Tag Archives: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

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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Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (3/5). Not a good book to read before bed.

7 Oct

What a perfect selection for the beginnings of a chilly fall! My book club tries to match the book with the season when possible and I think this is a great pairing. The other Shirley Jackson I’ve read is The Haunting of Hill House, which deserves all the chills it gave me. This book was a little less ghost-like, but gave me equal chills.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have always lived in Blackwood Manor and for a long time, the rest of their family lived there with them. But the other members of the Blackwood family are all dead now. They were poisoned by arsenic laced in their sugar and Constance, the chef of the family was tried of murder and found innocent. Needless to say, there aren’t a lot of guests around. Merricat has developed her own system of voodoo and magic to keep the townspeople at bay and Constance is afraid of talking to anyone new. Uncle Julian is suffering from slight effects of arsenic poisoning and the cat is Merricat’s only playmate as she buries family heirlooms and nails books to trees. But then Cousin Charles shows up and the web of secrecy that Merricat has woven is shattered. She must get him out because he does not understand and he can’t interrupt the family Merricat has formed around her.

Talk about creepy! Jackson did an incredible job of giving us a narrator who is perfectly logical yet completely insane. Merricat has a reason for everything she does; to protect herself and her sister. But the things she does to achieve that goal are outrageous. She buries gold, hides leaves and sticks in Cousin Charles’ guest room, creates a small fort in the woods, and picks magic words to make everything ‘right.’ Reading this book before bed gave me chills and it’s a great Halloween read.

Merricat’s ability to think logically made her all the more frightening because you could see someone making those same decisions. Merricat seems like a harmless little girl at first, but when you learn she’s grown and that she puts action behind the fantasies and delusions in her head, it’s frightening. Merricat as narrator made this book the chilling piece that it was.

I loved Uncle Julian. He had such a fascination with what should have been his own death. It’s obvious that Merricat’s goal was to have only her and Constance survive and Julian was a mistake. His memory slips were endearing and I loved that he wrote and was so worried about his papers and others touching them. As a writer, that was really refreshing and enjoyable.

The townspeople were the most relatable to me. I understood the guilt they shared over what they’d done to the Blackwoods. In the moment, something can feel so right and justified, but later you regret it and try to find a way to make things better. I thought it was great that most of the town, not one or two people, brought food. It really showed that it was the feelings of one or two people who influenced most of the others on that fateful day. It was a great touch.

Shirley Jackson Image via the author's website.

Shirley Jackson
Image via the author’s website.

The time that Cousin Charles spent in the house was the most enjoyable to me. I loved watching Merricat torture him with her small little tricks. Putting water in his bed and leaves in his book cases was perfect! It was small, but just enough to undermine him and drive him crazy. And what a great idea to get pesky guests out of your house!

Okay, spoiler here. I wish it had never been said aloud that Merricat poisoned the family. I thought it was well enough implied that there was no reason for Jackson to come out and say it. I think the story would have been better if we’d been left with that mystery. It was pretty easy to infer anyway.

It’s hard to think of a theme or message from this book. Family means different things to different people, regret will come back to get you, greed never pays; there are a few, but none of them seem worth exploring. I think this piece was very entertaining and I’m having trouble thinking of a larger message that. I’m thinking back to my piece on horror and what the purpose of horror is other than to scare us. I think it also helps us realized what it really is that scares us.

Writer’s Takeaway: Merricat is a beautifully flawed and frightening character and Jackson has shown me yet again what a master she is of the human mind. The scary thing about Merricat and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House is that you only notice how flawed they are after a time. At first, they seem completely normal. Sure something in their background might make you scratch your head for a second, but it’s never anything that would scream ‘COMPLETELY PSYCHO’ to anyone. But slowly you realized that you should be running for the hills. Jackson is a genius of this character progression.

A good, creepy read, but not for me. Three out of five stars.

This book fulfills ‘Vermont’ for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

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

Related Posts:
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Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson | The ADD Bookblog

WWW Wednesday, 17-September-2014

17 Sep

Time for MizB’s WWW meme! Not too much progress this week, but I suspected that would happen.

www_wednesdays4The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:  I will be picking up Canada by Richard Ford again at lunch today. I hope to make a dent in it! My audiobook is The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory. So far, this one isn’t disappointing. Gregory’s ability to throw in tons of historical detail and still move a plot is incredible. My ebook is The Domesday Book by Connie Willis and it’s moving as slowly as expected. I’m devoting a lot more time to it than I normally do to an ebook and I’m only at 13%. The race is off for Read Along #2 and I’ve finished the first section of The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. I’m itching to start section two!

Recently finished: Only one finished this week. My book club selection for October is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and I finished it at lunch yesterday. This is one that was hard to read before bed because it was so creepy! Really good but not my normal style.

I’m banging out these book reviews lately. It’s been hard to catch up. Check out reviews for Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt.

Reading Next:   Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is still waiting on my library list. I don’t have much else waiting now because I just started so many! I wish it would come in soon, but I’m starting to give up a bit. If I can finish Canada, I want to read another one in Spanish and I’m likely to pick up Misterio de La Guia de Ferrocarriles by Agatha Christie. The English title is The ABC Murders. Has anyone read this one? It will be my first Agatha Christie and it will be in Spanish so it’s bound to be a good time!

Let’s see if I can get through Canada this week, but no promises! How is your WWW? Leave a comment and let me know and check out the original post on MizB’s blog!

Until next time, write on.

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

WWW Wednesday, 10-September-2014

10 Sep

Time for MizB’s WWW meme! This week was full of finishing books, but I’ll be slowing down for a while I fear.

www_wednesdays4The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:  I was able to read some of Canada by Richard Ford but I’m afraid it’s been put to rest again for a while. Poor thing. My new audiobook is The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory. I’m a huge fan of Gregory and it’s made only more awesome that this book will fulfill the 1400s in my When Are You Reading? Challenge. My new ebook is The Domesday Book by Connie Willis which a co-worker recommended to me ages ago and I know my friend Katherine really enjoyed. It’s a clunker so expect to see that title on this list for a looooong time. The race is off for Read Along #2 and I’ve started in on the first section of The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. So far it’s pretty darn awesome. My copy is autographed so it won’t leave the house (my rule) so this might be a bit slower than I’d read the sections otherwise, but it’s coming along nicely. And because that wasn’t enough, I started our new book club selection yesterday, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I’m only a few pages in, but it’s really creepy! My guess is it only gets worse. Four new books started! Yay.

Recently finished:Three finished this week! I completed the audio of Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan and I’m glad to be done with it. I’m not a fan of the literary wives trend and read this because someone recommended it and I needed an 1800s book. It will be a less than glowing review when it comes out. I finished the ebook of The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and I don’t think I can say enough good things about it. This short little book was really refreshing and I’m so glad I picked it up! I also finished  The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline in three days. That’s really fast for me! But I loved it so much. My mom, grandma, and supervisor had all recommended it to me and it did not disappoint. What an amazing story.

I also got three book reviews posted! If you’re so inclined to read more than my one-sentence reviews here, you can check out my full reviews of Looking for Alaska by John Green, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

Reading Next:   Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is still waiting on my library list. I don’t have much else waiting now because I just started so many! I know there will be more to come, but that’s for next week.

I’m not sure I’ll finish any this week, but I’ll try my darndest! How is your WWW? Leave a comment and let me know and check out the original post on MizB’s blog!

Until next time, write on.

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