Academic journal article The Southern Review

Is It Real? on Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Academic journal article The Southern Review

Is It Real? on Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Article excerpt

IF THERE WERE a list of works of literature that have been dissected into near oblivion by high school English curricula, Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" would surely be on it. Many of us broke our analytical teeth on the story's metaphors and symbols, but how many of us ever paid attention to Jackson's work again? For my part, the story became its own best example of synecdoche, a part of Jackson for the whole of Jackson.

So, when choosing to talk about one of the books not crowned by the National Book Award Committee in 1962, I seized on Jackson's novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I'd never read it, and could not be sure that once I had I would feel that it was worthy of any sort of prize at all. But I felt compelled to redeem Jackson's work in my own mind, to see it afresh and not simply as the subject of a multiple-choice exam.

Jackson's work is often described as gothic or psychological horror, and though it can be argued that categories are instances of our collective need to reduce culture to its barest schematics, these genre assignments are apt--if one assumes that filaments of dread are woven into the fabric of even the happiest lives. Some of what we cherish in life--community, familial devotion, a love of nature, and the mind's acrobatic ability to transfigure tragedy into an animating life-force--is also what can be most treacherous, and Jackson's work sits atop the fault line created by this ambivalence. What you notice first about the novel is the style, which could be called "detached macabre." Jackson writes with a surfacy brilliance, a deceptive, almost reportorial simplicity that belies the deeper ambitions of her prose. The book opens with a stunning bit of writing, which establishes Jackson's tone and sets the reader immediately off-balance:

    My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I
live
   with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at
all I
   could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on
both my
   hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I
had. I
   dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister
Constance,
   and Richard Plantagenet, and  Amanita phalloides
, the death-cup
   mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead. 

This brazen, creepy, obviously unreliable and utterly disarming narrator is Merricat, as she is called by her family members. It is a sweet moniker that also suggests the strangely childlike way she both behaves and is treated, even though she is eighteen years old. She lives in a grand house on the outskirts of a dull, gray village, with older sister Constance and Uncle Julian. These three are the only survivors of an arsenic poisoning incident that, six years earlier, killed Constance and Merricat's parents, their brother, and Julian's wife. The arsenic was discovered in the family sugar bowl, and since Constance was the lone member not to partake of sugar during that meal (the incorrigible Merricat had been sent to her room without supper, and Julian took enough only to severely damage his health), she stood accused of the crime. She was ultimately exonerated, but in the eyes of the village community she is still a murderess. Merricat, Constance, and Julian live alone and secluded in the Blackwood house, a fine mansion set apart from the ruder habitations of the village by acres of private property. Julian and Constance never leave the grounds. It is Merricat who must go into town once a week to get provisions and withstand the clannish disapproval of the villagers, whose prejudice against the Blackwoods has as much to do with the family's privilege as with the crime. Jackson details the ritual shame that Merricat is subject to, including the chants that the village children sing as Merricat passes by: "Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? …

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