Being a parent is rough! No one knows this more than Shirley Jackson, who wrote ‘Life Among the Savages’ (1953), a collection of short stories that detail the chaos of being a housewife and mother in the mid-1900s.
Overview and Context
Life Among the Savages (1953) is a collection of previously published short stories by Shirley Jackson. Even though Jackson is known for writing works of horror and suspense, she is equally talented in writing comedy. Life Among the Savages offers witty commentary about being a mother and wife in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The stories are semi-autobiographical, which means they are a mixture of fact and fiction from Jackson’s life. Jackson’s husband and four children are central figures throughout the book.
Premise and Summary
The short stories in Life Among the Savages revolve around the first few years after Jackson, her husband, three-year-old son (Laurie), and infant daughter (Jannie) moved to a small town in Vermont. The focus of these stories is Jackson’s role as a mother to her precocious, imaginative young children. Parents can easily identify with the themes of her tales: school problems, public embarrassment, imaginary friends, dealings with other parents, hand-me-downs, illnesses, accidents, and injuries.
Jackson’s role as a wife and a woman are also illustrated. She describes her husband’s calming and irritating presence, and the chaos that ensues when he goes out of town.
She talks about learning to drive a car, being swindled by a mechanic, and struggling to hire good help for the household. Jackson finds herself in an unstated competition to measure up to friends and other mothers.Though the stories seem to follow a linear timeline, the order of events isn’t really important. The stories are vignettes.
Vignettes are short episodes that detail, illustrate or exemplify specific concepts or events. The vignettes in Life Among the Savages are meant to illustrate how Jackson’s family grows and turns their dilapidated house into a ”home.”
Quotes about Women
Jackson’s quotes about being a woman in the mid-1900s humorously illustrate the sexism that still permeated American culture:
”Age” she asked. ”Sex? Occupation””Writer,” I said.”Housewife,” she said.
”Writer,” I said.”I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.
”I believe that all women, but especially housewives, tend to think in lists.”
”I firmly believe that the inquisitor gave me a (driver’s) license only because he was sure I could never start a car and so could never become a substantial menace on the highways.”
Quotes about Motherhood
The strains and milestones of motherhood are frequently mentioned:
”Sentimental people keep insisting that women go on to have a third baby because they love babies, and cynical people seem to maintain that a woman with two healthy, active children around the house will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital; my own position is somewhere between the two, but I acknowledge that it leans towards the latter.
”Sooner or later, I suppose, there must be in every mother’s life the inevitable moment when she has to take two small children shopping in one big store.”
”I looked at the clock with the faint unconscious hope common to all mothers that time will somehow have passed magically away and the next time you look it will be bedtime.”
Quotes about Her Children
Some of Jackson’s most humorous commentary concerns her children:
”Sally had amused herself by counting the fingers on her left hand, which came out six, and the fingers in her glove, which came out five, and she was deeply involved in the problem of accommodating her fingers into the glove, which had unreasonably fit perfectly until now..
”Laurie succeeded in fighting his way to the fourth grade without showing any noticeable signs of contact with education…
”Diabolically, both Sally and Laurie refused to catch measles after I had gone out and purchased a new thermometer and a large bottle of calamine lotion.”
Quotes about Nostalgia and the Passing of Time
In the midst of the humor, Jackson sneaks in some heartwarming commentary about how quickly time passes with children:
”One of the most unnerving, and least original, observations I have made about my children is that as these years turn and Christmas inevitably follows the fourth of July and the fourth of July inevitably follows Christmas, they tend to grow older … we first came to the house in the country, Laurie was something over three years old, and Jannie was six months, and then suddenly … Jannie was almost two and had become a legitimate member of the family named Jannie (instead of Baby, or The Baby), and Laurie was just short of five and was clamoring for the right to vote on domestic issues.”
”Summers go by so quickly with a minimum of washing and a maximum of daylight, that we none of us have ever been able to perceive that infinitely cruel moment when the year turns and the days draw in; one morning the children were drinking lemonade in the backyard and talking largely of what they planned to build during the summer, and the next afternoon they were raking leaves and Jannie had lost a sandal in the leaf pile, to be hidden until perhaps the next spring.”
”Suddenly she and Sally were both climbing onto my lap at once, and Laurie came closer and allowed me to kiss him swiftly on the cheek; I discovered that I could reach around all three of them, something I had not been able to do for some time.”
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson is a collection of short stories about being a wife and mother in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These stories are semi-autobiographical or fictionalized versions of events from Jackson’s life.
The stories were originally published individually in magazines. They do not serve as chapters of a book that enhance a specific plot. Rather, they are vignettes that describe pointed events that occurred within her family over a period of about five years.