We Have Always Lived in the Castle…Shirley Jackson

WHALITC3*This post may contain spoilers.*

“The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.”

Mary Katherine Blackwood. The ultimate in unreliable narrators … making the other main characters, like her older sister Constance and uncle Julian, seem just as crazy as she is. Of course, maybe they are … maybe mental health issues just run in the family. In the beginning she didn’t seem crazy exactly, just sort of eccentric … especially for an 18-year-old girl. Perhaps losing most of one’s family in a freak poisoning, having one’s sister accused and acquitted of said crime, and becoming the town’s lepers might make anyone a touch eccentric and unstable. It has to be damaging to hear the town’s children singing: “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no said Merricat, you’ll poison me.” Perhaps my favorite scene is when Helen Clarke brings Mrs. Wright to tea and uncle Julian recreates that infamous dinner for her upon request: “‘The dining room…?’ Mrs. Wright said timidly. ‘Just a glance?'” There is some delightful humor in uncle Julian’s character and he ends up being my favorite.

But then cousin Charles arrives (granted to swindle their money) and “Merricat” quickly spirals beyond eccentric. The real issue for Mary Katherine goes beyond the intrusion of Charles; it is the thought that Constance is slowly making her way back to the real world after a terrible ordeal … as if she is awaking after a long sleep.  She can’t have a “normal” Constance taking charge because Merricat simply doesn’t do normal well.

“I thought that he had to be asked politely just once; perhaps the idea of going away had just not come into his mind yet and it was necessary to put it there. I decided that asking Charles to go away was the next thing to do, before he was everywhere in the house and could never be eradicated.” Unfortunately, just asking is not enough to make Charles leave and what transpires at the hands of Mary Katherine seems tragic to the reader, but living in complete isolation with Constance is a dream come true for Merricat. “‘We are on the moon at last,’ I told her, and she smiled. ‘I thought I dreamed it all’, she said.” The fact that Constance retreats so easily  back into the world Mary Katherine has created for them speaks volumes about her own sanity.

At 146 pages, this is one powerful little book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published in 1962, three years before Shirley Jackson’s death in 1965. It was her last novel. Although it is not necessarily as famous as The Haunting of Hill House and her short story The Lottery, some consider We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be her real masterpiece. Outside of The Lottery in high school, this was my first time reading Jackson. Her writing is beautifully descriptive, complex and yet concise. There is just something about her style that really appealed to me. This book is calling out to me to be re-read to catch some of the more subtle aspects of Jackson’s writing now that I have a clear understanding of the plot.

Favorite Quote: “You will be wearing the skins of Uncle Julian; I prefer my tablecloth.” – Mary Katherine to Constance

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