We Have Always Lived in the Castle: Shirley Jackson

“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 Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

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Merricat, the narrator, is utterly compelling from the first page, totally persuasive and appealing. Yet, that first paragraph lets you know that this is not a pleasant tale. Jackson weaves a clever psychological horror story which deals with a plethora of Gothic themes, ideas about mental illness, and explores the subjectivity of morality through a twisty denouement that will really stay with you. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the last book that Shirley Jackson ever published, in 1962, only three years before her death. It brings together some of the identifying hallmarks of her writing career, all in one book: a fear and distaste for small town anti-intellectualism; supernatural behaviour and obsessive mental processes; the potential horror of domestic life.

Merricat may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s still a very good one. The descriptive language in the book is both simplistic and intense, and it is very easy to visualise the ugly little town and comparative pastoral isolation of the Blackwood family. Jackson wrote many isolated characters, like Natalie in Hangsaman, or Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House, all of whom are highly self-conscious, socially awkward, and unwilling to spend much time in other people’s company. If you’re interested in applying the experiences of authors to the work they produced, then it becomes very relevant that Shirley Jackson wrote this novel late in her life, at a time when her own agoraphobia and paranoia began to develop. She cut quite the Emily Dickinson figure, because she apparently began to refuse to leave her room. Jackson resided in a small, close-minded town in Vermont, similar to Merricat’s neighbouring village, where she lived with her husband and developed a passionate hatred of the townspeople’s anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism. Jackson’s novel The Lottery deals with similar ideas (and has an interestingly comparable ending). In a period marked by political witch-hunts and rife anti-Semitism, this novel hints at Jackson’s own feelings at being trapped in the confinement of small-town domestic politics. Judy Oppenheimer’s biography Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson documents these experiences with clarity.

Her sister Constance obeys social rules to a fault, aggravating Merricat’s distaste for company. The intrusion of other people disturbs the quiet peace of the Blackwood house, which is portrayed with tremendous reverence. The house acts as an explicit safe-space for Merricat, and allows her to defend her ‘Otherness.’ The Blackwood’s house is often the core of the Gothic themes of this short novel, with the isolation itself being symptomatic of this type of American literature. Additionally, their grand but crumbling house is consciously fairytale-esque, guarded by its own mysterious little monster and vague incantations. Indeed, Merricat’s ritual behaviour is beautifully gothic. The obsessive locking and checking of the house gate, her use of talismans and all of her many amulets to protect it depict a girl wrapping herself up in the spirit of the story. Merricat seems to enjoy the chosen identity of bad witch, making devious plans and succumbing to bizarre intrusive thoughts. Contrasting herself to the angelic sister, and with a feline familiar in tow, Merricat spends the novel playing dangerous tricks and isolating herself in her practised behaviours. Indeed, the motif of the deathcap mushrooms, relied on from the very first page, lends her a certain malevolent mysticism. She refers explicitly to the rumour that Richard III (Plantagenet King) ordered the deaths of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, through the use of the poisonous mushrooms, in 1483.

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Merricat’s self-image is therefore, at least partly consciously adopted. However there are some elements, particularly in her unusual behavioural patterns, that Jackson seems to connect to various different mental health problems.  So far, I’m unconvinced as to the usefulness and accuracy of attempting to ‘diagnose’ fictional characters or historical figures, but I suppose in this case I can at least understand the appeal. Merricat’s obsessive counting, her fear of walking on cracks (or otherwise ‘incorrectly’), and all other arbitrarily constructed ‘rules’ for how to behave are so richly depicted that they could be lifted from many testimonies of OCD, anxiety, and other mental health problems. These traits can also be identified as ‘magical thinking.’ This refers to the belief that thinking is the same as doing, or that your thoughts have some kind of inherent causality, and that you can ‘make’ things happen in the physical world. Usually this kind of thinking is found in children, who haven’t quite worked out causal relationships yet, but it’s also very common in some kinds of anxiety. Wrapped together with guilt, low-self-esteem, or even born of isolation, an anxious mind is often one that actively finds ways to create problems, in defiance of rationality, and can create obsessiveness.

“On Saturday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods;  so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us.”

“I was on my way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst. My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down… I thought that I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree… It was the last of our lovely slow days, although, as Uncle Julian would have pointed out, we never suspected it then.”

Something which is particularly difficult to explain about this book is that there is nothing supernatural about it; it just really feels like it. The way Merricat views her life and the world around her is saturated with this sympathetic magic, and you absolutely believe that if she steps on a crack in the pavement or is her silver dollars are unearthed, then the whole world might crash down around her. It becomes easy to see why anxiety and obsessiveness can inhibit someone’s life so much, and how it can cause dangerous or irrational behaviour. It poses a real conunudrum- did Merricat think like this before or because of the deaths of her family? Was she obsessive before her world changed? Or did it change because of how her mind operates? Did she adopt the fantastical witchy persona because of this, or was it an influential factor? It would seem strange to think that Jackson might be warning readers of spooky, mystical stories.

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The reader is enveloped in Merricat’s way of understanding the world throughout this story, not least because she narrates it, but also because she believes herself to be at the centre of action and reaction. There are the briefest interludes that allow the reader a hint of what Constance, the older sister, is thinking. Constance is suspected by everyone for the deaths of the rest of the family, and no longer feels welcome or safe in visiting the village. She obeys many of Merricat’s rules and indulges her strange behaviour quite peacefully, training herself to believe that she is content: however a wistfulness for escape develops when Cousin Charles arrives. It shatters the neat, magical completeness of how Merricat envisions her family and the rest of her life in the house. Throughout the novel, Constance attempts to maintain a sense of regularity and normality in her life. She adheres to ideas of domesticity and femininity in an attempt to find a safe mental space, defined by routine and good behaviour. Constance’s kitchen-garden life is also one of the last reminders of her dead family. She is the only one who remembers the rest of their relatives, explains the heritage of objects around the house, and maintains the cleanliness her mother expected.

“All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever, a poem by the Blackwood women.”

Jackson, who had always expressed an intention to die before the age of fifty; had shunned society; professed a preference for food to people, was writing against the march of time. Psychoanalysis and other psychiatric trends were medicalising the unusual, magical ways of thinking. Small towns were either changing, or bedding down in their stereotypes of backward thinking. Domestic skill was the peak of a woman’s life. Jackson’s dissatisfaction seeps out of the pages of the novel, a ghost story with no ghosts, focusing on a self-defining witch with no magical powers. She wrote about the constricting power of fear, and death, and obsession. This is a tale of family love and fear which defies easy summarisation, and far outshines the shortness of this book.

For greater analysis of this book and its author, why not try:

Ruth Franklin – Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright Publishing)

Roberta Rubenstein – “House Mothers and Haunted Daughters: Shirley Jackson and Female Gothic” (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature)

Lynette Carpenter – “The Establishment and Preservation of Female Power in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies)

John G Parks – “Chambers of Yearning: Shirley Jackson’s Use of the Gothic” (Twentieth Century Literature)

Darryl Hattenhauer – Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic (State University of New York Press)

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