Friday, 4 August 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson For some people it’s hard to find their place in society or even in a family because they actually are different or either they themselves or others believe that they are. It suffices a small particularity to make them outsiders who have to deal with distrust and, in the worst case, unforgiving hatred in their surroundings. Often social exclusion is a two-sided process that builds up on mutual prejudices and misunderstandings. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson surrounds Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her older sister Constance who have been leading a very secluded life on a big estate with their ailing uncle ever since their closest family was poisoned six years earlier. People in the nearby village hate them and Merricat hates the villagers. When an estranged cousin arrives unexpectedly and tries to take advantage of the two women, Merricat does everything in her power to drive him away. The consequences are disastrous.
Shirley Jackson was born in San Francisco, California, USA, in December 1916. She studied at Rochester and Syracuse Universites, making her literary debut with a short story entitled Janice in 1938. From then on she regularly published short stories in different periodicals like The New Yorker, Vogue, Good Housekeeping or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among them the short story The Lottery (1948) that established her as a writer. The author’s first novel was The Road Through the Wall (1948) which was followed by Hangsaman (1951), The Bird's Nest (1954), The Sundial (1958), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and finally We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). She also wrote some children’s fiction and two autobiographical works, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). Shirley Jackson died in North Bennington, Vermont, USA, in August 1965.

For eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine “Merrycat” Blackwood it’s only natural to say that We Have Always Lived in the Castle because the house and its extensive lands near an unnamed American village have belonged to her family for generations.
“[…] We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring. […] Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.”
She lives there with her dearly loved sister Constance who is ten years her senior and suffering from anxiety to the point that she never ventures beyond the vegetable garden. Until five months ago, their ailing Uncle Julian was still alive and Mary Katherine walked down to the village twice a week to buy food and to get new books from the library although she all but looked forward to these errands. For having kept their distance the family has never been overly popular with the local people, but ever since her parents, younger brother and aunt died from arsenic poisoning six years earlier and Constance was accused though acquitted of murder, the villagers treat Mary Katherine with particular contempt and bully her. She hates them in return imagining them to die cruelly before her very eyes. After a stop at Stella’s café to prove to the world that she isn’t afraid, she always hurries back to the fenced-in estate that she shielded with all kinds of white magic.
“On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us. I had always buried things, even when I was small; […]”
When she finds the nailed book lying at the foot of the pine tree, she senses at once that evil things are about to happen. In fact, estranged cousin Charles drops in on the three recluses without previous notice. Mary Katherine and Uncle Julian instinctively mistrust Charles, but Constance believes his sweet talk about wishing to reconnect and help. In reality, he’s after the family fortune and sure of himself he soon behaves as if the house were his. Mary Katherine wants to get rid of him and thus disaster takes its course…

Although already of full age, the first-person narrator of We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems to me a a headstrong child living in the clouds – or in her house on the Moon – rather than a young adult. All through the novel I couldn’t help wondering if she was retarded, affected by a condition belonging to the autism spectrum or “just” traumatised either by her terrible experience in the orphanage or by the guilt of having wiped out most of her closest family in revenge for having been grounded without dinner. In any case, I feel that her character development kind of stopped at the age of twelve and the simple language of her account heightens this reading. It’s striking too that loving and caring Constance as well as Uncle Julian always let Merricat have her way. My impression was that they both – even Uncle Julian who believes the girl long dead and a ghost – humour her in order not to provoke potentially murderous revenge. But there’s also a sociophobic trait running in the family that made them put up a fence against the outside world – the villagers – in the first place and opened way for mutual distrust and misgivings.

When I started reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, I found it difficult to get into the story. Mary Katherine, the narrating protagonist, was just too extreme to make her feel authentic or at least likeable to me. Besides, the older I get the more I realise that it’s beyond me to understand why people hate or burn to take revenge for suffered harm. In my opinion, good and housewifely Constance, ailing and reminiscing Uncle Julian as well as greedy and selfish Charles remain shallow and colourless like ghosts. Also the villagers are just a bunch of malicious nobodies who feel excluded from the life on the Blackwood estate and who at the same time ostracise and even bully the family for being I don’t quite know what. Wealthy? Arrogant? Weird? Different? Still, it’s an interesting and entertaining Gothic novel all things considered and I gladly recommend it.

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1 comment:

  1. I have read all of her novels. Shirley Jackson has a unique voice. I think Hangsaman was my favorite followed by this one.


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