Book Club Reflection: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

4 Nov

I wish I’d gotten this post out before Halloween, but between moving and failing to unpack for a week, it fell through the cracks. I hope some of you late to your Spooky Reads challenges might consider this title or maybe tuck it away for next year. It was a solid book and after discussing it, I find it even creeper than I did before. You can read my review of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and read on for a great discussion on the book.

Shirley Jackson is a queen of horror writing. You’ve probably read her short story The Lottery and if you haven’t, you should go Google it now. There, now you know what kind of creepy, psychologically twisted writing I’m talking about. Excited? Good

This was Jackson’s last novel. We discussed how she suffered a period of mania toward the end of her life where she locked herself in a room and piled things against the door, refusing to come out. I think the comparison to Merricat and Constance toward the end is unmistakable. Jackson’s writing has a note of disturbing and psychologically insane which makes for a really creepy read.

Merricat was the creepiest of the creepy characters. She seemed younger than the eighteen she claimed to be; thirteen or fourteen at best. However, she’s highly self-sufficient; able to go to town , take care of herself for a day at a time, helping Constance instead of Constance always helping her. Most obviously, she was smart. She knew what poisons to use, she had obviously read enough to know the details of poison roots and plants that could be used to kill. Though the creepiest part about her to me was when Uncle Julian, in his poisoned illusion, told the reader that Merricat was dead. I thought we had a Sixth Sense situation on our hands and was almost disappointed to find out she was alive. Though if you asked her, she lived on the moon. “Why the moon?” we wondered. In truth, it’s as far away as she could get. And when it was first published in 1962, the moon was somewhere only a few, special people could even think of going. It would be seven years before men got there.

The title was a bit strange to us because we didn’t know why they would refer to their house as a castle. It was certainly big enough but doesn’t fit how we usually think of castles. A castle’s main attraction is that it’s reinforced and offers protection to those inside. Toward the end of the book, the house was more of a castle. However, we think that the girls themselves were more ‘castle-like’ and were able to draw up their own walls around themselves and serve as their own protection from the town. They’ve always had to live in their own castle.

When writing, every character has to play a role in the book. Having a character with no purpose or one who does not advance the plot is pointless. So what was the point of Julian? One of us saw him as the Greek chorus in the play. He could bring up topics that Merricat and Constance didn’t want to talk about. He also showed Merricat’s evil streak because we see in the book how she wants to kill him. Innocent, nice girls don’t normally want to kill their uncles. Someone wondered if he really did die of a heart attack, which was what we thought the doctor was implying. Maybe he had a soft spot for Constance and didn’t want her to be accused of murder again. Perhaps Julian died in the fire; a crush or burn instead of a heart attack. If that had been the case, there’s no doubt in my mind that Constance would have been accused of the crime, not letting Merricat take the fall.

Besides there not being any concrete evidence against her, perhaps the Blackwell family wealth got Constance off of the murder charge the first time. She seems like a scared and timid person, but especially around Merricat. She seems to be very afraid of her sister; always giving in when Merricat asks for something. Merricat’s spoiled nature was part of what upset Charles so much.

We wondered if Charles was their lost cousin or if he was a con man looking for a payoff. The girls mentioned a few times how much Charles looked like their father, which makes us think he was a genuine relative, but I’m still suspicious. He would have heard about the family’s tragedy in newspapers and thought to come looking for them We bet he didn’t expect to find Merricat’s emotional state to be as bad as it was. Constance was quick to cling to Charles, wanting something familiar in a world that had been turned upside down.

Charles took over as the traditional patriarch of the family very quickly. He asserted his dominance and changed routines and room arrangements, which drove Merricat crazy. She thrived on knowing how one day and the next would be the same and when Charles forced her away from that, she was angry. A theory of why Merricat did what she did is that she disliked men and wanted the patriarchs of the family gone. This explains why Julian, who’s not a threat to her free will, isn’t a threat to Merricat and why Charles was. Maybe the town only liked him because he’s a man. Merricat was right not to like him and the reader sees this at the end when he returns with the news writer, looking for the safe. Even if he is family, he’s not the relative you want to stay close with.

We talked about if Merricat meant to start the fire. We believe she wanted to start it and hurt Charles, but that she didn’t think through the consequences. The fire would destroy Charles’ room, yes, but it would spread and that’s not something Merricat was ready to think through. Her mind is under developed and part of that must be her ability to foresee consequences of her actions. She didn’t realize it would hurt her as well.

Alright, if you haven’t read the book, stop here. I’m surprised you made it this far, but stop. I’m warning you, this will ruin the end.

Should Jackson have told us that Merricat killed the family? Most of us thought she had before being told. It would have been creepier not to know. We got the impression Constance knew and maybe Julian had an inkling, but they didn’t talk about it. They wanted to protect Merricat, who they knew needed to be care for within the family. She must have had a hard time in the orphanage during Constance’s trial. Jackson did a great job of making Merricat seem relatively normal when she goes into town at the beginning, but it quickly deteriorates and we see her true nature and illness.

I mentioned that one theory as to why Merricat did it is because of her dislike for patriarchy. The town was accepting of Charles because they could understand the patriarchy. When they reverted to a matriarchy again at the end, we wondered if the town would poison them with the food. The other theory is that Constance and Merricat were incestuous and Merricat wanted to be alone with her lover. I can’t get on board with that one. We would like to propose another theory.

Julian mentions at one point that there was a disagreement between Merricat’s parents the morning of the accident (forgive me, I cannot find it in the text). We think they were arguing about sending Merricat away. Maybe both wanted and they couldn’t agree on where or one was against the idea. Either way, Merricat overheard this and it scared her so much to think she’d be away from Constance that she put arsenic in the sugar. Then, when she hears Charles talk about leaving with Constance and leaving her behind, she reacts in a similar way, fighting to be with her Constance. She’s afraid of being away from her and will kill to stay near her sister. She hoped Charles would die, but got her wish regardless.

What a great November read! I recommend it for any other book club hoping to do a themed book.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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