A Few Comments on Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

We_Have-Always_Lived_In-CastleI went seeking feral spinsters in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women when they were denizens of Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle. I was agog reading Jackson’s novel: what was this combination of nightmarish cozy domesticity, thrilling misandry and misanthropy, allegory of sin and propitiation? The story of two sisters living in isolation in their “castle”, a mansion in the Vermont? woods, one of them had been on trial for their family’s murders and the other had committed the crime. They live with their doddering, elderly Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, spending his time pouring over notes about the family tragedy in hopes he can make sense of events. The girls (for girls they are and girls they remain no matter their ages), 28-year-old Constance and 18-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood live lives of careful routine: Merricat ventures into town, on designated days, to exchange library books and pick up groceries. She is hounded, harrassed, and ridiculed by the townspeople. Constance tends her garden, preserves its produce in pickles, sauces, jams, etc., and cooks three gourmet meals a day, also baking cookies and cakes. Constance is a parody of domesticity. Their lives, at first, are eccentric, but evolve to surreal by the novel’s conclusion. As I read Castle, I was struck by its brilliance and how difficult it was to penetrate its claustrophic nightmare: one part domestic life parody and three parts weird. (Without meaning to, I’ve read two short, dense novels, penned by two very different writers, about sisters and households. Huh.) 

Three things struck me when the novel opened: Merricat the narrator is the townspeople’s scapegoat, Merricat’s voice is bizarre, and she enacts propitiatory rituals. Both sisters do: Merricat buries objects and enacts, or avoids certain acts, as do children avoiding cracks for fear of breaking their mothers’ backs; and Constance, by food preparation. Both sisters tend to demarcation: carving out idiosyncratic territories, whether to keep the world out, or themselves in. Sometimes I thought Constance and Merricat were parodies of women’s lives: cooking, cleaning, “neatening” as Merricat calls it, foraging for supplies, caring for the elderly and children (Constance is the maternal figure, caring for Uncle Julian and treating Merricat, who is a grown women, like a five-year-old, scolding her to wash her face, etc.). In their way, whatever came before, Merricat and Constance live a life of soothing, nonsensical ritual. Whatever they can keep at bay, they manage … with Merricat’s occasional wishes to take Constance to the moon, an idealized world where they could be together in peace without the encroachment of society, or the hovering reminder of their own misdeeds and family history.

Like the “crack” in the town sidewalk that so bothers Merricat, the world cannot be held at bay. There are visitors, who try to coax Constance out, while Merricat smashes precious family heirloom china in the kitchen, warning Constance, showing her her displeasure. But Constance’s demarcation of kitchen and garden hold fast: she doesn’t need Merricat to announce her censure. Until the snake in their garden arrives in the form of cousin Charles Blackwood, an avaricious con-man who thinks he can destroy Merricat and convince Constance to leave the “castle”. But Merricat and Constance are no sleeping beauties and Charles is no prince. Nevertheless, there is some hesitation in Constance: maybe the possibility she might choose a “normal” life as a part of society? Charles comes close, but he’s no match for Merricat.

Except Charles, though Merricat foils him, brings the villagers into the girls’ lives. The castle is on fire and the townspeople arrive with the fire department. The townspeople go into a frenzy: they smash windows, break furniture, and destroy cups, saucers, and tureens. They rampage through the house and, if Merricat hadn’t dragged Constance to safety into one of her many secret hidey-holes, the townspeople would’ve attacked them. The townspeople are a mob, smashing things as one violent entity and the girls, the object of their worst desires, the urge to destroy, kill, smash.

In the fire’s aftermath, the girls come into their ferality. Their world narrows: where before they had the run of the woods and a castle at their disposal, they are now confined to kitchen and garden.: “Our house was a castle, turreted, and open to the sky.” The castle is then over-run by vines, absorbed into nature (strangely, this is also what happens to the house in Robinson’s Housekeeping … a title that could have suited Jackson’s novel.) Where the girls had a household replete with wares, they are now confined to a few saucers and plates. What a parody of Constance’s domesticity that she is shocked should Merricat break the handle of her cup and — gasp — have to drink without it. The girls take to wearing old tablecloths and, as the townspeople creep back into their arena, they hide and stare, wordlessly, through peep holes.

Weeks after the townspeople’s rampage, various townsfolk leave meals, treats, and supplies in acts of propitiation. The night of the fire, when the girls returned, now free of rioters, when they see the destruction, Merricat notes: ” … we had somehow lost ourselves and come back through the wrong gap in time, or the wrong fairy tale.” What struck me then was how little Jackson is concerned with consciousness and compelled by narrative as inverted fairy tale, a surreal dream-like state permeating. Merricat stands without motivation, an inner voice that is ignorant of interiority, her observations and will primary. A virginal garden besmirched by invaders, Merricat and Constance become women at the fringe, the final word from the outside from cousin Charles, who returns with a reporter (his crassness still evident when the reporter offers him money to lure the girls out for a picture) hoping to get his hands on the girls’ money, who comments when they don’t respond to his knocking: ” ‘Why do you suppose two old maids shut themselves up in a house like this?’ ” Because it’s safe; as Merricat says, able, finally, to have a glimpse of who she and Constance are to the outside world: “We learned, from listening, that all the strangers could see from outside, when they looked at all, was a great ruined structure overgrown with vines, barely recognizable as a house. It was the point halfway between the village and the highway, the middle spot on the path, and no one ever saw our eyes looking out through the vines.” 

There’s nothing to like about these characters, whether in the castle or without. Except, of course, for the cat. Jonas. Sleek and intelligent: he observes the goings-on, sticks close to Merricat as her familiar, presciently precedes her to her hidey-holes, bolts for himself once in a while. Behaves pretty much like a cat.

7 thoughts on “A Few Comments on Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

  1. Great review! I read this novella recently and was struck by many of the same things that struck you, though I did like Merricat for her honest, if savage, judgments of people and determination to keep herself and her sister safe from what she perceives as harm. But I agree that Jonas is the most likeable character and realistically catlike! The scenes in which Merricat vainly wishes Jonas would agree with her judgements and behave accordingly are brilliant.

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    • Thank you so much!

      I definitely felt in sympathy with Merricat and Constance and Merricat is certainly the brighter of the two. Constance is as her name indicates: the constant one. Merricat is feral and her savagery exposes so much of the town’s hypocrisy and evil. But Jonas, he’s utterly charming and who wouldn’t want a Jonas?!

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  2. It’s interesting to see your thoughts, because I first read this at around 12 and mine were undoubtedly influenced by my mother’s opinion, which is that it’s a book about a “normal” girl being destroyed by loving a psychopath. I’ve never thought about the ways in which Constance could also be considered feral. Of course, my mom very well may have brought her own baggage into that.

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    • Ha! Interesting. I never thought Constance was in any way “normal”: she was, to me, domestic ferality to Merricat’s well, more overt, associated with nature (but so was Constance, except in taming it in her garden). I think Constance is as complicit in Merricat’s actions as Merricat herself. They’re both definitely, for me, an expression of women’s anger and frustration with societal and familial roles. I kind of love them, but not half as much as I love Jonas. It’ll be very interesting to teach thins in conjunction with Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

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