Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

‘Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!’

CastleThis has been on my TBR pile for a long time – I’d loved The Lottery when I came across it in a school anthology years ago, but Jackson had remained a shadowy figure on the margins of my reading range. I’m so glad I’ve finally read this. Hers is a voice with its own special brand of American Gothic. The story of two sisters and their aging uncle Julian – ‘Everyone else in my family is dead’, Merricat tells us early on – is one of family loyalties, small-town suspicion and of things hidden from sight.

Joyce Carol Oates’s afterword deals brilliantly with the images of food and of eating so key to this novel. And given events six years prior to Merricat’s opening introduction, there’s a good deal of unexpected humour and significance loaded onto these plates. We’re told in great detail about the plates, the milk jugs, the light blue drapes on the windows, and so on. This is a house steeped in family history and filled with objects handed down, ‘Since every Blackwood bride had brought her own silverware and china and linen into the house we had always had dozens of butter knives and soup ladles and cake servers’.

Merricat sees the house as a means of keeping her beloved sister Constance safe from the eyes of a censorious world. The house’s objects are talismans for her – she hides them, buries them, nails them to trees – which form a barrier to the world and to her fears. She also uses objects to convey her feelings to Constance. In a moment of panic and anger she tells us she ‘had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table; it had been my mother’s and I left the pieces on the floor so that Constance would see them.’ And Constance will understand and will sweep the fragments away, existing peacefully alongside her younger sister and their Uncle in this half empty house. There’s a sense of collusion, of unspoken agreements, which keep the world, and the truth, at bay.

All is well, or as well as can be when there’s a dark family secret at the heart of a story, until Cousin Charles appears, drawn it would seem by the promise of what is perhaps hidden in the house for him to find. His arrival unsettles Constance’s acceptance of the hidden world she shares with Merricat and threatens to pull the whole edifice down. And as Jackson suggested in The Lottery, we learn that there’s nothing quite so dark as the motivations and actions of small-town folk. Once again, it is the objects in the house which will be used to mark transgressions.

This is a brilliantly dark novel, but one which also strangely full of light. Merricat is a fascinating creation and Jackson is a master of her genre.

3 thoughts on “Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. I finally got around to reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle last year and I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed your analysis, it’s such an interesting story to unpack! It’s so odd and unsettling but I couldn’t help but love Merricat’s character.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: My Ten (ish) Favourite Reads of 2018 | Books and Wine Gums

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