When I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, I 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.
(written August 21, 2015)