Without meaning to, I keep reading short stories written by women who died young: Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, and now Shirley Jackson, who died age 48 in 1965 of heart failure. Jackson’s husband released Louisa, Please Come Home after her death. Before that, she was best known for The Lottery, which is still her best known short.
Shirley Jackson’s best fiction is troubling and creepy, but this story, though interesting, is neither scary or suspenseful. Instead, you’ll be left wondering what possessed the main character to do such a thing, and maybe you’ll start wondering if our view of the people closest to us is really the accurate version.
I’m sure this short story appeals to me partly because I’m interested in the idea that perhaps there is no ‘true self’ — that we learn to fill the roles imposed upon us. I explore this same idea in our YA short story app, Hilda Bewildered.
19-year-old Louisa Tether runs away from her family the day before her sister’s wedding.
Three years later, after the searching has died down, she decides to respond to her mother’s annual plea, and return home.
Her mother doesn’t believe that she’s Louisa, and Louisa is turned away.
Louisa winds up in Amityville. Bear in mind that this story predates the time when ‘Amityville’ was colocated with ‘horror’. There’s an Amityville in both New York and Philadelphia. Maybe someone else knows exactly where this is set, and if the towns mentioned in Louisa, Please Come Home are all real towns.
More interesting is the year this was set. A contemporary story written in the 1960s, Louisa, Please Come Home depicts a degree of freedom anyone in modern America would be unlikely to enjoy today. Not that other writers don’t try it; in The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud successfully convinces readers that a character ups-sticks and takes on a new identity after the September 11 attacks.
Realistically, how much more difficult would it be to run away in 2015? A 19-year-old would carry a mobile phone, and would most likely be in frequent hourly contact with either friends or family. If you were to run away, how long would it take before you were missed? And how far would you have to go before you escaped the view of security cameras? How do you set up a new life without your security numbers, and what do you do when you get sick? Perhaps the modern analogue of Louisa is an undocumented immigrant, though we are shown nothing of Louisa’s difficulties in that area. She is yet to fall ill.
For most readers, I suspect 19-year-old Louisa Tether is not a particularly easy character with whom to identify. Few of us can imagine leaving our friends, family, everyone we know, and starting a new life elsewhere without emotional consequence. To add insult to injury, Louisa takes off the day before her sister’s wedding.
Anyway, Carol’s wedding may have been fouled up, but my plans went fine–better, as a matter of fact, than I had ever expected.
This is a snapshot of a young woman who seems completely disconnected from humanity. Louisa is completely untethered, which shows Shirley Jackson endowed her with an ironic family name. But all this aside, Louisa is not without desires. Her psychological need is to put some space between herself and her family. Her moral need, after three years and a preceding character arc, is to reconnect with her family, though only after provoked.
Interestingly, Jackson tells us how Louisa ran away from her family, but does not go into the why. Sometimes, what’s left off the page is more intriguing than if it had been explained. The fact is, we needn’t know why she left. Theme is king, and is conveyed sufficiently in this story with the reader knowing the actual events rather than the full psychology behind it. If Jackson were to tell us why she ran away, Louisa would need to be an emotionally aware storyteller who can understand herself sufficiently to even know, and then to put it into words. It’s almost as if Louisa only goes through the motions in life, doing things because other people do them:
I bought a round-trip ticket; that was important, because it would make them think I was coming back; that was always the way they thought about things. If you did something you had to have a reason for it, because my mother and my father and Carol never did anything unless they had a reason for it, so if I bought a round-trip ticket the only possible reason would be that I was coming back.
But Louisa by her very nature fails to empathise with others, and the pain they must be suffering due to her absence, and it’s unlikely such a character would be able to explain why she left even if you were to ask her.
So at first glance, Shirley Jackson seems to have successfully skirted around John Truby’s advice to ‘always show why your hero acts as he does.’ But did she really break this ‘rule’?
We are in fact offered a few clues as to why she ran away. Louisa feels invisible next to the hoopla of wedding-business that surrounds her melodramatic sister. Perhaps the sister has always been the show pony, with Louisa simply fading into the wallpaper. Louisa also feels that her sister hates her. She may be lacking in self-esteem to the point where she genuinely feels she would not be missed if she were not there. To compensate for not knowing why Louisa ran away (the macro question), we are told in minute detail why Louisa makes the decisions around the execution of running away. We’re told why she got rid of her coat in the way she did, and why she bought a return ticket and so on. All of this detail creates a need in the reader to ask, ‘YES, BUT WHY DID YOU RUN AWAY?!’
If Louisa Tether has an ironic name, we might look for reasons why Mrs Peacock has been named after a bird with spectacular plumage. (Or, at least, the male version.)
What we know about Mrs Peacock:
- She can be quick to take offence
- She is fanciful
- Proper living lady who believes in filial piety
- She and Louisa hit it off right away
In history, myth, legend and lore, the Peacock symbolism carries portents of: Nobility, Holiness, Guidance, Protection and Watchfulness. If this is the case here, Mrs Peacock, too, has an ironic last name. But when I think of peacocks, I think of a lot of posing, making a big show without there being much substance. This is what Mrs Peacock does with the wholly imagined story of Missing Murdered Louisa.
We idealize the people we love. Sometimes the person we want to see is nothing like the person who actually stands before us.
I tried to imagine my own mother; I looked straight at her.
We come across hundreds of people each week but we know very few of them at all, most of them remaining completely unmemorable. Sometimes, the only way we can be the centre of attention/achieve fame is by doing something terrible.
‘It’s funny how no one pays any attention to you at all. There were hundreds of people who saw me that day, and even a sailor who tried to pick me up in the movie, and yet no one really saw me.’
People seem to prefer elaborate stories of kidnapping and gore over simple realities such as ‘She just ran off’. The former is almost easier for them to understand.
People never seriously believed that anyone would go to Chandler from choice.
We explain away the world so we can get through it. With Mrs Peacock as with all of us, our perceptions shape our expectations. When Louisa says, ‘But she kind of looks like me” Mrs Peacock makes up excuses as to why she couldn’t possibly be living with the runaway.
We are strangely slow to believe some stories but quick to believe others. Mrs Peacock does not see Louisa right there in front of her, but concocts an elaborate conspiracy theory, some of which she shares with Louisa:
“But the papers say there wasn’t any ransom note.”
“That’s what they say.”
This aspect of the theme reminds me of the way in which the Internet has brought conspiracy theorists together, and the way some ridiculous stories end up more believable than the more mundane realities.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
This is a story that rewards a re-reading. Shirley Jackson almost nudges us towards a second reading by starting and ending with the same lines.
The twist at the end changes the whole focus, precisely because most stories about reunited people end with tears of joy. This is a subversion of the reunion plot.
Paul is a kind of Chekhov’s gun, mentioned in the story earlier than needed, coming in later as an essential part of the plot.. Paul says to Louisa when he sees her on the train platform that he will take her back home, he will collect the reward money, and then she is welcome to run away as many times as she likes. The reader learns later that Paul has done this many times before to other girls vaguely resembling Louisa, and that he plays a part in her failing to be accepted.
Coat as Symbol of Persona
When Louisa ditches the light coat given to her by her mother, she feels she has cast her old life completely aside. Louisa takes off her personality/identity just as easily as taking off a coat. This is the author asking us to consider that maybe ‘identity’ isn’t all that integral to ‘self’.
Storyteller/Narrator As Character
When writing a story, how do you decide on which point of view to write from?
In his book The Anatomy of Story, John Truby includes a chapter on why writers might choose to tell a story using a narrator. See my notes on that chapter here.
The story Louisa, Please Come Home might well have been told from the viewpoint of an omniscient character, but wasn’t. Why did Shirley Jackson choose to use a storyteller? After reading John Truby, I see there are some huge advantages:
- A storyteller can radically change the way you sequence a plot. You can leave chronology behind because the actions of the plot are framed by someone’s memories. You can now sequence the action in whatever way makes the most structural sense. This story opens with a paragraph telling us that three years have elapsed since the main event happened. The most structural sense here is to open in the present, talk about the past, jumping around as memories strike Louisa The Narrator, then bring the reader back into the present, where we almost join Louisa as she revisits her family in more recent past.
- A storyteller helps string together events and actions that occur over great stretches of time. A storyteller affords greater unity and huge gaps between story events seem to disappear.
- The storyteller has just as much effect on your depiction of character as the plot itself. Although we don’t truly see inside Louisa’s head, we do see her version of truth, which is something we wouldn’t get from an omniscient narrator. We see that Louisa is unreasonably accepting of Paul, who doesn’t care a jot for her, and is instrumental in her being rejected by her parents. She even gives him the train fare.
- A storyteller calls attention to herself and can distance the audience from the story. That gives the writer the benefit of detachment. And also partly explains the froideur of this story. Louisa is detached from society; it’s fitting that the reader feels some of that same detachment.
- This storyteller may not be telling the entire truth. The storyteller blurs/destroys the line between reality and illusion. Is there a more significant reason why Louisa left? Perhaps she did something terrible and is running away from her own criminal actions. The reader never knows, but having wondered produces sufficient intrigue.
- We know that the storyteller will be retelling the story with a touch more wisdom, since a measure of time has elapsed since the ending of the story and the retelling of it. Sure enough, three years have elapsed. Making use of the Rule of Threes, three years is sufficiently long enough for the half-life of the Louisa’s disapperance to have played out, and for her to reflect sufficiently upon the event so that she is at least provoked to revisit her family.
- Helps the writer establish an intimate connection between character and audience. I can’t say I feel particularly close to Louisa, but how much less empathetic would I feel were I told this story by someone else?
- The storyteller should not be all-knowing at the beginning. An all-knowing storyteller has no dramatic interest in the present. Sure enough, Louisa doesn’t know at the beginning that if she were ever to return she would not be recognised.
- Introduce the storyteller in a dramatic situation. We know straight away that Louisa has run away.
- Find a good trigger to cause her to tell the story. Having tried to tell the truth but failed, Louisa is wanting to set the record straight by writing down her own truth.
- Try to find a unique structure for telling the tale instead of simple chronology. (Otherwise the storyteller is just a frame and you don’t need it.) Shirley Jackson certainly does this. For example, Mrs Peacock is mentioned before we actually meet her.
- The act of telling the story should lead the storyteller to a self-revelation. Louisa realises that she can never go home, and that she will never be the daughter her parents want her to be.
- Don’t end the storytelling frame at the end of the story, but rather about three-quarters of the way in. If you put it right at the end the act of remembering and telling the story can have no dramatic or structural impact on the present. You need to leave some room in the story for the act of recounting the change to the storyteller herself.
Any of the usual drawbacks of a first person narrator are ameliorated significantly in this particular story. Though Louisa wasn’t at the house after she had disappeared, and therefore wouldn’t ordinarily know what happened, she has read all of the detailed newspapers reports, so has pieced events together pretty well. This affords her some of the advantages of an omniscient narrator.
First published in Ladies Home Journal, 1960.
Told in first person point of view, by the character of Louisa.