First published in 1956, “The Shrinking Man” is a story that reflects its time. It’s a story about fear and powerlessness, undercurrents of Cold War era America. The title is the plot – a man begins to shrink. The cause is a mixture of chemicals and radiation, another nod to the fears of the time, nuclear or chemical warfare.
Central to this story is the protagonist and victim, Scott Carey. His journey from a normal life to something terrifying and unknown is very well realised. Scott is not a hero. He does not respond to his condition with dignity and courage, but with fear, anger, and some rather poor choices. He is verbally and emotionally abusive to his wife, he has a one-night stand with a midget woman he meets, and turns into a peeping tom with the babysitter. So a lot of the time he is not nice. He is no saint, just human, and as such very relatable.
As the story is told from his point of view, the reader is aware of the underlying emotions that motivate him. Through this the author is making a statement about the culture of white middle class America of the fifties. Scott fears loss of his manhood. He considers his decreasing size makes him unmanly, because he cannot provide for his family, or engage with his wife sexually. He is stripped of everything that he believes is necessary to him. He is essentially disenfranchised, disempowered. Incidents such as the near miss with the paedophile serve to reinforce this to him. It does not occur to him to question the motivation of the man in the car until it is nearly too late, and he is forced to confront his helplessness in the face of a world that’s daily becoming more dangerous. His notions of identity are quite restrictive, as he is a product of a quite narrow and restrictive culture that tells him that as a white man he is top of the totem pole. He is brought down quite literally, but in this way his understanding and maturity grows.
Writing his memoirs accomplishes two things – it provides for his family (his last act in his traditional male role), but more importantly it is his legacy. By this act he says goodbye to the world he has always known. He doesn’t realise it himself at the time, but he is severing ties to what he knew and preparing to face the unknown.
Scott’s ongoing battle, and eventual defeat of, the spider in the cellar is very important. The spider comes to stand for everything he has lost, his power, his identity, his place in the world – when he eventually defeats the spider he has slain the dragon, conquered his fears, and rediscovered himself.
“The Shrinking Man” is much more than a fantastical story. It’s thematically very rich and psychologically very complex. I would strongly recommend it.