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by
Courtney Greenberg

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Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This is the third post of a series about books written by women in the past to give me an excuse to read more female authors, which have been lacking from my bookshelf recently. Join me on this journey of discovering some badass ladies who wrote some pretty stellar literature. (There are spoilers below if you haven't read this book yet!)


This twisted tale of a family dissolved by a poisonous murderer is delightful and deadly. The narrator is an 18-year-old woman who lives with her handicapped uncle (consumed with trying to remember details of one fatal night six years prior), her cat, and her older sister, Constance. The narrator, Mary Katherine or "Merricat" Blackwood is as wild as the forest surrounding her home, her secluded castle.

The bond between these two sisters—almost pure opposites—is a recurring focus in the book. Their relationship is tested as strangers and long lost relatives reenter their lives. In the end, the sisters remain in the wrecked carcass of their former home, "a great ruined structure overgrown with vines"—but they have each other, which is most important.  Merricat, as the narrator, relies on sarcasm and dark humour to illustrate her experiences. She does so with the naivete and curiosity of a teenager, turning the would-be haunting tale into a human story about family history. Her voice—candid and honest, hopeful and cynical—is captivating to read and kept me turning the pages.

Black(wood) Magic

Merricat's use of sympathetic magic is interwoven throughout the book. She believes in the power of regular objects, which symbolize the connection to her past, her dead parents. She places items around the sprawling property, setting them in nature, as a form of protection: silver dollars buried near a creek, a book nailed to a tree in the pine woods. The objects are her insurance; she believes they can ward away change or evil. These burial rituals are almost religious in meaning, with each site and object signifying something specific to Merricat. 

On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us.
— p. 41

Merricat can be agreeable, yet stubborn. She can be uncaring, yet kind. This dichotomy is exemplified when her cousin Charles comes to visit. The shift from loving sister (who often vows to be kinder to Uncle Julian) to hateful (toward Charles) is instant upon his arrival. 

I was on my way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst. My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down...I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mother’s, or a glove.

The bad omen in the quote is obviously the long lost cousin, who steals Constance's attention and rummages through their dead fathers' things. He disrupts the balance and routine of the sisters' six-year hiatus from society. In an effort to rid the home of Charles, Merricat dictates types of poisonous plants aloud at the table. He is intimidated but not dissuaded. After failed attempts to drive him away, she pushes his burning pipe into the garbage of the upstairs bedroom. It is here we see the switch from words to action; Merricat is not as innocent as she once seemed.

Charles flees following the fire. 

Sister on trial 

Merricat's innocence remains in tact because she was not at the family dinner table the night the family was killed, but instead, was in her room. We later learn the poison was in the sugar bowl because Merricat knew Constance would not eat it. Throughout the book, although I suspected it at times, I was unsure that Merricat was the murderer. I was surprised to learn that her sister covered for her all along. This scene, as their former home burns, is menacing and touching at the same time. Constance has gone to extreme lengths to ensure no one knows Merricat was responsible. She was on trial for murder in the courtroom and even after she was acquitted, she was condemned a second time by the townspeople. The ostracized, shrunken family—then down to Uncle Julian, Constance and Merricat—spent six years in solitude. Constance, the entire time, covered for Merricat.

This sentiment has been mirrored and imitated by countless families. Who wouldn't lie for a beloved sibling? The relationship, though, exemplifies the closeness between sisters in particular—an inexplicable and unique bond. And in this case, a bond that is much, much stronger than any of the other familial relationships.

'House on the moon'

The whimsical language and often magical tone used by Merricat may seem out of place because of the murderous plot of the book. But it's also what makes her relatable. She gets lost in daydreams and musings. She invents a perfect life on the moon, where she would be in seclusion with her cat and Constance. The references to the moon are usually made during the most vulnerable times. It's Merricat's way of escaping reality. But she is alone in this, and always trying to pursuade Constance how nice it will be to leave all the earthly things behind to rebuild their home on the moon.

I liked my house on the moon, and I put a fireplace in it and a garden outside (what would flourish, growing on the moon? I must ask Constance) and I was going to have lunch outside in my garden on the moon.
— p. 15

Mob mentality 

There are—surprisingly—some positive changes by the end of the book. After the fire burns the roof of the home, the villagers riot inside, smashing the belongings of the Blackwood family. The anger and hatred they feel about Constance "getting away with murder" has festered for six years. The violence seems unjustified as they destroy the home and chase after the sisters. After a night hiding away, the sisters return to their "castle" to live in complete seclusion. Deep into their solitude, neighbours start leaving homemade meals on the front step as rumours about the pair circulate amongst tourists. The path on the property, once silent, is used by villagers to get around town.

In a small yet significant way, the society shifts toward acceptance and guilt, rather than vengeance. 

Want more modern thoughts on literature written by women? Check out my posts on Wuthering Heights, House of Ulloa, And Then There Were None and Persuasion.

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