By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Witch’ is a short story by the American writer Shirley Jackson. The plot is very straightforward and the story runs to only a few pages, telling of how a mother travels on the train with her young son and baby daughter, and how a strange man strikes up a conversation with her son and tells him a macabre story.
But what is it that makes ‘The Witch’ so unsettling? Before we come to an analysis of the tale, here’s a quick recap of the plot.
‘The Witch’: plot summary
On an old train, a mother is travelling with her two children: a four-year-old boy and a baby girl. The boy keeps looking out of the train window, pointing out what he can see. He tells his mother that he saw a witch outside, who threatened to eat him up, but he chased her away.
Just after this, a man smoking a cigar enters the train carriage and engages the boy in conversation, asking him what he’s looking at out the window. The boy tells the man that he’s looking for witches. The man asks the boy some other questions, and learns from his mother that his name’s Johnny. He then asks Johnny about his baby sister, and offers to tell Johnny about his little sister.
The man then relates the story of how he loved his sister so much that he put his hands around her neck one day and killed her. Then he dismembered her body and cut her head off and put it into a cage with a bear, which ate the head. Johnny is gripped by this story and wants to know more, but the mother, overhearing what the man is telling her son, tells the man to stay away from her son and leave the carriage.
Laughing, the man leaves, and Johnny asks his mother if the man’s story was true. She tells him he was only teasing, but Johnny concludes that the man was probably a witch.
‘The Witch’: analysis
Titles can be mischievous things, and by titling her short story ‘The Witch’, Shirley Jackson invites us to wonder: who really is the witch in this story? Was she external to the train, the woman whom Johnny saw, and chased off? Was she merely the stuff of his overactive imagination? Or was the witch the mysterious man who appeared shortly after Johnny claimed to have encountered the witch outside?
Or is the witch, for all that, Johnny himself? Shirley Jackson often offers us unsettling children whose precise nature we cannot ever be entirely sure about. Is Johnny just an ordinary boy who is attracted to the macabre and the exciting, or is there something otherworldly about him? Is the ‘witch’ external, ‘out there’, or in this seemingly innocent four-year-old child?
We’re tempted to reply that, of course, given the story’s realistic and everyday setting (a domestic scene of a young mother with her small children, taking a train journey), and children’s penchant for invention and imagination, of course the ‘witch’ (whether the first one he claims to have seen, or the strange man, whom he subsequently identifies as ‘prob’ly’ one) is no more than a fiction, dreamt up by a young boy during a dull and uneventful train ride.
But enough doubt remains to make the story, if not out-and-out horror, then a story which flirts with the uncanny, the ambiguous, the mysterious. Given the suspicious timing of the man’s appearance, right after Johnny has told his mother that he has seen a witch, we have to wonder whether there is something more to this mysterious visitor who goes out of ‘his’ way to befriend Johnny before imparting his grim tale of murder.
Of course, Jackson inverts the usual gender expectations, making her ‘witch’ an old man smoking a cigar rather than a snaggle-toothed hag with a pointy hat and a broomstick. He is decidedly ordinary, blending in with the other people aboard the train. But in subverting this gender expectation, Jackson can explore other ideas. The mother is travelling with her two children (one boy, one girl).
The obvious missing figure is the father, and the man, in sitting down next to Johnny and keeping him entertained with a story, could be said to fill this vacant role for the duration of the journey.
Or is the man even a double for the boy himself? ‘Hello yourself, son’ might be analysed as a subtle nod to the idea of the double in uncanny fiction, something Freud identified as a feature of the unheimlich or ‘uncanny’.
The man’s use of ‘yourself’, then, is Jackson tipping us the wink that the man represents the boy’s own adult self (going back to the cigars, note how the man tells Johnny that he will smoke them when he grows up): ‘Hello yourself’ is the man greeting a younger version of himself, symbolically speaking, a kindred spirit who also has a younger sister and who harbours similar dark fantasies about chopping people’s heads off.
Indeed, if we wished to take this further, we might even suggest that Jackson is flirting with the idea of the man being the older version of the boy who has travelled back in time to tell him what he will do to his sister in the future. He has been supernaturally summoned from the future to plant the idea into his younger self’s head.
However, it’s not necessary for us to believe this is explicitly Jackson’s intention; merely to point out that the setup lends itself to such speculations and ambiguities.
Indeed, tellingly the first words the man speaks to Johnny are in response to Johnny’s greeting of ‘Hi’: ‘Hello yourself, son.’ Should we see a glimmer of irony, or at least deeper significance, in that casually uttered term of address? Is ‘son’ here working on a more primal, symbolic level? Note how Johnny tells the man, who is smoking a cigar, that his father smokes cigars.
The man might be considered a mysterious double or stand-in for Johnny’s real father, who has temporarily usurped that role in order to feed the boy’s darkest imagination with tales of murder and dismemberment.
‘The Witch’, then, is a curious tale when we analyse its plot and characters from the perspective of gender. There are four characters present: two male, two female. The two female characters are oddly powerless: both the mother and the baby sister are part of the man’s plot, dreamt up with Johnny, which involves chopping both female characters’ heads off, victims of male violence.
But this male violence seems born of little more than sadistic fantasy or, perhaps darker still, of filial love: the man told Johnny, after all, that he loved his little sister dearly but nevertheless wrung the life out of her. Or did he wring the life out of her precisely because he loved her? Is this an echo of Browning’s poem ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, in which the lower-class male paramour strangles Porphyria out of love, and a desire to possess her and make her utterly his?