Analysis of 'Paranoia' by Shirley Jackson

A Story of Uncertainty

Image courtesy of squacco.

Shirley Jackson is an American author most remembered for her chilling and controversial short story "The Lottery," about a violent undercurrent in a small American town.

"Paranoia" was first published in the August 5, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, long after the author's death in 1965. Jackson's children found the story in her papers in the Library of Congress.

If you missed the story on the newsstand, the first page is available for free on The New Yorker's website.

If you want to read the entire piece, digital access is available to New Yorker subscribers ($34.99/six months). And of course, you can very likely find a copy at your local library.

Plot. Mr. Halloran Beresford, a businessman in New York, leaves his office quite pleased with himself for remembering his wife's birthday. He stops to buy chocolates on the way home, and plans to take his wife to dinner and a show.

But his commute home becomes fraught with panic and danger as he realizes someone is stalking him. No matter where he turns, the stalker is there.

In the end, he does make it home, but after a brief moment of relief, the reader realizes Mr. Beresford still might not be safe after all.

Real or Imagined? Your opinion of this story will depend almost entirely on what you make of the title, "Paranoia." On first reading, I felt the title seemed to dismiss Mr. Beresford's troubles as nothing but a fantasy.

I also felt it over-explained the story and left no room for interpretation.

But on further reflection, I realized I hadn't given Jackson enough credit. She's not offering any easy answers. Almost every frightening incident in the story can be explained as both a real threat and an imagined one, which creates a constant sense of uncertainty.

For example, when an unusually aggressive shopkeeper tries to block Mr. Beresford's exit from his store, it's hard to say whether he's up to something sinister or just wants to make a sale. When a bus driver refuses to stop at the appropriate stops, instead just saying, "Report me," he could be plotting against Mr. Beresford, or he could simply be lousy at his job.

The story leaves the reader on the fence about whether Mr. Beresford's paranoia is justified, thus leaving the reader -- rather poetically -- a bit paranoid herself.

Some Historical Context. According to Jackson's son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, in an interview with The New Yorker, the story was most likely written in the early 1940s, during World War II. So there would have been a constant sense of danger and distrust in the air, both in relation to foreign countries and in relation to the U.S. government's attempts to uncover espionage at home.

This sense of distrust is obvious as Mr. Beresford scans the other passengers on the bus, looking for someone who might help him. He sees a man who looks "as though he might be a foreigner. Foreigner, Mr. Beresford thought, while he looked at the man, foreigner, foreign plot, spies. Better not rely on any foreigner …"

In a completely different vein, it's hard not to read Jackson's story without thinking of Sloan Wilson's 1955 novel about conformity, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which was later made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.

Jackson writes:

"There were twenty small-size gray suits like Mr. Beresford's on every New York block, fifty men still clean-shaven and pressed after a day in an air-cooled office, a hundred small men, perhaps, pleased with themselves for remembering their wives' birthdays."

Though the stalker is distinguished by "a small mustache" (as opposed to the standard clean-shaven faces that surround Mr. Beresford) and a "light hat" (which must have been unusual enough to grab Mr. Beresford's attention), Mr. Beresford rarely seems to get a clear view of him after the initial sighting.

This raises the possibility that Mr. Beresford is not seeing the same man over and over, but rather different men all dressed similarly.

Though Mr. Beresford seems happy with his life, I think it would be possible to develop an interpretation of this story in which it is the sameness all around him that is what actually unnerves him.

Entertainment Value. Lest I wring all the life out of this story by over-analyzing it, let me finish by saying that no matter how you interpret the story, it is a heart-pumping, mind-bending, terrific read. If you believe Mr. Beresford is being stalked, you'll fear his stalker -- and in fact, like Mr. Beresford, you'll fear everybody else, too. If you believe the stalking is all in Mr. Beresford's head, you'll fear whatever misguided action he's about to take in response to the perceived stalking.