“We have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Please note: It is not possible to discuss a novel such as this without referring to some of the plot details. I personally do not think that twists and turns of the plot are of primary interest except in mystery stories – i.e. stories where solution to a mystery is the whole point of the work – or adventure stories, where the question of “What happens next?” is paramount. In other types of fiction, spoilers don’t really bother me. But since they clearly bother others, it is only fair to preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”.

Had Shirley Jackson been from the southern states, her works could safely have been labelled “Southern Gothic”, but since she wasn’t, no-one is quite sure how to classify her. And, as we all know, inability to classify a writer causes us literary bloggers and critics no end of headaches: we find ourselves having no option but to try to evaluate the writer on her own terms rather than refer to some handy pre-formulated labels, and that really doesn’t make for easy blogging.

This is the second novel of Shirley Jackson’s that I have read – the other being The Haunting of Hill House – and it seems fair to say she had a weird and macabre imagination. One hesitates to use the term “horror”, especially as the horror genre seems all too often to denote the explicitly gruesome; but her fiction does most certainly communicate a deep sense of unease. But in neither of the two novels of hers that I have read is this sense of unease an end in itself: they may make the flesh creep, but making the flesh creep is not – primarily, at least – what these novels are about. The Haunting of Hill House may be read as a traditional ghost story, but it is also a psychological study of the disintegration of a human mind, and it is this disintegrating mind, rather than the supernatural element, that seems to be at the centre of the work. Indeed, the supernatural manifestations, terrifying though they are, may quite legitimately seen as emanations from Eleanor’s disturbed and fragile mind rather than as ghostly hauntings. We Have Always Lived in the Castle does not contain any supernatural elements, but right from the opening sentences, we find ourselves in a very weird fictional world:

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 born 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. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Quite clearly, the narrator, Mary Katherine – Merricat – Blackwood is mentally unbalanced, but hers is the only voice we hear, and her perspective the only one to which we are privy. The opening chapter depicts Merricat going into the village to buy groceries, and gives us a rather disturbing picture not only of the deep hostility of the villagers, but of Merricat’s own grotesquely violent fantasies:

… I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over the bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, perhaps with a kick for Mrs Donell as she lay there.

Generally, a first person narrator, by the virtue of the fact that she is telling us the story and is taking us into her confidence, invites some measure of sympathy from the reader; this sympathy is even more strongly due to someone who, like Merricat, is reviled and taunted. But Jackson seems determined to alienate our sympathies from the start: we are interested, intrigued, fascinated – but we are not necessarily on her side: we are not rooting for her. Those readers who insist in their fiction on characters they can “relate to” may have a problem here.

Soon, the reason for the villagers’ hostility becomes apparent: some six years previously, the entire Blackwood family – Merricat’s mother, father, brother, and an aunt – had been poisoned: the sugar with which the sprinkled their blackberries had been heavily laced with poison. Merricat had escaped because she, a twelve-year-old at the time, had been sent to bed with no supper that evening; her uncle Julian had escaped because he hadn’t eaten enough blackberries; and Merricat’s older sister, Constance, did not take sugar. Constance had been charged with murder, but had been released due to lack of evidence. Now, the two surviving sisters, and their surviving Uncle Julian, his aged and battered mind in shreds, live together in their ancestral home, their castle, shunning and shunned by the hostile villagers.

Naturally, the reader cannot help but speculate whether Merricat’s precarious mental state was the cause or the consequence of the family tragedy. The answer is given some two thirds of the way through the novel, but since the possibility is already in the reader’s mind, it cannot really count as a “plot twist”. The key to the drama presented in the novel is not so much the question of “who done it?” but, rather, the curious network of relationships between the three characters still living in the castle, and, especially, between the two sisters, who, despite the quite bizarre circumstances in which they live, deeply love and are devoted to each other. Merricat, we know from the first, is unbalanced and disturbed – too off-centre, perhaps, to be understood by reasoned analysis, or, indeed, understood at all. More intriguing is her devoted sister Constance. Whatever may or may not have happened in the past, it is her unquestioning loyalty to and indulgence of her utterly mad sister that remains, perhaps, the greatest enigma in this deeply enigmatic novel. Certainly this is not a point Merricat herself ever pauses to consider, so we get no help from her on this.

Neither do we get much help on what the family relationships were like before the poisoning. From some of the fragments of memory that surfaces in Merricat’s mid, and from the equally fragmentary scraps spoken by Uncle Julius, we may guess at a family not at peace with itself, but the exact nature of their disturbed state remains tantalisingly elusive.

Into this weird set-up comes their cousin Charles. His branch of the family had been estranged from Constance and Merricat, and in his appearance, Merricat senses a danger: he is trying, as far as Merricat’ can see, to prise Constance away from her. And what develops is one of those struggles for individual power that we are so familiar with from the novels of Henry James – two characters struggling with each other, for motives not always clear, even to themselves, for the possession of a third. Charles appears a brash and bumptious young man, barely bothering to conceal his mercenary motives, and making no attempt at all to hide his impatience and contempt for Merricat. But the repressed and agoraphobic Constance, who does not leave the house even to go to the village, is clearly attracted: the danger Merricat senses is real, but, as with any insight filtered through Merricat’s consciousness, one should add the rider “perhaps”: we can never really be sure of anything Merricat tells us.

By the end of the drama, Constance remains constant: Cousin Charles, once his mercenary motives become apparent, is rejected – much as Morris Townsend is towards the end of Washington Square – and Constance, for reasons we can never quite be sure of, becomes drawn completely into Merricat’s mad world. The great battle Merricat had fought to win Constance for herself is unequivocally won: Merricat’s victory, by the end, is complete. It is the triumph of utter unreason – but it is a happy ending, of sorts.

***

This short novel leaves a very strange taste in the mouth, a taste which lingers long after one has finished reading. It is not entirely an unpleasant taste: in its way, it is actually rather seductive. We may not have been rooting for Merricat – Jackson is careful not to encourage the reader’s empathy, or even the reader’s sympathy, on her behalf – but her triumph, because it is so very hard won, and so much against the odds, seems somehow deserved. It is almost as if we, too, have been won over into Merricat’s macabre and lunatic world. The sense of unease that permeates this novel stays with us right to the end – and beyond.

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on July 13, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    Oh, Himadri – you’re so decent and moral. When I read this novel – admittedly more than a decade ago now – I was rooting for Merricat from the first paragraph.

    Do you really think that Jackson discourages us from doing so? A quick search online turned up an essay from The New York Review of Books in which Joyce Carol Oates describes Jackson as “Merricat’s wholly sympathetic creator/collaborator”. That’s how I remember it too. Perhaps it all depends upon how well adjusted one is? The murderous impulses; the terror of change; the private rituals and routines to keep change at bay. I understood it all. Of course, I only understood it because Shirley Jackson MADE me understand it, because Shirley Jackson is such a skilful writer… No, really. Honest.

    Reply

    • Hello Mark, I certainly don’t claim to be a saint, but I think I can honestly say that I have never seriously wished death on children, and I have never fantasised kicking someone as they were dying. I may sometimes have been really annoyed with some screaming brat in a restaurant, say, and have muttered “Fuck off and die!” under my breath, but that really is quite different from actually wishing the child dead.

      In a first person narrative, one naturally tends to sympathise with the narrator for the simple reason that the narrator is confiding in us. And this offers the author the scope to play with the reader’s sympathies by giving us narrators who really, from a moral point of view at least, should not be sympathised with. Humbert Humbert is an obvious example of this. Merricat is clearly mentally disturbed. We know this from the first paragraph, not because of what she tells us, but because she thinks this is a reasonable way of introducing herself. In the first few pages, her weirdness, and the violence of her imagination, all become very apparent. And her telling us all this in such a matter-of-fact, deadpan manner I found quite frightening.

      I haven’t read the essay to which you refer, but I am genuinely puzzled that Joyce Carol Oates refers to Shirley Jackson as “wholly sympathetic” to Merricat.

      Reply

      • Posted by Mark on July 15, 2015 at 1:51 pm

        Well, Himadri, I think we read Jackson’s novel in very different ways. When I read Lolita I recognise that it takes place in this moral universe – the one we are all living in now. Consequently, despite his best attempts to convince us otherwise, Humbert remains for the responsible reader a cruel, malicious monster. There may be some dark humour in Lolita but it is not a humour that suspends our ordinary moral judgements, quite the reverse – it should reinforce them. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is completely different. For me, it is a COMIC novel (that’s one of the reasons it has a “happy” ending). In this case, the comedy derives in part from a suspension of conventional morality, from a gothic upending of ordinary virtues. Here we are being invited to sympathise with a murderer who, and this is crucial, is not depicted in a remotely realistic way. As Joyce Carol Oates says, she is a “psychopathological caricature” – and consequently much more alive than any of the other characters. Nothing that happens in the book is remotely plausible. The novel is one big, blackly humorous metaphor for Jackson’s own well documented alienation from many of her strait-laced and judgemental contemporaries. Merricat’s violence is an out-of-proportion portrait of that curious admixture of anxiety and aristocratic disdain that many hypersensitive people feel when faced with their fellow human beings. Among other reasons, that is why I felt able to accept Jackson’s invitation to sympathise with Merricat, whereas I utterly reject Humbert Humbert’s attempts at seduction.

      • How interesting! I think I may have to re-think this novel.

        I agree that there are strong differences between Humbert Humbert and Merricat Blackwood. If it is true that we are not morally censorious of Merricat, or, at least, not as censorious of her as we are of Humbert Humbert, that is because, it seems to me, Merricat is too unbalanced, too out of touch with reality, to be held morally responsible. Humbert Humbert too has an abnormal psychology, but we feel that he is sufficiently sane to take moral responsibility for what he does: Merricat clearly isn’t.

        But it does seem to me that both writers, in their very different ways, are playing with, and subtly undermining the empathy the reader usually feels for the first-person narrator. I’ll stick with We Have Always Lived in the Castle for now, since that is freshest in my mind. I don’t think I was judging Merricat morally as I was reading the book: as I say, her extremely unbalanced state puts her beyond the realms of moral responsibility. But I think I did recognise her as dangerously disturbed, and observed her actions and her thought processes with something like a detached interest.

        The world that Merricat inhabits is, I think, real enough; but she perceives it, and hence describes it, in a very unreal manner. It is, I agree, comic in many respects (but so is Lolita!), but I can’t see that the ending is happy”, unless one views it purely from Merricat’s perspective. We may do so, of course, but we may perceive also other perspectives by reading between the lines of Merricat’s narrative. And from these other perspectives, it is hard to think of the ending as a “happy ending”. Constance by the end is drawn into Merricat’s lunatic world, but I can’t really say I was: I observed with fascination, but with a detached fascination. Perhaps that is not what the author had intended…

  2. I recently reread this book and was just as involved the second time around. Merricat with her preoccupations and little ceremonies, is engaging and she is, furthermore, honest. Examples: wishing others dead, having no regrets about the loss of her parents.

    Some of the appeal in the writing is that we are only in Merricat’s mind, with no other feelings or opinions except as Merricat perceives them. This is the approach used in a more recent novel, The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, where we are in the mind of an autistic person.

    As to the townspeople, if you haven’t read Jackson’s The Lottery yet, you must do so. It is a short story and you can read it in 20 minutes, and then remember it for the rest of your life.

    Reply

    • *** Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t yet read this novel ***

      Hello Nancy, “The Lottery” has often been recommended to me, and is certainly on my list of things to read.

      It seems to me that because we are stuck in Merricat’s mind, and because we know that mind to be unbalanced, we try as best we can to read between the lines to discren the truths that Merricat cannot. In particular, I was interested in the dynamics between the family members before the poisoning; and I was particularly interested in Constance, who gets drawn into Merricat’s lunatic world.

      Merricat certainly is honest, and this is because she cannot perceive that she has done anything to be ashamed of, or even to be embarrassed by. This in itself bespeaks a mind that is very dangerously unbalanced!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Jonathan on July 13, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    I ‘discovered’ Shirley Jackson a few years ago, starting with this short novel – and was blown away. I recently read her first novel The Road Through the Wall and found it suitably creepy. I wanted to file that one under ‘suburban horror’. Maybe WHALITC should be called Gormenghastesque.

    Reply

    • I suppose “Grand Guignol” fits the bill! – But yes, “gormenghastesque” would fit the bill too.

      My interest in Shirley Jackson’s work was aroused by reading The Haunting of Hill House : I had to read that as I have always loved a good ghost story. I am very keen to read some of her other work now.

      Reply

  4. What a can of worms this opens for me. It’s been at least two decades since I read this novel; but one of the paragraphs you quote brought it all rushing back. It also reinforces one of the things that I love about literature and cinema: we can often read/see the exact same thing and come away with polar opposite views.

    Merricat doesn’t like dogs or noise. I was with her right from that moment. I was on her side. I understand exactly what Mark is getting at in his comment, although probably for different reasons. After all, what sane person doesn’t like noise or dogs? Well, the people who like dogs and noise, I guess. Especially dogs.

    If I tell you that I hate noise whilst qualifying it by saying that I like Beethoven’s more bombastic moods or — probably a better example, the beautiful music of Marilyn Manson — does that make me an ‘unreliable narrator’? I don’t think so. It is just me stating preferences. And often contradictory preferences, come to that.

    And that brings me to your concerns over labeling. I don’t agree that commentators spend much time worrying about labeling. And if they do…why? I’ve never felt the need to explain why I love Shakespeare just as much as I love the comic books of Alan Moore. Love of one doesn’t negate love of the other. Or it shouldn’t.

    I wonder why you were so cool on Merricat. After all, have you never fantasised about wanting someone dead? Maybe you’re a better man than I am and that has never been so.

    I was tempted to say that Merricat is honest in the way that Frank in Iain Banks’s ‘The Wasp Factory’ is honest. Yet that’s not really true either, is it? Frank is privy in his narration to things that we as readers are not until that heart-breaking final revelation. And then it all clicks into place.

    Perhaps it’s just — again, for different reasons — both are honest in their way. They just state the facts. Frank (and I’m probably not word accurate here): ‘To look at me, you wouldn’t think that I’ve killed three people. That isn’t fair.’

    That’s Frank’s idea of things not being fair: that he’s not recognised as a serial killer. Which he isn’t, really. Except that he is.

    [Actually, it’s just occurred to me that SliverSeason touches on Frank also, with his honesty and ‘little ceremonies.’ Be it the Catholic Church or Sergio Leone’s stylised, music-driven gunfights, we all need our rituals.]

    See what I mean about opening a can of worms? In my personal life I try to keep things nice and orderly. I would love to spend Eternity sitting in the Central Hotel in Dublin, in their Library Bar, talking Art with the big capital letter and drinking beer; but reality and politicians intervene.

    That title: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” There’s the kind of finality in that alone that I love. It’s a bit like Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’ being told that he’s always been the caretaker: “I should know, sir. I’ve always been here.”

    And if that hasn’t wrecked your head enough for one morning,here’s another thought, one I’m sure that has occurred to Mark: I like Merricat, but I wouldn’t like to spend too much time letting her cook an omelette for me.

    I’ve never been too keen on death cup mushrooms.

    Reply

    • Hello Charley,

      As is perhaps obvious from my picture on the “About” page, I don’t much like getting my hair cut. Nothing to odd about that. If I were to say in the middle of a conversation that I don’t like getting my hair cut, you probably wouldn’t think it particularly off or remarkable: we all have our likes and dislikes, after all. But if, the first time I meet you, I were to say “Hello, I’m Himadri, and I don’t like getting my hair cut”, you would most likely think I was a bit weird.

      It’s not so much what Merricat says about herself that marks her out as weird, but rather that she thinks this is a reasonable way of introducing herself. And within the first few pages, the workings of her mind leave the reader in no doubt that she is very deeply disturbed.

      And as I said in reply to Mark, I really don’t think I have seriously wished death on children. Or, indeed, on anyone I personally know. There’s a huge difference between getting angry with someone and saying “I’m going to kill him!” and really wishing that person dead. It’s like that scene in Twelve Angry men where Lee J. Cobb gets mad and says to Henry Fonda “I’ll kill you!” only for Henry Fonda to stand firm and reply quietly “You don’t really mean that now, do you?”

      As for Eternity – eternity is something we can enjoy only if the Good Lord, in all His infinite wisdom, were to take away from us that part of us that allows us to become bored. I’d like to spend Eternity sitting in a comfortable armchair by a fireside with a glass of good whisky in my hand, reading Sherlock Holmes stories and dozing off once in a while, with good friends popping in every now and then to share my fireside and my whisky, and warm the air with convivial conversation. But if I still have the capacity to become bored, I doubt I’d enjoy even a Heaven such as that beyond a few thousand years or so.

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on July 14, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    The first part of your account reminds me of “The Wasp Factory” by Iain Banks (1984), which seemed to be part of a sub-genre of mocking the Gothic novel.
    I didn’t think you’d lower yourself to read Banks, but after this…

    Reply

  6. Alan, I was puzzling over what you meant about the first part of that account. (I’m assuming it’s aimed at me, anyway.) The penny just dropped — dogs and ‘The Wasp Factory’. I honestly hadn’t twigged it when writing. Anyway, I love that novel; it’s just a pity he never did anything as good again. Well. maybe ‘The Crow Road’. And I never thought it was mocking the Gothic novel; in fact I thought it was played quite straight, despite the laughs and over-the-top horror.

    ‘Lower yourself to read Banks….’ Oh I can go much lower than that.

    Reply

    • I think Alan was responding to me with that comment about lowering myself: we are old friends, and Alan has had occasion, shall we say, to refer to my incorrigible literary snobbery. And somehow, once one acquires for oneself a reputation, one does, don’t you know, feel the need to live up to it… 🙂

      Reply

      • Sorry, Alan. That’s what I get for being a sensitive little blushing flower!

        Anyway, you’re not a snob, Himadri; after all, I found this site through your pieces on Hammer Films. I just STAYED for the snobbery!

  7. Bravo, Mark! But ‘Damn you!” at the same time — wish I had written that…

    Reply

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