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My Dear Captive Princess: The Dark Patriarch of Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman.
By Julian Drury
Shirley Jackson’s novel Hangsaman does great work to portray the main character, Natalie Waite, as a book-smart, though awkward and somewhat disturbed young woman. As much as the novel focuses on Natalie, and her slow descent into the darkness of her mind while attending college for girls, she does not come off as the most disturbed personality at play in the novel.
Hangsaman is Jackson's second novel, and was first published in 1951. The novel focuses on the protagonist, seventeen year old Natalie Waite, who is preparing to leave home for college. Of course, as many Shirley Jackson novels end up, the story-line delves into darkness. Natalie soon finds herself isolated in college, trapped by a delusional and anti-social personality. Natalie is intelligent, maybe even brilliant for her age, yet she is not a social character and often despises the other girls attending college with her.
While the story focuses mainly on Natalie and her experiences, it is not her that remains the novel's most complex (and disturbed) character. Natalie's father seems to hold this mantel; the classic dark patriarch of the pre-women's right's era. The father of the 1950's, who holds total power over his family. This power is exercised without any subtlety by Mr. Waite.
Natalie’s father, Arnold Waite, exhibits a personality rife with extreme ego and grandeur. It is also clear, through the course of the novel, that he also has the personality of a sociopath. He perfectly defines a patriarch male narcissism, one that Jackson crafted almost perfectly from similar male figures she knew from the 1940's and 1950's.
From the outset of Jackson’s novel, we get the vibe that the family relationship between Natalie and her father was not “normal.” Arnold Waite considers himself "God" of his household, and man "without equal.” He projects his own character onto his daughter Natalie, whom he desires to mold into an almost carbon copy of himself. The relationship between Mr. Waite and Natalie is very dark, and condescending.
We see this from their first major interaction in the beginning of the novel, in which Mr. Waite is critiquing Natalie’s writings. He has this manner of trying to sound constructive, like he’s trying to help in some way. Then, he’ll end his constructive criticisms with,
“Handsome,” he said, and laughed. “Oh, Natalie, my dear.” And he shook his head helplessly (15).
One clear case of sociopathic behavior is narcissism, which Arnold Waite displays in several occasions. The fact that he addressees himself to his wife as "Your God," is alone enough to get a sense for Mr. Waite's ego. Yet, it doesn't end there. It never ends there in a Shirley Jackson novel.
Mr. Waite's correspondence with Natalie while she was in college is a strong look into the mind of Mr. Waite, and Natalie. Natalie's personality is greatly affected by her father, and he relishes in this. This is mainly evident in the letters, which show clear lack of connection emotionally to his daughter.
He begins one of his letters back to Natalie not with a loving embrace, but instead a cold critique of her writing style in her last letter. Natalie explicitly asked him in her letter “please don’t criticize” because she would be writing the letter fast and unable to edit properly (pg.63). Her father completely ignores her daughter’s request, and does what he seems to do best; criticize.
Needless to say you letters amuse and delight me, although, as I have told you (how humorous I sound!) your style leaves much to be desired; how very often, my dear Natalie, have we, you and I, spent our morning hours puzzling out the intricate filigree of subordinate clause…(please forgive my quoting you, my dear; it is the only way, you know, to improve you.) (104).
This letter delves into further criticisms about the way in which Natalie describes her college experiences in her letter. Rather than praise his daughter and ask more questions about her time, Arnold Waite decides to criticize and mock the grammatical ways in which Natalie wrote her letter. He criticized her short sentences, her descriptions of “learning French”, and ends his letter asking whether or not her English Instructor (Mr. Langdon) had read an article of his in a magazine called The Passionate Review. I wonder what kind of stuff would ever be published in the Passionate Review?
In another set of letters mailed between Mr. Waite and Natalie, he addresses his daughter with "My dear captive princess." Captive princess?
It is as much as any knight can do, these days, to keep in touch with his captive princesses, let alone rescue them...I think of you, princess , languishing in your tower...I keep thinking of you looking, and waiting, with no knight coming (136).
Natalie, however, plays along to her father's game. In reply to her father's letter, she does not resist her father, rather she seems to play along. She addresses her father as "Sir Knight", and her reply seems very unnerving. She opens her letter, to her father, with the following:
It was not you, then, caroling lustily under my window these three past nights? Nor one of your emissaries (137)?
The language being exchanged between father and daughter is almost sickening, if other possibilities are taken into account. "Lustily?" "Captive Princess?" These exchanges could point to a possible sexual relationship between the two, if only subtle. Yet, Jackson never gives the satisfaction of definitive revelation in her novels. Ambiguity has always been a trademark of her fiction, showcased in her short story, The Lottery, and her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House.
The subtle, yet horrifying undertones of Natalie's relationship with her father just take darker turns as the novel progresses. Natalie's father had a plan for her, though, one that required her to suffer.
Perhaps the most chilling letter Mr. Waite sent to Natalie, was one in which he claims that Natalie’s unhappiness at college was “part of his plan.” It becomes chilling the way in which this father consults with his daughter, in a cool non-emotive way that signals a somewhat sociopathic tendency. Mr. Waite compares himself to the style of an “Old-Testament God,” and we see letters between Natalie and her father that reveal a rather twisted relationship.
My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while…As the person who knows you most dearly, and who loves you always the best, I am equally the one most capable of telling you these things. It has been my plan Natalie, all of it (117-118)...
In essence, Arnold Waite knew his daughter would be unhappy in the college he chose for her. Yet, for whatever effect, it was his plan for her to be unhappy and he expects her to “console” herself that he knows best and that his plan for her life will work out in the end. He very much treats his daughter like an extension of himself, therefore, showing little emotion or care for emotion.
In the novel’s beginning, Natalie experienced a great trauma. It is implied that Natalie was sexually assaulted by one of her father’s party guests. Mr. Waite was known for throwing many cocktail parties for his writing associates. It is an implication, though a strong one, that Natalie was assaulted and raped by a party guest she was talking to. Natalie, waking up in the garden, walks into her home while the family ate breakfast. Natalie was bruised on her face and hands, clearly showing signs of physical trauma.
Despite the fact that his daughter walks in clearly traumatized, Mr. Waite simply greets a bruised and violated Natalie who, tells her father “good morning,” simply with, “Natalie.” No remark at all about her condition, or showing any concern. Why, though? Why would, even such a sociopathic father, not show even the slightest concern (or interest) into why his daughter was hurt? Perhaps he was complicit in some way, though it can never be said for sure. It is clear that Mr. Waite was unconcerned of his daughter's trauma.
As far as Mr. Waite was concerned, Natalie was an extension of him. According to him, the two are inseparable. "Without me, you are nothing. Without you, I am nothing" Mr. Waite tells his daughter. He demands that she scrutinize everyone that wants to "be her friend" in college. Mr. Waite also tells Natalie not to develop any ideas of her own without "consulting him first."
Natalie has no agency, as far as her father is concerned. She is merely an extension of him, and therefore she must be molded perfectly to his liking. The dark patriarch rears its ugly head strongly within the character of Arnold Waite. The overbearing and egotistic father who gives no considerations to the feelings or desires of his family. This shapes Natalie into the rather delusional personality she becomes, and perhaps serves as a background to the novel's ending, and Natalie's relationship with the mysterious girl known only as "Tony."
While Shirley Jackson's novel, Hangsaman generally focuses on the fantasies of Natalie, the most disturbed character in this novel is by-far her egotistic and sociopathic father, Arnold Waite. His cold control over the life of his daughter is evident that he does not have empathetic intent.
Natalie's delusions, in a way, are an extension of her father's delusions. He is cool and calculating, always critical, and willing to have his own child suffer in order to advance his “plan.” Like many domineering father figures, especially in the 1950's, the daughter was merely an extension of the father's will. Jackson's novel has forever put a dark twist to the cliche, "Father knows best."
For further reading on Hangsaman:
Shirley Jackson's "Hangsaman." What does it mean?- Slate
Hattenhauer, Darryl "Shirley Jackson's American Gothic" (Albany, 2003) SUNY Press, Chapter 6 (pp. 99-117).
#Real #Hangsaman #ShirleyJackson #SummerReading #FatherKnowsBest
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