We Have Always Lived in the Castle
|September 21, 1962|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback)|
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a 1962 mystery novel by American author Shirley Jackson. It was Jackson's final work, and was published with a dedication to Pascal Covici, the publisher, three years before the author's death in 1965. The novel is written in the voice of eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, who lives with her sister and uncle on an estate in Vermont. Six years before the events of the novel, the Blackwood family experienced a tragedy that left the three survivors isolated from their small village.
The novel was first published in hardcover in North America by Viking Press, and has since been released in paperback and as an audiobook and e-book. It has been described as Jackson's masterpiece. Its first screen adaptation appeared in 2018, based on a screenplay by Mark Kruger and directed by Stacie Passon.
Merricat Blackwood, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing Uncle Julian live in a large house on extensive grounds, in isolation from the nearby village. Constance has not left their home in six years; she goes no farther than her large garden. Uncle Julian, who uses 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 (John and Ellen), an aunt (Julian's wife Dorothy), and a younger brother (Thomas) were murdered – poisoned with arsenic, which was mixed into the family's sugar bowl 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, as she had been sent to bed without dinner as punishment. The people of the village believed that Constance had gotten away with murder, and thus began to ostracize the family. The three remaining Blackwoods had grown accustomed to their isolation, leading 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; on these trips she is faced directly with the hostility of the villagers and often followed by groups of children, who taunt her, often with an accusing rhyme. 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 gradually forms something of an alliance with Constance. 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 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, while developing stories about them akin to folklore. 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.
Eighteen-year-old Merricat is the youngest surviving member of the Blackwood family and the narrator of the novel. When she was twelve, her parents, aunt and younger brother died after being poisoned at dinner. Merricat is the only Blackwood who ventures into town to collect library books and buy groceries. While carrying out these errands, she is often harassed by the townspeople. Merricat practices sympathetic magic, burying relics and nailing items to trees in order to keep her family out of harm's way. Merricat mistrusts Charles and suspects him of plotting to steal from the family and using the villagers to attack them. During a confrontation with Constance while hiding away from the villagers, Merricat admits to poisoning the sugar bowl, revealing herself to be the true murderer.
- Constance Blackwood
Merricat's 28-year-old agoraphobic sister has not ventured farther than the Blackwoods' large garden since her family perished. Constance was the one who was arrested for the murder, though she was later acquitted of the crime. However, she is still blamed for it by the local townspeople. Constance is the only member of the family to cook and clean, and also cares for her Uncle Julian, who uses a wheelchair. Although Charles gains her trust, she eventually sees him for the greedy and selfish person he is.
- Julian Blackwood
Merricat and Constance's uncle is the brother of their late father, John. Julian was poisoned with arsenic along with his family but survived, and now uses a wheelchair. He lost his wife, Dorothy, in the incident. Julian, described by other characters as "eccentric", obsessively writes about the poisoning over and over for his memoirs. Constance, his eldest niece, looks after him, and neither has left the family's estate in six years.
- Charles Blackwood
Merricat and Constance's cousin and Julian's nephew is the son of John's and Julian's brother, Arthur. After his father's death, Charles arrives at the Blackwood residence for a visit, but this is questioned by Merricat and Julian, neither of whom trust him. Julian suspects he wants to steal the family's fortune. Charles begins to form a close relationship with Constance and takes advantage of her naïveté.
The theme of persecution of people who exhibit "otherness" or become outsiders 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 judgment 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 Oppenheimer, 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 fictionalized versions of her own daughters, and Oppenheimer noted that Merricat and Constance were the "yin and yang of Shirley's own inner self". 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".
In March 2002, Book magazine named Mary Katherine Blackwood the seventy-first "best character in fiction since 1900". On Goodreads, the novel ranks #2 on the list of "Most Popular Books Published in 1962", as voted for by the website's users.
In 1966, the novel was adapted into a stage play by Hugh Wheeler, starring Heather Menzies, Shirley Knight, and Alan Webb. The play premiered at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway on October 19, and closed after 11 performances on October 26. In 2010, Adam Bock and Todd Almond staged a musical version at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, which ran from September 23 to October 9.
In August 2009, the novel was optioned for the screen by Michael Douglas' production company Further Films, from a script written by Mark Kruger, with the support of Jackson's son Laurence Hyman. The film adaptation, from Further Films and Albyn Media, was filmed in Bray and Dublin, Ireland from August to September 2016. Directed by Stacie Passon, it stars Sebastian Stan as Charles, Taissa Farmiga as Merricat, Alexandra Daddario as Constance, and Crispin Glover as Uncle Julian. The film premiered at the LA Film Festival on September 22, 2018, and on May 17, 2019 was released by Brainstorm Media.
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