The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958)
By Nava Atlas | On September 8, 2019 | Updated June 12, 2023 | Comments (0)
The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965) was this prolific American author’s fourth novel, published in 1958. It was generally well received, though she had yet to reached her peak as a novelist.
Jackson was already famous for her iconic short story, “The Lottery,” and her amusing memoirs of prettied-up domestic life.
After the publication of her masterpiece novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) Jackson struggled with writer’s block and agoraphobia, as well as a host of physical ailments. She died at age 48, a victim of poor health and habits.
For some decades after her death, her work faded from the reading public’s consciousness (other than the widely anthologized “The Lottery”), but after a renewed interest in her place in the American literary canon, several of her novels, including The Sundial, were reissued.
A 1958 Chicago Tribune review called The Sundial “entertaining, absorbing, and disturbing,” and encapsulated the plot succinctly:
An oddly assorted group dwells in the Halloran mansion, on a vast, walled estate. It is dominated ruthlessly by Mrs. Halloran, wife of the sickly heir of the founder, who may have murdered her own son to assure her control. Assorted relatives, a governess, and a young man of vague duties are the original entourage to which some random members are added.
To spinsterish Aunt Fanny, the founder’s daughter, a revelation is vouchsafed from her deceased father. The dreadful, fiery end of the world is imminent. All those in the safety of the father’s house will survive, to emerge to a new world.
Through successive revelations, the truth of this apocalypse impresses itself on all the group. The novel follows their preparations for the majestic even as the hour draws near. The suspense becomes great, the events are surprising, but how Miss Jackson plays out her end game is classified information.
A 1958 review of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
From the original review by Robert Kirsch in The Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1958: Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial is bound to puzzle a great many readers and arouse some controversy as to its meaning. But this is to be expected from one of the great writers of parable of our time.
What most readers will appreciate, I fancy, is that she has turned from the Good Housekeeping type of humorous family chronicles Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Miss Jackson has too much talent and too much depth for these child-rearing adventures.
The Sundial suggests the technique and quality of Miss Jackson’s best-known short story, The Lottery. It is out of time and out of place, filled with mysterious hints, suggestions, and symbolism — and open to almost every kind of interpretation.
The story concerns a dozen residents of the Halloran mansion, built on a small rise of ground, its lands ringed by a stone wall. It was the property of Mr. Halloran, lately dead, “a man who in the astonishment of finding himself extremely wealthy, could think of nothing better to do with his money than set up his own world.”
He wanted the house endlessly decorated and adorned, the grounds meticulously cared for. “His belief about the the house, only very dimly conveyed to the architect, the decorators and landscapers and masons and hod carriers who put it together, was that it should contain everything.
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See also: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
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The other world, the one the Hallorans were leaving behind, was to be plundered ruthlessly for objects of beauty to go in and around Mr. Halloran’s house; infinite were the delights to be prepared for its inhabitants.
In the garden, “an inevitable focus was the sundial, set badly off center and reading WHAT IS THIS WORLD? In black gothic letters over the arched window on the landing was painted WHEN SHALL WE LIVE IF NOT NOW?
If the late Mr. Halloran could create the furnishings and design of his mansion world, he was somewhat less capable of determining the character of its population. The rule of it had gone to his thoroughly vicious daughter-in-law who was so jealous of her position that she is believed to have pushed her own son, Lionel, down the stairs to his death.
Lionel’s wife Maryjane is convinced that the old woman did it because “she couldn’t stand it if the house belonged to anyone else.” Lionel’s father is wheelchair-ridden and senile. He asks, “Is it Lionel who died?”
There are, in addition to the Hallorans, a select group of eccentrics. Most interesting and most eccentric is Aunt Fanny, the late Mr. Halloran’s daughter who is in touch with her father’s spirit and receives the message that the world outside the mansion is to be destroyed “from the sky and from the ground and from the sea … There will be a black fire and red water and the earth turning and screaming: this will come.”
To those in the house, the father’s message is: Tell them … that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house; say to them: Do not fear, the father will guard the children.”
This is the first of the mysterious events, signs and omens which come upon the Halloran mansion: a snake, shining and full of light, appears in the living room; a guest comes to blackmail Mrs. Halloran; a rhinestone stickpin is jammed through her photograph in a voodoo touch.
If in outline the story appears unbelievable or too confusing, in Miss Jackson’s telling this is never an issue. She achieves Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” for the most grotesque, the most macabre elements. While you read, you believe.
After the entertainment you may try to puzzle out the meaning. Is it a political fable on internationalism vs isolationism? Is it a parable of the decay of an aristocracy? The answer is bound to vary. A novel such as this is a kind of literary Rorschach test. The right answer is the one which you provide for yourself.
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Six Novels by Shirley Jackson: Psychological Thrillers by a Master
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The Sundial is reissued in 2014
Thank goodness Shirley Jackson’s works, which for a time had faded from the literary scene are getting a second look. They’re once again being read and studied, and not relegated to the ash heap of forgotten midcentury literature.
Perhaps this is partly thanks to contemporary miniseries and film adaptations of her best known works, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
The Sundial was reissued in a Penguin Classics edition in 2014, along with another early novel by Jackson, The Bird’s Nest. In a review in The National Post (Toronto, Canada), March 1, 2014, Naben Ruthnum wrote:
“The Sundial belongs to the pre-apocalyptic genre, a small grouping of texts that lacks the bleak glamour and heroism of its post-apocalyptic cousin. In Jackson’s book, a baseless prophecy of the imminent end allows for the creation of a miniature world of belief, manipulation, and a gently ruthless struggle for power on the walled-in grounds of the Halloran mansion.
The generations of women in the house are unwilling to leave the place they consider their birthright, and are equally unwilling to surrender control to each other.”
The reviewer goes on to comment on the sexual frustration demonstrated by the female protagonists as well as their mental fragility, a foreshadowing of Eleanor, the fragile heroine of The Haunting of Hill House. Ruthnum concludes:
“The characters in [Jackson’s] short stories and novels usually inhabit small towns in the eastern states, tiny communities with a mansion or two looming over little houses, all dredged in the Waspishness of the Vermont and Connecticut towns where Jackson lived with her children, pets, and her husband, the Jewish academic Stanley Hyman.
The family was rarely popular with their neighbors, who pulled charming pranks such as soaping swastikas onto the windows.
The unease of a remarkable woman in the community that surrounds and despises or fears her, along with her own inability to leave a home and life she has become inextricably attached to — this is an abiding theme of Jackson’s life and work, the one that haunts these books.”
More about The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, reviewed
- Classic books you should read