Arion Lyre

91. The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, with an introduction by Diane Johnson, and with illustrations by Miles Hyman

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, with an introduction by Diane Johnson, and with fifteen color illustrations by Miles Hyman, June 2011.

Shirley Jackson made a distinctive contribution to the literature of suburban angst and domestic dysfunction associated with the 1950s. Jackson’s better-known novels, such as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, blend humor, fantasy, and jarring sociological truth in such a way that she was labeled as both a science fiction writer and exponent of the mad housewife, as well as a social satirist. Her one moment of great fame attended the controversial publication of her 1948 New Yorker story “The Lottery”, about the cold-blooded persecution of a normal wife and mother by her small-town neighbors. In the judgment of The New Yorker critic Joseph Mitchell, The Sundial, written ten years later, is Jackson’s best novel. Here the object of her comic treatment is the end of the world, as it is imagined and meticulously prepared for by a privileged New England family.


As critic Diane Johnson writes in her introduction to the Arion edition:  “In The Sundial, Jackson was at some pains to locate the story in a contemporary but non-specific era, when people had cars but also corset stays, and a Victorian reluctance to mention ‘lower extremities’. This timeless quality has insured that the pleasures of this small, delicious work have endured. Like Animal Farm, it has something permanently important to say about human society, in this case about fear, power, and leadership.

“The wealthy Hallorans, living together in a sumptuous mansion, include several generations of ill-assorted people: Lionel, the presumptive heir to the estate, is newly dead, possibly murdered by his forceful stepmother, the domineering Orianna. Her husband, Lionel's ineffectual father Richard, the son of the founder, is the one with the money, but Orianna is the absolute ruler. Under her thumb are their daughter-in-law, Lionel's widow Maryjane, and their monstrous little girl Fancy, Richard's sister Aunt Fanny, the governess Miss Ogilvie, and the handsome ‘librarian’, the obliging Essex.

“One morning, Aunt Fanny, walking in the garden, receives a warning from the ghost of her father that the world is soon to come to an end. He instructs her that the family must stay inside the house. The assembled company has of course no way of assessing the probability of Aunt Fanny's prophecy being true, and is not disposed to question it. Instead, they trustfully fix on a day, August 31, as the day of the cataclysmic event, and as this draws nearer, give the farewell party for the villagers, draw up rules of behavior for the new world they will find afterwards, and batten down the house to await whatever is to come.

The Sundial, written in 1959, seven years before Jackson's death, came at a time of imminent social changes. The 1950s were a particularly sensitive time for women in general. Powerful and useful during the war, they were now sidelined to take up their earlier, docile roles as wives, secretaries, nurses, teachers and moms — restrictions widely and keenly felt but still lacking unifying figures or a voice for objection. Betty Friedan would not write The Feminine Mystique until 1963, MS magazine would not be published until 1972. Talented women like Jackson could have recourse to sedition: though (or because) she was a wife and mother of four, her work would express female anger and sense of powerlessness.

“Her work is, finally, satiric and more nearly related to, say, Swift or Hawthorne than to Poe. Writing in Salon magazine, the critic Laura Miller has observed that when it comes to her place in American letters, Jackson could be ranked somewhere between Patricia Highsmith and Flannery O'Connor, and while that sort of comparison, as Miller herself says, does not describe Jackson's distinctive voice and concerns, it can also serve as a clue to her tone and worldview.”  


Diane Johnson is a leading figure in American letters: a novelist, essayist, critic, and screenwriter. She is known for her comic sensibility and occupies an admired place as an observer of the humorous and absurd in contemporary fiction and in society.  In a series of novels, Johnson has made her subject American expatriate life in Paris, producing Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire. Johnson’s earlier novels include The Shadow Knows, Lying Low, and Persian Nights. She is the author of the acclaimed literary biographies, Dashiell Hammet and Lesser Lives, several collections of essays, and the screenplay for “The Shining”. Johnson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books on literary and cultural subjects. Johnson and her husband, Dr. John Murray, divide their time between San Francisco and Paris.


Miles Hyman is an American painter and illustrator living in Paris. He is the grandson of the author Shirley Jackson and brings a deep understanding of her life and work to this project. He previously illustrated  Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery” for an edition published by Farrar Straus & Giroux. Hyman was born in Bennington, Vermont, in 1962. He attended Wesleyan University and moved to Paris in 1985 to study drawing at the École des Beaux-Arts. For five years he was involved in music, performing with the Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboïm. As an illustrator he has worked for the French publishers Gallimard, le Seuil, and Hachette, and the newspaper Le Monde. In the United States, his work has appeared in books for Knopf, Viking, and Chronicle Books, as well as The New Yorker and New York Times. His drawings and paintings are exhibited in galleries in France and Switzerland.

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