We Have Always Lived in the Castle

by Shirley Jackson

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s only novel written in the first-person voice. She uses this viewpoint to introduce one of the most charming psychopaths in literature. Mary Catherine (Merricat) Blackwood tells the reader important things about herself in the first few sentences: She is eighteen years old, she lives with her sister, she dislikes washing herself, but likes her sister Constance. She then states bluntly, “Everyone else in my family is dead.”

Merricat and her sister, Constance, live with their invalid Uncle Julian on the fine old Blackwood estate. The property is completely enclosed, padlocked and isolated. Twice a week, Merricat goes into the village to get groceries and library books. Twice a week, she endures jibes and unfriendly glances as she performs her errands. It becomes clear that the Blackwoods and the villagers despise each other.

Throughout the book, Jackson portrays Mary Catherine as a sympathetic character—with a few bizarre traits. Merricat is incredibly rigid. She schedules every activity, determined to maintain the status quo. She fantasizes about being on the Moon, far from Earth, in a sterile, changeless place. To ensure that her home and life stay intact, she places magical “safeguards” around the property and checks them weekly as she walks the grounds with her cat, Jonah. Her life is perfectly foursquare, measured and determined; one routine follows another, day after day.

Constance, Merricat’s older sister, appears perfectly normal, except for the fact that she is a complete recluse who never leaves the house. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that the Blackwood house was the site of a massacre which only Uncle Julian, Constance, and Merricat survived. One evening, six years before the novel opens, when Merricat was punished by being sent to bed without dinner, most members of her family—her mother, father, brother, uncle and aunt—were poisoned by arsenic in the sugared berries. Constance always prepared the meals, but she did not eat the berries. She was arrested, tried, and acquitted, but from then on the people of the village shunned the Blackwoods.

A catalyst for change occurs when Cousin Charles comes to live in the mansion. Charles quickly becomes Merricat’s nemesis. He hints that her odd behavior could lead to her being confined in an institution. He follows her around and discovers her cache of silver coins. He tries to convince Constance to leave the Blackwood house, to show him the combination to the safe, and to get rid of Merricat.

Merricat decides that he is an evil demon that must be exorcised. Her method of ridding the house of him is to knock his still-burning pipe into a wastebasket. Within a short time, the fine old Blackwood mansion is in flames. The villagers gather to watch the house burn, and then, in a mob frenzy, begin throwing rocks through the windows. After the fire is extinguished, the mob rushes inside the house. They crush and scatter the sisters’ belongings. Uncle Julian dies of a heart attack. To a normal mind, all of this would be a catastrophe. For Merricat, it is the beginning of a wonderful life of perfect isolation, just herself and Constance. She remarks that the house, with its roof partially destroyed from the fire, now resembles a castle with turrets.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a best seller and named one of Time magazine’s Ten Best Novels of 1962. It could be considered Jackson’s most complete book. She intertwines several themes in this novel. The supernatural makes its appearance in Merricat, who believes in spells, magic talismans, and witchcraft. She even has...

(This entire section contains 700 words.)

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a familiar, her cat Jonah. Jackson depicts Merricat’s damaged mind so casually that the girl’s psychosis seems perfectly ordinary. Through the relationship between the Blackwoods and the villagers, she illuminates social evil and mob violence. The isolated family home is a character in the book, a kind of mausoleum; all of the dead parents’ belongings are kept in exactly the same places and cleaned weekly. The house, or “castle,” is an eternal shrine. Jackson weaves together madness, magic, and social isolation, elements that fascinated her and continue to intrigue her readers.