A Review of Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”
To those who are enjoying the season of self-isolation in the age of COVID-19, may I recommend a novel for you? I would implore you to read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her final novel published in 1962 before she died at the all too tragic young age of 48. This is a short book for complete misanthropes, or those who are constantly paranoid and looking over their shoulders. While billed as a bit of a mystery novel, this is really a work of literary fiction — a book that burrows deeper and deeper into the concept of what makes isolation as it goes along, and is richly marvelous, though also a summer’s breeze of a read (despite Jackson’s insistent use of semi-colons). It is a semi-autobiographical tale, and the first chapter of the book bears this out.
In that first chapter, we are introduced to 18-year-old Mary Kathleen “Merricat” Blackwood, on her way from a secluded old mansion that she lives in with her elder sister, Constance, and uncle, Julian, to buy some groceries in a nearby village. Once there in the village, it becomes apparent that Merricat is particularly reviled, and is the source of some bullying from the townsfolk as well as some taunting. Chapter Two explains why. It turns out in the narrative at that point, we are treated to the backstory that almost everyone in Merricat’s family was poisoned at a family dinner with arsenic, with Constance being arrested for and being later acquitted of the crime. The village people believed that Constance got away with murder, although the family’s standing was likely never seen in a good light — though the reason why is never really explained, aside from the fact that they wielded a great deal of power in the village through the land that they owned. All we have is Merricat’s point of view, which is misanthropic. She just about hates everyone she comes into contact with, but is affectionate towards her sister and is striving to be a better person towards her uncle, who wiles his days writing a manuscript of the murders he was present for — trying to make some sense out of what happened and why he was spared.
The novel is essentially a blow-by-blow of the daily lives of Merricat, Constance and Julian. Nothing happens — that is, until a cousin, Charles, shows up at their doorstep. Normally, the family would rebuff such visitors or gently entertain them (read: string them along), but Charles is family, of course, and what was supposed to be a visit turns into an extended stay as he grapples with the fact that the girls are sitting on a lot of cash in the house. While Charles tries to cozy up to Constance and win her trust, Merricat, of course, hates the intrusion and this leads to unforeseen consequences that basically further alienates Merricat and Constance from not only the rest of the (surviving) family but the townspeople as well. And that’s about the extent of this wonderfully written novel. Merricat is painted as an eccentric as she goes about her business. Just about everyone else? A liability in Merricat’s eyes, except perhaps for the family cat, Jonas.
The book is interesting in that it is semi-autobiographical. Shirley Jackson always viewed the people of the New England town she lived in (North Bennington, Vermont) with some degree of hostility, thinking that they were always out to get her, which led to certain anxieties that were one of the things that plagued her health in her later years. To that end, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is fascinating. In fact, given the ending — which I’m trying not to spoil, though parts of it seem self-evident and apparent as you go deeper and deeper into the read — the novel feels a bit like a 20th Century fairy tale. This is the book that Jackson seemed to want to write to put further distance between herself and the town she lived in, but, beyond that, this is the kind of book that anyone who wants just to be left alone by people will undoubtedly cherish.
To that end, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the perfect COVID-19 read. Not much goes on for large portions of the book, probably mirroring the experience of those living through the pandemic in their homes right now, but it’s still a fascinating and portending read of dread. Whenever Constance goes into the basement in this novel to take stock of the preserves that she has amassed for her cooking, one can think of all of those rolls of toilet paper that have safely found refuge in the homes of our western nations in the current situation at hand. But I jest. This is a novel about bunkering down, digging in and finding a sense of belonging in an atmosphere where you may not be particularly well-liked as a person, and what solace and comfort you can afford in what are not great circumstances.
As a novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is flawed. It’s central “mystery” is all too easy to figure out in the early goings. People come and go, and because Merricat is such a sociopathic figure, they are treated in an unflattering light — which adds a sense of one-dimensionality to the novel. And, to be honest, not a lot happens. You could easily cut this book in half — and it’s already such a small book that could be read in a sitting or two — and come away just as satisfied. However, you would have to be a curmudgeon to dislike this book. (And you may have to be a curmudgeon to actually like it.) Even though Merricat is shrill as a narrator, she has her charms. And the novel does make use of its claustrophobic setting to great use. All in all, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an interesting book. It shows that Jackson was a great writer, semi-colons and all, and for those of us who are living this novel right now — though perhaps without the arsenic angle — it is a reminder that self-isolation has its luxuries. Especially when the world hates you, a sentiment which you might be feeling right about now in this age of social distancing and keeping away from other people. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was originally written in the early ’60s. That it could also be a book about now just guarantees its classic status.
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle was originally published by Viking Press in 1962.
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