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The Bird's Nest
Cover of The Bird's Nest
The Bird's Nest
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Shirley Jackson's third novel, a chilling descent into multiple personalities
Elizabeth is a demure twenty-three-year-old wiling her life away at a dull museum job, living with her neurotic aunt, and subsisting off her dead mother’s inheritance. When Elizabeth begins to suffer terrible migraines and backaches, her aunt takes her to the doctor, then to a psychiatrist. But slowly, and with Jackson’s characteristic chill, we learn that Elizabeth is not just one girl—but four separate, self-destructive personalities. The Bird’s Nest, Jackson’s third novel, develops hallmarks of the horror master’s most unsettling work: tormented heroines, riveting familial mysteries, and a disquieting vision inside the human mind.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
Shirley Jackson's third novel, a chilling descent into multiple personalities
Elizabeth is a demure twenty-three-year-old wiling her life away at a dull museum job, living with her neurotic aunt, and subsisting off her dead mother’s inheritance. When Elizabeth begins to suffer terrible migraines and backaches, her aunt takes her to the doctor, then to a psychiatrist. But slowly, and with Jackson’s characteristic chill, we learn that Elizabeth is not just one girl—but four separate, self-destructive personalities. The Bird’s Nest, Jackson’s third novel, develops hallmarks of the horror master’s most unsettling work: tormented heroines, riveting familial mysteries, and a disquieting vision inside the human mind.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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    FOREWORD

    Shirley Jackson was, and continues to be, one of my greatest influences, a writer who suggested a way to engage with the strangeness of the larger world and yet stay true to whatever complicated ideas I wanted to express. I first read “The Lottery” when I was a preteen, still one of the most transformative reading experiences of my life, which led me to Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, then her earlier works, as I searched for every written word that Jackson created, and ended when I finally read, long overdue, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson has remained the writer I look to when I want to understand the darkness of the world and how human beings internalize that darkness or, perhaps even more terrifying, create it themselves. The larger world has always been difficult for me to process, a constant source of anxiety, and Jackson’s work gave me a blueprint for how I might navigate that world without succumbing to paranoia; her stories were cautionary tales in which I somehow lived comfortably. The Bird’s Nest, though written early in her career, showcases what I find so engaging about Jackson’s work: her ability to create situations of quiet chaos that, no matter how much the reader seeks to find a tangible explanation, defy our attempts to categorize or fully understand it. The world, I understood through Jackson’s novels, could never be fully explained, and it was in those mysterious places that resisted definition that offered the most interesting stories.

     • • •

    The Bird’s Nest opens on a building in need of repair, a museum that features an “odd, and disturbingly apparent, list to the west.” When I reread this novel, the image immediately reminded me of Jackson’s exceptional later novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, where the reader encounters ominous structures, domiciles that house strange and fascinating characters. A few pages into the story, we meet our main character, Elizabeth Richmond, a quiet, lonely young woman mourning the recent death of her mother, and we learn the possibility that “Elizabeth’s personal equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor” of the museum, where she works in the clerical department. Elizabeth’s office is on the highest floor of the museum and now, thanks to the renovation project, offers an open hole in the wall next to her desk that exposes “the innermost skeleton of the building” and induces the temptation to “hurl herself downward into the primeval sands upon which the museum presumably stood.”

    For those of us who love Jackson’s work, this is familiar territory, and we are prepared for the listing structure to slowly drive Miss Richmond mad. Darkness enters the narrative when we learn that she is receiving threatening letters that exacerbate her recurring headaches and back pain. All of the elements are now in place and then, a testament to Jackson’s genius and a reason why The Bird’s Nest remains one of my favorite novels, Jackson shifts the narrative into a new and altogether more interesting direction. Elizabeth Richmond possesses multiple personalities, one of which leads her to sneak out of the house she shares with her aunt and into all manner of unsavory activities. The threatening letters have no source other than Elizabeth’s own hand. She admits to being unaware of these terrible events, but she can’t be sure. We now see that the structure housing strange and fascinating...

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