I almost never read fiction any more, but I realized this week that there are four of Shirley Jackson's novels I have never read, and that just seemed too dreadful to be borne.
Of course, having read The Road through the Wall, I naturally want someone to have written a critical analysis of it, which probably someone has, but not readily available on Google. So I'm at least going to write down my own thoughts about the book, so that I'll have them.
WARNING: Spoilers for a book published in 1948.
TRttW takes place in 1936 in a suburb of San Francisco, on a street where everyone is lower-middle to upper-middle class, some with aspirations to lower-upper class. The street itself, Pepper Street, is the main character (this is the point of the prologue, with its panoramic view of the street and its environs), and the novel weaves back and forth between its various inhabitants, stopping now here with Miss Fielding, now there with Harriet Merriam, now over here with Mrs. Ransom-Jones, now here with Tod Donald or Artie Roberts. It is all painfully recognizable as Shirley Jackson: the virtuoso and completely confident use of omniscient, the oddball and outsider characters, the sense of irony underlying everything like the blade of a knife. The things that happen in TRttW are very small and subtle--one family moves away, another family moves in; two girls start and end a friendship; a boy goes trespassing in a neighbor's house; endless sewing and gossiping get done; tiny family dramas play out nightly; a road starts to be built (the road through the wall of the title)--until the very end, where things happen very quickly and two children die.
Having pondered it, I think the rush of the ending is on purpose. Jackson has been lulling her reader all through the book, with these tiny inconsequential happenings where the worst result is a return to the status quo, so that when tiny Caroline Desmond goes missing at the end, I simultaneously guessed she was dead and found myself thinking, She wouldn't, when I know very well that Jackson would. Which you can chalk up as a victory for the long game Jackson is playing from the start. And then Tod Donald, the neighborhood scapegoat, is accused of the murder and hangs himself--but it's not clear that Tod hangs himself out of guilt. He may hang himself out of fear, either for the simple reason that the policeman's crude tactics have literally scared him to death, or because he knows the first people to turn against him will be his own family. And that, like falling off a cliff, is where the book ends, with only a few tidying up remarks to close us out. Most of the stories, if you can call them that, of the book remain unfinished. And possibly some of them remain unfinished because of Caroline Desmond's murder, but Jackson never goes as far as saying so.
And, of course, the omniscient narrator refuses to come out and solve the murder. As a mystery reader by long habit, I am naturally driven insane by this and have been trying to solve the murder in my head. One of the Pepper Street residents inevitably puts forward the idea of the tramp--but there are no tramps on Pepper Street; that, too, is part of Jackson's point. Tramps would be too much verisimilitude for the people of Pepper Street to bear. Caroline Desmond is only three, so has no enemies of her own (if it had been Virginia Donald who ended up dead, there would be a list of suspects), and the Desmonds, for all that they are the wealthiest people on the street, are also almost complete ciphers--and that, too, is deliberate, considering how deftly Jackson can draw a character in a paragraph or a handful of lines of dialogue. Tod Donald is the boy who trespasses, and the Desmond house is the house he trespasses in, so there's some evidence linking Tod and the Desmonds together, but Tod isn't interested in Caroline; his fixation--if I can go as far as calling it that--is on Mrs. Desmond. But then again, Caroline throughout the novel is only an extension of her mother (she has no lines or independent existence, the baffling thing is how she was far enough away from her mother for long enough for anything to happen), and I think it's important that when she's found, she's dirty: "She was horribly dirty; no one had ever seen Caroline as dirty as she was then, with mud all over her yellow dress and yellow socks" (Jackson 258). So, yes, it could be Tod Donald, and maybe it's only my love of overcomplicating things that makes me think it isn't. He's behaving oddly the night of the party where Caroline disappears: he leaves the party without saying goodbye to Mrs. Ransom-Jones, the hostess, he tries to sell his bike to Pat Byrne for $5 (why?), he's hiding behind the half-demolished wall as the men of Pepper Street are ineffectually trying to figure out how to search for Caroline, he's desperate to get home without his family noticing him. And maybe it's because he's only thirteen and underdeveloped: that's his defining trait, being squashed almost out of existence by his brother and sister--and it's true that in James Donald's simple binary view of the world, football is good and Tod is evil: "Much of James' athletic sense of good and evil was invested in Tod; Tod was inefficient and a bad sport, which was evil . . . Consequently James never required himself to include any form of evil in his own personality; such things belonged naturally to Tod, and were accepted numbly by Tod as his portion" (48). But it seems to me that most of what Jackson's doing in TRttW is suggesting that the things the people of Pepper Street think are evil (Chinese people, Jewish people, the road itself) are not evil, that the evil belongs to the girls who cruelly snub the Chinese man, the woman who makes her daughter end her friendship with the Jewish girl, to Pepper Street itself.
It's probably relevant that at one point, goaded by his sister, Tod throws rocks at a group of girls: "Possessed by a sort of frenzy, Tod threw a handful of pebbles together, as hard as he could, into the group of girls on the lawn, and Mary Byrne howled and fell over backwards, her hands over her face" (52). Tod apologizes--"It was glory of a sort" (52)--and Mary's mother says, "She's got a little scratch on her cheek; she's no more hurt than a fly" (52). She adds, of Mary's overreaction, "You'd think she'd been killed" (52). Foreshadowing? It's much more chilling reading it in hindsight, knowing that Caroline is going to be killed by being hit in the head with a rock. And there's the line, "Tod Donald rarely did anything voluntarily, or with planning, or even with intent acknowledged to himself; he found himself doing one thing, and then he found himself doing another, and that, as he saw it, was the way one lived along, never deciding, never helping" (89-90). And, oh dear, "He reached over his head and pulled a yellow blossom off a bush [...] Its petals were precise and neat, so soft he could hardly feel them against his fingers; annoyed at its soft pliability, he crushed it flat with his fingers and rolled the petals cruelly, until the flower was a little damp ball and he dropped it" (96).
But at the same time, it seems too obvious for a novel so interested in subtlety; Tod seems too ineffectual (is the pebble-throwing scene foreshadowing or a demonstration that a scratch is the most damage Tod can do?). The people of Pepper Street are too satisfied with that answer. The brutish policeman is, as a person, so obviously wrong. Although, as I said, this may be me overcomplicating things. And if it isn't Tod, I don't have the least idea who it is.