Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home

Louisa, Please Come Home” is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in Ladies Home Journal, 1960. Shirley Jackson’s Louisa Please Come Home can also be found in the collection “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives”, along with other short stories similar in tone.

Shirley Jackson is best known for “The Lottery“, which is still her best known short story, though not her most sophisticated.

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 young adult short story app, Hilda Bewildered. (Now available on Steam.)

WHAT HAPPENS IN “LOUISA, PLEASE COME HOME?”

19-year-old Louisa Tether runs away from her family the day before her sister’s wedding. She doesn’t go far. But her family never find her. Every year, her mother pleads on the radio for her daughter to return home.

Eventually she is spotted by a man who used to know her. Louisa returns home after all.

But the mother’s response is entirely unexpected, making for a twist ending of sorts: Louisa’s mother doesn’t believe that Louisa is really her daughter, and the real Louisa is turned away.

STORYWORLD OF “LOUISA, PLEASE COME HOME”

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.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOUISA, PLEASE COME HOME”

SHORTCOMING

Louisa’s 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.

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.

Interestingly, Jackson tells us how Louisa ran away from her family, but we must extrapolate 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.

At first glance, Shirley Jackson seems to have successfully skirted around well-known writing 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?!’

DESIRE

“She would never have wanted to spoil my wedding,” Carol said. But she knew that was exactly what I’d wanted.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

OPPONENT

Since Louisa wants to run away from home, annoy her sister and remain anonymous, the opponent is the character who stands in the way of that.

In this case, it is Paul, introduced early to provide cohesion. (It’s not a good idea to introduce characters late in a short story. If a character is needed towards the end, introduce them early, somehow.)

There was only one bad minute. Paul saw me. Paul always lived next door to us. Carol hates him more than she hates me. My mother can’t stand him, either.

Of course, he didn’t know I was running away. I told him what I had told my parents. I was going downtown to get away from all the noise. He wanted to come with me. But I ran for the bus and left him standing there.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

PLAN

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.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

Normally, you’d think someone’d have more trouble running away and staying unfound. Shirley Jackson subverts that expectation; it’s remarkably easy for Louisa to do just that:

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.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle scene happens with Louisa bumps into Paul.

ANAGNORISIS

NEW SITUATION

Mrs Peacock

If Louisa Tether has an ironically symbolic name, we might look for reasons why Mrs Peacock has been named after a bird with spectacular plumage. (Or, at least, the male version of the bird.)

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, according to Louisa

In history, myth, legend and lore, the Peacock symbolises: 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.

THEMES

THE ROSE-TINTED GLASSES OF LOVE

We idealize the people we love. Sometimes the person we want to see is nothing like the person who actually stands before us.

I’m first reminded of a voice excerpt on the Paris Wells album Various Small Fires. A man says

My heart and brain concur.
I love but one more than you, the one I thought you were.

(You’ll find it at the end of “No Hard Feelings”.) In issue #383 of The Brag, Paris Wells explains this is poetry by a guy they met in a Jazz club in New York — “this old lovely Jewish guy in a wheelchair.” His name is Marvin Wildstein and she just had to put him in the album. (Here’s another of his poems.) Marvin died of pneumonia early April 2015.

Is it possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t exist? Atheists would say yes. Perhaps we are all in love with someone who doesn’t exist, insofar as it’s never possible to know another completely.

I tried to imagine my own mother; I looked straight at her.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

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.’

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

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.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

COGNITIVE BIAS

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.”

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

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.

INVISIBILITY

There must be thousands of 19-year-old girls, fair-haired, five feet four inches tall, weighing 126 pounds. And a lot of them would be wearing raincoats.

It’s funny how no one pays any attention to you. Hundreds of people saw me that day. But no one really saw me.

Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson

Compare and contrast the character of Louisa with, say, Raoul Duquette of Katherine Mansfield’s “Je ne parle pas francais“. Both of these characters have extraordinary imaginative powers, able to completely reconstruct the realities of their own lives, leaving the past behind them, immune to regret.

But unlike Duquette, Louisa achieves this rebirth by remaining invisible. She doesn’t want to be seen. She doesn’t see herself as a character in a play, constantly on-stage, performing in front of an imaginary audience.

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

LINKING BEGINNING TOThe Ending

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 unexpected resonse 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 mythic reunion plot, in which a hero leaves home to fight some big struggle, overcomes many hurdles then returns home a changed person.

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?

Using the language of narratology, a storyteller narrator is a homodiegetic (within-story) narrator — they are a character in the story as well as the teller of it.

FURTHER READING

  • The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm also explores the difference between a real person and an idealised version of that same person, through the rose-tinted glasses of a lover.
  • For the same reason, check out “Something Childish But Very Natural” by Katherine Mansfield, about the limerance of new lovers. Of course, “Louisa, Please Come Home” is about familial love, not erotic love. But the skewed perspective is the same.

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