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Literature / Life Among the Savages

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Life Among the Savages (1952) and Raising Demons (1957) are a pair of books by Shirley Jackson, compiled out of short stories she wrote for various women's magazines. They constitute a "domestic memoir" describing the antics and misadventures of (a presumably somewhat fictionalized version of) her family, and particularly of her children: Laurie, Jannie, Sally, and Barry.

Life Among the Savages begins when the family (consisting of the unnamed narrator, her likewise-unnamed husband, three-year-old Laurie, and baby Jannie) abruptly find themselves on the verge of being evicted from their city apartment and frantically search for a new home in the country. A series of misadventures leads them to settling down in a Big Fancy House in a small New England village, where they soon have a new child, Sally, who promises to be the most challenging of all. The narrator barely manages to keep the chaos in check single-handedly (as her husband is nearly useless in all matters domestic), while the children go off on their own adventures, occasionally even informing their parents. The story ends with the birth of a fourth and final child, Barry.


In the second installment, Raising Demons, the family suddenly realizes that they have outgrown their previous home. Another frantic search for a bigger house ("There is no bigger house," insists the narrator's husband) leads them to an accommodating home at the edge of the village...if only they can convince the current tenants that they've bought the place, and the moving men to return their furniture. The children, older now, have developed into four well-defined, independent individuals who each bring their own brand of chaos and comedy to the table. Their mother records their adventures with combined exasperation, fondness and wonder, mixed with the bittersweetness of knowing that childhood eventually ends.


These books contain examples of:

  • All Cloth Unravels: In Raising Demons, on a family trip to New York, 6-year-old Sally ties the loose thread of her knitted hat to a seat in the train before getting off: "I'd like to see that train get away," she says. Things don't get really challenging until the hotel turns out to have a revolving door.
  • Child Mage: Several of the family stories show Sally as one. Jackson herself studied witchcraft and it's possible the "Sally's Magic" stories started with Sally imitating Mommy's spells.
  • Daylight Horror: The "gas from the refrigerator" incident in Life Among the Savages... including the fact that she managed to get a sparkling new remodeled kitchen out of her husband in the following weeks.
  • The '50s: Jackson had a talent for both invoking and successfully skewering the popular culture of the time, such as "Birthday Party". Preteen Jannie's slumber party fills the house with the sounds of Elvis Presley while jazz-loving oldest son Laurie retreats to the den with his trombone. Meanwhile, little Barry cranks his "Spacemen on the Moon" record ("5—4—3—2—1...BLAST OFF!") and his sister Sally joins in with a recording of Peter and the Wolf. After a few repetitions of The King, both parents give their son permission to start practicing, with instructions to "play the loudest".
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
    • Sanguine: Laurie, the boastful, exuberant, natural leader who throws himself into dozens of projects and hobbies and surrounds himself with groups and teams.
    • Melancholic: Jannie, Future Homemaker of America, member of the Starlight 4-H Club and all-around Girly Girl who is the most conventional and sociable (and later the most romantic-minded) of the four.
    • Choleric: Sally, the challenging, stubborn, mischievous, self-defined imp who marches to her own drummer.
    • Phlegmatic: Barry, the youngest, described as a "dogged little foot soldier." He's a bit too young to have a personality of his own just yet, but what little he displays is easy-going, patient, and almost wearily amused by his siblings (and often his parents).
  • Free-Range Children: Jackson paints a picture of a world where children essentially go off to live their own lives as soon as they step out their front doors. Sometimes this childhood freedom is idealized and sometimes it's played for Adult Fear (as when Laurie rides his bike into an oncoming car — this really happened) and sometimes even both at once.
  • Housewife: Jackson appears as a housewife in her family collections, albeit an often wry and coolly cynical one.
  • Imaginary Friend: Life Among the Savages describes a shopping trip with Laurie, Jannie, and Jannie's seven daughters, all named Martha, whom Jannie has adopted after their real parents killed each other.
    • Inextricably intertwined here with I Have Many Names: Jannie's real name is Joanne, after one of her parents wanted to name her Anne and the other Jean: "Her brother calls her Honey, Sis, and Dopey, Sally calls her Nannie, and she calls herself, variously, Jean, Jane, Anne, Linda, Barbara, Estelle, Josephine, Geraldine, Sarah, Sally, Laura, Margaret, Marilyn, Susan, and — imposingly — Mrs. Ellenoy. The second Mrs. Ellenoy." Mrs. Ellenoy's seven daughters all use these names as well, in a "constant bewildering shifting", so that "it is sometimes very difficult to remember whether you are addressing Janey Ellenoy or a small girl with seven daughters named Martha."
    • Sally and Barry, a few years later, engage in World Building. Gunnywapitat is the paracosm unifying all the places we associate with fairy tales. Located under a huge tree (causing Sally's father to ask "Yggdrasil?"), it's presided over by someone named Pudge (now you have to turn around three times). Jackson plays this one to the hilt. Sally and Barry subsequently disappear for a few hours and Jackson gets frantic, while everyone calmly reassures her "they're in Pudge's tree". A huge tub of flowers appears on the porch the next morning, with an elegantly written card signed by Pudge.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Jackson's representations of her own children are not immune from this interpretation (although it's usually Played for Laughs).
  • Let Us Never Speakof This Again: Hyman is portrayed as putting his foot down over the Charles incident. He forbids Laurie from speaking about it and tells the kid to behave.
  • Noodle Incident: It's never made quite clear exactly what Sally and her magic did to the clock: everyone in the family has agreed to speak no more of it. Jannie can still tell time on the clock, sort of, but Jannie is left-handed anyway.
  • The Scrooge: The children's father, who greets everything from the price of grapefruits to the cost of a new car with equal disapproval. There are several laughs at his expense when his attempts at penny-pinching end up costing even more money in repairs, or when his wife or children manages to trick him into paying for necessities.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Shirley is quite curious about who Charles's mother is, after hearing about him misbehaving from Laurie. She's stunned to find out there is no Charles, and Laurie was the one misbehaving; Shirley finds out she is the mother in question.
  • Values Dissonance: Jackson casually mentions lighting another cigarette while waiting to go into labor with her third child. Corporal Punishment is constantly threatened (though never actually depicted), with Jackson's husband going so far as to suggest a local eight-year-old bully be horsewhipped. When Sally gets the chicken pox, her mother encourages her baby brother to play with her so he'll catch them, toonote  And the kids enjoy a lack of supervision that seems almost insane by today's standards: five-year-old Sally and her three-year-old brother disappear into "Pudge's tree" for an entire day, while the eldest son acquires a chemistry set powerful enough to drive the entire family out of their home.
  • Verbal Tic:
    • In Raising Demons, Jackson describes Sally going through a phase, at about four, where she repeated the key word in every sentence: "Well, I told Amy's mother that I did not have any breakfast, breakfast, because my mommy did not wake up and give it to me, mommy. And Amy's mother said I was a poor baby, baby, and she gave me cereal and fruit, cereal, and she said there, dear, and she gave me chocolate milk, and I did remember to say thank you, remember." (Jackson was gifted at capturing the Verbal Tic s of small children's speech: "You bad bad webbis.")
    • Amy is even worse. She repeats entire sentences. "Can Sally come out and play? Is Sally here so she can play with me?"
  • Wham Line: In the short story "Charles" (later included in Life Among the Savages), Jackson's son Laurie, a new kindergartener, is constantly telling stories about a mischievous classmate Charles whose inventively naughty behavior fascinates both parents. The narrator sets out for her first parent-teacher conference eager to meet Charles' mother. The teacher remarks that Laurie has had some trouble adjusting and his mother blames it on Charles' influence. The teacher is confused:
    "Laurie usually adjusts very quickly," I said. "I suppose this time it's Charles' influence."
    "Yes," I said, laughing, "you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles."
    "Charles?" she said. "We don't have any Charles in the kindergarten."

Alternative Title(s): Raising Demons


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