Contextual frame theory and Shirley Jackson’s ‘A Visit’ 


Shirley Jackson

Contextual frame theory explains ‘how readers track reference to characters and events through the process of reading’ (Stockwell, 2002: 155). To summarise the essence of this approach, the reader constructs mental images, or ‘contextual frames’, containing characters and objects which are said to be ‘bound’ to that frame. The binding process enables the reader to monitor who and what appears in a particular textual location. Characters and objects become ‘primed’, however, when they form the focus of the reader’s attention, and ‘textually overt’ when mentioned (Emmott, 1997). As new information is received, the reader must perform various revisions, such as adding to or amending entity representations for characters and locations. Frame modifications are necessary when characters enter or leave the frame; frame repairs occur when the reader learns that s/he has made an incorrect assumption, such as, for example, the gender of the protagonist; frame replacements (Stockwell, 2002: 158) are an extreme version of the latter in which an entire frame must be revised or scrapped altogether. In this essay I use contextual frame theory to explore one of Shirley Jackson’s most Gothic stories. I begin by examining the Gothic trope of the splintered self in the context of entity representations. I show how the orientational information necessary to contextual frame theory is repurposed to bewilder instead of guide, and I examine how contextual frame theory can explain the calculated deception practised on the reader. I contend that contextual frame theory runs into difficulties when presented with an unreliable narrator, but the necessary repair-work is nevertheless integral to the experience of reading and forms part of the story’s meaning.

‘A Visit’ (1950) appears in a collection of Jackson’s work entitled Come Along With Me and was also anthologised as ‘The Lovely House’ in American Gothic Tales, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, herself a writer in the same tradition.1 Jackson achieved fame as a writer of the Gothic, and given both the identity of the writer and the context of publication, it is crucial that the Gothic genre is taken into account in any discussion of this story. Gothic genre conventions dictate reader expectations: there is, after all, some truth in Kosofsky Sedgwick’s playful comment that ‘[o]nce you know that a novel is of the Gothic kind…you can predict its contents with an unnerving certainty’ (1986: 9). Many readers of the Gothic, and the Female Gothic in particular (Fleenor, 1983; Wallace and Smith, 2009; Wallace, 2013) will be familiar with the themes and tropes of Jackson’s story, including an imprisoned female protagonist, a splintered or fractured self, live burial and a labyrinthine dwelling, but few perhaps will foresee the twist in Jackson’s tale, and most readers will have to perform frame repairs and replacements. A first reading of the story will therefore be an entirely different experience to every subsequent reading. Readings other than the first will draw on repaired and modified frames in the light of acquired knowledge.

The story is narrated in the third person, but there are no scenes in which Margaret is not present and the reader follows Margaret’s subjectivity throughout. The reader has access to Margaret’s thoughts, but the minds of the other characters are kept closed except for what the reader can infer from their reactions and behaviour. The story begins when school-friends Margaret and Carla arrive at Carla’s home, where Margaret is to spend the summer months, and together Margaret and Carla explore the seemingly endless rooms. Carla speaks of the time when her brother will visit and when Paul and the captain arrive, the reader is led to believe that Paul is Carla’s brother. However, when the time comes for the men to depart, the reader discovers that it is the captain who is Carla’s brother. Neither Paul nor great-aunt Margaret in the tower have ever been present, and the very nature of their existence is brought into question.


Plausible readings of the story within the context of the Gothic genre include the possibility that the main female character is the subject of a split personality, and that the house and its occupants represent different facets of just one fractured mentality. For example, Bowman’s ‘structuralist inquiry’ into the work of Victoria Holt asserts that the characters surrounding the Gothic heroine represent ‘projections of her inner ambivalences’ (Bowman, 1983: 69), and similarly, Punter and Byron suggest that the architecture in Gothic fiction embodies an externalisation of a character’s emotions (2004: 179). If the house and its characters represent aspects of Margaret’s unconscious self, it should be noted in addition that there exist at least five versions of the character ‘Margaret’, all of whom may or may not be the same person. Hattenhauer does not doubt that the great-aunt is an older version of Margaret, and suggests that ‘[w]hen the madwoman in the attic appears as Margaret’s double, the theme of Margaret trapped in the history of her disunity as a subject emerges’ (2003: 56). The various Margarets can be identified as follows. The first is Carla’s school-friend, the Margaret who has a mother and sisters, who is embroidering a pair of slippers for a friend and who has a home to send to for more clothes. This Margaret is referred to, but never seen in the narrative. The second is the Margaret who visits Carla at her home during the school summer holidays. The third is the Margaret whose face is depicted on the floor of the tile room, the Margaret who died for love. The fourth is the great-aunt, the Margaret in the tower, and the fifth is the image of Margaret that Mrs Rhodes is preparing to weave into her tapestry at the end of the story. The shared name should not be overlooked: Punter and Byron suggest that ‘repetitions of names…produces a doubling that repeatedly works against any sense of narrative division’ (2004: 213)2. According to contextual frame theory, the reader uses details provided in the text to construct a character, or an ‘entity representation’ (Emmott, 1997). The doubling provoked by the naming of the tiled image and the great-aunt prompts the reader to conflate the various Margarets into one entity representation. As Margaret’s growing fondness for Paul becomes evident, it becomes more likely that she will indeed turn out to be the Margaret who died for love, and whose tiled image now resides permanently in a tiled image of the tower. This conflation of the entity representation with a mosaic image rendered from chips of the very materials from which the house has been constructed provides a valuable clue as to the true nature of the house and its occupants, to which I shall return in due course.

In her full-length study of contextual monitoring, Emmott notes that the reader retrieves ‘orientational information’ from the text, including details such as where and when the action is located (1997: 103). However, both the temporal and spatial locations of ‘A Visit’ are difficult to identify with any certainty. There are very few clues available, for example, to enable the reader to place the events of the story within a historical timeframe. Margaret arrives with Carla at the house, but no indication is provided of the girls’ means of travel, whether by rail, car, or horse and carriage; the reader is merely told that Margaret ‘alighted with Carla’ (Jackson, 2013 [1950]: 101)3. Paul appears in uniform, and the presence of the ‘captain’ leads the reader to infer that the uniform is a military one and the two men are soldiers; beyond this, however, no further assumptions can be conclusively drawn. As the story progresses, the reader’s sense of temporal disorientation is compounded by elements of narrative repetition, particularly in the dialogue. When Margaret grasps the hands of her namesake in the tower, she hears the words that will be spoken and heard again on Paul’s departure. Carla speaks often of what they will do when her brother arrives, and she begins this refrain again almost as soon as he has departed. The pattern of arrival and departure established in relation to the two men means that by the end of the narrative, it is unclear whether the title of the story refers to Margaret’s visit, the captain’s, or Paul’s.

The confusion caused by the narrative’s circular temporality is compounded by the maze-like spatial location within which the action takes place. The house, with its many rooms and corridors, is an unimaginable space. It is not a home but an anthropomorphised construction with its ‘long-boned structure’ (101); it is also an endlessly repeated exhibit of itself. In a fairy-tale like episode, Carla shows Margaret two identical rooms, one in gold and one in silver, and when Margaret enquires who uses the rooms, Carla replies ‘No one’ (103). (One expects the third room in this sequence to be of bronze, but instead it is the room of mirrors.) In sum, both the spatial and temporal details provided can be described, with some justification, as deliberately unhelpful.

shirley-jackson3-1916-1965In the section which follows, I refer to contextual frame theory to demonstrate how it is that the reader of Jackson’s story is so comprehensively hoodwinked into believing that Paul exists and that he is Carla’s brother. Emmott’s work with contextual frames shows how readers use the information stored in these frames to correctly identify the referent of pronouns (1997). Margaret is the focaliser of the story, but the depth to which the ostensibly third-person narrative is immersed in Margaret’s consciousness is not immediately evident to the reader. Only at the end of the story is the reader made aware that Paul and the great-aunt exist only for Margaret, prompting many frame repairs; in addition, the reader realises that the scene in the tower could not have taken place when the tower is described (for the first and only time) as ‘ruined’ (124). The reader must then perform a frame replacement and substitute instead a scene in which Margaret tries the door of the tower but is unable to gain entry. From the moment Paul arrives, the reader is led to believe that he is Carla’s brother:

…and Carla said, “Brother, here is Margaret.”

He was tall and haughty in uniform… Next to him stood his friend, a captain (108, my emphasis).

The ‘He’ which follows on immediately from Carla’s introduction refers to a man who is not the captain. Moreover, the captain is never referred to by name, which allows the reader to assume that Carla means Paul whenever she refers to her brother. In the scenes which follow Paul’s arrival before Margaret’s visit to the tower, a pattern is established in which the characters are scrupulously bound into every frame in careful descriptions such as the following: ‘They went for a picnic, Carla and the captain and Paul and Margaret, and Mrs. Rhodes waved to them from the doorway as they left, and Mr. Rhodes came to his study window and lifted his hand to them’ (111). In this sentence, all the characters mentioned by name are primed, bound and textually overt. Mr and Mrs Rhodes, however, will not be present for the picnic and are bound out of the frame from this point onwards. Paul, however, remains bound, and is textually overt in his conversations with Margaret. In the reader’s mind, Paul exists as much as Margaret, Carla and the captain. On subsequent readings, the reader must perform frame repairs in striking each of Paul’s utterances and considering how the scene plays out without him. Textual clues previously unnoticed become evident: for example, Carla refers to Margaret as ‘odd’ and looks at her ‘strangely’, and the reason for this is that she does not hear Paul’s remarks, such as his offer to show Margaret the rose garden. Carla, in her refusal to respond to Margaret’s curiosity regarding the tower, is established as someone with a habit of ignoring the utterances of others when it does not suit her to reply; as such, her lack of response to Paul’s conversational turns is not sufficient on a first reading to alert the reader to any possible anomaly. There are other clues in sentences such as the following: ‘After dinner they played charades, and even Mrs. Rhodes did Achilles with Mr. Rhodes, holding his heel and both of them laughing and glancing at Carla and Margaret and the captain’ (109). The reader assumes ‘they’ to refer to Paul as well as the named characters in this sentence, so even though he is not textually overt as the others are, he is still bound and primed into the frame, and in fact becomes textually overt in the sentence which follows when he speaks to Margaret. There is another example of the same tactic here: ‘And they played word games in the evening, and Margaret and Paul won, and everyone said Margaret was so clever’ (109). The ‘everyone’ in this sentence is assumed to include Paul, so he remains bound and primed to the frame, even though his own cleverness has apparently been ignored by those assembled. The most blatant clue, however, is provided in the scene in which Margaret is watching Mrs Rhodes sew while ‘Carla and the captain bent over a book together’. Paul is not bound into this frame and is therefore assumed not to be present. Carla gently rebukes Margaret with the words, ‘Margaret, do come and look, here. Mother is always at her work, but my brother is rarely home’ (110). If the reader weren’t convinced by this stage that Paul is Carla’s brother, this is a clear indication that Carla is referring to the captain. On a first reading, the reader might perhaps believe that Carla’s intention is to criticise Margaret’s inattention to the other guests in the house and thus Paul and the captain are included together in her reference to ‘my brother’. When the narrative reaches its conclusion and the captain is positively identified as Carla’s brother, the resulting confusion renders indecipherable the pronouns used by Paul in his closing remarks before departure. He claims to ‘care for [the house] constantly, even when they forget’, and states that nothing in the house can be replaced: ‘All we can do is add to it’ (123, emphases in original). It would seem that Paul is referring to himself and the Rhodes family, but in touching Mrs Rhodes’ embroidery frame as he speaks, he appears to imply that Mrs Rhodes adds to the house as she embroiders its image. If Paul is including the Rhodes family in his ‘we’, then Carla and the others presumably share the same status as Paul, who claims that without the house he ‘could not exist’ (123). Epistemological uncertainty reaches such a peak at this point that contextual frame theory cannot help the reader sort through the increasingly tangled jumble of what is to be believed and what can be discredited.


There is textual evidence to support the reading that the house and its occupants, including Margaret, are nothing but figures woven into a tapestry. Margaret witnesses the creation of ‘doors and windows, carvings and cornices’ under Mrs Rhodes’ hands, and indeed, Margaret’s own entrapment: ‘[t]he small thread of days and sunlight…that bound Margaret to the house, was woven here as she watched’ (110). The grounds of the house are included: the ‘proper forest’ with its ‘neat trees’ and too-green moss is also part of a tapestry on display in the breakfast room (111). Margaret is afraid of the room of mirrors because ‘it was so difficult for her to tell what was in it and what was not’ (104). The objects in this room such as the table and the wooden bowl which are bound, primed and textually overt may not have any tangible presence at all, and, of course, as elements in a fictional text, the table and bowl exist only as signifiers to evoke an image of the signified in the mind of the reader. Margaret partially guesses the truth when she uses a metaphor of the house as a story: ‘perhaps, she thought, from halfway up the stairway this great hall, and perhaps the whole house, is visible, as a complete body of story together, all joined and in sequence’ (102). Coupled with this metaphor are numerous references to patterns and images that are too large to be seen except from far away, just as one must read the whole story to understand its import. In another scene, an anthropomorphism connected with Margaret’s world-view hints at the possibility of conscious life in inanimate images: ‘Margaret felt surely that she could stay happily and watch the small painted people playing’ (107). The same device is used in the scene depicting the morning after the ball:

the gay confusion of helping one another dress…seemed all to have happened longer ago than memory, to be perhaps a dream that might never have happened at all, as perhaps the figures in the tapestries on the walls in the dining room might remember, secretly, an imagined process of dressing themselves and coming with laughter and light voices to sit on the lawn where they were woven (121).

In the final scene, both Carla and Margaret are still wearing their ball gowns, and Carla – laughing – invites Margaret to sit beside her on the lawn as models for Mrs Rhodes’ tapestry.

This discussion has made use of contextual frame theory to account for the numerous adjustments the reader is required to make on reading ‘A Visit’, and has suggested a possible reading in which the house and its occupants are no more than figures in a tapestry. It has been noted how contextual frame theory falters when confronted with unreliable narration and the resulting epistemological uncertainty. However, it should be noted that frame repairs and replacements do not efface original impressions and the reader is left with the idea of a living consciousness trapped within a woven image. To place the story in its Gothic context once more, the conventions of this genre are employed here to express the living death experienced by women expected to immerse themselves in the home and devote their lives to it. Wallace writes of the civil death which was the legal status of married women in 1765 (2013: 2) and Jackson herself struggled with the domesticity expected of women in post-war America (Smith, 2009). Margaret’s ‘death’, therefore, can be read figuratively not as a physical death from a broken heart, but as the death of what Margaret’s life might have been had she not been bound to the house.


1 Carla’s family name appears as ‘Rhodes’ in the version published in the 2013 Penguin edition, and ‘Montague’ in the Oates anthology. I have used the name ‘Rhodes’ throughout.

2 This comment appears in a discussion of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that, along with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, operates as a Gothic ur-text which has inspired many imitations (Stoneman, 1996). Cf. Hattenhauer’s reference to the great-aunt in the tower as ‘the madwoman in the attic’ (2003: 56).

3 All subsequent references are to this edition.

List of references

Bowman, B. (1983) Victoria Holt’s Gothic Romances: A Structuralist Inquiry. In J. E. Fleenor (ed). The Female Gothic. Montréal: Eden Press, 69–81.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fleenor, J.E. (ed). (1983) The Female Gothic. Montréal: Eden Press.

Hattenhauer, D. (2003) Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jackson, S. (1996 [1950]) The Lovely House. In J. C. Oates (ed). American Gothic Tales. New York: Plume, 204–225.

Jackson, S. (2013 [1950]) A Visit. In S. E. Hyman (ed). Come Along With Me: Classic Short Stories and an Unfinished Novel. New York: Penguin, 101–125.

Kosofsky Sedgwick, E. (1986) The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen.

Punter, D. & Byron, G. (2004) The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell.

Smith, A. (2009) Children of the Night: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Female Gothic. In The Female Gothic: New Directions. London: Palgrave, 152–165.

Stockwell, P. (2002) Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Stoneman, P. (1996) Brontë Transformations: The Cultural Dissemination of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. London: Prentice Hall.

Wallace, D. (2013) Female Gothic Histories: Gender, History and the Gothic. Cardiff: Cardiff University Press.

Wallace, D. & Smith, A. (eds). (2009) The Female Gothic: New Directions. London: Palgrave.

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