WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, the last novel you published during your lifetime, is narrated by the protagonist Mary Katherine (Merricat), a 18 year-old-girl. Merricat, her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian Blackwood live alone in a mansion in New England. They are the only survivors of a mysterious arsenic poisoning that killed the rest of the family.
Since the strange episode of collective poisoning, they are despised by the residents of the nearest village. Contance suffers from agoraphobia, and does not go beyong the garden of the mansion; Uncle Julian can not walk due to sequelae from the poisoning. Merricat is the intermediary between the family and the outside world. With her help, the Blackwoods live a relatively idyllic and sheltered life, albeit somewhat somber. This small universe, enclosed in itself, is about to collapse completely with the arrival of Charles, a cousin who covets the family fortune.
Merricat is a successful case in which the dosage between innocence and evil does not lead to a gross caricature. If the American fiction of the early twentieth century is populated by charismatic and precocious teenagers, Merricat’s originality lies in the fact that she is a mixture between Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee published in 1960), Frankie (The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, published in 1946) and the 8-year-old sociopath Rhoda Penmark (The Bad Seed by William March, published in 1954).
Mary Katherine is heroin and villain: both brave and terrified, resolute and insecure, transgressive and repressed, loyal and treacherous, sadistic and tender. Her fantasies are both childish and alarming: “I am walking on their bodies”; “I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries (…). “
You gradually reveal the protagonist’s underlying tenderness and darkness, and that gives the story a vivid and terrible tone. The tiniest frustrations have a violent effect on the girl. Merricat fears any form of change in the invariable rites of her house. All the details are, for her, signs to be deciphered through imagination. Against possible threats to her small and fragile universe, Mary Katherine creates magical rituals.
The tragedy involving the family in Blackwood is narrated through this girl’s chaotic, unpredictable and unreliable mind, whose lovely, funny, engaging voice reveals some sociopathic tendencies. The tension of the plot rises gradually until it becomes claustrophobic (as claustrophobic as the life of this family). Each of the characters gets progressively embroiled in what they fear most. You skillfully use symbolism to create an atmosphere of unease. The tone is sometimes poetic, but dry: “We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it. “
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published in 1962, three years before your death in 1965. The book explores recurring themes in your work – in particular, the persecution of people who are different from the most. As in the short story The Lottery (1948), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) addresses the barbarous and petty behavior of “good citizens” who, under the guise of submission to the rule, give vent to their own cruelty. As in The Haunting of Hill House (1959), the novel creates an atmosphere of strangeness, in which some kind of deep intimacy with the – small but steady – evil of everyday life affects each character in their own way. If We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) explores the absolute hatred, the hatred out of all proportion, it does so in parallel to an exploration of limitless love and devotion. The widespread unease and perversity throughout the plot derive precisely from the fact that these extremes touch and mingle with each other.
“We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.”
― Shirley Jackson,
“There had not been this many words sounded in our house for a long time, and it was going to take a while to clean them out.”
― Shirley Jackson,
About the book
- Penguin Classics Deluxe, 2006, 160 pages
- First published 1962
- My rating: 5 stars