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We Have Always Lived in the Castle: The Subversive, Witchy, Magic of Shirley Jackson

Hello readers! It’s been far too long since I’ve posted I know but things got very crazy for me last month and I still feel like I’m playing catch up. Near the beginning of October I went on a trip to northern Georgia (where I took these photographs featured in the article!) and when I returned the job I’d recently accepted at the local library was finally ready to start finalizing the necessary paperwork. So within a short time of arriving home I was doing preliminary employment work and then I started working in earnest not long after. The past two and a half weeks have definitely been an adjustment since I had not been in school or working for some time, so a lot of things fell to the wayside. But I am hoping now to get back on track and resume posting at least once a week *fingers crossed.*

It’s been only in the last few days really that it has begun to truly feel like fall has made its arrival here since the temperature has FINALLY started to drop. But no matter what the thermometer says, for me at least, autumn is as much a psychological feeling as it is a tangible change in the environment; it’s a state of mind where the world seems to go a bit quieter and it’s easier to tap into the thoughtful part of myself. It is this sense of self-reflection I feel that compels me to return to books I’ve read before, to comforting, or at least familiar stories. I am a firm believer in the idea that books are often made for certain seasons in our lives, and that sometimes we are enticed back to books again at different points for compelling reasons, either because it has something to teach us that perhaps we were unaware of the first time we encountered it, or else that there is something about it that is worth further contemplation. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer I, (and others as well) sometimes find ourselves inextricably become more drawn to tales that hint at the darker sides of human nature. In the last few weeks I have been seeking out stories that really make me think, and in my quest, found myself reaching instinctively for Shirley Jackson.

Jackson’s greatest strength to me has always lain in her ability to write wonderfully introspective and character-driven horror that doesn’t rely on gore or cheap thrills. Though her novels do involve the paranormal and the supernatural her protagonists are relatable, and it is because of the ease with which the reader can insert themselves into the character’s shoes that the feeling of dread is enhanced. I enjoyed both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but today I want to focus on the latter since there is so much to say about them both, and by combining them I didn’t feel I’d be able to give them each the focus they deserve.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle for me is an example of a first-person, unreliable narrator done supremely well. Mary Katherine Blackwood known as “Merricat” by her sister Constance, is eighteen, but though she is nominally an adult her personality contains an interesting mixture of both mature self-assurance and child-like qualities. It is evident from the beginning of the novel that Merricat suffers from paranoia and neurotic tendencies but it is also these same tendencies that elicit sympathy from readers because they suggest her vulnerability. No matter how odd or bizarre or even disturbing Merricat’s internal monologue may be, the reader wants to see her as a fragile innocent. However this semblance of purity is belied by the fact that Merricat doesn’t rely on anyone except Constance and herself. Even her relationship with disabled Uncle Julian is more that of a caretaker than a young niece, and it still takes on a secondary status to that of the bond she shares with her sister, which is the defining relationship of the book. Merricat seems perfectly content to allow the rest of the world and life to pass them by if it means she can keep Constance safe.

It became apparent to me on my second reading of this novel that the relationship between Constance and Merricat bears a lot of similarities to sister-bonds found in traditional folk and fairy tales. Where Constance is more akin to princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, Merricat though younger, is more worldly and assumes the role of her sister’s protector. What makes this fascinating though is that Merricat dodges any attempt of scholars to box her in and assign her and Constance’s sibling dynamic into gender specific roles. And though there is something about the pairing of the sisters that feels vaguely gender-bent in a Shakespearean kind of way, I don’t feel that it is possible or overly helpful to try to neatly stick Merricat into the traditional “male role,” tempting as it might be to superimpose a tidy binary onto the novel. Merricat is physically hardly what one might call formidable, but it is her cleverness that allows her to pull the strings of those much older than her and who have more physical strength than she possesses. It also interesting to note that what on the surface merely appears to be the product of Merricat’s mental illness can also be contrastively viewed as being a source of empowerment rather than something that weakens her. Perhaps a better archetypal fit for Merricat is less the prince in a fairy tale and more that of a cunning witch. Read in this light Merricat’s unusual behavior suddenly makes a lot more sense, particularly her desire to bury significant objects from the house, (usually ones imbued with or representative of certain people), on the grounds, or her retreats into nature when their home is essentially invaded by the threatening and patriarchal presence of cousin Charles.

Indeed to try to insist upon Merricat’s role as being “a male one” I think stands in opposition to the intent of the novel. In Castle gender does matter and it is this dichotomy between male and female characters that forms the axis upon which the conflict of the story turns. The male characters, (with the exception of Uncle Julian, who by his disability is rendered “safe” because of his physical restrictions), are portrayed as violent, destructive, and dangerous to the female characters in the novel. This is most obvious in the characterization of cousin Charles who exerts his authority over the household upon his arrival, but also can be perceived in the more subtly hinted at characteristics of the girls’ late father. Merricat even attributes much of her fear of Charles to him reminding her of their father. If men then are the enemy in the story and Merricat is the implied heroine, to see her as anything less than as an inherently feminine character upsets Jackson’s tale’s entire foundation. So though I do agree that there is a certain ambiguity to Merricat’s character, I don’t think it’s her gender role we should be questioning but more our own biased preconceptions of what a female role can look like.

With all this in mind, the novel can easily be read as a treatise on the dangers of a patriarchal society. Perhaps that is the real horror that Jackson wished to highlight. This theme I feel is driven home even more by the 2018 film adaption where the ending is given a final gut-wrenching twist, that, though it differs from the quieter ending of the novel, nevertheless rings true to the feel of the book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle has so much potential to be read as a feminist text, and all of its interesting layers contribute to making it a truly compelling read. And though I love Hill House as well I think I just might have to award Castle the title of Jackson’s true magnum opus. If you haven’t read it already I urge you to pick it up. I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.

Have you read anything by Shirley Jackson? Do you enjoy spooky fiction? Drop me a comment and tell me about your favorite scary titles!

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