I taught We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson to college freshmen for a few semesters. It’s a great book to talk to young people about, because Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood is 18 and entirely relatable in her strangeness. I also like to have students explore books with unreliable narrators and a good dose of weird. We Have Always Lived in the Castle provides all that and more.
At the start of the novel, Merricat, her older sister Constance and their Uncle Julian live together in Blackwood House, far from the nearest village. Even if they were not living in a remote location, they would live in isolation because of the scandal at the heart of the novel, the weight Merricat carries with her constantly: the death of her parents, her aunt and younger brother. Six years before the start of the story, someone put arsenic in the family’s sugar before dinner, which resulted in the aforementioned deaths. Since the event, the villagers have shunned the survivors, believing Constance has gotten away with murder.
Constance never goes farther from the house than the garden and Uncle Julian is confined to a wheelchair, so Merricat conducts all their “life” business. This is usually an unpleasant affair as the inhabitants of their small town taunt her, come to the point of refusing to serve her and almost no one visits unless they mean to gawk at the place where four people were mercilessly murdered. And yet, the Blackwood’s home life is mostly idyllic, from Merricat’s perspective. She hopes desperately nothing will change.
Those familiar with Shirley Jackson’s work will recognize the gothic tone of the novel and will not be surprised to find that Merricat takes an unconventional approach to caring for her family. As we move further into the novel, we learn she believes acts such as burying objects, or nailing a book to a tree will serve as protections and as a kind of early warning system for approaching danger. And of course, danger does come and the Blackwood’s secrets are revealed.
Merricat’s voice is easy to identify with. We feel the burn of the townspeople who shun her, her fierce protective love of her sister, and the weight of her familial obligations. Though I have loved the novel at many stages of my life, I think young people especially enjoy uncovering the Blackwood family’s secreets. I have many pleasant memories of students eager to discuss what “crazy” things Merricat does over the course of the week we discuss the book. They marvel over Jackson’s beautiful prose and they identify with Merricat’s sense of otherness and not belonging in a way that is very specific to where they’re at developmentally, away from home for the first time.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is short and fast paced. As Merricat becomes more unstable, and the reader discovers they cannot trust her, Jackson’s signature brand of creepiness takes over. The book isn’t exactly scary and I wouldn’t classify it as horror, but there’s a darkness to it that sticks with readers long after the shocking ending. In this way, it reminds me a great deal of our Coven Read for March, White is for Witching, which explores the same kind of attachment to place and family as We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
As much as the novel is about uncovering the Blackwoods’ secrets, it is about the ways that families become attached to houses and space. It’s about the relationships between siblings and how otherness can seep into the closest familial ties. It’s about what happens when we lose our grip on reality, when life gets just a little too out of control. The genius of Merricat’s macabre likability is that Jackson shows us how that little shadow inside us could grow, fester and bubble out of control.
Allison Carr Waechter has a ghost in her house and they’re getting along just fine, thank you. She believes in the ties that bind families to their homes and land and would do anything for her sisters, whether they came to her by birth or by experience. You can see if she’s unraveling at a Merricat-pace on her website or Twitter. Join her next week on Friday for a discussion of White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi.