Serving Up Food and Fear: Shirley Jackson’s Kitchen Symbolizes the Oppression of Women

Shirley Jackson (Photo credit: Erich Hartmann)

Some people will take me to task for discussing women’s oppression – mostly white women, yes – in the current climate of outrage over George Floyd’s murder.  Frankly, I don’t think I have ever been so outraged by anything in my life as I was by that murder. The time indeed has come for wrongs of all sorts to be dealt with, for oppressive laws and actions to be curtailed. I pray that will happen. And soon.

But why, you might ask, am I writing about women and the oppression they’ve experienced? And still do experience.

I realize that not all oppression is the same. But as with the #MeToo movement, the listings of the oppressions suffered by black people in America have stirred up memories and feelings in me, reminding me of things I’ve tried to forget and ignore over the years. Like being at parties where people asked my husband what he did, but ignored me as if I weren’t even there. Or the time a professor gave all the men in a seminar As and the two women – me and another woman – Bs, although our work was much better than most of the men’s. The same professor who said as long as he was department chairman, he’d never hire a female faculty member.

I could go on and on.

So these memories seeped out when I picked up a potato peeler, when I worried once again what to make for dinner, when I thought more about being at university or in the work place, when I looked at old photos of my female ancestors.

Some of those ancestors were lucky to finish high school. Many of their names not recorded in family histories.

But the kicker came while watching the recent film, “Shirley,” starring Elizabeth Moss as the writer Shirley Jackson. The scenes of the household, the kitchen, the parties, dinner tables, and the wine glasses triggered something in me. Seeing that brilliant woman caught in the web spun by white male patriarchy, well, it undid me, hitting below the belt, so to speak. Jackson’s husband Stanley Hyman played a huge role in both supporting her and denigrating her. Worse still, her work was not taken seriously by the gatekeepers of the publishing world, her genre dismissed and substandard and non-literary.

Every year, it seems like major publishers rediscover underappreciated, dead women writers. Shirley Jackson, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Clarice Lispector, Jane Bowles. There is always a great flurry of attention around these women, a posthumous literary coronation that is equal parts exciting and painful, like discovering at her funeral that a long-ago, seemingly unrequited crush in fact loved you madly. ~ Carmen Maria Machado

Food and eating played a big role in Jackson’s life, from the earliest days as her socialite mother attempted to control Jackson’s eating, because all her life Jackson dealt with a weight problem. Her rage against her mother Geraldine’s constant criticism underlies much of her work. It didn’t help that one of the legends surrounding Shirley Jackson is that she ate or cooked with “a pound of butter a day.” (Ingraham, page 11)

In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s character Merricat kills off her family by spiking some blackberries with arsenic mixed in with the sugar, except for her innocent sister in crime, Constance, who loves to bake. And their befuddled Uncle Julian survives as well. Merricat is adventurous, while Constance – her name a clue in itself – takes domesticity seriously. These two sisters represent, most likely, the two sides of Shirley Jackson herself. And possibly the two sides to every woman who finds herself hemmed in by society’s demands and expectations.

As Ingraham and Mullins state, “What makes Jackson significant, and what people often deny about mid-century women, is that she negotiates the global and political through the domestic, with each sphere equally configured as a space of terror. In her later novels, Jackson’s focus on food voices the fears of women whose own lives were often constrained by the endless planning and preparation of meals, as she links food and foodways with the terror often wrought by the home in a world saturated with unspoken fears of the worldly and the otherworldly.”

It’s a coup for Jackson that these themes continue to resonate so strongly for modern readers, but it’s also a sadness because one wishes women’s lives had changed more. ~ Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Although the times are different, women have made huge strides since Jackson’s early death in 1962 at age 48. Oppression takes different forms, but the rage against it, in my opinion, provides a common denominator for the oppressed, to join people together to to put an end to all forms of oppression. Shirley Jackson’s work wasn’t taken as seriously during her lifetime and she was caught in a historical moment when women’s lives were far more circumscribed than they are now. After all, these days women can buy property and apply for credit cards and stay out all night and still get back into their dorms on college campuses without being locked out at 10 p.m. … .

Containment. Physical and mental and emotional.

Then, and still now, the way the powers-that-be seek to control people takes the form of containment. And that has been the rule, until now, for people of color, too. Now, that ploy hopefully is coming to an end.

The importance of art and literature in examining society is so, so important, isn’t it?

References and Further Reading:

Cooking with Shirley Jackson

The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson

How to Suppress Women’s Criticism: On Neil Gaiman, Shirley Jackson, and the importance of not erasing women’s writing

Spooky Stories

We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (film)

Would you Like a Cup of Tea?: Food, Home, and Mid-Century Anxiety in the Later Novels of Shirley Jackson“, by Shelley Ingraham and Willow G. Mullins