We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Viking Press, 1962, 214 pages
Living with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in a large house in New England as outcasts, Mary Katherine (Merricat) of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is comfortable in her life despite the death of nearly her entire family some six years prior to the events of the novel. When cousin Charles shows up and relentlessly inquires about and comments on the sisters’ financial state, Merricat is reluctant to trust him while Constance is charmed by Charles’s romantic advances. In a story that feels half wrought with horror and half with the stuff of fairy tales, Jackson reveals the creeping underside of the Blackwood family while underscoring the poison that is ostracism.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an enduring work of slow and dripping dread that dawns on the reader as Jackson peels away the layers of the Blackwood family and Merricat as a character. Despite the brevity of the text, the novel provides plenty to dissect. The most interesting of these aspects, I think, is the subtle and fascinating psychological study Jackson does of her characters, which, with the eighteen-year-old as the narrator, focuses on Merricat. Although the novel was published in 1962, Jackson makes incredibly astute observations about mental illnesses we might recognize as something like sociopathy today. Though psychological science had come quite a ways from Freud by this time, Jackson’s sophisticated and subtle depiction of the psyche of the Blackwoods feels years ahead of its time.
Beyond the individual, Jackson also examines society and the psychology of guilt. It’s difficult to discuss this point without giving too much away, but the theme of food returns in a fascinating way again and again throughout the novel, including in instances as a show of repentance. Jackson considers the reason behind the show of guilt and how people feel compelled to seek forgiveness, often, it seems, more for their own sakes and peace of mind rather than for those they’ve done wrong.
All of these philosophies (and certainly there’s far more to digest than what is merely mentioned above) are delivered through Merricat, whose voice is a swift and strong kick in the teeth from the get-go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s iconic opening paragraph is a delicious taste of the originality in the articulation to come and its a pleasure to read and reread Merricat’s thoughts in her distinct style.
And what’s more, is Jackson-as-writer manages layers that Merricat-as-narrator likely does not intend. This allows for a slow, sort of subtle story that heightens the spooky mood and ambiguous supernatural elements. To Merricat, this is just her life, but the very exact way in which Jackson tells the story makes the novel a piece of literature with more than enough to ponder upon for days after the reader finishes the novel.
In fact, a couple of weeks after finishing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’m still thinking about it. It’s not a book I feel I understand completely — and even if I read it several more times, I don’t think I could understand it completely: that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. It is a show of mastering storytelling elements that few can even articulate, let alone implement. We Have Always Lived in the Castle left me hungry for more of Merricat and her family, of the world they lived in, and of gothic horror as a whole. While Jackson only gives us a few short pages to inhabit, the story lives well beyond those pages and opens up a reality for readers who wish to be creepily brushed with horror in the most unsettling and realistic way.
❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤