The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson

I’ve become rather fascinated with Shirley Jackson in recent years – a writer whose work taps into the dark side of American suburban life. The Road Through the Wall was Jackson’s debut novel, a slim yet effective story focusing on the inhabitants of a seemingly ordinary street, the sort of setting that seems fairly innocuous on the surface despite the elements of cruelty lurking beneath. While it’s not my favourite of Jackson’s works, The Road is still very much worth reading, especially as a precursor to the masterpieces that followed – an interesting debut that feels very much of a piece with this author’s subsequent work.

First published in 1948 (shortly before the appearance of The Lottery), the novel is set in Pepper Street, a suburban avenue in the fictional town of Cabrillo, some thirty miles from San Francisco. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, especially the women in the neighbourhood.

The Desmonds are Pepper Street ‘aristocracy’, a respectable, upwardly mobile family who seem destined to move a more desirable area in the future.

Beyond the hedge the Desmonds lived in a rambling modern-style house, richly jeweled with glass brick. They were the aristocracy of the neighbourhood, and their house was the largest; their adopted son Johnny, who was fifteen years old, associated with boys whose families did not live on Pepper Street, but in neighborhoods where the Desmonds expected to live someday. (p. 2)

Various other families are introduced in the novel’s prologue – some on their way up in life, others on their way down.

The year is 1936, and it’s the start of the summer holidays, a time when the children can roam the streets – playing games and forming cliques as youngsters are apt to do. What Jackson does so well in this novel is to show how the prejudices and petty jealousies of the adults filter down to the mindsets and behaviours of their children, ultimately creating friction between the various families in the street. In short, the children’s actions are shaped almost entirely by their parents’ snobberies and preconceptions.

The Perlmans are shunned by the other residents of Pepper Street, largely because of their Jewish heritage which marks them out as being ‘different’ from the norm. When Harriet Merriam’s mother realises that her daughter is friendly with Marilyn Perlman, she forces young Harriet to stop seeing the girl. Clearly, there are ‘standards’ to be maintained, however interesting our new friends may seem to be…

“We must expect to set a standard. Actually, however much we may want to find new friends whom we may value, people who are exciting to us because of new ideas, or because they are different, we have to do what is expected of us.”

“What is expected of me?” Harriet said suddenly, without intention.

“To do what you’re told,” her mother said sharply.

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“You may,” her mother said, “in fact I insist,” she added with relish, “that you see her once more, in order to tell her exactly why you are not to be friends any longer. After all,” Mrs Merriam went on dreamily, “she ought to know why she can’t hope to be your friend any longer.” (pp. 148–149)

Mrs Merriam also punishes her daughter for writing harmless love letters and keeping secret journals, things than many children do as natural ways of expressing themselves, especially during adolescence. Mrs Merriam, however, is disgusted by her daughter’s behaviour, viewing her writing as shameful and repugnant. (There is a sense that Jackson may be drawing on some of her own childhood experiences here, particularly as Geraldine Jackson – Shirley’s mother – was driven by a strong desire for conformity.)

Also excluded from various social gathering are the Martins, a simpleminded family who remain rather passive in relation to their neighbours. Mrs Merriam would prefer it if fourteen-year-old Harriet could distance herself from the two Martin children, George (also 14) and Hallie (9). However, the fact that the two families live next door to one another makes any segregation virtually impossible, especially as the children tend to play communally.

In this novel, Jackson shows herself to be adept at exposing the flaws in the veneer of normality. Behind the seemingly respectable facades, there are instances of emotional bullying, longstanding resentments and thinly-veiled prejudices. Snobbishness and casual racism are widespread, particularly amongst the women. Those who consider themselves above the fray are especially guilty of hypocrisy – seizing the moral high ground with one breath while sneering and spreading malicious gossip with the next.

As the novel draws to its dramatic conclusion, Jackson takes it up a notch, accentuating the sense of foreboding that runs through the whole narrative. When a mysterious disappearance occurs during a garden party, the finger of suspicion falls on Tod Donald, rather odd, awkward boy who is considered to be something of a misfit. The fact that he has already crept into the Desmonds’ house and rummaged through Mrs D’s dress closet only adds to reader’s suspicions.

Jackson is careful to leave a degree of ambiguity in the novel’s ending, raising questions about the exact nature of the incidents towards the end. What is clear though is her understanding of humanity, the capacity for cruelty and violence that can lie therein. A taut, unsettling novel from this uncompromising writer – well worth seeking out, especially for Jackson devotees.

The Road Through the Wall is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.  

36 thoughts on “The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson

  1. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read this one yet, but, like you, would read anything Jackson wrote. As you were describing it, it struck me it bears some similarity to Summerwater by Sarah Moss.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s a very interesting comparison. I think I can see where you’re going with that – different families, all in close proximity with one another; simmering tensions in the community; an explosive, claustrophobic feel to the situation – you just know that something awful is going to happen, right? I preferred Jackson’s novel to the Moss, particularly the pacing (Summerwater felt rushed to me, especially at the end). Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating line of thought!

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        Yesm the rushed ending in Summerwater did spoil it somewhat for me. Now I have to get hold of this SJ novel – possibly one of the few of her works I don’t own.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Well, we could always include it as part of your subscription! Let me know if you’d like me to do that – alternatively, you might prefer a surprise. Either is fine! J x

          Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    Rather like apartment buildings, residential streets make great settings for this kind of novel. Everyone apparently respectable, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. I wonder if David Lynch is a fan of Jackson’s work. His film Blue Velvet has the feel of an Jackson story, the insights into the horrors that lurk behind the white picket fence…

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Although I have read quite a few of Shirley Jackson’s short stories, I’ve only read two of her novels. This one I’d not even heard of. I love the idea of portraying the life of a street and its inhabitants. There must be so many stories on every street! Shirley Jackson is such a fascinating writer, I really must read more by her. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali! I think what’s fascinating about this novel is how you can almost see Jackson mapping out her territory, laying some of the groundwork for the masterpieces that were to follow…

      Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Although I’ve yet to read the bulk of her fiction, I’ve been a Shirley fan since I first read The Haunting of Hill House, many, many years ago. Fairly recently, I re-read We Have Always Lived at the Castle, which is almost as good.
    I very much enjoyed your review and I’m definitely adding The Road Through the Wall to my little SJ shelf!
    Regarding related SJ material: I’ve been meaning to check out her biography, A Haunted Life, for some time. I don’t read many bios but this one had great reviews. Last spring I read Shirley, A Novel, a (very) heavily fictionalized account of actual events in which Jackson & her husband are major characters. Although I had mixed feelings about it, it was an interesting, quick read. I’m not sure if it appeared in the U.K., but the novel was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Moss.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I would definitely recommend this novel as it’s a very interesting insight into the genesis of some of Jackson’s favourite themes, particularly the treatment of ‘outsiders’ and those who are ‘different’ in some way from the rest of their community. The Franklin biography, A Rather Haunted Life, is terrific. I actually read it just before this novel – in a way it prompted me to go back to Jackson’s early fiction, just before the notoriety of The Lottery. I’m not planning to write about the biography — mainly because it’s very detailed — but I would have absolutely no hesitation in recommending that you chase it down. It really does give the reader a tremendous insight into Jackson’s mindset around the time of writing each book.

      While I haven’t read the source novel you mention, I have see Josephine Decker’s adaptation of it. Much as I love Elisabeth Moss (who gives a richly-imaged performance in the lead role), I wasn’t very keen on the overall film, which for me seemed to fall between two stools – neither conventional enough to be a straight biopic nor wild enough to fully create the feel of a Shirley Jackson story. From the interviews I’ve seen, Decker appeared to be going for the latter, but sadly I don’t think she pulled it off…

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        Sadly, I agree with your assessment of the movie although, as you say, Elizabeth Moss was very good. The source novel is much better, although I did have qualms about fictionalizing Jackson’s life in that particular way (not sure how her family felt about it either).
        I’ll definitely be adding the bio to my next book binge!
        Also, I had forgotten that I’ve actually taken a quick skim of Jackson’s humorous writing, also many years ago (Life Among the Savages). Since I was looking for another Hill House, it failed to charm at that time, which was totally unfair of me. I believe it’s highly regarded and it certainly shows how versatile Jackson is as a writer. I really should try it again!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I bought a copy of Life Among the Savages after reading about it in Franklin’s biography. As you say, maybe another try would be beneficial for you. Timing can be a tricky thing when it comes to books, especially if they’re written in a style that feels somewhat different from a writer’s usual register…

          Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui. From my limited reading of Jackson, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the word foreboding. There’s always an underlying sense of unease in her stories (I’ve only read short ones) and it sounds as if this one has the same feel. Interesting that she nailed that so early in her writing career! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. It’s always interesting, I think, to go back to the beginning of a favourite writer’s career to see where they started. That sense of foreboding is definitely something that Jackson conveys very well, a feeling that something awful might happen at any given moment…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a great way of putting it. Every though she’s often riffing on similar themes, the individual books (or stories themselves) do feel distinct from one another. That’s probably because she is SO good with situation and character. A truly wonderful writer!

      Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    I was just thinking at the weekend about writers inspired by the suburbs so this is a perfectly timed review for me! Jackson’s unsettling quality is just perfect for destabilising the conformity. I’ve not read this but it sounds intriguing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! Well, this fits right into that theme, for sure. The horrors lurking beneath the superficial veneer of respectability – and, as you say, she is so skilled when it comes to destabilising that vision. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point!

      Reply
  7. buriedinprint

    This isn’t one I’ve got, but I hope I’ll be able to find a copy. She’s someone I often consider rereading (and there are at least a couple that I never read) but I always think of just reading them willy-nilly rather than working through them chronologically (even though that’s my bent with many other writers’ works)…you’d got me thinking about that differently now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m really glad I went back to the beginning with Jackson to see here she started from – especially having just read the biography, which naturally follows her development in chronological order. It’s a very interesting book – not as polished as her later novels, but no slouch either. It’s clearly written by the same author as We Have Always Lived… as one can see a connection between the portrayals of the communities. All those prejudices and hypocrisies just waiting to come out…

      Reply
  8. Jane

    I haven’t read any Shirley Jackson, she’s one of my many finds through blogging and the classics club, this is definitely something I need to put right! If you could choose just one would it be The Road?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If we’re talking just one, then it would definitely be We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s Jackson’s masterpiece – a truly magical book that taps into so many of her themes, particularly society’s suspicions of outsiders or anyone who seems ‘different’ from the norm. You have such a treat in store!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. Julé Cunningham

    I wonder if David Lynch was inspired by Jackson’s work – there is that unsettling mold behind the wallpaper feel to their work. Just starting Paraic O’Donnell’s ‘The House on Vesper Sands’ which is giving me that vibe too. Wonderful write-up Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jule! Yes, I wondered about the David Lynch–Shirley Jackson connection too, especially with something like Blue Velvet – that sense of horror lurking behind the white picket fence…

      I’ve heard some great things about The House on Vesper Sands, particularly in terms of atmosphere and mood. A good one to pick up!

      Reply
  11. Simon T

    I was so pleased when Penguin reissued her early stuff – I’ve now read all her novels, and found this one really intriguing. The way it flits in and out of concrete reality a little – which really becomes accentuated in Hangsaman – was so interesting and made it much more than the sum of its parts IMO.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, now you’ve made me all the more eager to read Hangsaman, which will almost certain be my next Jackson. That’s a good point about the blurring of margins between the real and the imaginary. She does that very well in some of her short stories – and in The Haunting of Hill House, which still scares me silly every time I think of it!

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    I may pick this up. I loved House and Castle of course, but to be honest was less taken by her shorts. This though sounds interesting and it’s intriguing to see her playing a straighter story.

    Blue Velvet’s opening is one of Lynch’s finest moments, among many fine moments…

    Reply

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