We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nobody does creepy quite like Jackson. In addition to poisonings and a serious clash of the classes, WHALC features some of the craziest characters I’ve read in a few books. Literally insane. Varieties of insanity, even. I’m not going to try to diagnose anyone, because I’m not a psychologist, but I think Jackson might have written the three main characters with recognizeable psychoses. Uncle Julian has what I would consider garden-variety mental issues: difficulty remembering what has and hasn’t happened, mistakes one person for another, sometimes is present in the present, and sometimes is years in the past. Merricat is the one whose mental abnormalities are the most obvious, and most obviously frightening. Chronologically she is 18, but her voice is prepubescent. She fills her world with omens and imbues everyday objects with magical powers. Buries things or nails them to trees to protect the Blackwood estate. She also constantly wishes death on all who displease her. Jackson gives us no evidence that she has any grasp of right or wrong. She is capable of showing empathy, but it’s restricted only to her two remaining living relatives. Her grasp of logic and risk and consequence are all woefully inadequate. While Merricat is legitimately terrifying, it is Constance whose unwillingness to restrain Merricat in any way that makes her the most awful. We know Uncle Julian’s infirmities are the result of the arsenic poisoning that killed the rest of the family. But Jackson doesn’t give us any explanation for why Constance and Merricat are the way they are. And they are far from the sanity end of the spectrum. From Constance’s viewpoint, Merricat can do no wrong. She looks on Merricat’s actions – regardless of how reprehensible they are – as nothing more than adorable eccentricities. Adorable eccentricities don’t burn off your roof because your houseguest won’t leave.

If Merricat and Constance represent the sort of wealthy, privileged insanity that seems to have been pulled from tales of inbred royals, the villagers represent the traditional lower class resentment and hatred of their “betters.” The children taunt Merricat when she makes her twice weekly trips into town for groceries. The harassment from the adults is more subtle, but if you’ve ever seen an in-group tormenting someone outside the clique you’ll recognize it for what it is. Their behaviour escalates from nastiness to violence, justified by the assumption that they are punishing a murderer. At the end of the story, very few people have started to show any increased self-awareness. There is one brief, shining moment where it seems Constance may start to stride forward out of her paralysis and denial and rejoin the world. It’s initiated by a visit from cousin Charles. He claims to have been avoiding them on the orders of his father, and now that the patriarch has passed on he is free to resume familial relations. He is quickly revealed as a money-grubbing worm. But until then, he seems to be opening Constance’s eyes. She begins to see Merricat’s irregularities for what they are. She talks about leaving the house. It suddenly looks possible that she’ll break the chains of habit binding her to the Blackwood’s castle. Jackson doesn’t tell us how, or why, or by whom those chains were forged. All we know is they are no longer to small to be felt, and they may prove too strong to be broken. The only one with a hope of rejoining society as a functioning member is Constance. If there’s a chance that things will improve, Constance will have to change.

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