The Intrigue of Immoral Characters in Literature: A Discussion on Shirley Jackson and Donna Tartt


Literature with morally disturbed protagonists has intrigued readers since the days of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. A moral abyss in others deeply disturbs, yet undoubtedly fascinates.

Perhaps for the same reasons why True Crime is so popular today: attempting to understand the darkest sides of human nature presents us with a psyche that most cannot comprehend in their own lives and fear coming across in the minds of others.

Although film and television have more than their fair share of awful protagonists, many of these characters have routes in novels (look no further than Amy Dune in Gone Girl or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho).

Literature is arguably the best medium for delving into the mindset of these hateful, intriguingly unhinged characters. The longer form and the often first-person narrative voice in novels that explore unhinged characters allow for a deeper understanding within the audience which, in turn, unsettles the reader more.

In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in The Castle, we can see the effect of first-person prose on the reader. At the start of the book, we are first introduced to Mary Catharine, her older sister Constance, and their ill uncle Julian, who are the three sole surviving members of the wealthy Blackwood family.

Mary Catharine, otherwise known as ‘Merricat’, is the narrator of this tale. The reader is quickly introduced to her fantasies of both living on the moon alone with her sister and her daydreams of killing the people who anger her, including her cousin Charles and the town’s residences.

However, Shirley Jackson is able to normalise these violent fantasies through her stark prose and strong character voice, which manages to get the reader to empathise with Merricat and her desire to be alone with her sister. Through this, the reader comes to question their own judgement, and if a moral crisis doesn’t liven up the day then what does?

Juxtaposing her younger sister, Constance is characterised by her gentleness. She is a representation of everything deemed stereotypically feminine: she is gentle and kind, her hobbies are cooking and gardening, and, above all, she is beautiful.

This is a reflection of Shirley Jackson’s own biography. Jackson bitterly disappointed her mother who wanted a girl more feminine, much like Constance. It is said that Jackson’s mother disapproved of the mentally unsound women in Jackson’s novels and even went so far as to body shame her daughter.

Such treatment has its toll, and in her letters to her husband, Jackson talked of her loneliness, and how he broke his promise that, with him, she wouldn’t feel alone again.

Although wanting to be more like Constance, I believe that Shirley Jackson viewed herself more as Merricat: lonely, full of anger, full of admiration and envy for Constance and what she represents. This proves Barbara Hepworth’s statement correct: ‘What one wants to say is formed in childhood, and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it’.

Writing morally awful characters such as Merricat provided a space for Jackson to express her fears, which was especially important for Jackson as, being a woman in the 1950s, there weren’t many spaces to talk about issues of gender expectations and mental health.

This showcases one of the reasons why I love literature of this ilk: often, characters are reflections of parts of an author amplified, and immoral characters can be manifestations of the things writers often fear within themselves or the world around them.

One cannot mention unhinged main characters without talking about the Master of Mystery herself, Donna Tartt. Her most successful novel, The Secret History, follows the perspective of Richard Papen as he enters the world of the prestigious Hampden College where he meets a tightly knit group of six students studying ancient Greek.

From the very first page, Tartt grips the reader through Richard’s direct and unsympathetic voice, as he states in the first line “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation”.

We quickly learn who killed Bunny, but the question is, why? This question “invite[s] the reader to begin the story [saying]: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this” (Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft). Further, Richard’s detachment from “the gravity of [his] situation” and the death of Bunny furthers this mystery by intriguing the reader through a question that has interested readers for years: what drives someone to murder?

From the start, Richard’s morals are in question. However, he is an unreliable narrator and one of the intriguing things for me is how the reader comes to excuse the actions of the “we”. Richard manages to persuade the reader that their actions are not wrong as, throughout the novel, his descriptions of his friends and of Bunny place us thoroughly on the murderers’ side.

I’ve read and reread The Secret History multiple times, and to me, the most striking moment is when Richard’s then-girlfriend breaks up with him because she claims that the way he looks at her scares her.

Until this moment, there is not much of an insight into how people view Richard, we are constantly wrapped up in his own monologue, and this breaking of the reality that the reader is presented with is quite uncanny. But Richard brushes over this. There is no explanation, and the reader is left with a sense that the characters within the novel are not how Richard presents them to be.

Unhinged characters make wonderful unreliable narrators that can act as striking metaphors. In this case, Richard represents the wilful ignorance of elitist groups who live in their own bubble, excusing each other’s actions, unaware (or uncaring) of how others view them.

Donna Tartt and Shirley Jackson are unafraid to explore the darker sides of the human psyche but, by the end of We Have Always Lived in The Castle and The Secret History, I was left with as many questions as I had answered. The actions and perceptions of these morally dark characters are never fully explained, and the reader’s mind is left to fill in the blanks.

And here we have gotten to the core of why I adore unhinged characters: they leave us unsettled, with feelings much like the uncanny, as they can never be fully understood or explained. And yet the reader is left with the impression that these are characters very much alive, jumping off the page, surrounding us in everyday life.

Some more book recommendations:

Melancholy by Jon Fosse

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter

Drive Your Pillows Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Carrie by Stephen King

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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  1. Best best best..

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