Book Review : We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived In The Castle (Amazon Link)

Author : Shirley Jackson
Published By : Penguin Books
Year Published : 1962
Genre / Tags : Classics, Gothic, Mystery, Adult Fiction
Formats : Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook
# of Pages : 146 pages (Paperback)

Summary

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise, I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead…

Review

I’m lost on where to start in reviewing this title. A part of me wants to wait eight months to write a more balanced, clear review for it as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House, which became more likable and comprehensive over time as I thought over it. We Have Always Lived In The Castle is similarly short yet has an even more curious nature that has me keen on re-reading it in the future, and perhaps coming up with more coherent and final thoughts on it.

There are so many moments that can be interpreted in different ways and made me question my perceptions on everything. This book is quite emblematic of how fascinating unreliable narration can be. The main character Mary Catherine aka Merricat, is as untrustworthy a voice as it gets. She’s an unreliable heroine’s unreliable heroine.

There is a scene where she recounts a moment at dinner with their deceased family and every word, every moment had me wondering if the event actually occurred in a way that is polar opposite to her thoughts. As a mystery novel, this book doesn’t answer the many major questions that spring up, but somehow its story functions finely all the same. Different people will take different things from the text.

Immediately upon finishing We Have Always Lived In The Castle, I looked up various interpretations and they really run the gamut. Though the term speculative fiction seems only applicable to sci fi, that’s kind of a shame as this is perhaps the most speculation-inspiring book I’ve read. Here are some of the possibilities that came to mind while reading.

Warning, this is where this review gets spoiler-y. Here’s a gif for marking the spoiler section.

black and white winter GIF

a.) The simplest one: the remnants of this family and their troubling actions are on account of a sort of folie Γ  deux influenced by trauma over the murder of their family and cabin fever from their withdrawal from society. The awful actions of the nearby townspeople have served to deepen their symptoms. There’s also the probability that Merricat was not unjustified in her actions and these sisters are victims on several levels.

b.) Uncle Julian and Constance are the only survivors, Merricat died at some earlier point and is a ghost haunting their family /or/ a coping mechanism of Constance’s imagination, guilt, and mourning. There are multiple very odd conversations and snippets of dialogue that seem suitable to this idea, but also some lines that counteract it.

Nonetheless, I think this theory has surprising cohesion and is enjoyable to entertain. It’s very spiritually similar to one of my all-time favorite psychological horror films. I don’t think that film was constructed with a single bit of a knowledge about We Have Always Lived In The Castle, but I feel a strange and coincidental kinship between the two when pondering this theory. Unfortunately, mentioning the film’s title would serve to spoil a major plot twist. If you don’t care and would like to know the name of it anyway, click here.

c.) Not a mutually exclusive idea, but Merricat and Constance are symbolic of the two sides of a person suffering from agoraphobia. Constance signifying hope and the potential of reintegrating into society. Note how even though she is the suspected murderer, the few kind-seeming people on the outside who are interested in this family tend to channel in on helping Constance. Meanwhile, Merricat is symbolic of the depression, paranoia, sinister thought processes and reliance on one secluded place as a safe, non-judgmental and predictable haven. In short, I thought of Merricat as being so symbolic of agoraphobia itself.

She runs amok when threatened by figures like Charles who, despite all his flakiness, proactively threatens the patterns of their lifestyle and encourages Constance to consider different paths. When the chaotic climax hits, it involves all sorts of people imposing upon and seeking to destroy their space. The prevailing greed of Charles is also expressed in many repeated lines during this section. Constance is prompted to make a final decision on what is the most sensible option: venturing out into the world or retreating further into herself. When Constance has chosen to seclude herself for ever, that is in response to seeing the worst of the world during that climax. Merricat is vindicated and wins her full approval.

While my thoughts in these paragraphs center agoraphobia and tend toward cynicism and viewing the sisters as trapped, there is also this lovely read that interprets the ending in a more optimistic way- as an example of self-acceptance and subversion. The house being a symbol of strength against adversity and resistance to forced assimilation / bending to societal expectations. Is the house trapping these girls? Or is it symbolic of their innermost selves being mistreated and threatened by a larger society that demands a narrow-minded way of life?

black and white winter GIF

That’s pretty much it for spoilers.

Back to the less spoiler-y sections of this review.

To get into some criticisms, this is a very character-driven novel with subtle happenings over larger sections. There is plentiful character dialogue, not all of it direct or conventional in nature. There were many moments where I was left pretty certain that an artful and poignant passage flew over my head. Though its publishing date of 1962 makes this title quite a bit newer than many others that are classified as classics, it reads very much like a classic by 2019 standards. The vocabulary used is extremely simple though, and the main character comes off as younger than her 18 years.

This is not a book that I’d describe as being for everyone. At its core this is a sad story about a collection of traumatized shut-ins living in a small town with little to offer them. It can seem gradual in movement to the point of boredom. But if you have an interest in psychological horror, gothic vibes, unusual characterization and complex family dynamics, this could be well worth checking out. Though unusually short, this is a piece of literary fiction that encourages ponderance.

Overall Rating – 9/10

Why You Should Try It – A short read that offers a lot to talk and think about. A very unique, gothic mystery. Unreliable narration and a sinister yet sympathetic protagonist make this one stand out from the aims of most books.

Why You Might Not Like It – The writing style, the odd modes of the plot, they’re definitely not for everyone. Surprised to find so many enthusiastic responses to this story, as the characters are not easily understood or conventionally appealing.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle (Amazon Link)


I’m glad to have finally read this book! I wasn’t expecting it to be so short as it is. Also listened to a small sample of the audiobook and it sounds fantastic, I’m thinking of re-reading (listening?) to that in the future. Have you read any books by Shirley Jackson or want to? As always, I welcome your comments and thanks so much for reading. ~ Kitty

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