Sunday, 8 May 2016

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (1962)

[Light spoilers ahead. All page references from the Popular Penguin edition.]

‘I am walking on their bodies, I thought, we are having lunch in the garden and Uncle Julian is wearing his shawl.’
-pg. 10

Shirley Jackson cut a rare gem with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Gothic and modern in style and content, the novella is a unique aesthetic and psychological object which does not stumble in its progression. Written with simple diction and syntax, the prose is like a dark pond, seen in just the right light, such that the waters seem infinitely deep. Our narrator, viewing the world through Grimm eyes, covers us in her skin.

Mary ‘Merricat’ Blackwood wishes the villagers dead, and they wish the same on her family. Six years ago most of the Blackwoods succumbed to poison, leaving only Merricat, her sister Constance, their invalid Uncle Julian, and the cat. ‘Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? / Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me,’ sing the village children. They think Constance killed her family, that she poisoned the sugar bowl and destroyed the evidence. Despite (because of?) the Blackwoods’ isolation in their manor, they are content. They live on rituals and routines, and not even the ‘tragedy’ troubles them much. They are safe. That is, until Cousin Charles comes to stay.

‘My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had’ (pg. 1). These first three sentences introduce the two most alluring aspects of the novel: the style and the narrator. Childlike and knowing, restrained and feral, simple and deep, and none of these are contradictions. Merricat sees the world with stained-glass eyes, and we, the readers, take them as our own. She is an unreliable narrator, but when she talks of one day living on the moon, and how her buried baby teeth will ‘perhaps someday … grow as dragons’ (pg. 41), we follow her. Despite her function as unreliable narrator, her narration is not wholly distorted. With wide, dewy eyes she sees the world, and often the world is cruel. The kindest villager is merely tolerant. The rest, from children to adults, jeer at her whenever she must descend to town. Her fairy-tale imaginings and violent fantasies (‘Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire’ (pg. 17)) do not indicate a disconnect from reality. They are therapeutic illusions.

Shirley Jackson is a depressingly good writer. Take the diner scene from page eleven to fifteen, where Merricat runs into two odious villagers while drinking her routine coffee. Jackson mastered tension. Not suspense, note. Not the Hitchcockian anticipation of the bomb-blast, for there is no blast to anticipate. From Merricat’s entry into the diner, where she and the cashier exchange scripted pleasantries, to her stating that if ‘anyone came into Stella’s while [she] was there [she would] g[e]t up and le[ave] quietly’ (pg. 11), the reader knows this has happened before. These diner confrontations have happened and will happen again, and no one will throw a punch. It is merely a horrible experience. And Jackson evokes it so well. The hostility of the villagers oozes from the page. ‘They tell me,’ starts a villager, ‘you’re moving away’ (pg. 12). This isn’t a threat. He must know the Blackwoods will never leave the town. He just takes pleasure in telling a girl she ain’t wanted ‘round her.     

This is a novel about society, exile and assimilation. Where most of the town embodies the herd-think drive to ostracise, Helen Clarke embodies the ‘moral’ impulse to assimilate. Every week Helen takes tea with the Blackwoods, a cover under which she tries to convince them, Constance specifically, to descend from their manor. She would love if they ‘invite[d] some good people from the village,’ stressing to Merricat that all the hostility she receives in town is ‘nothing but [her] imagination’ (pg. 29). Helen typifies the us-and-them view of the world. Not us-vs-them, mind. She just has no doubt about ‘our’ superiority. Any accusations against ‘us’ are bent around by her dogmatic mind – ‘I’m sure they misunderstood the people … I must tell them that nobody meant any harm’ (pg. 122) is the closest she gets to acknowledging the wrong ‘we’ do. Why would any right-thinking individual avoid being one of us? Those people over there, them, they just need a gentle talking around. From this dogma she blinds herself to Constance, Merricat and Julian’s contentment. They are, for the most part, content to live on the hill, interacting little with the villagers.

Enter Cousin Charles. Jackson masterfully introduces him. Here she does use Hitchcockian suspense, the dramatic irony of the characters not knowing the bomb ticks down. Merricat, narrating in retrospect, switches back and forth between what she knows she and Constance were doing, and what she supposes Charles must have been doing. As they talk, Charles walks through town towards the house. In prose Jackson has accomplished cinematic cross-cutting.      

Charles erodes the sisters’ paradise. The Blackwood manor is a feminine space, ever since the culling. As Lynette Carpenter notes*, the only remaining males in the house are a psychological and physical invalid, and a cat. Merricat immediately views Charles as a ‘ghost’ of the Blackwood patriarch, for he has a ‘great round face, looking so much like … father’s’ (pg. 63). Not merely in his physical maleness, and resemblance to their father, does he threaten the sisters’ space, but in his psychology too. Practical where Merricat is Romantic, he takes issue with her rituals. In these rituals Merricat will nail ledgers to trees, bury teeth, and bury money, even. She makes fertile these barren objects, giving them a spiritual significance. Charles has no time for this. Finding the silver dollars she buried outrages him – Good money going unused! Never mind the family has no want for material goods. His lust for utility implies a lack of imagination, a spiritual dryness, contrasting Merricat.    

Charles threatens change, a reversion to an old order. He is a male presence come to take the patriarch’s throne, to continue the patriarch’s work as if nothing had happened. He doesn’t like talk of the poisoning, wishing it all ‘forgotten’ (pg. 66). And why shouldn’t he want it forgotten? Charles, the ‘ghost’ of their father, wants to pick up exactly where the vanquished left off. Like with Helen Clarke, Charles is a gravitational force pulling towards assimilation. Where Helen pulls towards the townspeople, Charles pulls towards a traditional, patriarchal structure. Both target Constance, and Constance, by her small but present susceptibility, unnerves Merricat. The ease with which Constance takes to Charles makes Merricat think it is ‘almost as though in the house of her life there had always been a room kept for Cousin Charles’ (pg. 64). If Constance falls (and she is wobbling), the entire idyll falls with her.

But change does not necessitate assimilation. I will not explicitly spoil, but I will say the ending allows no return to the status quo. The sisters must change their lifestyles, but in their adaptation they do not conform. They take a life more ideal, more them, than even the one they had before.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a beautiful book. A novel about exile and assimilation, simply constructed for potency. Read it.

*Carpenter L. (1984) The Establishment and Preservation of Female Power in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 8(1), 32-38.  


  1. “Mary ‘Merricat’ Blackwood wishes the villagers dead, and they wish the same on her family.” Mary is essentially a werewolf, whose terrible form would come out under the moonlight, that her deepest secret must be revealed at night. “Balckwood”, she could call herself a witch… living with a cat (I assume it must be a black cat since the cover on Wikipedia page suggests so), and she must practice her rituals — sympathetic magic. Yes, we can draw a parallel between the lifestyle of Mary and that of Witch, expelled from society for their ‘otherness’. “Merricat”, so proper, a perfect combination between a human and a werewolf — a witch!
    How old was Mary when the crime was committed? Twelve… Let me spoil to the reader, as if you could not guess — when she proves herself as an unreliable narrator, we should be on our guard — “Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire (17),” — her imagination is too violent.
    “Anyone came into Stella’s while [she] was there [she would] g[e]t up and le[ave] quietly (11),” the description mimics the reaction of a cat…
    Is Blackwood manor a feminine space? The novel relies on mythical horror and culture-inherited hostility towards female. Rather than breaking the myth, the writer enforces it to amplify the psychological horror. Merricat curses in her imagination, performs witchcrafts, and has a cat. Not only the characters treat Blackwood family as us-vs-them, the novel treats it so as well. This novel is not essentially about ‘we are just the same’, it admits the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’…
    The real power holder is Mary all the time, and her battle with Charles is the battle of power, whereas Constance and Uncle Julian are followers. Constance, is constant towards: whom?
    Let do a gender experiment. If Mary were a boy, the battle is between two men trying to behold a woman (that sisterly intimacy takes a sudden uncomfortable turn); If Mary and Constance were men, and Charles were a woman, how should we judge the situation… Either brotherly love or sisterly love, or family love, Mary is the one who wishes to take control of Constance.
    Mary is as much a tyrant as any man could be, possessing the feminine violent — Witch! — a daily ‘innocent’ woman who might practice black magic — a assumed-innocent child who might… This story is not about man as ‘us’ and woman as ‘them’, but the battle between matriarch and patriarch, but never gender equality. Is cat in the story really a male? Actually what is the ending for the cat? The ghost of the Blackwood patriarch, in order to take control, a mother, a sister-in-law, a father, and a younger brother, all was killed, poisoned, two women, one men, a child were killed! “Looking so much like …father’s (63)”, there is no way Mary would ever forget her father.
    Was Charles serving as a bridge between the Blackwood and the Villagers? “Charles threatens change”, yes, let Charles be a female then, I would assume any ‘rational’ humans would try to improve their living conditions. I do not think any Romanticism writer would burry money underground, Mary Shelley was always in need of money till her son finally inherited the fortune. Merricat has perhaps taken perhaps the worst part of imaginative power — to destroy!
    At the end of the day, unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein crying: “We are all humans!” This book has admitted that “We are the same, that is, we are all monsters!” When monster regrets his crime, Merricat rejoices in her ‘otherness’ and a glimpse into future, this matriarchy society would collapse without men, whereas the patriarchy society shall prevail with women — of course, women should rebel, but to hold hostility towards male would only lead to win the battle, lost the war!

  2. Okay, the novel admits the difference between 'us' and 'them'. That is not necessarily a bad thing. If 'we' try to live unmolested, according only to our little pleasures and routines, and 'they', like the Blob, will only assimilate or destroy 'us', then division is preferable.

    You apply a strict Realist lens to a Southern Gothic novel. Yes, in reality one should not murder their family, but this novel makes no attempt to evoke strict reality. The murder is a conquering of the perennial conqueror, the patriarch. You say Jackson does not break the myth of the witch, of female hostility. Well, no, it does not - it owns them. This links to your final point, that 'this matriarchy society would collapse without men'. That is immaterial - Merricat and Constance remove themselves from society. The threat of the witch, to patriarchal society, is the threat of the destructive woman. The threat of the spinster, to patriarchal society, is the fear of unfruitful women. Merricat owns both, she is a Romantic idealisation of the two archetypes patriarchy despises. So what the 'society' shall fall apart without the other sex, they are not building a society. They are living their own lives as they would live them. Society is the enemy of such contentment, which would have one live according to their role rather than their souls.

    You imply you would prefer a novel where Merricat acknowledged common humanity, or common monstrosity. She does not have to admit any such facile nihilism. She is not a monster.