A short story I recently re-read

‘The Bus’, by Shirley Jackson

Available here. You can read it in 40 minutes or so.


Thinking about structure… 

The story begins with the simple statement ‘Miss Harper was going home, although the night was wet and nasty.’ The word ‘home’ is repeated 5 times in the opening paragraph, as the reader is told (without a great deal of showing) some of Miss Harper’s background, and her personality, all in relation to her using the bus to go ‘home’. This focus on ‘home’ – the necessity of going there, the difficulty in getting there, the unpleasantness of the journey – indicates that ‘home’ is the key idea in the story. Chuck Palahniuk wouldn’t be impressed by all the ‘thought verbs’ (‘thought’ is used multiple times, as is ‘wondered’), and Stephen King wouldn’t be happy about all the adverbs (‘particularly’, ‘frequently’, ‘irritably’), but this story was written in the 60s, and I really think sometimes rules are made to be broken.

Typical of Jackson, the simple premise of an older lady visiting someone is subverted into something nightmarish and unsettling; the uncanny being a signature of hers.

From the opening, Miss Harper is uneasy, irritable, and desperate to reach her destination, although there seem to be many barriers to her doing so (the weather, the old man who sold her the bus ticket, the bus driver…). Also, the poor thing is not feeling her best, being instead ‘very out of sorts … very out of sorts’; this suggests something is amiss, or perhaps something is weighing heavily on her mind. 

As Miss Harper’s journey progresses, things become strange: an unseen child has a short conversation with her, saying they’re running away from home; the bus driver makes her get off at the wrong stop, leaving her ‘lost’ in the middle of nowhere; and she experiences strange thoughts (‘Where am I? … What is happening to me?’; ‘home seemed so far away that perhaps it did not exist at all.’) 

Rescued and taken to a roadhouse, things get stranger still: Miss Harper feels ‘a warm stir of recognition’ when arriving, although she says she hasn’t been there before; she encounters a group of people ‘all looking oddly alike’; the stained glass window in the hallway, and the layout of the bedroom, strongly resemble those of her childhood home; then some of her childhood toys appear, alive, and hostile, in the closet. 

The story finishes with Miss Harper being woken up by the bus driver, back on the bus, having just arrived at Ricket’s Landing (again). This circular ending creates several possible interpretations: Is she stuck in a hellish time loop, which is about to repeat? Did she just have a nightmare on the bus, due to the bad journey? Is she suffering from delusions due to a decaying memory or ill mental health, exacerbated by haunting memories from childhood? Or, is Ricket’s Landing really ‘home’ after all, perhaps changed by time, and somewhere she really doesn’t want to return to? 

If we return to the first paragraph, the comment ‘getting home seemed very close to impossible’ raises the issue of what Miss Harper even means by ‘home’. Does she mean the place where she lives now, or her childhood? I love this ambiguous ending, with multiple interpretations.

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