Shirley Jackson Jackson, Shirley

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jackson, Shirley 1919–1965

Jackson was an American novelist and short story writer. She is best known for her stories which blend supernatural elements with ordinary domestic settings. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Stuart C. Woodruff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No doubt many readers who helped to put Miss Jackson's novel on the bestseller lists for a long time read the book … as a mystery or whodunit lacking only a detective to solve the crime….

There is, however, considerably more to We Have Always Lived in the Castle than [this] …; Miss Jackson's novel is, in fact, a finely patterned work whose thematic concern is not really mystery or horror at all. To be sure, there is a conventional mystery of sorts—the identity of the poisoner—but unraveling it could hardly be said to strain our powers of deduction. And there is an element of horror as well, although, strangely enough, it is not caused by our discovery that a twelve-year-old girl has dispatched no fewer than four members of her family …, and has left an uncle crippled for life from the aftereffects of arsenic poisoning. Parricide on such a scale is certainly regrettable, but the real horror in Miss Jackson's novel originates elsewhere. (p. 152)

In Merricat's opening description of one of her weekly trips to the village we begin to sense the kind of world the castle is a defense against. So mean and small is that world, so lacking in love and understanding, that we soon come to share Merricat's distaste and to approve of the castle-dwellers' self-imposed isolation. The village, representative of the normal outside world, is initially characterized by its dirt and ugliness…. More important than the physical squalor and ugliness is the moral dry rot of its inhabitants. The village is a loveless, predatory place, filled with "flat grey faces with … hating eyes," with "rotting hearts" "coveting our heaps of golden coins." (pp. 153-54)

In radical opposition to the grubby village and its equally grubby inhabitants stands the castle, guarded by Constance, and in the polar contrasts between the so-called "normal" world of the village and the "abnormal" world of the castle we discover the novel's underlying pattern or design. Whereas the villager is grey and grimy, the castle appears to bask in perpetual warmth and sunshine….

Constance—her name, of course, is emblematic—epitomizes the regenerative power of love and selfless devotion; she is the kind of person the sentimentalist would describe as "too fine" for this world. If she seems not quite believable as a character, like Esther Summerson of Bleak House, it is only because she is too good to be true. (p. 154)

Protected by Constance's love and concern, Merricat finds further refuge in her rich fantasy life, particularly in her dream of a "house on the moon."… Merricat's imagination insulates her against the world's lovelessness and greed, just as Constance has created a way of life which comes close to matching her sister's lunar fantasy. Since Merricat is the novel's narrator, we see through her eyes only, and soon become accustomed to her point of view. Gradually we find ourselves sharing that point of view. In our growing preference for life at the castle, we discover the moral of Miss Jackson's persuasive fable. For it is Miss Jackson's purpose to convert us, to make us feel the moral superiority of life "on the moon" to a drab and mean existence in the village…. If life at the castle is demented and "unrealistic," Miss Jackson implies, then by all means let us have more of it.

In fact, as sympathetic moon-dwellers we find the concepts of normal and abnormal behavior highly ambiguous, if not actually reversed, not because Merricat is unable to distinguish between them, but because the novel's angle of vision forces us to find all that is good and meaningful in the lives of three recluses scorned by the community at large…. As we pick up clues as to what happened that night at dinner, as we gain...

(The entire section is 3,110 words.)