We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Welcome to the Castle
We Have Always Lived in the Castle generally gets eclipsed by Shirley Jackson’s more well-known book, The Haunting of Hill House. On the surface they can seem very similar. Both books deal with disturbed young women. Eleanor and Merricat don’t have much in common, however. Eleanor’s issues are much more to the forefront and much easier to see. Merricat, well, she’s a little harder to pin down, as are the characters around her.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle can be a very confusing book. It’s generally listed in the ‘horror’ category or, alternately, ‘Gothic’. It aligns itself more with the Gothics rather than horror so people who read it looking for a horror story generally come away confused and bored. I can see why. There’s not much happening on the surface of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Even the ‘mystery’ of what happened to the Blackwoods isn’t too much of a mystery. The most common complaints that I see in reviews is that it’s not scary, the mystery is too easy to figure out, the characters are too weird, it’s boring and part of the mystery is left unanswered. I’m not here to change your mind about the book but give you my interpretation of the events and my theories as to the mystery and the characters themselves and the conclusion that I came to. There will be unmarked spoilers.
Trigger Warning: Murder, mental illness and talking about sexual abuse (in the Conclusion only). In a weird way I spoiled my spoilers. Spoil-ception.
From page one until the end of the book we are in Mary Katherine’s (Merricat’s) head constantly. We go with her to town, back home to a tea party, their daily routine and the advent of Charles into their lives. Being in Merricat’s head you would think would give you the answers to the big questions such as “Who?” and “Why?”. The “whodunit” is pretty obvious from the start. On page one Merricat says that she “likes her sister Constance, Richard Plantagenet and Amanita Phalloides, the Death Cup mushroom.” So that gives you a pretty big hint on who the poisoner is. It’s not confirmed until the end of the book, however. What’s not readily apparent is why she did it and how much Constance knows. It’s confirmed at the end of the book how much Constance does know but if you read carefully in the beginning it’s pretty apparent. I’ll get to that in Constance’s section. Another large clue about Merricat is during her shopping trip she imagines the villagers curled up and dying, pictures them with rot killing them and stepping on their bodies. This could be a reaction to the taunting by the villagers. When Helen comes for tea and upsets Merricat she pictures her in flimsy clothing in painful situations (such as in a bathing suit on a snowbank). It’s pretty safe to say that Merricat has a very dark side.
We know Merricat is the poisoner but since she’s almost the very definition of an unreliable narrator it’s hard to know why. She obviously did it in such a way so as not to hurt Constance. It’s pointedly said that Constance never uses sugar. I don’t think that framing Constance for it was intentional as it was Constance’s own actions that led police to arrest her. I don’t think that Merricat thought about the ‘after’ at all. Except in a vague “they’ll all be gone” way. There are indicators that Merricat is not mentally well. The first time I read it I assumed it was a result of the incident but rereading (and listening) to it I think she was always ill. During the aforementioned tea when she gets upset she runs to the kitchen and this is the passage that follows:
“I could not breathe. I was tied with wire and my head was huge and going to explode. I ran to the back door and opened it to breathe. I wanted to run. If I could have run to the end of our land and back I would have been alright. But Constance was alone with them in the drawing room and I had to hurry back. I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table. It had been our mother’s and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them.”
She also smashes the mirror in Charles’ room to try to drive him away, truly believing it will work. When it doesn’t she throws leaves and dirt all over the room and pours water on his mattress. She also buries objects around the property and nails items to trees, believing this will protect her and Constance. She is obsessive about checking them each week. She is also very obsessive about rules. What she is allowed to touch (presumably by Constance) and what she is not allowed to touch, most of which are food items and Uncle Julian’s items. She has issues with being touched. She’s afraid the children at the store will touch her, goading the mothers to attack her “like hawks”. Even Constance, whom she loves, only touches her once. A very quick touch on the cheek with one finger. Later, during an argument with Charles Merricat says that “Constance knew better than to touch me”. She is also obsessive about reminding herself to be kinder to Uncle Julian when she sees certain objects. Since she seems to have no remorse for poisoning the rest of the family it’s strange she’s so concerned about “being kind” to Uncle Julian. It could be because he is the only survivor so he’s a living reminder of what she did.
Reading a lot of the reviews it seems that a lot of people are understandably confused about her age. She says she’s eighteen and during Uncle Julian’s recounting of the night of the poisoning he says “a great girl of twelve sent to bed without her supper” and it has been six years. She’s eighteen but she doesn’t sound like it. At least, not all of the time. At the beginning of the book she sounds the correct age. When she’s talking to Constance she sounds a bit younger but in a playful way. As the book progresses and particularly after Charles comes she sounds like a little girl both in her head and in her spoken dialogue. I think this is done on purpose because Charles reminds her of her father. I’m assuming there were family issues, although it’s never specified what. Merricat herself only mentions her family twice in connection with herself. Once she thinks she hears them calling for her to wake up and once in a daydream where she is eating dinner with them and everyone is worshiping her and calling her their beloved Merricat. Their most precious daughter. The rest of the time she mentions them in a very dispassionate way, usually in connection with the house.
Most of the family information that we do get comes obliquely in a blink and you’ll miss it sort of way. Uncle Julian, whose mind has been destroyed by the arsenic, writes down extensive notes for his ‘book’ about the incident. This is where most of the information about the family comes from, including the possible reason for their murder. Of the three main characters Uncle Julian is perhaps the most sympathetic of the three. Whatever he was before now he’s a broken old man, in pain and trying painfully to understand that one terrible day. The only things that are mentioned for sure about Uncle Julian is that he and his wife were living with his brother (Merricat and Constance’s father) and he mentions himself that he was unlucky and bad with money. I’m assuming he lost all of his money and had to live with his brother. It didn’t seem to be out of familial love as there seemed to be tension. Uncle Julian remarks that his brother watched them eat and perhaps said something if they ate too much.
It’s through Uncle Julian that we learn Merricat’s mother and father quarreled the evening before the poisoning. He dismisses it as being about money. Their mother had said, “I won’t stand for it” and their father had said, “we have no choice”. It could have been about money but they seem to have plenty of money (although it’s never specified how much) at least enough to interest Charles. I wonder if the argument was about sending Merricat to an institution. Merricat had also been sent to her room that night without her dinner. From a remark that Constance makes it seems to have been a common thing. Merricat’s actions in the book also could lead to her being punished. Merricat also seems to have been somewhere else during the day although it’s hard to tell. The events of the day come from Julian and he only mentions her once. He mentions her going to bed and also makes the bizarre claim that Merricat died in the orphanage of neglect. She was in an orphanage for a brief time while Constance was on trial but Merricat seems alive. At first I thought that maybe she was dead and a ghost. Or perhaps a split personality of Constance. However, those theories don’t really hold up. Too many people interact with her independent of Constance. He never speaks to Merricat but also doesn’t think it’s odd that Constance speaks to her in his presence. This is one part that I have never been able to figure out. I don’t know if it was done purposely or is a loose plot thread.
Constance is perhaps the bigger mystery of the book. It’s made clear later in the book that she’s well aware that Merricat was the poisoner. But rather than turn her in she actively covers for her to the point of going on trial for the murder. She washed the sugar bowl holding the arsenic before even calling the doctor. She also claimed that it was her fault (a trait that comes up later when Charles is berating her for letting Merricat run wild) and that they deserved to die. This comment is never explained. Constance seems to alternate between protecting Merricat and being protected by her. She also seems to want to come out of seclusion but worries about what she would do with Merricat as Merricat is perfectly happy to have Constance to herself on the farm. She is also the only one who seems to miss the family at all. She and Merricat have a strange relationship. It’s insinuated that she had a nervous breakdown after the trial. When Charles comes, Merricat remembers how after the trial people would call, come to their house and try to peek in at them. And she talks about Constance during “the bad time, when things were at their worst”. She also references Constance running away from people and she hides when the doctor comes to visit Uncle Julian.
It’s also hard to tell whom she’s protecting, Merricat or Charles. When Charles is ranting at Merricat for her ‘misdeeds’ (most of which are none of his business) Constance intervenes. But is she afraid for Merricat or of her? That was one of the things that always bothered me. Merricat poisoned her whole family and yet Charles is in their home threatening to take Constance away and she does nothing. During one of her arguments (I believe it’s after the room trashing) Charles says something about Merricat being punished. Merricat seems to freak out a bit and asks if he’s going to send her to bed without her supper and Constance hastily intervenes. So, it seems like Constance is protecting Charles because she knows what Merricat might do. The only answer to this that I could come up with is that perhaps Merricat was afraid that Constance would not love her anymore since she seemed to like Charles. Or perhaps only certain things trigger it.
What can I say about a character so unpleasant he makes a mass murderer seem charming in comparison? Charles is the son of their father’s other brother. It seems like the only reason he comes is because his father died and left him nothing and knew they had money. That seems to be his obsession from the moment he arrives. He’s a very annoying character. Every time he speaks I want to tell him to shut up and mind his own business. Particularly when he yells at Merricat for burying silver dollars. He says they’re not hers because they’re money. If they were given to Merricat she could do whatever she wants with them. And he’s mean to Uncle Julian. Although I do wonder why Merricat didn’t poison him. Perhaps she was afraid of Constance being blamed for it again and taken away? Or maybe she hadn’t worked herself up to it? His coming is the catalyst for everything to explode. The villagers resentment boiling over into hatred, malice and mob mentality. Earlier the narrative aligns Charles with the same townspeople that jeer and mock them and make up songs about them. I do wonder if he only came to use her and was pleasantly surprised that Constance was attractive. The book weirdly ignores the fact that Charles and she are first cousins.
Or, maybe it suggests the relationship of Charles and Constance for a reason. Constance and Charles would be first cousins. The book makes no mention through either the narrative of Merricat or any of the other characters that this is a bit of an incestuous relationship. This brings me to a conclusion that I’d rather not arrive at. It makes the book much darker but also clears up many of the questions that seem to linger and possibly clarifies the motives of Merricat and Constance. It also makes their torment by the townspeople that much more cruel. I, very reluctantly, propose the idea that perhaps Constance’s father was abusing her. At first I thought it was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense and made all of the oddly shaped, inconsistent pieces fit together.
First, the ‘evidence’. When Charles arrives at the house he is sleeping in their Father’s room. It is only called that. Their Mother’s room is a totally different room, implying that their parents don’t sleep together. Charles is described as looking quite a bit like their Father which Constance points out while at the same time being attracted to him. He also begins to wear things that their Father owned. Particularly a scarf and their Father’s watch. When Merricat notices him wearing the watch she thinks to herself, “I wonder if he’ll make Constance wear our Mother’s pearls?” This always struck me as weird but Merricat says a ton of strange things so it really didn’t make any impression until now. Why would that even cross her mind unless she’d seen it before? One of the major complaints is that while the main ‘mystery’ of the poisoning and who did it is rather easy to figure out and not much of a surprise when it is revealed the “Why” is never answered. I think if you look at a lot of the offhand remarks the “Why” becomes apparent. As revealed by Uncle Julian (and others) Constance worked in the garden, cleaned the house and cooked all of their meals, even to the point of having to get up earlier than the rest of the family to do so. It’s mentioned that on that day she made a rarebit for lunch because she was working in the garden and had to make something quick. Which isn’t too big of a deal but when you add in the fact that the adults were sitting around doing nothing it seems a bit…odd that Constance should have to hurry up and make lunch while the others are doing nothing.
When she was arrested Constance said it was “her fault” and that “they deserved to die”. Perhaps she thought of Merricat’s actions as her fault (as abuse victims are often made to think that) and since she seems to miss at least some of the family later why would she say they deserved to die unless she had a good reason to think that? Perhaps she blamed the others for not helping her. It seems like they would have to know. This is a large house where secrets are kept but not well. Uncle Julian mentions listening through the door to an argument the parents were having the night before. It also makes you wonder a bit about Merricat’s mental problems. Constance’s looks are described but we’re never told her age. We know Merricat was twelve when it happened but we don’t know what she looked like. She never describes herself and nobody else does either. It’s possible (and I admit that this may be a reach) that she is Constance’s daughter by their father. This theory would also fit in with how protective Merricat is of Constance and why Constance would cover up Merricat’s crime and take the blame for it. She washed the sugar bowl out before even calling a doctor, she obviously led the police to suspect herself and never tried to shift the blame to Merricat. This makes the actions of the townspeople even more cruel.
I love this book. It rewards the reader each time you read it, you uncover more about the people and their story. I’ve also wondered if the unnamed town where Merricat does the grocery shopping could be the same town which Hill House is a part of. Merricat mentions a Hill Road and Stella (or a daughter of Stella’s) in the diner could easily be the same bored girl whom Eleanor speaks to on her journey to Hill House. Hill House and the Blackwood House would make neat bookends to the dull gray town with its dull, gray people. How many books can you read where you are actively rooting for a murderer and her accomplice to come out on top and the one ‘normal’ guy is the villain that you want to see driven off? Or worse? It makes you think. Not everything is spelled out on the page for you, you really have to pay attention to it and dig a bit deeper. It also, to me at least, has a very distinct Lizzie Borden feel to it.
“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep”
This book gets a major disservice by being stuck in the ‘horror’ category. The Gothic genre suits it better since on the surface the events seem mundane but there’s a lot going on beneath. Even though I like it a lot I can also see why people wouldn’t. It’s slow. It’s weird. There’s not much action in it. I do suggest giving it another read through, however, or a listen since the audiobook is fantastic. The reader really makes Merricat come alive. And it’s easier to notice some of the things that might slide by unobserved when reading.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s Focus on the Frightful. Let me know what you guys think and I’m open to suggestions for next week’s book, movie or anything else you want a closer look at.
GracieKat was the first co-host of Sci-Fi & Scary, Lilyn’s partner-in-crime, and sub-head of the Kali Krew. She reviews horror books, movies, and games for the site. She also does a weekly Focus on the Frightful feature, and is the site list-maker. She is also in control of the Sci-Fi & Scary podcast which will relaunch soon.
Such an excellent and in-depth thoughts on an amazing book! I’ve only recently read this and this was also my first Shirley Jackson, and it was a quick and interesting read that makes me love Gothic fiction even more. There are so many layers in the book that I totally missed first time reading it, so this is definitely something I will return to in the future 🙂 I also am planning on reading Shirley Jackson’s other works in the future.
I would like to check out more of her work as well. particularly the one Brian suggested, Hangsaman. I’d also like to read more of her short fiction as well.
Very intriguing. I wonder what the movie version, that will come out this year, will be like…
I didn’t know there’s a movie coming out, thanks for letting me know! Hopefully they keep to most of the book, which really shouldn’t be too hard since it’s so short.
Really good in-depth post Gracie.
I love Shirley Jackson, and this is one of my favourites. I was hooked from the very start, with Merricat in town. It has such a creeping horror. It’s much more a psychological horror, and they always make you work some for the pay off.
If I could point at any one or two authors as deserving of at least a second read she would definitely be one of them. There always seems to be something you miss the first time around.
I’m thinking I’d enjoy this more as an audible. That’s an incredible post you did!
It is great as an audible! I think the reader’s name is Bernadette and she really brings the story to life. I noticed a lot of things listening to it than I did reading it.
Related food for thought, another Shirley Jackson novel: https://sillyverse.com/2014/04/13/hangsaman-by-shirley-jackson/
I have wanted to read that one for along time. I’m going to have to break down and order it as a paperback I’ve had it on my kindle wishlist for a long time but it’s a little expensive and never seems to go on sale.
Looked at its pricing on amazon. Yipes! See what you mean.
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