We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, a review and analysis

Warning- this review contains spoilers!!

Sometimes the greatest horror is actually real life. This becomes a matter of fact when one approaches Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s a rich book, and I could interpret it from many angles. On one hand, it is a domestic horror, showcasing the life of a dysfunctional family. Another person may read it as a polemic to small minded societies. It could also be read as a story which explores the harm of psychological trauma. There are many ways of looking at this book.

Synopsis

Despite the seeming seriousness, I assure you that it is a very readable novel. The protagonist, ‘Merricat’ invites you into the story with an open yet worrying welcome- “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita Phalloides, the death cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead”.

The story its self revolves around the Blackwood family home, situated in a small (and small minded, the story shows) suburban village in America. The family were previously disliked, but there was an event which has caused a fresh dislike for the Blackwood family. We learn early on that most of the family died from poisoned sugar, and that Constance was acquitted in court of the murder of her family. However, the ordeal has forever tarnished the family name.

Merricat and Constance live at home and look after their wheelchair-bound uncle, Julian. Further into the novel, a cousin, Charles, comes to visit them. However, Charles has ulterior motives, his interests in fact lie in the Blackwood safe which holds the family fortunes.

Analysis

I wish to explore two things here. Firstly, I shall explore Merricat’s mentality, and secondly I shall look at the village and her relationship with it.

Merricat is often the narrator, and we experience the story through her perspective. This is an interesting exercise because she has all the traits of an unreliable narrator. However, she, to my knowledge, is always truthful to the reader. What gives this impression is the fact that she has quite a distorted view of the world. This may be apparent from the fact that she constantly reminds herself to be nicer to uncle Julian, the fact that she is candid to about all of her feelings, even some rather dark ones, and her strange compulsions. We learn later that she was the poisoner of uncle Julian, but he simply didn’t consume enough poison to die, hence the constant reminder to be nice to him. This shows that she isn’t wholly capable of understanding the implications, or the magnitude, of certain actions. This means that-

  1. When actions are explained, they are explained through the eyes of someone with a different worldview to the reader, and
  2. The events which have been selected will be a different selection from those a more relatable narrator may choose

The fact that Merricat has a different grasp on reality makes her action (poisoning the sugar) of a very different nature. We can’t help but feel that the motive and mentality behind an action changes the value of the action. As much as she has done so, she always seems innocent by character. She is bullied by members of the village early on, and expostulates vehement anger against them, wishing them dead in disturbing ways. However, this is only ever done as a reaction to their bullying, inclining the reader to excuse it as an emotional defence.

Magic is a fascinating aspect of this book. The way I understand Merricat’s magic is as a defence mechanism, partially due to an arrested development from being in care at the age of twelve, and partly due to the fact that there is no social existence for her other than in the house. When something bad happens, she will burry something, or nail something to a tree. This item is always one to which she attaches significance. “On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards… I once buried six blue marbles in the creek to make the river run dry… I had buried my baby teeth one by one as they had come out and perhaps some day they would grow into baby dragons”. When Charles becomes more of an upset to her, she even vows to nail her father’s pocket watch to a tree because he had been in possession of it. What we witness in Merricat is that her ‘magic’ makes her feel that she has some control over the world, and her place in it.

Constance has a love for gardening, and taught Merricat much about the world of Fungi. This is where, we are led to believe, she got her knowledge of the Amanita Phalloides from. It seems to be an old bonding point between the sisters. “I thought I would help Constance, perhaps make her laugh. “Amanita Pantherina,” I said, “highly poisonous””. One wonders whether learning about deadly plants gave her a fascination with death.

One alternative idea is that she was mentally disposed to react to things of this nature differently, due to a different psychology. She even sees the ability to kill as a point of security. When she is upset, she often explores a fantasy of living on the moon, which I feel she really believes. It is a projected sur-reality she can posit so as to not live the horrors of life. At one point, she draws on this, saying to her sister “On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita Phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings”. This is another reason we wonder about her perspective of the world. She often groups animals, foods, plants, poisons, mythical creatures, in the same sentence in a manner which leads one to believe there is nothing different in nature about them to her. They are simply all things which she has an attachment to. What this shows is that she doesn’t have a grasp of those objects’ meanings in the world, just of what they mean to her.

One prominent reason for her defence mechanism, we have seen, is the treatment she gets from the majority of the villagers. There are few people in the village, and few ideas between them either. The villagers fixate on the dark incident which overshadow the story, and bully her for it, chanting

“Merricat, said connie, would you like a cup of tea?

“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me”.

These chants are repeated with cumulative effect, at first, sparsely, then in great succession just after the fire of the house. The other point of the repetition of this chant is that it shows a shared prejudice of the town, solidifying their collective identity.

The fixation on ideas shows the lack of diversity in the town. Each small issue becomes a large issue because it satisfies the human need for there to be objects of interest. When Merricat is being intimidated by Jim Donell, we are given a taste of the village’s perspective. Merricat comments that “When Jim Donell thought of something to say he said it as often and in as many ways as possible, perhaps because he had few ideas and had to wring each one dry”. Latter in the book we see various members of the village elicit the exact same behaviour.

The fixation on ideas shows the lack of diversity in the town. Each small issue becomes a large issue because it satisfies the human need for there to be objects of interest. When Merricat is being intimidated by Jim Donell, we are given a taste of the village’s perspective. Merricat comments that “When Jim Donell thought of something to say he said it as often and in as many ways as possible, perhaps because he had few ideas and had to wring each one dry”. Latter in the book we see various members of the village elicit the exact same behaviour.

We also see repetition of speech and behaviour in the Blackwood household. With each event, we see the exchange of dialogue between Merricat and Constance-

“I love you, Constance,” I said.

“And I love you, my Merricat.”

This indicates that their sisterly bond is the one thing they find important. Everything is, and will be, okay, so long as they are together. Their “I love you” is the villagers’ bullying chant. The very utterance of it seems to diffuse situations. It also shows that the sisters, whose ontology stretches little further than the house, have as few ideas as the villagers. The villagers share a prejudice to the sisters because it is the one event which has raptured the minds of the village. The sisters share their bond as the single idea which permeates their lives. Constance focuses her life around an incessant attentiveness to the kitchen and garden, Merricat has the single focus of her magic. Those are the seemingly full extents of the sisters’ lives.

Conclusion

This book can be read as a simple domestic horror, or as a drama of mental health and family life. With a little investigation, we see that Shirley Jackson intended to write a polemic and a warning. This focuses on the dangers of life in small suburban villages. Jackson’s book is an exposition of the fact that the less we stretch our mind culturally, the less we are open to a healthy view of the world. If your culture is stifling your mind, the chances are that it is stifling its self, and Merricat’s outlet of ‘magic’ shows that the mind can produce some profoundly worrying reactions when our society traps us from living who we are in the real world. Merricat’s reactions, and the Blackwood’s entrapment in the house show the concequences of bullying and prejudice. However, Merricat can also be understood as an exploration of how mental health problems are treated in a society which doesn’t, or wont, understand them.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it.

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