We Have Always Lived in the Castle
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the final novel by Shirley Jackson, published in 1962, three years before her death in 1965.
The novel, narrated in the first-person by 18-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, tells the story of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing Uncle Julian live in a large house on large grounds, in isolation from the nearby village. Constance has not left their home in six years, going no farther than her large garden. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs, while Constance cares for him. Through Uncle Julian's ramblings, the events of the past are revealed, including what happened to the remainder of the Blackwood family: six years ago both the Blackwood parents, an aunt (Julian's wife), and a younger brother were murdered — poisoned with arsenic, and were mixed into the family sugar and sprinkled onto blackberries at dinner. Julian, though poisoned, had survived; Constance, who did not put sugar on her berries, was arrested for, and eventually acquitted of, the crime. Merricat was not at dinner, having been sent to bed without dinner as punishment. The people of the village believe that Constance had gotten away with murder and the family is ostracized. The three remaining Blackwoods had grown accustomed to their isolation, and lead a quiet, happy existence. Merricat is the family's sole contact with the outside world, walking into the village twice a week and carrying home groceries and library books, where she is faced directly with the hostility of the villagers and often followed by groups of children, who taunt her. They are quite harsh and rude, and it is made obvious that Merricat knows that her family is hated by the townsfolk.
Merricat is protective of her sister and is a practitioner of sympathetic magic. She feels that a dangerous change is approaching; her response is to reassure herself of the various magical safeguards she has placed around their home, including a book nailed to a tree. After discovering that the book has fallen down, Merricat becomes convinced that danger is imminent. Before she can warn Constance, their estranged cousin, Charles, appears for a visit.
Charles quickly befriends Constance, insinuating himself into her confidence. Charles is aware of Merricat's hostility and is increasingly rude to her and impatient of Julian's weaknesses. He makes many references to the money the sisters keep locked in their father's safe, and is gradually wooing Constance, who begins to respond to his advances. Merricat perceives Charles as a threat, calling him a demon and a ghost, and tries various magical and otherwise disruptive means to drive him from the house. Uncle Julian is increasingly disgusted by Charles, and Constance is increasingly caught between the warring parties.
One night before dinner Constance sends Merricat upstairs to wash her hands, and Merricat, in her anger against Charles, pushes Charles' still-smoldering pipe into a wastebasket filled with newspapers. The pipe sets fire to the family home. The villagers arrive to put out the fire, but once it's out, in a wave of long-repressed hatred for the Blackwoods, they begin throwing rocks at the windows, smashing them and surging into the house to destroy whatever they can, all the while chanting their children's taunting rhyme. Merricat and Constance, driven outdoors, are encircled by some of the villagers who seem on the verge of attacking them, en masse. Merricat and Constance flee for safety into the woods. In the course of the fire, Julian dies of what is implied to be a heart attack, and Charles attempts to take the family safe. While Merricat and Constance shelter for the night under a tree Merricat has made into a hideaway, Constance confesses for the first time that she always knew Merricat poisoned the family. Merricat readily admits to the deed, saying that she put the poison in the sugar bowl because she knew Constance would not take sugar.
Upon returning to their ruined home, Constance and Merricat proceed to salvage what is left of their belongings, close off those rooms too damaged to use, and start their lives anew in the little space left to them. The house, now without a roof, resembles a castle "turreted and open to the sky." The villagers, awakening at last to a sense of guilt, begin to leave food on their doorstep. Charles returns once to try to renew his acquaintance with Constance, but she now knows his real purpose is greed and ignores him. The two sisters choose to remain alone and unseen by the rest of the world.
The theme of persecution of people who exhibit "otherness" in small-town New England, by small-minded villagers, is at the forefront of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and is a repeated theme in Jackson's work. In her novels The Haunting of Hill House and, to a lesser extent, The Sundial, this theme is also central to the psychology of the story. In all these works, the main characters live in a house that stands alone on many acres, and is entirely separate physically, socially, as well as ideologically, from the main inhabitants of the town. In his 2006 introduction of the Penguin Classics edition, Jonathan Lethem stated that the recurring town is "pretty well recognizable as North Bennington, Vermont," where Jackson and her husband, Bennington professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, encountered strong "reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism."
All of Jackson's work creates an atmosphere of strangeness and contact with what Lethem calls "a vast intimacy with everyday evil..." and how that intimacy affects "a village, a family, a self." Only in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though, is there also a deep exploration of love and devotion despite the pervasive unease and perversity of character that runs through the story. Constance's complete absence of judgement of her sister and her crime is treated as absolutely normal and unremarkable, and it is clear throughout the story that Merricat loves and cares deeply for her sister, despite her otherwise apparently sociopathic tendencies.
The novel was described by Jackson's biographer, Judy Opphenheimer, as "a paean to agoraphobia," with the author's own agoraphobia and nervous conditions having greatly informed its psychology. Jackson freely admitted that the two young women in the story were liberally fictionalised versions of her own daughters. Written in deceptively simple language, by an entirely unreliable narrator, the novel implies that the two heroines may choose to live forever in the remaining three rooms of their house, since they prefer each other's company to that of any outsiders. Lethem calls this reversion to their pre-Charles stasis Merricat's "triumph."
The book was dedicated to Viking Press publisher Pascal Covici.
In 1966, the novel was adapted into a play by Hugh Wheeler.