31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 29: “The Tooth” by Shirley Jackson

May 29, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Lottery and Other Stories

The_Lottery_Shirley_JacksonShirley Jackson is best known as the author of the novel The Haunting of Hill House and the short story “The Lottery,” both of which have become canonical works of American fiction. But limiting her reputation to these two titles, strong though they may be, unfairly curtails the perspective on an author who wrote more, and in a much wider range, than this circumscribed view suggests. Jackson is usually thought of as a writer of macabre fiction – Stephen King, among many others, has cited her as an influence. However, in her introduction to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of The Lottery and Other Stories, contemporary American writer A.M. Homes highlights divergent aspects of Jackson’s writing that place her in an entirely different light:

When reading Jackson, I can’t help but think of the stories of Raymond Carver, who had a similar ability to create a sort of melancholy emotional mist that floats over his stories. But Jackson also had the ability to be savagely funny: at one point in her career, Desi Arnaz reportedly inquired about her interest in writing a screenplay for Lucille Ball.

Homes goes on to compare Jackson to Angela Carter, “who was also not bound by genre, who had no interest in distinguishing or separating horror, science fiction, et cetera, from ‘literature.'”

Originally published by The Hudson Review in 1949, “The Tooth” does indeed have uncanny elements, but it is also an ambiguous tale about duty and escape, and the possible price to be paid for the latter. It starts off straightforwardly enough, but becomes eerier and more enigmatic the longer it goes on.

The basic plot of the story is simple. Clara Spencer, a housewife, boards a bus for New York, where she will see her dentist about a toothache. She bids her husband goodbye and boards the bus, in possession of a one-way ticket and a bottle of codeine for her pain. At a rest stop, she is accosted by a stranger named Jim, a tall man in a blue suit who talks to her of his travels in exotic lands that are “farther than Samarkand” and where “flutes play all night” and “the stars are as big as the moon and the moon is as big as the lake.” After leaving her codeine on a table at a second rest stop, Clara makes it to the New York dentist, who sends her to a surgeon to have the rotten tooth extracted. Without the burden of her aching tooth, Clara leaves the surgeon’s office tower and once again encounters Jim on the city sidewalk. The story’s final image involves Jim leading Clara “barefoot through hot sand.”

A précis indicates the way in which the story transforms itself as it unfolds, becoming less clear and, in its final stages, almost surreal. How to read the story is open to interpretation, but a clear indicator must have to do with the character of Jim. The tall stranger in the blue suit, who reappears on the bus and takes a seat beside Clara, is repeatedly referred to as “the strange man,” and his talk is about distant utopias where there is “[n]othing to do all day but lie under the trees.”

The first time Clara encounters Jim, at the rest stop, he rouses her out of the sleep she has succumbed to (the bus to New York travels through the night, arriving at its destination at 5:15 a.m.). When the stranger shakes her awake, she turns to him “foggily.” She remarks on his blue suit and evident height, but “could not focus her eyes to see any more.” Is this a function of her tiredness, or of the codeine? (She will take another pill at the second rest stop, where she neglects the pill bottle on the table in her haste to make it back to the bus.)

Under these circumstances, what are we to make of Jim? Is he simply what he appears to be, a helpful stranger, or is he more nefarious? Given Clara’s brain-fogged state, is it possible that Jim is not even real, but merely a hallucination of her overtired, drug-addled brain?

One possible hint is contained in the original subtitle of the collection: The Adventures of James Harris. An epilogue to the collection includes partial lyrics from a ballad called “James Harris, The Daemon Lover,” in which the eponymous character, who is understood to be the Devil, accosts a woman on a sailing ship and informs her that he will lead her to “the mountain of hell.” James Harris is name-checked in Jackson’s story “The Daemon Lover,” which is an obvious reference to the ballad. But the original subtitle seems to insist on the importance of the ballad character across the collection: are we, then, to read the mysterious “Jim” as a demonic character, leading poor Clara to hell? (The bus is a possible stand-in for the ship in the song.)

This is certainly one potential reading. But how does this reading change if we assume, as Clara does at one point in the story, that the tooth the dental surgeon extracts is symbolic of her identity as a woman? “Her tooth,” Jackson writes, “which had brought her here unerringly, seemed now the only part of her to have any identity.” Once the tooth is extracted, Clara goes to the ladies’ room in the office tower, where she fails to recognize herself in the mirror, an extension of the idea that she has lost her identity. In the washroom, she abandons all of the possessions that are associated with her specific person, including a silver barrette engraved with the name “Clara,” a lapel pin in the shape of a capital “C,” and her stockings, which have developed a hole in the toe. Having made herself up rather garishly (“she was not very expert at it”), she goes out to the elevator that will take her to the street, and to Jim. “The elevator operator said, ‘Down?’ when he saw her and she stepped in and the elevator carried her silently downstairs.”

The elevator operator’s question is fairly obviously symbolic of a descent into a kind of hell, which chimes with the ballad at the end of Jackson’s collection. However, is this new woman who emerges from the building on a descent into madness and devilry, or is it a different kind of escape, a conscious break from the stultifying aspects of housewifery and marriage to a man who is incapable of tending to even basic matters of daily survival? “I called Mrs. Lang,” Clara assures her husband before boarding the bus for New York. “I left the grocery order on the kitchen table, you can have the cold tongue for lunch and in case I don’t get back Mrs. Lang will give you dinner. The cleaner ought to come about four o’clock, I won’t be back so give him your brown suit and it doesn’t matter if you forget but be sure to empty the pockets.”

How one reads the ending of the story likely depends upon how much one identifies Clara as a downtrodden woman eager for escape to a land that is more free and exciting that the one she has left. Whether her break from her quotidian life is the first step toward heaven or hell is largely left for the reader to determine.