The Road Through the Wall (Penguin Classics)

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9780143107057: The Road Through the Wall (Penguin Classics)

The compelling novel that began Shirley Jackson's legendary career

Pepper Street is a really nice, safe California neighborhood. The houses are tidy and the lawns are neatly mowed. Of course, the country club is close by, and lots of pleasant folks live there. The only problem is they knocked down the wall at the end of the street to make way for a road to a new housing development. Now, that’s not good—it’s just not good at all. Satirically exploring what happens when a smug suburban neighborhood is breached by awful, unavoidable truths, The Road Through the Wall is the tale that launched Shirley Jackson’s heralded career.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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About the Author:

Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was first published in the New Yorker in 1948. Her works available from Penguin Classics include We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, and Come Along with Me and Life Among the Savages available from Penguin.

Ruth Franklin is currently working on a biography of Shirley Jackson and is a book critic and contributing editor at the New Republic. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

“My goodness, how you write,” John Farrar wrote to Shirley Jackson after receiving the manuscript of The Road Through the Wall, her first novel. It was July 1947, almost exactly a year before the appearance of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker would make Jackson the most talked-about short story writer in America, but her career was already off to a promising start. The previous few years had seen nearly a dozen of her stories published in The New Yorker, as well as other respected magazines. After Jackson gave birth to her first child, a son, in 1942, the family relocated to Vermont so that her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, could teach at Bennington College. There Jackson began writing The Road Through the Wall.

Jackson once told her daughter Sarah that “the first book is the book you have to write to get back at your parents. . . . Once you get that out of your way, you can start writing books.” The parental crime to be avenged may have been simply the Jacksons’ effort to provide their daughter with a typical suburban childhood—to which she was by all accounts spectacularly unsuited. The novel is set in the fictional California town of Cabrillo, which bears certain similarities to Burlingame, where Jackson grew up: a middle-class suburb within commuting distance from San Francisco, with its majority-WASP population beginning to show the stress of an influx of newcomers, including Catholics, Jews, and Chinese. And certain incidents—in the first scene, the protagonist, Harriet Merriam, comes home to discover that her mother has been reading her private writings—may be drawn from Jackson’s life.

But it would be wrong to suggest that The Road Through the Wall is predominantly autobiographical. An ensemble novel with a large cast of characters, the book narrates the happenings on a single street from the perspective of a dispassionate onlooker. If it draws upon Jackson’s experiences as a girl, it does so mainly to the extent that she was an uncommonly close observer who speculated, based on details real or imagined, that beneath the sunny surfaces of her neighbors’ lives there lay darker secrets: infidelity, racial and ethnic prejudice, and basic cruelty.

The last point extends especially to the novel’s children, who are treated with at least as much gravity as the adults and are well their equals in connivance and inhumanity. The story centers around Harriet’s struggles to fit in with the other children on the block, and her short-lived friendship with Marilyn, another outsider. (Friendship between girls and women is a central theme in nearly all of Jackson’s novels, and she is a particularly close observer of the small rituals by which these intimacies are created.) But Marilyn’s family is Jewish, and the prejudice of the other neighbors—always expressed subtly, in the politest terms—is unmistakable. When one family organizes the children on the block for a Shakespeare reading, for instance, they exclude Marilyn out of false concern that she will be offended by The Merchant of Venice. Finally, Harriet’s mother tells her to break off their friendship. “We must expect to set a standard,” she says. “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.”

We have to do what is expected of us: It is hard to think of a better definition of conformity. One of the novel’s surprises is the essential role that women play in enforcing society’s expectations. The Road Through the Wall exists almost entirely in the world of women and children: Nearly all the action takes place after the men have gone off to work. It would be a stretch to call it a feminist novel, not least because Jackson seems to have had an allergy to the word. Still, the way she portrays certain of her characters’ attitudes strikingly anticipates the movement to come: One neighbor regards herself as “something more than a housewife,” and is scorned by the others for putting on airs. But no escape is possible from the hothouse of hostility in which these women exist. The psychological intrigues that dominate their lives turn out to be far from superficial: In fact, they have the power to bring down the neighborhood. Things start to fall apart not long after Harriet’s rejection of Marilyn, and the pace of disintegration accelerates until the novel’s disastrous conclusion.

The novel includes well over a dozen characters, but Jackson’s control over her material is superb. She parcels out scenes in perfect rhythm, maintaining the book’s taut atmosphere. Every description is carefully calculated for what it reveals, both about the character to whom it refers and the person whose attitude it represents. When Marilyn sneaks into the home of Helen Williams, the girl who is her chief tormentor, as the family is moving out, she notices the poor quality of the furniture and regrets having been so easily intimidated: “Helen dressed every morning for school in front of that grimy dresser, ate breakfast at that slatternly table . . . no one whose life was bounded by things like that was invulnerable.” Jackson’s readers will recognize here the early flutterings of her interest in houses and their furnishings as expressions of psychological states: One unfortunate family lives in “a recent regrettable pink stucco with the abortive front porch . . . unhappily popular in late suburban developments.” (In an astonishing, almost throwaway aphorism, Jackson comments: “No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy.”)

Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work. But it is marvelously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style. There are wonderful moments of humor, as when one of the neighborhood girls, seeking to decorate her living room with some high-class art, accidentally orders a set of pornographic photographs. And the Merriam household is an all-too-convincing portrait of familial dysfunction. After Harriet’s mother discovers her daughter’s secret writings, she forces Harriet to burn them in the furnace while her father sits obliviously at the dinner table: “Seems like a man has a right to have a quiet home,” he grumbles to himself. Later Harriet and her mother will spend afternoons writing together: Mrs. Merriam writes a poem titled “Death and Soft Music,” while Harriet’s is called “To My Mother.” A childhood poem in Jackson’s archive bears a similar title.

The Road Through the Wall was published by Farrar, Straus in January 1948 to a largely unappreciative audience. Critics were put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion. But some recognized Jackson’s inimitable gift for diagnosing the “little secret nastinesses” of the human condition. Jackson, it seems, was not discouraged by the reviews. At any rate, she was hardly dissuaded from using her fiction to tell her readers unpleasant truths about themselves. Those who were nonplussed by this first depiction of a small town in which the residents gradually undo one another must have been utterly astonished by the thunderbolt that came next. But for readers with the sense to take Jackson seriously from the start, “The Lottery” was a natural sequel—and a deserved vindication.

RUTH FRANKLIN

The weather falls more gently on some places than on others, the world looks down more paternally on some people. Some spots are proverbially warm, and keep, through falling snow, their untarnished reputations as summer resorts; some people are automatically above suspicion. Mr. John Desmond and Mr. Bradley Ransom-Jones and Mr. Michael Roberts and Miss Susannah Fielding, all of whom lived on Pepper Street in a town called Cabrillo, California, thought of their invulnerability as justice; Mr. Myron Perlman and possibly Mr. William Byrne, also of Pepper Street, would have been optimistic if they thought of it as anything less than fate. No man owns a house because he really wants a house, any more than he marries because he favors monogamy, but all these men were married and most of them owned houses, and they regarded themselves as reasonable and unselfish and even, to themselves, as responsible. They all lived on Pepper Street because they were able to afford it, and none of them would have lived there if he had been able to afford living elsewhere, although Pepper Street was charming and fairly expensive and even comfortably isolated. The town of Cabrillo, in 1936, was fortunate in housing such people as Mr. Desmond and his family.

The Desmonds had lived on Pepper Street longer than anyone else, because when Mr. Desmond was able to build his home (he rented the first house he lived in with his wife) he chose a good location in a neighborhood not yet developed but undeniably “nice.” The Desmond house was on the corner of Pepper Street and Cortez Road, facing Pepper Street, with a large garden to the side along Pepper Street and tall blank windows on the Cortez Road side. The tall windows belonged on the inside to the Desmond living-room where the family sat in the evenings, and the Venetian blinds were always closed after dark. When the Desmonds moved in, their daughter Caroline had not been born, and the hedge around the visible sides of the house was inches high. By the time Caroline was three, the hedge was waist high and required the services of a boy every Saturday to keep it trimmed. Beyond the hedge the Desmonds lived in a rambling modern-style house, richly jeweled with glass brick. They were the aristocracy of the neighborhood, 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 some day.

Next door to the Desmonds, on Pepper Street, was the orchard of apple trees which successfully hid the house of crazy old Mrs. Mack, and beyond that was the Byrne house where fourteen-year-old Pat Byrne and twelve-year-old Mary lived under Mrs. Byrne’s rigid faith, and from which they issued every morning with faces glowing from hard soap. Their house was a recent regrettable pink stucco with the abortive front porch made of a mantel over the front door and a slight unreliable iron railing on either side of the one step, a front porch unhappily popular in late suburban developments. Mr. Byrne had not built this house, neither did he own it, but he paid the rent for it regularly.

Next door to the Byrnes were the Robertses. Mike Roberts had been a cavalry officer in 1917 and had felt ever since that life without his horse was restricting. His wife had helped the architect with the plans for their house, and it began with bravado and ended weakly with a flat ugly goldfish pond never finished in the back yard. In front it had a sweeping wide concrete porch upon which bougainvillea would not grow—although the Perlmans next door had it in profusion—and was thickly surrounded with bushes which were inadequate to disguise the fact that the roof was colonial, the windows modern, and the whole a gaudy yellow. The Roberts family had two children, Art and young Jamie. Art Roberts and Pat Byrne were free with one another’s houses, and had once built a telephone of tin cans and pieces of string between their bedroom windows.

The Perlmans were the only Jewish family on Pepper Street, and lived sheltered under their masses of bougainvillea. They lived in a house which they rented, although it must have had the proper number of bedrooms and adequate closet space, since they never moved. The Perlmans’ driveway was barely separated from the vacant lot next door by a grey picket fence; from their dining-room windows the Perlmans would survey the reaches of empty grass and shortcut paths which ended at Winslow Road, cutting north and south across Pepper Street’s east and west. There was another vacant lot just across Pepper Street; it lay next to the Ransom-Jones house, which was then roughly across the street from the Perlmans’.

Mr. and Mrs. Ransom-Jones and her sister lived on Pepper Street, probably, because like Mr. Desmond they were not rich enough to live in the style they coveted and not proud enough to live in opposition to it. They devoted themselves, instead, to a garden which swept up from the sidewalk to the end of their lot, compensating for the tiny house, which might have been quaint and cottage-like, but was inadequate by Ransom-Jones standards. The Ransom-Jones garden, however, stretched so far that the house was almost hidden from its neighbors, and it was necessary for Mrs. Ransom-Jones to leave her front door and walk halfway down the stepping-stones before she could see the street. The Donalds were the Ransom-Jones’s neighbors, pushed so far down the block by the garden that they were almost directly across the street from the Byrne house. Mr. Donald was another one who only rented his house; it had never occurred to him to build a house of his own, and so he spent all his life living in the patterns set out by other more enterprising men. His present house, which suited him and his family admirably, was made of bricks put together in a square, ample enough for Mr. and Mrs. Donald and their three children, and pretentious enough for Mr. Donald’s wife and daughter to feel at home.

The one thorn in the side of the Donald women was the house-for-rent, which crowded them boorishly, in contrast to the Ransom-Jones garden; it went up for rent regularly and was never suitably tenanted during the Donalds’ residence; one completely unsatisfactory family after another moved in and then out. Mrs. Donald suspected, and said publicly, that it was because the landlord rented it too cheaply for Pepper Street standards; it was a white elephant, she said, because it was badly planned and dreadfully dark. Someone obviously aiming at another effect than he got had intended it to be beautiful rather than comfortable; it was a thin greyish building with, blessedly, four thick trees crushed between itself and the Donald house, and a wall made of rough stones cemented together between itself and its other neighbor, Miss Fielding. The front of the house was also built of the same rough stones; Mrs. Donald had remarked accurately that it looked like a reform school.

Miss Fielding paid her rent and was never known to dislike her house and had probably never looked carefully at the outside of it. Pepper Street was one of the few neighborhoods where an old single woman like Miss Fielding could live alone in a house that suited her. By some architectural sleight-of-hand, Miss Fielding’s house seemed to be set high above ground, as though she were living in a tree, or on a houseboat: there was a long flight of shallow steps shielded by a stone balustrade, and at the top the incredibly small house perched, with its small windows and door looking kittenishly down at the street. Miss Fielding had a little front porch with a continuation of the stone balustrade protecting it from falling down into the street, and the whole was colored white, with green frames around the windows and doors; it was on the front porch that Miss Fielding sat, day after day, with her cat—one of the Ransom-Jones’s Angel’s kittens—on her lap. The small space of ground in front of this house was bare earth, but her neighbors forgave Miss Fielding this on consideration of the steps, which were really too muc...

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2013. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. The compelling novel that began Shirley Jackson s legendary career Pepper Street is a really nice, safe California neighborhood. The houses are tidy and the lawns are neatly mowed. Of course, the country club is close by, and lots of pleasant folks live there. The only problem is they knocked down the wall at the end of the street to make way for a road to a new housing development. Now, that s not good--it s just not good at all. Satirically exploring what happens when a smug suburban neighborhood is breached by awful, unavoidable truths, The Road Through the Wall is the tale that launched Shirley Jackson s heralded career. For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143107057

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