror story about a girl going away to college just before moving to UCLA. Hangsaman is generally regarded as one of Jackson’s weaker novels, and unlike some of her more popular works (i.e. The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle), it has not been adapted into a movie or TV show. What interested me most about Jackson’s approach to the story was that, with her insight into the state of mind of a teenage girl feeling like she can’t win in her social circumstances, she could have written an entirely different and maybe more accessible story if she had decided to venture outside of the horror-mystery genre. 

The book jacket sells Hangsaman as a thriller centered around an imaginative aspiring writer named Natalie Waite, who becomes obsessed with a professor at her private all-girls college and soon falls victim to the manipulations of others. However, I think upon reading the book this turns out to be inaccurate or, at least, a lot more dramatic than the actual plot. With little straight-out horror in the bulk of the story, Hangsaman is more subtle than advertised. Jackson plays more on a sense of growing unease as Natalie’s dissociative mental state builds, stemming from a recent trauma. Set in the 1950s, the cast of characters consists of Natalie’s awkward family, dominated by an arrogant father who gives Natalie writing advice, a repressed mother, and a younger brother, all of whom she seems to have a pretty perfunctory relationship with. Natalie also interacts with some rich, mean college girls, and her young English professor and his wife, a former student of his. Last, there’s the mysterious girl, Tony, who is the source of the most hallucinatory aspects of the novel. Jackson uses a lot of the characters to criticize relationships and social standards in the 1950s university environment, but as a result they tend to come across as underdeveloped and caricature-like.

Meanwhile, there are parts of the narrative that show a deep understanding of the adolescent brain. It’s hard to characterize Natalie, since she spends a lot of her time questioning her identity internally, fantasizing about made-up scenarios, and observing others from a mental distance. Despite this, sometimes I really felt for Natalie, especially when her logic is she counts herself out of almost every social circle and starts nursing a shy kind of superiority complex. Other times, as Hangsaman is a thriller, the narration lacked empathy towards her and felt exploitative of her delicate psychological state. Natalie is not exactly relatable, but I feel that there is plenty of potential in her unusual development as a character. 

From the very start of the novel, the plot strays pretty far from the classic coming-of-age story we’re used to seeing in contemporary media. Instead of going out of her way to try and fit in with her peers (though part of her seems to want to), Natalie spends more of her time concerned about her fate as a writer and attempting to better her emotional state by writing letters to herself, in which she expresses that she just has to wait until this is all long in the past. This reminded me of the Netflix series The End of the F***ing World; the main character James’s indifference to life leads him to just “let things happen” to him, which very much parallels Natalie’s attitude. As a result, both characters’ lives are hijacked by someone with a stronger personality, but unlike James, Natalie doesn’t get someone who shows her that life can actually be fun. Instead, the novel takes a downward spiral where Jackson convinces the reader that sometimes there’s no way out of teenage alienation, and you just have to let your sanity go. I can respect this, since it’s true that not everybody finds the meaning of life at 17 years old, and there aren’t many anti-coming-of-age stories out there, if Hangsaman can be called that. 

I would add that anti-coming-of-age makes for a fairly stagnant narrative; a more successful attempt at this genre might be something like the 80s cult-classic Heathers, which starts out as an anti-coming-of-age story, but doesn’t resolve as one, as it involves a much more dynamic plot and main character. Veronica, a high school student who begrudgingly hangs out with her school’s cruelest rich girls, shares Natalie’s submissive personality and no-way-out attitude. In Veronica’s case, the person who hijacks her life gives her a false sense of empowerment, and then turns out to be a negative influence, which is closer to Natalie’s situation. But instead of receding into herself like Natalie, Veronica’s individuality develops more as things get worse. What follows is a comically violent and totally amoral series of events, but what makes Veronica more appealing to me than Natalie is that she always articulates what she’s feeling as her life gets more and more out of control, and that self-awareness is exactly what gives her the clear-headedness to look beyond her apathy and solve some of her problems.

Heathers is funny, unapologetic, and most of all focused on what it wants to accomplish: criticize the hypocrisies of teenage social life while parodying the popular tropes and obvious plot lines in other teen movies. Maybe Jackson was attempting something like this, but with its lack of humor or commentary on one end and its inadequate trading of a psychological study for a psychological thriller on the other, I think Hangsaman just misses the mark. Jackson does a nice job of creating an atmosphere of limited choice and psychological disturbance, and I guess I would recommend this if you managed to enjoy something like The Bell Jar or are just a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan. In the end, though, I definitely had more fun imagining what Hangsaman could have been rather than soaking in the depressing paperback thriller that doesn’t have the hope and appreciation for life a lot of coming-of-age stories are built on.

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