Discover more from escape velocity
on books #3
the road through the wall by shirley jackson
In January 2022, I started a writing project around Shirley Jackson’s novels. My goal was to read the novels twice, write a piece for each book, then draw some conclusions about style, theme, and other typical literary things. I also wanted to say something about the act of reading and writing as an “enthusiast,” which I defined as not a true scholar and not a book reviewer, just a person who wants to engage with books.
It’s May 2023, and the project is going… slowly, lol. I’ve read the novels, but I kinda forgot that writing about one book can take a long time, not to mention seven.
The following essay is my first attempt at an analysis of Jackson’s first novel, The Road Through the Wall (1948).
First, I review my notes. My marginalia is on the line level, marks next to especially good sentences, scribbles about how she manages to create tone and atmosphere. I notice after my second reading that the back cover copy of my edition was written by someone who did not know the book:
Welcome to Pepper Street. It’s a really nice, safe California neighborhood. The houses are tidy and the lawns are neatly mowed. . . . And lots of pleasant folks live here—The Merriams, the Fieldings, the Robertses, the Ransom-Joneses, and the Desmonds, just to name a few.
There is only one Fielding. Miss Fielding. No husband, no children. An unlucky guess made by someone flipping through—or more likely, scrolling—the pages, looking for names to pull, to finish their copy-writing assignment. I’ve been in that role many times (though not for novels). I wonder how many mistakes I’ve made.
The basic structure of the book is a series of connected narratives about the families who live on Pepper Street in fictional Cabrillo, California. Most of the stories are told from the emotional core of childhood and early adolescence. The children’s pain, pleasure, and social world is vivid. Most of the book’s time is spent there. The adults are critical and confused, their motives are often prejudiced, vague, or repressed (and usually resented by their children). Some of the stories read like memories. I could pick out moments that may have happened to Jackson. For most of the book, we witness scenes of typical life, learning about the various relationship dynamics at play, until a catastrophic event rips the neighborhood’s delicate social fabric to pieces.
I can divide my thoughts into plot and prose.
On the first page of chapter one, Jackson introduces us to the world of Pepper Street in a 153-word sentence.
[The children] came from Winslow Road, from the school, and they came past the vacant lots first and then down past the Ransom-Joneses on one side and the Perlmans on the other (Marilyn Perlman, however, was always home last, because she left the school a few minutes after everyone else, and walked home alone), and then they passed the Robertses and the Byrnes on one side and the Donalds on the other, and the Roberts boys dropped off, and Pat Byrne, and Tod Donald went home while Virginia Donald and Mary Byrne came along the street slowly with the girls, Harriet Merriam and Helen Williams, and the girls stood on the corner of Pepper and Cortez and talked while the boys went home to leave their jackets and receive from their mothers an apple or a piece of cake, or, in the case of Pat Byrne, a glass of milk and two graham crackers. (p. 9)
Jackson uses this trick a lot, which I’ve bolded. In an otherwise general paragraph, she chooses a character by name and inserts something extremely specific that deviates from what the other characters are doing. We barely know Marilyn Perlman or Pat Byrne, but Marilyn’s going home last and Pat’s snack preference—simply by being different from the other characters—widen the story-world and contribute to the illusion of reality. It doesn’t really matter where the houses are, or what the streets are, only that they are named in the sentence (the Perlmans, the Donalds, the Ransom-Joneses, Winslow Road, Cortez…).
This reminds me of feedback I got on a short story once. There’s so much world-building here, my classmate said. Maybe it should be a novel. All I could think was that there actually wasn’t anything there. I had done no “world-building.” What was written was all I had, but the words had accomplished an illusion of “more.”
This seems like a subtle, but crucial, distinction. Whatever we refer to as “world-building” is not about preempting, planning, or accurate completion. It’s not about excess words. It’s about word choice—using words to make contrasts to make illusions.
And Jackson chooses her words carefully. She is amazing at suggestion. I'd find myself reading a scene, and notice I had picked up on some truth (Mr. Roberts has slept with—or at least hit on—the teenage maid). I have to flip back to find out where I got the idea, because the tension was created so subtly. The following line, describing a scene in which Mr. Roberts and Mrs. Martin decide to spend some time behind the titular wall, is illustrative:
“From the inside of the wall Mr. Roberts said softly, “Not so bad in here,” and Mrs. Martin, after one quick look over her shoulder at the Martin house, gathered her skirt tightly against her legs and edged around the pile of bricks to join him.” (p. 143)
Jackson chops off her sentences. She ends at the moment of suggestion, as if the real action were happening out of the reader’s view. This recurs in later novels (most obviously in The Sundial, where much of the action seems to happen offstage). But we don’t need any more words. We read “edged around the pile of bricks to join him” and know what happens next.
Jackson’s dialogue is another key part of her prose style. One recurring pattern is characters that have conversations, but don’t really speak to each other. They repeat themselves, ignore each other, or have two conversations simultaneously. They hear what they want to hear.
“You like to read, don’t you?” [Marilyn said.] When Harriet moved her head solemnly Marilyn said, “So do I,” and then stopped to think. “Do you get library books?”
“No,” Harriet said. “I’ve never been to the library yet.”
“Me neither,” Marilyn said. “We could get library cards, you know.”
“Have you read Little Women?” Harriet asked.
Marilyn shook her head and said, “Have you read Vanity Fair?”
“I haven’t read that yet,” Harriet said. “I liked Little Women, though.”
“Is it at the library?” Marilyn asked. “I want to get books at the library. They give you a card and you go in and take any books you want and then you bring them back when you’ve read them. Of course you’ve got to take very good care of them.”
“I liked Jo’s Boys too,” Harriet said.
“You want to go down to the library sometime?” (p. 98)
This is Harriet and Marilyn’s first conversation. Harriet is imagining a close, deep friendship with Marilyn. From here on, they refer to each other as special friends. But never once in this conversation are they talking about the same thing. Harriet wants to talk about Little Women. Marilyn wants to talk about the library. Harriet and Marilyn never seem aware that their friendship began with this fundamental miscommunication. Conversations like this are everywhere in Jackson’s work; none of the characters engaged in them call it out or become self-aware about it.
Dialogue patterns like this are exemplary of what Jackson is trying to say about communication. You can take it two ways. Perhaps the details of a conversation are less important for relationships than they seem. Presence is enough. Or, the darker reading: people never understand each other, and never get out of their own way long enough to listen.
Though there are many themes I could talk about, two of the biggest that emerge are something about boundaries and something about violence.
It’s a bit taboo these days to think that children embrace or are even curious about violence. The fact that a huge range of emotions exists for children seems obscured in our culture, or at least cast aside. The accepted state of a child is a “pure” state: uncontaminated, impressionable, and highly vulnerable. This doesn’t track with my memories. As a child, I knew children who were capable of cruelty, desire, and strong acts of will.
From the very start, Jackson shows us the children’s capacity for violence. On Pepper Street, the following children are shown by action, thought, or word to have it in them:
Helen Williams grabbed her little sister by the hair and shook her wildly, back and forth. . . .
“Just listen to me,” she said in her normal voice, “if you ever tell on me again, if you ever tell anything, I’ll cut out your tongue and I’ll slice off all your fingers and I’ll cut a big hole in your stomach with a carving knife and I’ll hit you with a hatchet.” (p. 20).
“When she wanted someone to die it was always Helen Williams.”(p. 18)
[upon hearing about the death] Marilyn smiled involuntarily, and said urgently, “Well, what was it like?” (p. 189)
And one bonus: a letter, found by Tod Donald by the creek. This is a bonus because it’s possible Harriet Merriam wrote it. But the run-on sentence sounds like Marilyn, based on the conversation she has with Harriet about the library:
“I will be a famous actress or maybe a painter and everyone will be afraid of me and do what I say.” (p. 164)
“If he snapped at me I’d kick him in the head and kill him,” Hallie said wisely. “That’s how you kill dogs anyway, you kick them in the head.” (p. 22)
“If I had a truck, you know what I’d do? … I’d run it right into old Missus Merriam’s house and I’d run right over her. … And I’d run over old Harriet and I’d run over old Missus Merriam. … I’ll run into the whole world and kill them.” (p. 46)
Tod threw his next pebble at Hallie Martin because she had spoken up against him, but he missed her and she laughed at him. … Possessed by a sort of frenzy, Tod threw a handful of pebbles together, as hard as he could, into the group of girls on the lawn … Mary Byrne howled and fell over backward, her hands over her face. (p. 36)
Marilyn takes a sort of abstract pleasure in the idea of death (and may like the idea of others being afraid of her). Siblings Hallie and George fantasize about specific violent acts. Helen attacks and threatens her little sister. Tod hurts Mary with the rocks, but he also feels worried about the consequences, and apologizes.
The catastrophe at the end of the book is an act of violence: the youngest child on the street—three-year-old Caroline Desmond—goes missing, and is later found dead by the creek. In the second reading, I’m not just looking for violent potential. I’m looking for evidence of a killer. And you need to get very close to someone to kill them.
The following children have an itch to cross boundaries:
She visits a stranger she met on the street at his apartment, despite Harriet’s misgivings. Flirts and drinks alcohol.
She approaches the construction workers, attempts baldly to flirt, seems to want them to help her run away.
He sneaks into the Desmonds’ house. When she meets an older girl, he wants to touch her hair, he is curious about other people’s private bodies and environments.
She sneaks into the Williams’ house. She wants to “always know where [Harriet] is and what she’s doing”; a desire for “knowing” that could tip into violation.
A capacity for violence is different from a capacity for boundary-crossing. You need both to commit murder. According to these two lists, Hallie Martin, Tod Donald, and Marilyn Perlman are all possibilities.
Let’s walk through the afternoon of Caroline’s disappearance.
Most of the neighborhood was attending a party at the Ransom-Joneses’. It is at this party where Caroline goes missing. I find a few facts: the Martins and Perlmans were not invited to the party. None of them have an alibi. In a real mystery, this could be a critical detail.
The party is climactic on a plot level. People are breaking unspoken social contracts. They’re getting drunk and messy. Mr. Roberts is dancing with Virginia Donald. The social world feels as if it is teetering on the edge of collapse, foretelling the disaster that is about to occur. In the evening, when the guests are leaving (in a disjointed series of comments and half-conversations about the scandals of the party), Mrs. Desmond finally gets her husband’s attention and tells him Caroline is gone.
The men and boys go out in a search party. Pat Byrne is the one who finds Caroline. As he walks along the creek, he sees Caroline’s body “clearly”; “[understanding] perfectly [that] what was all over her head must be blood” (the children face violence in a way the adults repress).
Then we see Tod, hiding behind the wall for a long time. He does not believe his family would ever “bother to look for him.” He falls asleep. When he wakes up, he goes home. His family calls the police. The officer threatens him, tells him that they will “put him in jail.” The officer leaves Tod to “think about it.” By the time he comes back, Tod has hung himself with a clothesline.
Jackson wants to hurt you here. It's gruesome and fast. I find it hard to tolerate—the violent death of a toddler and an adolescent suicide, all within the last 20 pages of the book.
Reviewing the suspects:
Marilyn was not at the party. She has lost her only friend in Harriet (at this point, the friendship has dissolved rather tragically).
Despite meeting both the violent and boundary-crossing criteria, I have to cross her off the list. The state of being “dead”—death as an idea—is what interests her; not so much acts that cause death. Marilyn is also being discriminated against for decidedly bigoted reasons: her family is Jewish. I can imagine that she recognizes her parents are not included in social events for the same reason. She belongs to an isolated unit. I think a killer would need to be more completely, and more psychically, alone.
Tod fits the definition of “psychically alone.” He is fascinated by Caroline because she’s universally adored: she is not yet a child, so she is not yet capable of being rejected. He is also craving closeness. Caroline is the ultimate boundary line. Perhaps Tod found closeness in the violent act? Perhaps Tod took Caroline to the creek to further push the boundaries of his environment?
Tod tries to sell his bike to Pat Byrne. This is perhaps the most suspicious thing he does. In fact, this is what leads the police to suspect him—Pat Byrne comes forward and says that Tod was “acting funny.”
Tod gasps when the police officer threatens him, he relates the feeling to the only reference points he has: movie-ticket collectors, school exams, and doctors. This really isn’t a good comparison to what he is being accused of. Tod rarely understands social cues and can’t predict the consequences of his actions. Throughout the novel, his primary reason for acting is imitation: he witnesses another child doing or saying something and mimics them in an attempt to fit in. His most incriminating boundary-crossing act—sneaking into the Desmonds’ house—happens shortly after he catches Marilyn sneaking into the Williams’s house.
Did Tod see someone commit a violent act against Caroline, then commit a violent act against himself? Did he even intend to kill himself? Mr. Merriam and Mr. Perlman both don’t believe Tod is capable of murder. Tod didn’t have “a spot of blood on him,” and could not have been strong enough to kill Caroline with the rock. The fact that Jackson has Mrs. Merriam insist on Tod’s guilt (due to his “strangeness”) is almost enough to vindicate him completely. Mrs. Merriam is the closest thing the story has to a villain.
But the book refuses to answer any questions beyond planting the seed of doubt. There is something wrong with Tod’s suicide.
And what about Hallie Martin?
Hallie Martin has no alibi for the afternoon or evening. When the search party knocks on the door, Hallie answers, and is quick to say that “it’s nothing, [she’s] sure.” George Martin, fourteen years old, is shown to have some very violent fantasies. What’s going on at the Martin house? There is a brief paragraph of insight into the emotional atmosphere of the family:
Mr. Martin sat apprehensively, in the evenings, thinking on flowers … Mrs. Martin shook her head and kept the children away; her daughter-in-law, mother of George and Hallie, was more silent than usual, and avoided the room where the old man sat. George and Hallie went quietly around the old house, washing when they had to, coming to table when they were called[.] (p. 134)
Mrs. Desmond is shown to keep Caroline away from Hallie Martin specifically. The contrast between Caroline and Hallie is set up early, and Hallie is aware of it:
Caroline was little and delicate and clean, and Hallie was lean and dirty and wet-faced, and after a minute Hallie moved on down the block without crossing the street.
If Hallie had crossed the street and stood outside the Desmond yard, Mrs Desmond would have come out on the side porch to sit quietly until Hallie had gone away; if Hallie stayed Mrs Desmond would finally take Caroline indoors. (p. 21)
And Hallie holds a juvenile animosity toward Caroline:
“Old Caroline,” Hallie said to herself … “Old Caroline wets her pants.” (p. 21)
Hallie is alone. George and Hallie seem to have little connection between them. Their grandfather is entirely concerned with his greenhouses. There is a conflict between their grandparents and their mother; the grandmother wants the mother and her kids to leave. We rarely see Hallie interact with her mother and her father is dead. Hallie has lost an idol after Helen Williams leaves the neighborhood. She attempts to run away. Does she feel that solitude enough to want to finally touch the untouchable Caroline Desmond? Did she bring Caroline to the creek to play; did something bad happen, on purpose or by accident? Did Tod see the whole thing and freak out, helpless under the weight of what he witnessed?
I suppose I am leading up to an accusation: Hallie had as much opportunity—and motive—to kill Caroline Desmond as Tod did.
But at the end of it all, perhaps there’s no point in assigning blame. See Tod Donald, yelling: Don’t you talk to my brother like that! See Miss Fielding and Mr. Donald, enacting their unarticulated bond, but still talking past each other. See Pat Byrne and Art Roberts, lying in the grass, taking turns railing against their fathers.
The Road Through the Wall is an unfolding of scenes illustrating the complexity of community relationships. The ignorance, confusion, violence, fear—and occasional, fleeting connection.
Jackson shows us dark versions of these relationships, to be sure. But there is a lot of darkness in living with others. There is not a single bright utopia to go toward or a virtuous version of humanity to finally achieve, after all this time. Connection is bad and good and violent and safe. None of these things are straightforward unless we, like Mrs. Merriam, bludgeon them into flimsy straightforwardness.
If we hide behind our walls, we still risk being crushed when they fall. Only by emerging, taking stock of the rubble, can we find the road through.