The Bird’s Nest is a portrait, both darkly comic and terrifying, of a young woman’s psychological descent into mental illness. Dealing with a character suffering from multiple personalities disorder, you cast, in a captivating but somewhat disturbing light, a long look at a young woman trapped within several intertwined layers: her town, her family, her past, her own body and mind.
Elizabeth Richmond, the protagonist, is a quiet and friendless 23-year-old, who works a menial job in a museum. Since her mother’s death, she lives with her domineering aunt, Morgen, who keeps her closely confined at home. Her monotonous life hints at something wrong: at night, Elizabeth suffers from insomnia, migraine, and increasingly acute backaches. Sudden outbursts, lapses in consciousness and odd behaviour lead Aunt Morgen to take her niece to Dr. Victor Wright, a psychiatrist who persuades her to accept being treated by hypnosis. Gradually, we discover that Elizabeth’s suppressed wants and frustrations embody different personalities living inside the same girl.
Elizabeth’s mind is split into four parts: Betsy, a stubborn, impudent, and mischievous teenager, who was kept buried deep in her subconscious; Lizzie, the passive girl who has been in charge for a while; the sweet and gentle Beth, desperate for affection and acceptance; and, finally, Bess, a spoiled, aggressive and volatile young woman, who fears people are trying to steal her inheritance. All of these personalities deal with the death of Elizabeth’s mother in a variety of conflicting ways. As the story develops, we follow this fractured protagonist in her attempts to cope with her past and to assemble a self from four destructive personalities.
Such as the protagonist’s mind, also the narration presents itself in a fragmented way, enacting the disjointed way the different personalities interacted with each other and with others. The novel is told in third-person narration from different points of view: Elizabeth, her various personas, her aunt. The story also shifts perspectives to Doctor Wright, as he writes, in first person, a journal about the girl’s clinical development. The switching between different points of view is matched by shifts in prose style and tone: while Elizabeth’s chapter is eerie, Betsy’s is wild and childish; Dr. Wright’s sections, written as a case study, sounds clinical; Aunt Morgen’s chapter is bitter, strangely biblical. In experimenting with different registers of English prose, you build the suspense by splitting the plot into several points of view, as all personalities emerge from out of Elizabeth and then struggle for control over their shared body. As Elizabeth’s crisis amounts to its climax, the personas and perspectives change quickly, in a even more fragmented way.
Your prose displays a wicked sense of humor that gradually assumes a deeply unsettling tone, as you explore what seems to be your recurrent theme: that of insanity, when it suddenly erupts into polite society. The Bird’s Nest, which takes its title from a nursery rhyme (‘Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy and Bess,/ all went together to find a bird’s nest./ They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in it./ Each took one and left four in it.’), can also be read as an allegory for female identity in the 50’s, as young women were split between the appearance of a great number of options and the reality of not being in control over their own lives: a manifold of fractured and competing female identities that, only when combined in a new way, can release Elizabeth from the dominance personified in Dr. Wright and Aunt Morgen.
I cannot have enough of your writing, Shirley. This is a book I will certainly reread.
“Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess, they all went together to find a bird’s nest…”
― Shirley Jackson,
“She was for the first time in the indifferent hands of strangers, entrusting her person to the tenderness of the bus driver, her name to the woman napping in the seat far ahead; she was going to spend the rest of her life in a room belonging to someone else and she would eat at a stranger’s table and walk streets she did not recognize under a sun she had never seen, waking, before. Soon no one would even know her face . . . from this moment on no eyes which looked upon her would ever have seen her before; she was a stranger in a world of strangers and they were strangers she had left behind; “Who am I?” Betsy whispered in wonder, and not even Elizabeth heard, “where am I going?””
― Shirley Jackson,
“Where, she wondered, is Elizabeth? Where in the tightness of the skin over her arms and legs, in the narrow bones of her back and the planned structure of her ribs, in the tiny toes and fingers and the vital plan for her neck and head . . . where, in all this, was there room for anyone else? Could Lizzie be seen moving furtively behind the clarity of the eyes, edging in caution to peer out at herself; was she gone far within, waiting behind the heart or the throat, to seize with both hands and take control with a murderous attack? Was she under the hair, had she found refuge in a knee? Where was Lizzie?
For a moment, staring, Betsy wanted frantically to rip herself apart, and give half to Lizzie and never be troubled again, saying take this, and take this and take this, and you can have this, and now get out of my sight, get away from my body, get away and leave me alone.”
― Shirley Jackson,
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 2014, 256 p..
- First published in 1954
- My rating: 5 stars
- The Bird’s Nest was adapted into the film Lizzie (Hugo Haas, MGM, 1957).