We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I’ve heard so much about this book since I started blogging, particularly around this time of year when it seems such a popular choice for Halloween or the dark winter nights. Yet somehow I had managed to avoid reading any detailed summaries of the plot and so when I finally picked this book up to read it for myself, I was able to go into it with very little knowledge of what it was about. I would hate to spoil things for any future readers, so I’ve deliberately tried to keep my summary here as vague as possible.

The book is narrated by eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or ‘Merricat’, who lives with her sister Constance, their Uncle Julian, and Jonas the cat in a big house on the edge of town. Near the beginning of the story we see Merricat walking home with some shopping, being taunted and chanted at by everyone she passes. It seems the Blackwoods are very unpopular, but at first we don’t know why.

When Merricat returns home, it becomes even more apparent that something is wrong. Merricat herself does not seem like a normal eighteen-year-old – she likes to bury things in the grounds of the Blackwood house and believes that using magic words and rituals will protect her home and family. Constance is agoraphobic and afraid to walk any further than the garden. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, is obsessed with the book he’s writing about a tragedy that occurred six years earlier. And what exactly has happened to the rest of the Blackwood family?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a great book and now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s considered a modern classic. Something that impressed me about it was the way the story was cleverly constructed so that the truth about Merricat and her family was only revealed very slowly. We know from the first page that something is not right but we’re not quite sure what it is. As we read on we start to form some suspicions, though we’re made to wait a while to find out if we’ve guessed correctly or not.

This is a very disturbing and unsettling book with its portrayal of the claustrophobic world behind the locked doors of the Blackwoods’ house and the cruel, hostile atmosphere of the town outside. Some of the sense of unease comes from the fact that the book is narrated by Merricat, who clearly lives in a world governed by her own rules and superstitions. The reader becomes trapped inside her mind and is made to share her unusual outlook on life. And yet although there’s something slightly sinister about her, Merricat is also very child-like and both she and Constance have a vulnerability that made me concerned for them, locked away in the isolation of their ‘castle’.

The ending was not quite what I had expected and I was left with questions that still hadn’t been answered, but having thought about it, maybe it was a suitable ending for such a strange and powerful book. This was my first experience of Shirley Jackson’s work and now I’m looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House.

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18 thoughts on “We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  1. Lisa says:

    A very good point about the unreliability of Merricat as the narrator, yet how we’re drawin into her view. I would still like to know more about the central event in their past – what really happened, and why. Probably my need for resolution!

  2. Anbolyn says:

    I loved this! This is one of the truly most unique books I’ve ever read with such a fascinating narrator in Merricat. I definitely want to read it again some day to pick up on all the little things I missed the first time.

  3. Mel says:

    I only know Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” it too becomes more and more horrific as the story goes along, with the full realisation only coming at the end. Thanks for bringing her novels to my attention, it sounds like they are imbued with that same wonderful sense of mounting tension.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t aware of Shirley Jackson at all until I started blogging. I’m glad I’ve discovered her work and hopefully I’ll get round to reading The Lottery soon too!

  4. Cassie says:

    After learning the twist, I wasn’t sure how to feel about Constance. Was she agoraphobic? Was she terrorized? Was she protecting her sister and choosing to live her life shut in – basically going insane?! AH! I don’t know!

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