Tuesday, June 4, 2019

We Have Always Lived in the Castle | Shirley Jackson

"Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?"

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson was published in 1962. It is narrated by Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, an eighteen year old girl who lives in a large manor with her older sister Constance, her ill elderly Uncle Julian, and her cat Jonas. Constance and Merricat have a set schedule of gardening, tidying, dusting, and cooking: Merricat visits the town on Tuesdays and Fridays to purchase groceries and check out library books; Constance tends the vegetable garden and cares for Uncle Julian. Six years ago, the rest of their family were poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. That night, Merricat had been sent to bed without supper. Constance did not care for sugar on her berries, and Uncle Julian only had a taste of it. 

Soon, cousin Charles arrives on the Blackwood property (a place intentionally closed off by the isolationist Blackwoods) and invades their careful life. He is quickly invited into Constance's good graces despite his outward disdain for Merricat's odd tendencies (burying silver dollars or tacking gold chains to trees as protection over the house, running wild through the woods to her creek, existing overall), and his residency in the Blackwood home affects Merricat and Constance's lives irrevocably. 

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE is written in such a way that you will feel absolutely aligned with Mary Katherine Blackwood. You will not know for certain how you feel about this. Just as she prays that Charles will disappear if she gets rid of everything in the house that he has touched, so will you. Just as she wishes that the townspeople will drop dead when they crowd her lawn, so will you. Her magic words and magic objects will lead you to your backyard to find your own. 

I appreciate this quality of Jackson's writing, how she's always able to leave you with a lingering sympathy for characters who may not deserve it. In a way, this sympathy fills in the gaps of motivation left by Jackson throughout CASTLE; she does not have to tell you why Merricat began to ponder what her life would be like on the moon for you to understand it (the flip end of this lies in the triumph that you will feel when some of the characters do truly horrific things, which you will find yourself rooting for, exalting, even). 

The beginning of the book before Charles' arrival is a bit slow, but this exposition is important for establishing the tone of Merricat's narration as well as the attitude of the townspeople, a cultivated kind of hatred that feels both egregious and well-deserved by the end of the novel. (Still, as it's just under 150 pages, slow bits go by quickly anyway.) 

If you plan on purchasing this book, I recommend you first read Jackson's short story "The Lottery" to get a sense of her style. 


“All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it, thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.” 

“The trees around and overhead were so thick that it was always dry inside and on Sunday morning I lay there with Jonas, listening to his stories. All cat stories start with the statement: "My mother, who was the first cat, told me this," and I lay with my head close to Jonas and listened. There was no change coming, I thought here, only spring; I was wrong to be so frightened. The days would get warmer, and Uncle Julian would sit in the sun, and Constance would laugh when she worked in the garden, and it would always be the same. Jonas went on and on ("And then we sang! And then we sang!") and the leaves moved overhead and it would always be the same.”

“I was pretending that I did not speak their language; on the moon we spoke a soft, liquid tongue, and sang in the starlight, looking down on the dead dried world.” 

“Poor strangers, they have so much to be afraid of.” 

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