Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Shirley Jackson’s “The Man in the Woods” was originally published in the April 28, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m working my way through Penguin Classics’ reissues of Shirley Jackson’s work (and loving it), so this formerly unpublished story is exciting to see! Even if I do not always love a Shirley Jackson story itself, I almost always love reading it for its atmosphere and suspense. That turned out to be the case here: “The Man in the Woods” has a suffocating, eerie atmosphere and masterful build-up to the final (somewhat disappointing, in my opinion) line. Then again, I just might not understand the line, so please comment below on what you think it means.
We join the protagonist, Christopher, as he is walking down a forested road, a long long road:
He had been walking since morning, and all day the day before that, and the day before that, and days before that, back into the numberless line of walking days that dissolved, seemingly years ago, into the place he had left, once, before he started walking.
As he walks, the trees threaten, “mounted heavily into the road.” He does have a companion, a nameless cat who joined him not long after a crossroads, at which he took the forest road.
I started reading the first few paragraphs just after they were published. I had planned to simply browse them and read the story today, since it was getting late, but I couldn’t stop once I started. Though I had no idea where the story would take me, like Christopher I thought, “Road’s got to go somewhere.”
And we come to nicely maintained stone house at the end of the long road (“which was not a road at all, of course, but merely a way to the house”). Christopher has a fleeting thought — which rings ominous to us readers — about “the other way, long before, the he had not followed.” That’s the last time that other way comes up explicitly, but we assume it’s going to cross Christopher’s mind again, just after this story ends.
At the house he is greeted by two friendly women who invite him in for dinner. One of the ways Jackson creates atmosphere — while critiquing the way we interact with each other socially — is through slanted manners. These two women are solicitous and not the least surprised to find Christopher. Everything seems normal, but since nothing is normal about the situation, it’s like looking at a warped version of a quaint visit. Then, these two talkative women become silent, passive, and deferential as can be when the host, a man named Oakes comes to meet the guest.
The tension continues to build. The trees continue to push in on the stone house.
And so it’s a fun story, but to me it does feel unfinished. There are a lot of elements planted in the story that don’t quite seem to go anywhere: one of the women is named Circe, and they also have a cat, named Grimalkin. Indeed, the witch imagery is everywhere; Christopher might as well be Hansel in the forest, finally finding a comforting home. There’s the long road, the crossroads, and Oakes, who feels like an incarnation of The Green Man.
And yet . . . where does all of this take us? What story is Jackson trying to tell here? There is a conclusion to the story — Christopher is left in peril — and yet, despite fine writing throughout, the structure feels like a draft.
Nevertheless, I do recommend it, and not just selfishly so you can help me understand it better (but, yes: I can’t wait to hear what others think about “The Man in the Woods”).
The hero of Shirley Jackson’s “The Man in the Woods” seems to have chosen an essentially solitary life path, something that takes him away from the conventional society of towns and farms.
Immediately, I think of writers, artists, scholars, philosophers, inventors, explorers or monks — all people of solitary pursuits. Jackson, in the first section of this story, seems to be emphasizing that some life choices inevitably involve alien territory and isolation. The fact that the hero has left off studying to embark upon a quest reminds me of all those above endeavors, not to mention the current crop of kids leaving college to pursue their fortunes in Silicon Valley. The story seems timely, even if written decades ago.
The story forces the hero into what is almost an almost ordained to-the-death confrontation with a similarly solitary and intense elder. The hero has turned into a forest, and then has stumbled upon a house, or a manor; the lord of this manor feeds him, takes him in, and also takes him on a tour of the house.
I would pause, here, however, to suggest that the young hero, although seeming similar to an artist in his lonely quest, may also represent just a phase in a young man’s development, the phase when he must set aside adolescence and take up adult life. So while the story reminds me of those questers I mentioned above, the writers and inventors, et cetera, it also reminds me of the path into adulthood, a maturation that may require a journey into a dark wood.
The fact that the young man’s visit at the house begins with his cat besting the lord’s cat in a fight foreshadows a possibly violent denouement. The fact that the two women in the house take all that in stride seems strange, but then, the whole story is strange. I want to say more about the two women, but first I want to stress the two areas of the house that the lord shows the young man — the records room and the roses. It is as if the older man is acting like a guide. He urges the young man to pay attention to the roses, but also says, “Don’t forget that they were mine.”
It is as if the older man is abdicating to the younger man.
Jackson does not expand upon the importance of the records and the roses, except to say that although the older man guards the records, he doesn’t understand them, and that he seems surprised that the young man thinks the roses could cover the house. It is as if Jackson is using them symbolically to indicate what the hero must embrace — both the mysteries of the past and the importance of nurturing the present into bloom.
Even though the story puts me in mind of the life of an artist, I think that Jackson, who was a mother as well as an artist, was thinking about the coming-of-age that we must all go through, a coming of age that we think of as a matter of fact process, when in fact, coming of age can be a to-the-death battle, a battle with society, with parents, or with the culture of religion or work.
In my own profession (teaching), there was in any school I taught the distinct hierarchy of stars and lords (and ladies). To blaze new ground inevitably invited a fight to the death, so to speak. I eventually became a department coordinator and had to observe the other teachers. Several times, while sitting in the back of yet another high school classroom, I felt the shock of greatness in another teacher. Displaced! I associate Jackson’s story with that kind of experience — the teacher being judged having the courage to blaze forth, and the observing teacher having the courage to absorb blaze.
So the mother in Shirley Jackson was saying that to be the hero of your own life is of necessity a violent thing. By the nature of life itself, survival will displace others.
She suggests that magic helps. By magic, though, I think she may mean the intuitive power of women. The two women that open the house to the young man appear magical, with their cat, Grimalkin, with their tally sheet written on the kitchen wall (of other young men who a appeared and failed?). One of the women is named Circe, indicating that she is a “witch” of some sort. She is the woman who prepares and feeds the young man delicious food. There is the feeling that perhaps the two women have chosen this young man, and perhaps they feed him a potion in their food that gives him strength.
In the “This Week in Fiction” interview, Jackson’s son explains that Jackson chose the names for her characters very carefully. The women’s names are from Greek mythology, the cat’s is from Scottish lore, the lord’s name is “Mr. Oakes,” as if he is a part of nature itself, or of the forest that the young man has chosen as his life-path, and the hero’s name is Christopher, clearly related to Christianity or Christ. It is as if the hero is part of a frame: he must contend with the father figure, he must accept nurture from witch-like women, and he must survive.
It is curious that the hero’s name is Christopher. Will the character, named for Christ, slay the father-figure? That is the question. We don’t know. A battle between positive action and acquiescence seems to have been set up, or perhaps the necessity for a new way.
The story puts me in mind of the Harold Bloom idea that great poets must “kill” their poetic progenitors, and that this battle must be the crux of their formation as an artist. “The Anxiety of Influence” was published in 1973, long after Jackson’s death in 1965, so I am not suggesting any actual connection, only that the story reminds me of Bloom.
At the same time, I am also reminded of the strategies of appeasement that didn’t work with Hitler. He eventually had to be faced and killed. That the story would have political overtones should not be surprising; Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery” is nothing if not political.
As “The Man in the Woods” ends, Jackson’s hero is faced with this situation: he is to meet the old man by the river, and he knows the old man has sharpened his knife. The old man calls out to the hero in a startlingly authoritative voice, asking “Who is he dares enter these my woods?” What will happen?
The ambiguity of the title is significant. Which figure is the man? It is as if authority is reconfigured every time there is a challenge and a fight. The one who wins will be the man.
That leads us to a difficult question: Jackson was a powerful writer, but she was a woman writing just before the era when being a publicly powerful woman was a commonplace occurrence. Why would she write a story that seemed to make women secondary?
She specifically alludes to powerful women being thought of as witches, having named one of the women Circe, and having given her a cat named Grimalkin. She names the companion woman Phyllis, a name associated with someone left behind, someone who must acquiesce to men, given that the original Phyllis was a woman whom Demophon married on his way back from the Trojan War, but a woman he left behind when he returned to Greece. Phyllis apparently committed suicide.
So Jackson has set up a pair of women and a pair of men, and in both pairs there is the question of whether or not one of the pair will acquiesce, be beaten, or be the one to survive. She does make it clear that society views the powerful man as a kind of lord, at least until age weakens him, and it is also clear that younger men are called upon to topple or challenge the lord or the one wielding power. And she does make it clear that women are often in the position of being witch or suicide — or in the position of choosing to be powerful or weak or alive or dead.
The four characters comprise a kind of family unit, Circe and Oakes being the parent figures, powerful and frightening. Christopher and Phyllis comprise the “children.” Phyllis appears to be almost a prisoner, while Christopher appears to be somewhat childlike and trusting. Jackson may be pointing to our psychology, but she may also be pointing to political realities that control us.
The story embodies numerous mysteries. For one, just how many young men have happened into this peculiar domain? The tally on the wall feels somewhat ominous. In fact, I got the distinct impression that perhaps this weird “family” ate the challengers who did not survive the duel with Mr. Oakes. Whether they did or not is not really the point. The point is, this is a do or die encounter, and Jackson means it to be ominous. The hero is going to have to “read” the situation accurately. Which path will he take when he leaves the house? Will he take on the old man, despite the old man’s sharp knife? Or will he high-tail it out there? Or will he retreat until he can figure out a way to deal with the old man?
The “family” seems to think this is the one.
The story invites discussion. I have a take: that it is somehow about striking a new middle ground between acquiescence and power, or between suicide and life, a stance that might allow the roses to flourish, the roses representing perhaps all that is good in society. Somehow the story invites more exploration.
Mystery is clearly one of Jackson’s most potent devices. In this case, however, perhaps the story can only be fully understood as a piece of the whole of her work, especially considering her uses of politics, myth, archetype, and psychology.