Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Yes, Go Read Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Until reading Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), I’d somehow made it from high school to now only reading her widely anthologized short story “The Lottery.” That haunting story of a town’s annual ritual of stoning a randomly chosen citizen, despite no one remembering why.

I picked up a vintage paperback of We Have Always Lived in the Castle somewhere in life and finally read it over holiday break. It is one of the most beautiful and perfectly told stories I have ever read. It was so strange and right that I'd feel excited by the reading experience itself. Joyous. As one feels when falling in love, just being near the person. From the narrator’s way of thinking to the descriptions of the small town to the minds of the characters--Jackson's telling is rich and finely crafted in its minimalist approach. 

The narrator is the younger of two daughters in the Blackwood family, a once wealthy and powerful family in the town but after five family members were all poisoned to death at the same dinner, the family has become alienated, feared, and ridiculed by the town. The house remains like a haunted house on the outskirts of town, and Merricat is the only one of the three to leave the house for town, for weekly grocery shopping, which she does not enjoy.

“The rows of stores along Main Street was unchangingly grey. The people who owned the stores lived above them, in a row of second-story apartments, and the curtains in the regular line of second-story windows were pale and without life; whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villagers belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them.

I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.”

Merricat and her older sister Constance live in the house with their wheelchair-bound uncle whose mind wanders in time, and he sometimes begins narrating parts of the night of the poisoning either as though he’s there again or as a more present-self who has been rethinking that night from every angle in order to figure out how it happened.

The older sister Constance had stood trial for the deaths and the trauma of that, not to mention and the loss itself has kept her homebound. It is a quaint but isolated life—one that the narrator loves. She loves her sister Constance, and her love reminds me of how I once felt about my older sister when I was very young--a kind of idolization as much as adoration. Merricat spends much of her time alone, busy in her mind creating games that help her determine varying routes through town or arbitrary rules that guide her daily play in the surrounding woods. Some of these rules call back to her life when her parents were still alive--there is the sort of faint outline of that life still showing through in this one.

She has learned about botany and cooking and much from Constance. Constance cares for both the uncle and Merricat, allowing them both to live as much in their imaginations as in reality. Which perhaps allows her to do so too; one of the magical aspects of the novel is only understanding Constance through her interactions with other characters. What sort of life had she imagined for herself before that night? Before that trial? How does she imagine herself now that she has become caretaker for a disabled uncle and wandering sister?  

However imagined, the way of life that Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have measured out their days becomes threatened when a far-flung cousin comes to visit and ingratiates himself into the family. He begins courting Constance, which involves his frequent and vocal disagreement with the way she allows Merricat to behave or allowing Uncle Julian to live there instead of in an institution of some sort. The cousin comes to seem like the physical incarnation of the town and patriarchy—constricting, narrow, self-serving and with a lust for money. His presence makes the house feel under threat, and the narrator tries multiple clever ways to make him go away. Each attempt beautiful in its enactment.

But the way everything turns out, which I’ll leave to you to discover, leads to a kind of ideal life for the sisters--or at least for Merricat who has Constance all to herself. But their lives, fully autonomous now, exist only by sacrificing all interaction with the outside world in order to live it, safely. Where the town had tried to demolish them in rage and jealousy, now the town keeps them alive out of guilt and pity.

Surely there is a clear wisdom here that Shirley Jackson is pointing at, regarding the total sacrifice that women must make in order to live autonomous, creative lives—or perhaps it shows the extent that love, or nurturing, when used to protect another, can lead to self-destruction and the suffocation of one’s own possibilities. Multiple times while reading it I thought the novel must be a queer classic and taught in many a queer literature class due to its way of rendering identity, relationships, love, and the conflict between the individual and the community that leads, inevitably, either to the total annihilation of self or town. They cannot both live and retain their points of view because of the chasm in perspectives.

In conclusion, Jackson writing is superb. The style, the perspective, the way that the story and mystery of the family’s murders unravels via town folk chants, the wandering mind of the uncle, the overheard dialogue of an archaic afternoon tea. It’s gothic and observant and creative. Shirley Jackson has definitely become one of my favorite writers, shoulder to shoulder with Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. She sees inside things and writes in the strange angles that reveal the world in useful light. And this book's light seems to glow like ghosts thrown on the wall by a modernist’s stained glass lamp.