It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Sundial

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial (1958)

SundialSo, I was thinking I would read Life Among the Savages for Shirley Jackson Reading Week, because it’s a humorous book about living with small children (for which a sense of humor certainly comes in handy), and seemed like a fun summer read. But I was sidelined by Jenny’s enthusiasm for The Sundial and decided to read that instead, to start with anyway. Because Jenny’s enthusiasm cannot be easily ignored.

If you decide to follow our lead, just be aware that this is a very strange book. It is funny, sometimes hilariously so, but it’s also disorienting and savage and mystifying. The premise is, to say the least, odd: a megalomaniac matriarch, along with various descendants and hangers-on, have gathered in her walled estate to await the end of the world, of which they expect to be the only survivors. Given that most of the characters detest most of the others, the mind boggles at what will happen when their already-insular social circle is made even smaller. Classic country-house scenes of deliciously venomous dialogue are interspersed with visions and mysterious occurrences that give the whole book the quality of a nightmare from which it is singularly difficult to wake. I kept wondering what it would be like on stage or in a film, though sadly, I don’t think this has a chance of coming to pass.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say — as you have before — that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but — although I am of course not permitted to threaten — all the regrets will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs Halloran said. “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

“The imbalance of the universe is being corrected. Dislocations have been adjusted. Harmony is to be restored, imperfections erased.”

I wonder if anything has been done about the hedges,” Mrs Halloran said. “Essex, did you speak to the gardeners?”

Is there a point to all of this oddity? By putting her characters in such an extreme situation Jackson makes us meditate on some fundamental questions of life. How do we know what is real, and what is illusion? Are all relationships doomed to ultimately begin and end in selfishness? Faced with the end of everything we know, would we too stock up on canned spaghetti and burn all books except the Boy Scout manual?  These are not comfortable questions, and this is not a comfortable book.

But for sheer startling-out-of-complacency, perspective-shifting weirdness, it’s something of a marvel. After Jackson has relentlessly skewered a materialist’s view of Heaven, what will be left to us in the new world? There’s something to think about.

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