Rebecca Hall in Roundabout’s 2014 production of ‘Machinal’
Its tone has less in common with the genre-defining Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as it does with Machinal, the modernist play by playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell. Machinal — based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, who was executed for the murder of her husband in 1928 — is a masterpiece of Expressionist theatre, and its legacy is visible in The Bird’s Nest‘s opening pages as Elizabeth, like Machinal‘s anonymous protagonist, feels trapped in the large machine of her life, drifting, listless, through a life without meaning or emotion.
Machinal‘s protagonist breaks from her entrapment by having an affair and murdering her husband, but Elizabeth’s is much more complicated — and with larger psychological stakes. To ease her own madness, and to obtain freedom from the control of Dr. Wright and Aunt Morgen, she must somehow combine the four personalities inside of her mind to become a new person. It is an understanding that Elizabeth exhibits, with trepidation, to her aunt in the book’s climax:
“He said, the doctor, that when I was cured it would be all of us, Betsy and Beth and all, were all back together. He said I was one of them. Not myself, just one more of them. He said he was going to put us all back together into one person.” “So?” Should Elizabeth be speaking of this, concerning herself over it? Evan haltingly, clumsily as she spoke, should she be allowed to continue? “Why not wait and see what happens?” Morgen suggested, inspired. “Look.” Elizabeth turned and looked at her. “I’m just one of them, one part. I think and I feel and I talk and I walk and I look at things and I hear things and I eat and I take baths —” “All right,” Morgen said. “Conceded that you do it all, what’s wrong with it? I do too.” “But I do it all with my mind.” Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it — she will.”
Jackson directly links Elizabeth’s mental health with her personhood; Elizabeth feels that stability will change her identity entirely, and it’s beguiling that outside forces — Dr. Wright, Aunt Morgen, anyone else who is seemingly normal — are those taking control over Elizabeth’s personhood. The Bird’s Nest could be seen as an allegory for feminine identity in postwar America; the greater number of options for young women did not mean that they were in control over their own lives, and the many female identities manifest themselves in The Bird’s Nest as competing factions within Elizabeth’s mind. Despite the success of those stories that picked up fragments of Jackson’s work, The Bird’s Nest has left a powerful legacy that helped define the conventions of an oft-used narrative. It is a masterwork of psychological fiction, and one that deserves as much attention as Jackson’s more popular writings.