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What I learned from The Bird's Nest

Updated: Feb 27

A stack of books. The top one has an image of a bird's nest and three birds.

I love Shirley Jackson’s work. I’ve read the greatest hits: “The Lottery”, The Haunting of Hill House, Hangsaman, We’ve Always Lived in the Castle and I also have many of her other books on my “to-be-read” wishlist. Somehow, in all my admiration, I missed The Bird’s Nest. The second I read the summary – a dull museum secretary sees a psychiatrist with unusual techniques is diagnosed with multiple personalities – I immediately clicked Buy Now.

What I learned from The Bird's Nest:

When I first started reading The Bird’s Nest, I was focused on consuming the story. By the time Jackson introduced the psychiatrist, Dr. Wright, my writer's brain kicked in and I wanted to understand how she was making some of the moves that made this story so compelling.

Jackson juggles a character with multiple personalities primarily through dialogue and descriptions of their change in facial expression and body postures.

The characters are all individually named.

  • Elizabeth – she is described as plain

  • Beth – soft but needy

  • Betsy - the trickster, incorrigible

  • Bess - self-important

Shifting from voice to voice like that without each personality melding into one is challenging. The reader learns the voices slowly over the course of a therapy session, so outside of the therapy session. This is not a new writing technique, but Jackson plays it subtly while other writers might be tempted to go big. During a hypnosis session, the doctor is aggravated by this new personality’s snide and rude way of speaking to him. She insists on opening her eyes, which the doctor tells her she’s not allowed to do. “I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome… I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, though only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she” (49).

When Jackson shifts from personality to personality, the reader can tell which one is in the drivers’ seat. She indicates the change with a dialogue tag and not much more.

I found myself rooting for the troublemaker. The way Jackson did this was through a point of view shift. When the primary character seeks Dr. Wright on the advice of her aunt, the point of view shifts from her to him. He writes in a detached medical voice. Additionally, he’s pompous and self-important. The reader is pulled in because he is revealing the personalities and because he takes an instant dislike to one personality in particular – Betsy. She is the second personality the reader meets – the antithesis of Elizabeth and Beth, one who is beaten and broken while the other is sweet and demure.

Unlike any of the other personalities, Betsy has a purpose, however misguided. In Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, it says that a character needs to have yearning. They need to yearn for something, which is different from their motivation or purpose. Betsy’s motivation is to go to New York to find her mother. However, she yearns for freedom and control. When she is given the opportunity, she eats the best food and goes wherever she wants. However, the freedom she seeks is unattainable, because she is one of many.

She cannot be separated from the group. If Elizabeth’s personalities are integrated, Betsy will disappear because she is only part of the whole. But she cannot be independent. The longer she tries to live independently, the more the other personalities try to take control.

This means the character the reader is rooting for is now in trouble. It amps the suspense like she is being hunted and running out of time.

Additionally, Jackson crafts one of the personalities to be most resistant to the process, and as a result, is described as the doctor to be “evil”. Betsy doesn’t want to be hypnotized. She doesn’t want to tell the doctor anything personal, so she lies and evades questions with nursery rhymes. “Now certainly not, Doctor Wrong; we all went together to seek a bird’s nest; do you remember the man who was wondrous and wise and jumped into a bramble bush and scratched out both his eyes …” (69). However, as “evil” and unlikable as Betsy is described in the doctor’s section, she is not the antagonist of the story. The doctor’s favoritism for Beth, his irritation with Betsy, and his overreactions to Betsy’s insolence set him up as the antagonist. Of all the personalities, Betsy is the one with the most direction – she wants to be in the driver’s seat.

Finally, the order of the introduction of the point of view of characters aids the suspense and connection to the characters. The story begins with Elizabeth's POV – the core character: the vessel for which the other characters reside. She has no idea what is going on. Next is the doctor, he thinks he knows everything. And then there is Betsy, who knows everything except for what she has blocked out, which is why she wants to go to New York. Betsy in the first two sections is the tormentor, but she’s mysterious. She holds the answers, she’s not willing to give them up. Any other arrangement would kill the suspense.

What I learned from The Bird's Nest was how charmed I was by the idea of a characteristic antagonist. I felt motivated to create one for my own writing.


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