The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson — three 1954 reviews

The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

Of the six novel Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965) completed in her lifetime, The Bird’s Nest (1954) is one of the lesser known and read, compared with the 1948 short story, “The Lottery,” or her late novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Yet like all of Jackson’s works, this one is deserving of reconsideration. Though just forty-eight when she died, she left behind a large body of fiction and nonfiction works that have influenced generations of writers who came after her.

Elizabeth Richmond, the novel’s main character, has multiple personality disorder. As her psyche splinters, she harbors Bess, Beth, and Betsy. You’ll find a thorough plot summary here.

Presented here are a number of views along with three 1954 reviews of this widely publicized novel, reflecting decidedly mixed opinion. Some critics found the book’s subject fresh and intriguing; others found the treatment of a complex psychological condition simplistic and the resolution inexplicably neat.


Mixed reviews, and a contemporary reconsideration

Kirkus Reviews offered more of a brief plot summary than a substantive review in 1954, but concluded that for “a special audience, an exploratory of precarious and unpredictable variations, this has a certain fascination.”

The multiple personality trope was pretty unique at the time, leaving some reviewers baffled by the shifting personalities. The 1957 film (based on the book of the same year) The Three Faces of Eve, and later Sybil (1973) and its subsequent television movie would bring the subject to the mainstream.

The New York Times reviewer opined that the plot of The Bird’s Nest was “too bizarre for the necessary suspension of disbelief.” He and other reviewers wondered if psychiatric disorder were a worthy subject for fiction in the first place. Jackson was perturbed by reviewers’ interpretation of Elizabeth’s condition as schizophrenia, which isn’t what she had intended.

Contemporary reconsiderations have been kinder to the novel. In a 2014 review in Flavorwire, Tyler Coates wrote, “The Bird’s Nest is a monumental work, not just for spurring a renewed interest into the multiple-personality story, but because its inventive storytelling structure gives a powerful look at a young woman trapped within her own body and mind.”


A misbegotten film adaptation

1957 saw the release of the film adaptation of The Bird’s Nest, retitled Lizzie. Jackson was thrilled with her first sale of film rights but was unhappy with the outcome. Jackson called the movie  Abbott and Costello meet a multiple personality.”

Ruth Franklin, in Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, wrote:

“… She found it more unnerving than she expected to have her characters come to life on the screen in a way utterly different from how she had imagined them … 

Elizabeth, transformed into ‘Lizzie’ (a character that does not exist in the novel), becomes a drunken slut; Aunt Morgen is bawdy and flirtatious; and the doctor cures his patient with an incoherent combination of Rorschach inkblots, Freudian analysis, and Jungian therapy.

The film was rushed to open ahead of The Three Faces of Eve. But while Eve went on to win an Academy Award, critics were lukewarm on Lizzie. The Newsweek reviewer offered an apt summary: ‘Major mental muddle melodramatized.’”

Following are three reviews that represent varying views of critics. As you’ll see, even these reviews are neither pans nor raves, but fall somewhere in the mixed range. In the tradition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, recognizing that a human can contain multitudes, Shirley Jackson’s mid-twentieth-century eye view is well worth exploring.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

See also: The Haunting of Hill House
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“Four Beings in One Girl’s Body” — a mixed review

From the original review by Florence Zetlin in The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, June 20, 1954: The Bird’s Nest is an extension of the horror themes in Shirley Jackson’s superb story, “The Lottery.”

The hints of black magic and psychological nightmare are here developed into a full-length novel that dwells on the ultimate terror — that the most horrifying of all experiences are those that lie deep within the human psyche and cause one to fear oneself.

Within the personality of one nice, dull young woman we read of an underground conspiracy of antagonistic elements resulting, at first, in a cold war and phony peace. And later, in horrible civil warfare.

At some time lost to conscious memory, Elizabeth R. has forsaken herself as she was meant to be because she had been so terribly frightened by her life, and had managed to contrive for herself an artificial neutrality in which she appears as a listless, amenable, stupid girl.

To stave off the ultimate terror, she invented a number of minor hells for herself: headaches, backaches, and stupidity. At twenty-four, she had no friends, no plans, and no life except her routine job at the Owenstown Museum and a dreary second-hand social life provided by her maiden aunt with whom she lived.

It was when the museum underwent repairs and a gaping hole next to Elizabeth’s desk revealed the decaying skeleton of the old structure that Elizabeth began to behave strangely.

She received a series of disconcerting anonymous letters, which she cherished in spite of their obscene nature. Her headaches grew worse, and most frightening of all, she embarrassed her aunt Morgen by insulting her and her friends with no after-memory of these lapses of decorum.

The museum, with its ill-assorted antiquities, is the metaphor for Elizabeth’s personality. And the gaping fissure that runs through the wall presages the fate of her disrupted mind.

When her alarmed Aunt Morgen got her to a doctor for treatment, Elizabeth’s eyes “held the mute appeal of an animal, hurt beyond understanding and crying for help.” But like an animal, she wouldn’t communicate except with the face of distress. Words would not come.

Dr. Wright tried hypnosis, and to his horror saw her personality spring apart into four separate, independent beings, each struggling for control. Each personality could — and did — take over, involving Elizabeth in episodes of mounting fearfulness.

The author’s equal attraction to the explanations offered by black magic and psychiatry adds to the confusion of the reader in trying to understand what is going on. “Each life,” says Elizabeth, “asks the devouring of other lives for its continuance, the radical aspect of ritual sacrifice … sharing the victim was so eminently practical.”

Shirley Jackson has chosen to write this novel in as many styles as Elizabeth had personalities. The vivid, absorbing writing of “The Lottery” alternated with almost clinical reporting, diffuse dullness, and pompous reflections in the manner of Thackeray. Sometimes the book seems serious, sometimes frivolous.

The author is frequently condescending to her pitiable heroine, contemptuous of her physician, and careless with her readers. No explanation is offered for Elizabeth’s final integration. It just happens and is not at all believable.

Although the book dribbles away at the end, the first half is excellent with one remarkable section that makes for absorbing and moving reading.

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We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

Analysis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle
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“Four-in-One Personalities” — a reviewer is fascinated

From the original review in Wisconsin State Journal, June 20, 1954: Most men are at least two people, let’s say modified versions of Jekyll and Hyde. So, it’s quite appropriate that women, who are twice as complicated as men, should be allowed a four-part disharmony.

Shirley Jackson has written a novel about Elizabeth Richmond, who under hypnotic psychotherapy peels off like an artichoke into disturbing yet highly believable alter egos: Beth, Betsy, and Bess. As any writer who has attempted any such assignment will testify, there is probably no greater challenge to the psychological insight of a dramatist or novelist.

Jackson, it seems to me, has done superlatively in her minute vivisection of her complicated heroine. Writing of a contemporary young woman of upper New York State who seems to be nothing more than a shy and mousy orphan holding down a dull job at the local museum, she soon reveals that Elizabeth is at least as complicated and as fascinating as any multi-role actress.

Elizabeth has a dark secret buried deep in her subconscious — which will not be revealed in this review. Like so many other traumatic experiences from childhood, it’s actually far less sinful than it seems. Layer upon layer of protective substance has been secreted by her Ego to encase this excessive irritant until we have as an end product the flawed, discolored pearl that is Elizabeth Richmond.

When Elizabeth begins to act very strangely, she is taken by her Aunt Morgen (an earthy, sensible soul) to Dr. Wright, an old-fashioned psychiatrist who is dubious of the clap-trap and pompous terminology introduced by the Viennese neurotic, Dr. Freud.

Dr. Wright, whose literary style stems from the Victorian novelists, and who suffered from his own variety of pomposity, begins to unravel the intriguing and exasperating riddle. At varying depths of hypnosis, Elizabeth becomes at least three additional characters.

To quote Dr. Wright’s breakdown of his schizophrenic patient:

“… They were figures in a charade, my four girls: Elizabeth, the numb, the stupid, the inarticulate, but somehow enduring, since she had remained behind to carry on when the rest went under; Beth, the sweet and susceptible; Betsy the wanton and wild, and Bess, the arrogant and cheap.”

It was obvious to the wise old doctor that none of these could be allowed to assume the complete role of Elizabeth Richmond.

If you will think for a few moments of the problem confronting any psychiatrist, novelist, or dramatist faced with such a shattered personality, it will be evident that the two most likely solutions of any such dilemma are either the murder of the other “selves” by the temporarily dominant one (meaning suicide) or eventual understanding and integration.

The “obligatory scene,” as it is called in dramaturgy, cannot avoid being the head-on collision (and its resolution) between the strongest these opposing forces.

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The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson

Six Novels by Shirley Jackson: Psychological Thrillers by a Master
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A problem goes unresolved — a skeptic’s review

From the original review in The Daily Record (Long Branch, NJ), June 24, 1954: Elizabeth, Bess, Beth, and Betsy — she is the heroine, they are the heroines of this novel by the author of, among other books, The Road Through the Wall and “The Lottery.”

Twenty-year-old Elizabeth Richmond works in one of those all-purpose museums filled with assorted objetcs, mostly semi-rare, hardly ever rare. It’s a desk job, but the routine is broken by repairs made to the building, and also by the receipt of some mystifying, menacing, illiterate, and insulting letters.

In any case, however, it wouldn’t have taken much to throw her off stride, and we find her at home with her guardian and aunt, Morgen Jones, doing things about which she’s unaware, going to places she doesn’t know about, having inexplicable lapses of memory.

So Aunt Morgen calls in Dr. Wright, who proceeds to summon up the various identities battling for dominance in his patient. In his terms, they’re “Miss R,” “R1,” “R2,” “R3,” “good little girl,” “bad little girl,” and so on. One after another the Three Rs plus take over.

For the first time it seems to me, in the latest of her books, that Miss Jackson, who I would have thought could not falter, has faltered. The idea, for a fictional work, is original. But the confusion over the four-part character of Elizabeth, which remains properly confusing to Elizabeth, is too often confusing to the reader as well.

The abracadabra by which her problem is supposed to be solved does not work. An occasional phrase sounds quaint and old-hat, like something out of Wilkie Collins, and that, too, serves to muddle the author’s intent. This is bold psychological adventuring that doesn’t develop into a good novel.


More about The Bird’s Nest

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Quotes from The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson

“Although she would sooner have given up thinking than eating, she resented being pushed into depriving herself of either.”

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“I was thinking what it must feel like to be a prisoner going to die; you stand there looking at the sun and the sky and the grass and the trees, and because it’s the last time you’re going to see them they’re wonderful, full of colors you never noticed before, and bright and beautiful and terribly hard to leave behind.”

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“Now I will be heard, and when I choose to be heard, the lowest legions of hell may turn in vain to silence me and when I choose to speak not all the winds of earth can drown my voice.”

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“No one ever remembers just a bad thing, they remember all around it, all that happened before it and after it, and of course, she told herself consolingly, one bad thing is probably enough.”

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“I reveal myself, then, at last: I am a villain, for I created wantonly, and a blackguard, for I destroyed without compassion; I have no excuse.”

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For a moment, staring, Betsy wanted frantically to rip herself apart, and give half to Lizzie and never be troubled again, saying take this, and take this and take this, and you can have this, and now get out of my sight, get away from my body, get away and leave me alone.”

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“The most important thing she had learned so far — and it was something to know, after only twelve hours – was that she need not pretend, always, to be competent or at home in a strange atmosphere. Other people, she had learned, were frequently uneasy and uncertain, lost their way or their money, were nervous at being approached by strangers or wary of officials.”

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