We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Shirley Jackson

I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House last year and was pleasantly surprised by the deftness of its writing. So I decided to try Jackson’s final, and some say her best, novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In some ways it is Jackson’s infamous story “The Lottery” and her quintessential haunted house story The Haunting of Hill House put together. But this is not simply a remixing of former stories, but instead a reworking of former themes in a tale that is its own fully realized world. The strength of voice in this book comes from the narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat. She is at once an adult and a child. She is the only one of her remaining family able to venture out into the world and yet is the most in a world of her own making. The fact that we quickly get the information that she hates dogs and taking baths right next to the fact that most of her family is dead lets us know that this is a character whose moral compass may be off, whose view of the world is unsettlingly childlike.

Basically, Merricat lives with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian in the family house, which is isolated from the rest of the town. This isolation is both due to the class pride of the family and the hatred of the townspeople. The rest of the Blackwood family is dead, except for an estranged uncle, due to a poisoning at the dinner table. Someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance was accused because she had been the cook and didn’t touch the sugar bowl. The mystery of who is responsible for the arsenic isn’t much of a mystery and isn’t the point of the book. It’s not a detective story. Instead it is an exploration of character, mood, and sisterly love.

The tense but static existence of the sisters and Uncle Julian is broken by the arrival of a cousin, Charles. He begins to drive a wedge between Merricat and Constance, or at least Merricat fears he will. And it is here that Jackson’s writing is at its most economical and evocative. For while Charles seems obsessed about money, what also becomes apparent about his manner is his unconscious male privilege. He disturbs the pattern of the female run Blackwood house, but never asks permission or pardon. He doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he’s disturbing anything at all. That ability not to have to notice is the hallmark of privilege. Jackson captures this perfectly without having to name it or even call much attention to it.

So this is a novel that lends itself to many interpretive strategies. For instance, you could see it as being about female space constantly being invaded by male forces. The world of Merricat and Constance first has to survive cousin Charles and later the male firefighters. This is helpful, but it doesn’t capture the whole complexity of the book. No one interpretive strategy acts, as Lethem calls it in his introduction, as a key to unlocking the book. Instead, the various possible critical angles from which you can approach this book demonstrate its complexity and subtlety.

Nothing in this book is simple. It is a story about family homicide and societal intolerance, but also sisterly love. Yet that love is both heart warming and claustrophobic. It counterbalances the darkness in the book, but also compounds it in the end. Likewise, Merricat is an entertaining narrator with a wicked sense of humor, but also a disturbing and disturbed person. Likewise, one could see the ending as a both a victory and a chilling tragedy.

Overall, this is an amazingly written book. I think Merricat Blackwood should be considered one of the classic unreliable narrators of American literature. So why isn’t Jackson’s novel part of the canon? It may be a case of genre bias; her work is classified as horror and horror is not seen as being serious. It could also be a case of sexism. Henry James is called a genius for his unreliable narrator in Turn of the Screw, but not Jackson. Also, the reviewers in Jackson’s day were mostly men and male writers who explored the kind of darkness Jackson does were called brave. Jackson was called “neurotic.” Also, at that time critics were looking for art that made big statements and had epic scopes in terms of plot and stylistic exploration. Jackson instead is narrowly focused. She has small casts of characters and never claims to be the voice of her generation. But her focus is scalpel-like. When she cuts, she cuts deep. And it’s disturbing.

As a final note, in the novel the Blackwood house is not compared to a castle until near the end of the book. Yet the title is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. “Always” implies a long period of time. So the title then implies that the state we find Merricat and her sister in at the end of the book will persist for quite some time. So this book becomes the origin story of the haunted house tale the locals tell each other for years to come. They don’t know where the story began, but they are still troubled by it. Much as we are with Jackson. Everyone remembers “The Lottery,” but most people have forgotten who wrote it and probably never knew that the author wrote many other works. Let me assure you that Jackson is not a one-hit wonder. She is a powerful and fearless American writer.

hand-stitched sequential art book

I just got back from a long vacation in Ireland. Now back to drawing and site redesign.

But one thing I saw in Ireland was the Skibbereen Arts Festival. The section of it that drew me in the most was the hand-made books exhibition. There was a lot of beautiful and inspirational work, but I took some pictures of the book below because it contained a sequential narrative and it was all hand-stitched.

Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Barbara Postema, Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Barbara Postema organizes her book about making sense of comics the way I was imagining organizing my own hypothetical one. She starts with single panels, then moves on to the relationships between panels, then the whole page, and finally the sequence of pages. Basically, she starts with the smallest elements of comics and then moves up in size. Her goal is to examine how these various elements function, but she doesn’t seem interested in developing some grand theory full of neologisms, as Thierry Groensteen does in The System of Comics. This makes for a book that is fairly accessible on the one hand, but a little unclear about its goals on the other.

The main focus of every chapter is Postema’s analysis of specific comics and I think this analysis is what may be most useful to people. If you want some more insight into The Golem’s Mighty Swing or Shutterbug Follies, then you may enjoy this book. Postema is a careful reader and exhaustively describes elements of the comics she discusses. This is a strength, though I also found it to be a bit tedious at times. In some instances, the descriptions are of factual details in an image and so seem redundant when paired with the very image she describes. Also, these long descriptions sometimes lack a clearly stated point in the beginning, so that one has to slog through a few pages to see what Postema is getting at. Still, she makes many insightful comments and I enjoy how she weaves in other theorists, such as Barthes and Groensteen.

The question I have here is: who is this book for? I think that the book is aimed at academics who want to engage with comics, but are unsure of how to do so. But Postema doesn’t present a systematic way of doing this. Instead she presents a series of observations about the different elements of comics, as if she were saying “take a look at this and try something similar in your own comics reading.” She wants to show how one might bring the theories of Barthes, Bakhtin, or Eco to bear on comics reading. But it’s more of a suggestion by example than a clear program. Also, she refers to comics that people who aren’t already immersed in comics reading probably haven’t heard of, such as Shutterbug Follies. I am all for expanding the canon, but this may alienate people new to comics instead of draw them in. Also, Postema goes into deep analysis of certain scenes of comics that are not reproduced in the book. This means that we cannot see what she means; we just have to take her word for it. And if you have never read the comic she is analyzing, then you are completely lost. In fairness, this is a problem I see in a lot of writing about comics. Comics essays tend to be styled like literature essays: lots of verbal analysis with a few quotations thrown in as evidence. Yet since comics is a visual medium, the evidence needs to be shown visually. Maybe this is difficult to do because getting the rights to images is a challenge. Yet I suspect the real reason is that the genre of criticism is steeped in words. It doesn’t yet integrate images very well (ironically). Also, as Neil Cohn points out, the appendix on comics terminology in the book is odd. Its inclusion seems to signify that this book is for people less familiar with comics and comics criticism. Yet the appendix only contains five terms, and those terms are only the most basic, such as panel and gutter. The terms that Postema uses to analyze comics, such as paratextual, syntagym, or the difference she makes between sequence and series, are not listed. I guess she or her editor assumed that these terms are sufficiently defined in the text. But oddly, many of these terms also don’t show up in the index.

All criticisms aside, I am really glad this books exists. Most books written about comics by academics for academics make odd assumptions or demonstrate shocking gaps in understanding. Postema doesn’t have these problems. For instance, she understands that comics is primarily a visual medium and doesn’t get hung up on the old saw that comics simply puts pictures and words together. The more wannabe comics theorists who understand this the better, and I thank Postema for trying to set them straight.

Also, as the title of the book implies, Postema sees how the various fragments of comics, its elements, work together to create a coherent narrative structure. For instance, she goes into some detail explaining how images in comics both represent things (the iconic level) and also signify ideas and associated meanings (the connotative level). While literary theorists understand the difference between denotation and connotation and how the two may work in, say, a poem, for some reason when the same theorists look at pictures they assume that the pictures just convey what they show. They are blinded by the representational. They miss the connotative possibilities and so miss a large arena in which comics function. The examples Postema gives to explain this from Julie Doucet and Jason Little are lucid. As I said, Postema’s strength is careful analysis, or, to use a term that has fallen out of favor in some places, her close reading.

Another idea that she brings up that I really am getting a lot out of is the relationship comics has to time. Scott McCloud makes much of this also in Understanding Comics, yet Postema’s observation explains how images in comics, even in a single panel, are different than images in painting and photography. This is due to how comics relate to time. If one looks at a painting or a photograph, what one sees is a frozen moment. The image seems static and timeless. Yet a comics panel implies the movement of time. “The moment that is shown is unfinished. It asserts itself as a fragment of a larger whole” (Postema 13). This is an idea that I want to write about more and I have to credit Postema for helping me in this direction.

Overall, Postema’s book acknowledges that comics is an art form that is capable of a complex interplay of its elements. In the end, she states that comics demand a lot of work from the reader (121). If I am right and this book is aimed at academics who are considering comics to teach or research, such an argument is essential, not just to counteract the negative assumptions of the past, but to seriously move comics criticism forward.

Get the book here.

Other reviews:

Derek Royal
Neil Cohn