Flavorwire Author Club: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Bird’s Nest’ Defined the Multiple-Personality Narrative

Multiple-personality narratives are well-worn territory, usually introduced as a lame plot device on daytime soap operas. With popular literary examinations of dissociative identity disorder including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley’s The Three Faces of Eve, and Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil, it’s easy to understand why Shirley Jackson’s 1954 novel (her third) might have fallen through the cracks. It did not reach the popularity of her canonical short story “The Lottery,” and it was not the commercial success of her later Gothic novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But The Bird’s Nest is a monumental work, not just for spurring a renewed interest into the multiple-personality story, but because its inventive storytelling structure gives a powerful look at a young woman trapped within her own body and mind.

At the center of The Bird’s Nest is Elizabeth Richmond, a meek 23-year-old who spends her days working a menial job in a museum. At night, she suffers from insomnia, migraine, and backaches, none of which are assuaged by her domineering aunt, Morgen, with whom she resides in a family home. Strange things are afoot: Aunt Morgen is accusing Elizabeth of leaving the house in the middle of the night, which Elizabeth claims isn’t true; Elizabeth is also receiving menacing handwritten notes at work (sample line: “…i hate you dirty lizzie and youll be sorry you ever heard of me because now we both know youre a dirty dirty…”). Exhausted and in pain, Elizabeth visits a psychologist at the behest of her physician. She’s immediately ill at ease around Dr. Wright, a pompous, genteel man who treats her as a child. When he persuades her to accept hypnosis, Dr. Wright learns swiftly that Elizabeth’s mind is split into four parts.

If you’ve ever seen a movie or read a book about a character with multiple personalities, the reveal is looming long before Dr. Wright begins to communicate with the other three women inside Elizabeth’s body. There’s the childlike Beth, who is desperate for love and affection from anyone she meets. There’s Betsy, an emotional and puckish teenager, who holds much contempt for Elizabeth for keeping her buried deep in her subconscious. And then there’s Bess, a volatile and aggressive young woman. All three of these separate personalities seem to be dealing with the death of Elizabeth’s mother in a variety of conflicting ways, with Betsy and Bess in particular unable to accept her passing — Betsy, in control of Elizabeth’s body, flees to New York to find her mother and her lover, Robin, while Bess is suspended in time, believing her mother’s death to have taken place just three weeks ago.

Despite being filled to the brim with what are now, 60 years after its publication, silly clichés, The Bird’s Nest displays Shirley Jackson’s groundbreaking narrative abilities. Years before the multiple-personality plot was popularized in pop culture by The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil (both books that were turned into films, by the way, starring Joanne Woodward, who played the patient in the former and a psychiatrist in the latter), Jackson all but established the tropes that would later be repeated in other works. Most importantly, though, Jackson builds the narrative — and, in turn, the suspense — by splitting the book into several parts that give the reader the details of the plot from a variety of characters’ points of view. Elizabeth’s section comes across as sullen and eerie. Dr. Wright’s two sections, written in the first person as some sort of case study, gives the impression that he’s out of his league as a psychiatrist, and is obsessed with Elizabeth’s more assertive personalities, which cause him anguish and put his own academic machismo into question. Aunt Morgen’s section provides some context for Elizabeth’s emotional state; her bitterness is a direct result of her complicated relationship with her sister, who she believes is the cause for Elizabeth’s instability. And Betsy, the only secondary personality whose point of view we are given, shows us the madness inside Elizabeth’s head as all personalities struggle for control over their shared body.

Roundabout Rebecca Hall Machinal
Rebecca Hall in Roundabout’s 2014 production of ‘Machinal’

Its tone has less in common with the genre-defining Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as it does with Machinal, the modernist play by playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell. Machinal — based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, who was executed for the murder of her husband in 1928 — is a masterpiece of Expressionist theatre, and its legacy is visible in The Bird’s Nest‘s opening pages as Elizabeth, like Machinal‘s anonymous protagonist, feels trapped in the large machine of her life, drifting, listless, through a life without meaning or emotion.

Machinal‘s protagonist breaks from her entrapment by having an affair and murdering her husband, but Elizabeth’s is much more complicated — and with larger psychological stakes. To ease her own madness, and to obtain freedom from the control of Dr. Wright and Aunt Morgen, she must somehow combine the four personalities inside of her mind to become a new person. It is an understanding that Elizabeth exhibits, with trepidation, to her aunt in the book’s climax:

“He said, the doctor, that when I was cured it would be all of us, Betsy and Beth and all, were all back together. He said I was one of them. Not myself, just one more of them. He said he was going to put us all back together into one person.”

“So?” Should Elizabeth be speaking of this, concerning herself over it? Evan haltingly, clumsily as she spoke, should she be allowed to continue? “Why not wait and see what happens?” Morgen suggested, inspired.

“Look.” Elizabeth turned and looked at her. “I’m just one of them, one part. I think and I feel and I talk and I walk and I look at things and I hear things and I eat and I take baths —”

“All right,” Morgen said. “Conceded that you do it all, what’s wrong with it? I do too.”

“But I do it all with my mind.” Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it — she will.”

Jackson directly links Elizabeth’s mental health with her personhood; Elizabeth feels that stability will change her identity entirely, and it’s beguiling that outside forces — Dr. Wright, Aunt Morgen, anyone else who is seemingly normal — are those taking control over Elizabeth’s personhood. The Bird’s Nest could be seen as an allegory for feminine identity in postwar America; the greater number of options for young women did not mean that they were in control over their own lives, and the many female identities manifest themselves in The Bird’s Nest as competing factions within Elizabeth’s mind. Despite the success of those stories that picked up fragments of Jackson’s work, The Bird’s Nest has left a powerful legacy that helped define the conventions of an oft-used narrative. It is a masterwork of psychological fiction, and one that deserves as much attention as Jackson’s more popular writings.