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Miss Clarence All Alone

What does Shirley Jackson tell us about America’s single and childless professional women?

(By Maridav/Shutterstock)

The woman still considers herself young at age 35—and acts like it. Single and childless, she spends her free time smoking and people-watching and pretending to read Stendhal at West Village cafés. She never imagined she would end up becoming an office drone when she first moved to New York more than a decade ago in search of a glamorous career in the arts. But here she is, earning enough to make ends meet and impress her relatives when they visit from upstate. Sometimes, though, she likes to imagine and even pretend that she is, in fact, married, perhaps with children soon to come. But no, for now she’s happily single and childless, and prefers the neatness and simplicity of her well-curated apartment.

For some on the too-online right, this stereotypical figure has emerged as Public Enemy No. 1: the single, childless, urban woman who spends her lazy Saturdays trying out new recipes and watching vapid HBO reruns, all while telling herself that she’s content, willfully ignoring the God-husband-and-baby-shaped hole burning in her heart. She is both a harbinger and a symptom of cultural developments that spell civilizational apocalypse.


Or not: The young woman I just described is actually the protagonist of “The Villager,” one of Shirley Jackson’s best-known and most affecting short stories, first published in The American Mercury in 1944. Jackson, for whom the descriptor “American Gothic” might well have been invented, excelled at uncovering the nightmarish dimension in everyday life: horror in which the demonic is glimpsed in ordinary people and situations—but only just barely, a quality that renders the author’s fictions all the more unsettling.

Miss Clarence, the would-be professional dancer turned Manhattan secretary in “The Villager,” is a distinctly midcentury figure, and yet she might as well be the star of the latest TikTok video conservatives are mad about in 2023. Having come up against the hard reality that competitive dance requires more talent than she possesses, she still attends “an occasional dance recital with another girl from her office.” She doesn’t give much thought to the shape of her life, but when she does, she “congratulate[s] herself on her common sense in handling a good job competently and supporting herself better than she would in her home town.”

The city never fails to offer some amusement to fill those too-quiet moments that might otherwise prompt her to dwell on the oppressive emptiness of it all. That is, until she stops by an apartment uptown to check out the furniture for sale and finds the owners are away. They have left her a note inviting her to let herself in. The flat is dirty and roach-ridden, the fridge is empty, and the furniture is too lousy to waste money on, but Miss Clarence resolves to stick around until the lady of the house, Mrs. Roberts, is supposed to return. In the interval, a young man named Harris shows up, apparently also in the market for some used furniture.

When Harris assumes that Miss Clarence is Mrs. Roberts, she doesn’t correct his misimpression and chooses, for no obvious reason, to play the part. For a brief moment, Miss Clarence is no longer a “Miss.” She is the happily married Mrs., somebody’s wife, even if she can’t cook for him because she doesn’t know how. Amid the small talk, Harris mentions how, “I’m the worst cook in the world. ... What I need is a wife.” Then he leaves with a smile, and Miss Clarence, seemingly distraught, rushes out of the Roberts’s place.

My summary of the plot (forgive the spoiler) fails to do justice to the air of menacing unease that pervades “The Villager,” as it does most of Jackson’s stories. It is notable, too, that the young furniture shopper in the story, Harris—full name Jamie Harris—is a recurring character in the story collection in which “The Villager” was first gathered in book form. Jamie Harris, we begin to gather, might in fact be a demon. His targets are almost always women like Miss Clarence. In “The Daemon Lover,” he promises on a whim to marry a similarly situated 34-year-old woman (with “lines around her eyes”), and then simply disappears, an act that drives her to madness. In “Like Mother Used to Make,” he is the confident lover of Marcia, yet another Gotham singleton, and one doesn’t get the impression he will be settling down with her anytime soon

Are Jackson’s single women pure victims of men like Jamie Harris? Well, not quite. They have agency. In “Like Mother Used to Make,” Marcia and Harris, about to hook up, kick Marcia’s nice-guy neighbor David out of his own apartment—David, who would probably be much better for her, if he weren’t so, well, nice. Who knows how many decent men Miss Clarence and the others have turned away, on the faith, common among some women in the city then and now, that they would land the “perfect guy,” only to end up haunted by loneliness?

No, the women—and the men—have agency, but their agency is delimited by larger social structures that Jackson, in her brilliant way, only hints at. In Jackson’s telling, hell doesn’t lie in some realm beyond; it’s right here, woven out of the alienated social and sexual relations her characters seem fated to maintain, over and against what each of them might individually prefer to do with her life, or what might be in greater accord with her human nature.

There is a lesson there, admittedly a subtle one, for conservatives who imagine that today’s Miss Clarences just need someone online to yell at them about the virtues, and civilizational necessity, of getting married and having kids.