Time for Anxiety: "Pillar of Salt" by Shirley Jackson


Choosing a favorite Shirley Jackson story is nearly impossible. "The Lottery" is of course the famous one — easily among the most famous short stories in the English language — and because it is so ubiquitous, we (that is: I) can sometimes forget that it's also basically perfect. It is hard, though, to claim such an inescapable story as a favorite; to favor something, it mustn't feel as if it is always there. 

For a long time, I've said "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" is my favorite, and it is certainly up there, a story of wonderful surprise and weird malice. So, too, "The Summer People" and "The Intoxicated" and plenty of others.

But if we're talking about the story that I have read the most times, the story that I have returned to again and again to study how Jackson achieved what she did, then my favorite is clear: "Pillar of Salt".

I first read it in the later 1980s when I was in middle school and got The Magic of Shirley Jackson from the school library. "The Lottery" had been in an anthology we read in class, and I had also just read Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which discusses Jackson, and in particular The Haunting of Hill House, with great reverence. The Magic of Shirley Jackson is a weird book edited by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, shortly after Jackson's death, and it somewhat randomly brings together 11 of the stories from The Lottery alongside her novel The Bird's Nest and her two humorous, fictionalized family memoirs, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. From the stories, "Pillar of Salt" was the one that stuck with me. At that time, it felt long and dense and challenging. Kind of boring even, but somehow I perceived that the accumulation of details, which caused my boredom, was essential to whatever it was the story was about. Still, I found the story unnerving.

Soon, I read The Bird's Nest, and glanced at the family memoirs (never really my thing, I must admit), and for a little while that was it for me and Shirley Jackson, because none of her other books were available anywhere. It is hard to imagine now, with even her lesser-known works in print as Penguin Classics and the majority of her work canonized by the Library of America, but there was a time when Shirley Jackson's work was mostly unavailable unless you had access to a big library or a really big bookstore. (Judy Oppenheimer's 1988 biography likely caused some of the most popular books to be a little bit more available, but I don't remember being able to find them. The college library did get Oppenheimer's bio, though, and I read that, which only made me want to read the novels even more.)  

By 1991, I had somehow prevailed upon my parents to let me join the Quality Paperback Bookclub (a cousin to the Book of the Month Club) and they released an omnibus collection of The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle which I got the month it was offered. I even remember holding the monthly bulletin in hand and seeing the book there and hardly believing that, if I could convince my parents to let me spend the money, I would finally get to read Hill House. I was apparently convincing; I still have the book. Of course, both novels were revelatory, but aside from being amazed and enraptured by them, what I most remember from devouring the book was that suddenly "Pillar of Salt" made sense — and was even more unnerving than when I had read it before with only vague comprehension.

Over the years, "Pillar of Salt" has been a story I return to whenever I want to think about how to represent anxiety in fiction. Anxiety is an old familiar, something for which I was once medicated, and there is a moment toward the end of the story where Margaret cannot bring herself to cross a street that fits so perfectly with anxiety attacks I myself experienced when I was younger that to this day I find those paragraphs especially eerie.

In her 2016 biography of Jackson, Ruth Franklin notes that "Pillar of Salt" was written in May 1947, followed closely by "The Daemon Lover" in June and "The Tooth" in July. All the stories would be published separately, sometimes in a bit different form, before they were collected in 1949 in The Lottery: or, The Adventures of James Harris — "Pillar of Salt" appeared in the October 1948 issue of Mademoiselle. According to Franklin, Stanley Hyman considered the three stories to be a kind of trilogy, one he "jokingly" compared to Dante's Divine Comedy. (Which is the Inferno and which the Paradiso might be debated, but "Pillar of Salt" seems clearly to be Purgatorio.) Each story is concerned with a woman's anxiety and freedom, though the relationship between "Daemon Lover" and "The Tooth" is clearest, since they both have a "demon lover" (aka James/Jim/Jamie Harris) figure in them.

"Pillar of Salt" is a particularly fine example of a story that subtly, almost unnoticeably, moves from ordinary description into estrangement and paranoia. Jackson was always a master of giving ordinary objects and situations a sense of menace. This happens right away in "Pillar of Salt", though on a first reading we might not quite notice what she is doing by drawing our attention to certain details such as Margaret and Brad's suitcases. Margaret "became uneasy over her coffee" on the train because she needs to leave enough time to take their suitcases down off the luggage rack and put the magazines they have been reading away. This is an odd thing to worry about, since it doesn't usually take much time and is hardly something that would normally make someone rush through their coffee. Then: "They stood at the end of the car for the interminable underground run, picking up their suitcases and putting them down again, moving restlessly inch by inch." This is a familiar detail to any traveler who has experienced the weird tension of travel time: everything is either really slow or really fast, and you don't always know which kind of time you are in. As readers who have experienced nervous or impatient travel, we can sympathize, and on a first reading we are unlikely to notice that the story is setting us up to begin to find ordinary objects, situations, and timeframes getting weirder and weirder.

There are also disturbing details. The most obvious is the severed leg on the beach. (According to Oppenheimer, the tale of the leg was a true story Jackson heard from a friend.) That the leg is discovered by a little girl who knows she ought to go to the police about it, even as the adults, before they know what she's talking about, think New Yorkers overreact and call the police for everything. This connects to a sense Margaret has that in New York, children are not allowed the innocence of childhood: "She had a picture [in her mind] of small children in the city dressed like their parents, following along with a miniature mechanical civilization, toy cash registers in larger and larger sizes that eased them into the real thing, millions of clattering jerking small imitations that prepared them nicely for taking over the large useless toys their parents lived by." (And consequently, not having been prepared in such a way herself, perhaps Margaret even in adulthood is not ready for this world.) 

The primary way that objects are weird in "Pillar of Salt" is the way they are all breaking down. Entropy reigns here and apocalypse lives between the story's lines. Margaret "had begun to notice that the gradual decay was not peculiar to the taxis. The buses were cracking open in unimportant seams, the leather seats broken and stained. The buildings were going, too — in one of the nicest stores there had been a great gaping hole in the tiled foyer, and you walked around it. Corners of the buildings seemed to be crumbling away into fine dust that drifted downward, the granite was eroding unnoticed. Every window she saw on her way uptown seemed to be broken..." Everything in the city is breaking down. (This links the story to the biblical tale that provides its title: the description in Genesis 19 of Sodom's destruction. Lot and his wife are allowed to flee the city, but told they must not look back. The unnamed, disobedient wife does look back, and poof, she's turned into a pillar of salt.)

What Margaret hasn't recognized, though, is that she is breaking down, too. The city is an externalization of what is happening in her own mind, her own life, without her conscious awareness. The apocalypse is within.

And yet the apocalypse is also clearly also outside of Margaret. Perhaps all the gradual decay is not as bad as her mind makes it out to be, but other events are real: the leg, the fire in a building next to the one where she and Brad go to a party, the plane that crashed into the Empire State Building recently enough that Brad and Margaret look for evidence of it and are impressed at how well the building was repaired. Margaret does not see the city as the cause, however: "I suppose it starts to happen first in the suburbs," she says when talking about the leg and a severed arm that washed up in Brooklyn. Brad asks what starts to happen. She says ("hysterically"): "People starting to come apart."

Would she have been able to keep herself together better if she had never left the city in the first place? (Should Lot's wife have remained behind in Sodom?) What the story seems to suggest is that she has lost her ability to keep up with the city's speed. She struggles to cross a street, unable to get into the rhythm of traffic and pedestrians, and nearly gets run over by a truck. "No one even noticed me, she thought with reassurance, everyone who saw me has gone by long ago." She was invisible because she was in a different flow of time from the people around her. Invisibility has its advantages, but her inability to get to the right speed soon causes her to be stuck. She gets trapped, unable to cross the street. The traffic is menacing, the stoplights too fast and almost incomprehensible, the people around her oblivious to her peril. 

We are plunged fully into her consciousness in sentences that first get sutured with semicolons, then breathless with conjunctions (and...and...and), then both:

A man beside her tapped his foot impatiently for the light to change back; two girls came past her and walked out into the street a few steps to wait, moving back a little when cars came too close, talking busily all the time. I ought to stay right with them, Margaret thought, but then they mopved back against her and the light changed and the man next to her charged into the street and the two girls in front waited a minute and then moved slowly on, still talking, and Margaret started to follow and then decided to wait. A crowd of people formed around her suddenly; they had come off a bus and were crossing here, and she had a sudden feeling of being jammed in the center and forced out into the street when all of them moved as one with the light changing, and she elbowed her way desperately out of the crowd and went off to lean against a building and wait.

At the end, all she can do is call her husband on the phone and ask for help. Reading the story on its own, we might feel this is a pathetic moment, the helpless woman stuck calling a man to come save her, but within the context of the other stories in the book, we know that even if he does come get her, there is no way he will ever understand her. Indeed, he is likely part of the problem. Given how Margaret and Brad respond to their city in such different ways, and how oblivious he seems to her peril, we might even guess from the story alone that he's not going to be any help. But in the context the other stories in this book — stories frequently concerned with the constraints on women and their yearning for some sort of freedom from the situations they feel stuck in — we know that Margaret is doomed.

One of the reasons the story has appealed to me since childhood is that it contrasts the two places in the world that I know best: New York and New Hampshire. The first sentence is probably what originally attracted me to the story when I was young, since I had hardly ever seen reference to my home state in fiction before: "For some reason a tune was running through her head when she and her husband got on the train in New Hampshire for their trip to New York; they had not been to New York for nearly a year, but the tune was from farther back than that." (The paragraph goes on to tell us that the tune is one from her childhood, before she had ever visited New York, and so this first sentence and first paragraph already juxtapose a world of innocent childhood with a world of more perilous adulthood while also bringing our attention to a bit of music, something that relies on rhythm and time. The rhythm that Margaret arrived with in her head was not one appropriate to the actual city, but was instead one that went back to her childhood dreams of the city.)

Though most indelibly associated with North Bennington, Vermont, Jackson and Hyman lived in southwestern New Hampshire early in their marriage. In fact, Jackson's first professional publication ("My Life with R.H. Macy" in The New Republic, 22 December 1941) included, according to Franklin, the biographical note: "Shirley Jackson, the wife of Stanley Hyman, is living in New Hampshire and writing a novel." The first few times I read "Pillar of Salt", I was a kid who felt trapped in New Hampshire and who was dreaming of New York.

Jackson and Hyman felt terribly isolated during their time living in a cabin in a rural, remote place. Franklin writes that 

Jackson amused herself by drawing cartoons and putting together an illustrated ABC book called The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, or, How to Get Along in the Country, written in a parody of the gruff New England style. "D is for Deer — which is a season"; "I is for Idle, which is the kind of hands we find work for" (illustrated by an axe and a pile of chopped wood); "S is for Stanley, easily recognizable by the New York Times he carries in his hand"; "U is for Uppity, which is what summer folks are"; "Y is for Yesterday, which is when the mailman started out."

Franklin speculates on the place of New Hampshire in the genesis of "The Lottery":

Jackson would say that "The Lottery" grew out of this period in their lives — not, as is commonly thought — from the insular community of North Bennington, Vermont, where they were living when she wrote the story. She would give many explanations — or partial explanations — for that story's genesis; still, the influence of New Hampshire seems meaningful.

To their relief, Jackson and Hyman did not have to stay in the Granite State for long, as William Shawn soon offered Hyman a full-time job writing for The New Yorker and they were able to move to Woodside, Queens.

Jackson wrote "The Lottery" in early 1948 (the first dated record of it is March 16, when she sent it to her agent), only a few months after "Pillar of Salt" was first published. Though "The Lottery" is not a friendly picture of small town life, the vision of New Hampshire in the earlier story is not negative. It may be that country living put Margaret onto a dangerously different rhythm, but New York is the terrifying place. Margaret makes some comparisons: "...they sat [in New York] and talked companionably about the same subjects then current in New Hampshire, but they drank more than they would have at home and it left them strangely unaffected; their voices were louder and their words more extravagant; their gestures, on the other hand, were smaller, and they moved a finger where in New Hampshire they would have waved an arm." New York offers energy, but it is also a place where small movements have great consequence. One need not make big gestures in a place where the air zaps with verve and gusto.

While in "Pillar of Salt" we get none of the small town paranoia and smothering traditionalism that is so common to others of Jackson's tales, there is, nonetheless, a sense that the country life is to blame for Margaret no longer being in synch with the city. Perhaps this was one of Jackson's fears: that if she stayed in the country too long, the city would become paralyzing, and were she to return she would no longer be adept at navigating its rhythms, but would instead be trapped by its entropic forces. Perhaps that is the purgatorio here. It is not that the city or the country is inherently evil or apocalyptic, hellish or paradisiacal, but that their tunes cannot be harmonized.


Escape for thy life;
look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain;
escape to the mountain,
lest thou be consumed.

—Genesis 19: 17

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