Suburban Micro-Aggressions: Shirley Jackson’s short story “Flower Garden”

Shirley Jackson, writer of the short story “Flower Garden,” is a twentieth-century American literary figure who suffers from being ghettoized to the genres of supernatural or even horror fiction, so the story goes. Yet everyone has read “The Lottery,” contends Jonathan Lethem in his introduction to 2006 Penguin edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Lethem may be right.

The suggestive cover of the 2006 Penguin edition of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Jackson is known for—when she is known—the aforementioned novel, We Have … , and The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve read both of these over the past year, enjoyed both more than a little.

Shirley Jackson’s Literary Posterity

Reading someone like Jackson reminds me of the joy of just enjoying good, interesting stories. A lot of what I read, all of it probably, falls into that category. But most of it isn’t “just enjoying”: it requires work on the reader’s part for enjoyment, nay, appreciation, to occur. Not so for Jackson (and perhaps one reason why she’s considered a genre writer and not a literary figure, per se).

Both of the above mentioned novels I consumed somewhat voraciously (and I’ve been well trained to be suspicious of too much enjoyment). We Have is the more important work, everyone agrees, and the work that doomed her to literary posterity. Its narrator, Merricat Blackwood, is such a lovely fantastical creature with whom one cannot but be charmed.

But in some ways Haunting is more insightful, more effective (but possibly only insofar as it’s considered a genre work). The descent into madness of the central character in that book seems, inasmuch as I can judge it, terribly realistic, compelling.

Have not yet read her other novels, I regret to say. And probably won’t anytime soon.

Want to read The Charterhouse of Parma and The Betrothed sometime soon, after reading in the NYRB about the new translation of The Betrothed. Hadn’t heard of it before, but sounds like my wheelhouse.

As well as Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. The latter, a knowledgeable friend has it, conjures Shirley Jackson.

The Lottery and Other Stories

“Flower Garden” was collected in The Lottery and Other Stories. Many of the stories are fairly short, with the exceptions of “Flower Garden” and “Elizabeth” (haven’t read yet). What is the order for these stories? Cannot say. They are broken into sections and given epigraphs to distinguish them from Joseph Glanvill‘s Saducimus Triumphatus, a 17th-century tome on witchcraft.

A weathered copy of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery and Other Stories" from Free Library of Philadelphia, which includes "Flower Garden"
A weathered copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories from Free Library of Philadelphia, among which is included “Flower Garden”

Among those I’ve read and enjoyed are:

  • “The Daemon Lover”—As in other places, a female character encounters a mystery profoundly consequential for her self-knowledge, leading to doubts about the narrator’s trustworthiness.
  • Life Mother Used to Make“—Again, leading to doubts about the narrator’s trustworthiness, right?
  • “My Life with R.H. Macy”—Hilarious revolutionary subversion.
  • “The Witch”—Indulging our worst imaginations.
  • “After You, My Dear Alphonse”—A companion piece to “Flower Garden,” albeit unintentionally.

“Flower Garden”

Everything seems to depend, at first, on a small cottage in which the younger Mrs. Winning had set her hopes for many years.

She married into a reputable farming family and moved into the house with her in-laws (the implied elder Mrs. Winning). The latter is a source of some tension, as well as the fact that she’s only a transplanted Winning. Despite this she does have the satisfaction of having contributed two children to the paternal line. What tensions exist melt in apprehension of the cottage.

Along with these insights the social order has taken shape before the reader. These are real people living in a real town, somewhere (Vermont, probably, as I only know because of Jackson’s biography). No fairy tale here folks. No realism lite.

After remaining empty for some time (in the ownership of the family, no less), the cottage has been sold, to Mrs. Winning’s disappointment, and then occupied by another lady, so says the village butcher. Since Winning had spent so much thought imagining a home that might actually be hers, she’s thrilled to see the new owner make decorative decisions like she would.

The new owner, a widow named Mrs. McLane, wins (if you will) Mrs. Winning’s approbation and also enables a vicarious enjoyment of domestic perfection. McLane has a boy the age of Winning’s older and so mirrors the latter in yet another respect. Although Winning is hesitant, she introduces herself and the two develop what seems to be a potentially long-lasting friendship, as they share upper class social standing and parentage of similarly aged children. McLane is the fantasy of the life Winning would have, although whether the husband’s death is part of that fantasy is unclear.

The culmination of McLane’s designs would be the flower garden, as she explained one day.

“I’m going to have flowers on all four sides of the house. With a cottage like this you can, you know.”

Oh, I know, I know, Mrs. Winning thought wistfully, remembering the neat charming garden she could have had, instead of the row of nasturtiums along the side of the Winning house […]

When they happen to see across the street a “beautiful child,” as Mrs. McLane emphatically puts it, an opportunity to employ someone to help with the garden has appeared. The child is Billy Jones, who is “half-Negro.” After Mrs. Winning’s son Howard starts childishly using the n-word and Davey, Mrs. McLane’s son, innocently mimics him, Davey is sharply reprimanded by his mother, using a tone that Winning hadn’t previously heard.

A short excerpt from "Flower Garden" by Shirley Jackson
Mrs. McLane meets Billy Jones

It is then that Mrs. McLane forms the plan to employ Billy. Mrs. Winning calls him across the street (without using the word “boy” but it undoubtedly was implied). She asks Billy if he would help her with her garden. News of the event quickly travels and even the elder Mrs. Winning comments to her daughter in law that Mrs. McLane probably doesn’t want “that kind of help.”

The next day, while Mrs. Winning is visiting, Billy’s father comes to the door and explains that Billy is probably too young to be doing gardening work but that he would gladly help her. Mrs. McLane happily agrees. Mrs. Winning silently observers, doubtful.

Whereas previously only Mrs. McLane observed the beauty of Billy and Mrs. Winning tried to see him “as Mrs. McLane would,” the narration pauses to describe Mr. Jones.

He was a big man, very much like Billy, except that where Billy’s hair curled only a little, his father’s hair curled tightly, with a line around his head where his hat stayed constantly and where Billy’s skin was a golden tan, his father’s skin was darker, almost bronze. When he moved, it was gracefully, like Billy, and his eyes were the same fathomless brown.

Mrs. Winning leaves then, after having sent Howard back with the groceries and then told Mrs. McLane that she needed to catch up with him. But not before checking that Mr. Jones wouldn’t be helping beyond that day. She is “incredulous” when Mrs. McLane says otherwise.

Be it Mrs. Harris belittling Mrs. McLane’s shoes; Mr. Burton, Mrs. McLane’s next door neighbor, unhappy with Billy playing around next to his yard; or Mrs. Burton (who had previously been friendly with Mrs. McLane) deciding not to invite Davey to her son’s birthday party, all of the town has commented to Mrs. Winning about her friend.

Something bad has happened, somehow people think they know something about me that they won’t say, they all pretend it’s nothing, but this never happened to me before; I live with the Winnings, don’t I?

Mrs. Winning starts avoiding Mrs. McLane at first with embarrassment and then righteousness. Mrs. McLane asks her one day why everyone has suddenly become unfriendly, but Mrs. Winning claims ignorance, even when asked if it’s because she’s hired Mr. Jones. But Mrs. Winning doesn’t like having to have had the conversation: “The nerve of her, trying to blame the colored folks.”

All comes to a head when a bad storm hits town and one of the Burton’s trees falls into Mrs. McLane’s garden. Mrs. Winning, walking by, observes the Burtons seem unconcerned and uncommunicative when Mrs. McLane comments on it.

But Mrs. McLane has made her decision. When Mr. Jones offers to clean up, she replies “Leave it for the next people to move.” Davey spies Mrs. Winning across the street, hails her, as does his mother.

Mrs. Winning turns and keeps walking home, “with great dignity.”


Readers of this story, along with other preceding stories in the collection, will probably be a little confused if they come to it from “The Lottery” or We Have … or Haunting. No genre ghetto here. Some stories lack even the unsettling edge that we otherwise identify with Jackson’s work.

Yet some subtle violence is at work.

Am not sure what people think of when they hear the term “micro-aggressions,” although I know it provokes tittering among those living in post-racial America. “Flower Garden” is a story of micro-aggressions, be they the uninvitations, jokes about shoes, the “sharp” speaking to the half-Negro, or the lingering gazes on Mr. Jones’ physique.

None of those things are what make this story interesting, in fact. Not even Mrs. McLane’s assumption that an unemployed black boy would need a job, not to enjoy the summer (but this scene was striking to me).

What’s compelling about “Flower Garden” is the insight we have into Mrs. Winning’s character, moving as it does from self-doubt to class identification (as a “lady”) to confusion about encounters with race to frustration with a promising friendship to dismissal and self-satisfaction.

Dare I say this could be another example of the dialectic of lordship and bondage? Mrs. Winning undoubtedly seeks recognition in her friendship with Mrs. McLane, appears to gain it, and then must struggle through her friend’s misstep before sacrificing the relationship and securing her self-knowledge.

The story makes me think of Frankie Hawker, the only black boy (as far as I knew) in Powhatan Point, Ohio during the late 1970s, who didn’t make it to see the 80s. Billy Jones—always with last name, I presume—is the Frankie Hawker of this story.

P.S.: Ungrounded Yet Still Probably Accurate Judgment on We Have … the movie

Having seen the trailer for the 2018 film adaptation for We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I am fully equipped for judgment.

The film casts Crispin Glover in the role of Uncle Julian, which probably couldn’t be more accurate. Julian is haunted by the deaths of his family members and if there is any performance Crispin Glover can give exceptionally it is haunted. I have yet to see Glover in Bartleby (2001) and Willard (2003), but I cannot imagine he wouldn’t be perfect for the first role and probably the second.

Still from the 2018 adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" with Sebastian Stan and Alexandra Daddario
Sebastian Stan and Alexandra Daddario in We Have Always Lived in the Castle: Daddario’s Constance simply cannot smile this much! Constance is probably charmed by her cousin’s attention but torn, whereas here she is carefree.

And then there is the sad case of Alexandra Daddario, cast as Constance. Constance cannot be played by a very attractive woman. Her person does not stand out, especially; this is vital to make her cousin’s entreaties plain for what they are. If there’s a good reason the cousin might seek Constance other than her role in the inheritance, then her motivation is ruined.

Constance and Merricat are the central roles. Merricat looks properly cast (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s sister), at least as far as still images can convey.

It’s true that Daddario could probably affect a possibly obsequious concern for her sister, which is required by Constance. But I’m doubtful. She needs pathos. Does Daddario do pathos?

Someday Daddario’s autobiography will be titled, Why I Wish I Did Not Have These Breasts.