“Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess, they all went together to find a bird’s nest. They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in, they all took one, and left four in.”
This refrain from a children’s rhyme reverberated throughout the story of Elizabeth, being oft repeated by Betsy, one of the four personalities. Betsy often speaks in riddles and rhymes from children’s books that I’ve never heard of. This particular rhyme stuck with me so I looked it up and found this. A rhyme about four little girls who all appear to be the same person. They all took the same egg and are able to leave four. Each of the personalities thinks that they are completely autonomous when the opposite is true.
Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest takes a bit to build up but when it does the story packs an eerie punch. Watching Elizabeth’s slow descent into madness as she’s being torn apart by her warring personalities is terrifying. It starts out with small little instances, Elizabeth doesn’t remember a few hours at a time or ends up in a place she doesn’t remember going. Then the differing personalities begin to wage war on one another with the introduction of Bess, the penny pinching fourth personality. She shows up in New York and wages a war with Betsy, the imp, that puts Elizabeth into the hospital.
To try and figure out what’s going on Elizabeth’s Aunt Morgen has her seek help from Dr. Wright, or Dr. Wrong as Betsy calls him. He’s soon able to figure out what’s going on with Elizabeth but doesn’t quite know if he’s up to the task of trying to put these four disparate pieces back together again. After Betsy’s trip to New York Dr. Wright refuses to take her case up again until called back by Morgen.
There’s one scene during the warring stage in Elizabeth that really struck me. Elizabeth herself is taking to Morgen about the other personalities and is expressing her fear about Dr. Wright’s wanting to combine them all together. She fears that combination of the four very different girls will mean a death for them all. Their thoughts, likes, and dislikes will be erased and in their place will be an entirely new consciousness. There will be no shy Elizabeth, caring Beth, impish Betsy, or rude Bess. Just a new person with no name.
And in a way Elizabeth’s fears come true. Her past life becomes more like a shadowy dream when her new self arises. She has bits of each of the four girls in her but they’re more like ghostly forms of something that once was. And for me, this was almost more terrifying than watching Elizabeth fall to pieces. I truly don’t know if her new situation is better or worse. Dr. Wright and her aunt are feeding off her now. Using her for their own ends. When Dr. Wright speaks of sacrifice at the end of the novel I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth. Perhaps she was the sacrifice so that the doctor and her aunt could have what they’ve always wanted, a family life.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Book Battle 2015. Happy reading!