We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; a review

November 1, 2020
a hand reaching for glasses, which are laid on books.

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 our family is dead.” 

the infamous first paragraph of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

welcome, friends. may you enter safely into the haunted house of the Shirley Jackson bookversum, a place so full of shadows, speaking cats and angry villagers.
many lost something here, but even more found themselves between the lines, full of psychoanalytic deductions and cruelty.

In this article I will examine the meaning of one of my most beloved books, which I will prelude with a short, and, unfortunately, very compressed, biography /Shirley Jackson´s background. Then I will give my best to analyze it a bit, especially her writing style and the psychological coding before we will transfer into the “my personal opinion” part, that is, as always, just me fangirling rather hard.

on Shirley Jackson herself; “a rather hunted life”

Shirley Jackson was one of those rare authors, gifted with the power of spreading true, deep terror. In 1916, in the ends of a war, she was born to young parents, disappointed with her from the beginning, for they wished to keep their togetherness for a bit longer (1). So, having difficulties to connect with both her peers and her parents, she early on saw writing as her way to express herself, which was not to her mother’s liking. While her relationship with her other family was cold, she saw her grandmother, even though she disliked her strong religious believes and apparent power to heal, as a sort of motherfigure. Her “witchcraft” and spiritualistic view were a great influence on young Shirley (2), that will later inspire her to write her first horror stories.
As she finally manages to untie herself from her rather toxic parents, she begins making friends and first serious attempts as an author. In college she also meets her later to-be husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary researcher of jewish belief who, reading Janice, one of her stories, cried out: “I’m going to marry this woman”.
And so they did.
But, their, with four children gifted, marriage was strained with Edgar’s many love affairs, often with students of his, which will lead to the couple agreeing to live openly polygam (3). Jackson wrote into her diary:

I cannot come to an honest conclusion how her open relationship influenced her writing, for I only read “we have always lived in the castle” yet, however, I can say that the anti-semitism they experienced very well did have an influence on her, especially in the village they lived in (which is, as by Jonathan Lethem speculated, North Bennington, Vermont, where the Jackson family encountered anti-semitism and anti-intellectualism (4)).
Edgar also functioned as her editor and controlled the finances, even though Shirley was the main earner (5).

Jackson struggled with mental illness all her life, her depressions were long familiar to her as she first started having panic attacks, soon after her husband cheated for the fifth time.

Merricat Blackwooda short and quite unskilled analysis; for I can’t find the book at the moment

throughout the book we can often detect a certain kind of unease falling over us, whenever Merricat leaves the house. Especially in the first chapter, where she goes to the village and experiences a sensory overload, we can literally feel her stress and anxiety. I am no expert in psychology, after all I just turned fifteen two weeks ago, but I do know a bit about hypersensitivity, for both my mum and I are diagnosed with it. This condition can also be, to phrase it rather simplified, psychotic. With her tendency to violence towards the villagers, triggered by their rudeness and gaucherie, she falls back to childish murder fantasy, imaging how she walks over their bodies.

(..) I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Later in the novel, Merricat often pictures how she would live on the moon, together with her sister, her senile uncle Julian and her cat, who she has an extraordinary relationship to.
another of her eccentrics, as one might say, is her apparent witchcraft. so she hides things, nails books to trees and forbids herself to use specific words, all to protect her remaining family from the outside.
when her cousin Charles first enters the scene (not in the literal sense, of course. it’s not a Drama, just to clarify that), she believes one of her protection spells has failed.
there is so much more to say about her, but I find myself tired and can’t continue writing at the moment.

why I recommend this book;

while I’ve never been a fan of horror books (or movies, for that matter) you probably know that I’m the biggest gothic lit nerd there’s ever been. while this book definitely contains horror elements, it’s still labeled gothic, especially for our lil friend Merricat seems like the perfect gothic villain, with all her murdering.
even though the spookiest month just left us, we’re still in the middle of autumn, which is, of course, the season of dark reads.

similar articles:

a guide to gothic literature
vampirism in gothic literature
gothic villains: the ambiguity of evil
Heathcliff, colonialism and gothic literature

(1) Oppenheimer, Judy (1988); Private demons: The life of Shirley Jackson
(2) Franklin, Ruth (2017); Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(3) Franklin, Ruth (2016)
(4) Oates, Joyce Carol (October 8, 2009); “The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson”, New York, Archived from the original on January 18, 2017, Retrieved January 18, 2017
(5)  Franklin, Ruth (September 27, 2016); Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

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  • Reply homoeroticism and the gothic villain – Cozy Kingdom November 4, 2020 at 12:29 pm

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