Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gothic Fiction: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1962 (2006)
Format: paperback
Source: Honors College
Read: for an informal reading group
Pages: 146

From GoodReads: Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate. 

My review: Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood and her older sister Constance live with their disabled Uncle Julian in their family's old mansion, largely isolated from the other inhabitants of their village. The rest of their family was murdered six years previously, and the villagers view the sisters with antagonism. When long-absent cousin Charles arrives at their home, a struggle ensues that will drastically change the lives of the remnants of the Blackwood family.

The debates in our reading group for We Have Always Lived in the Castle centered primarily around how insane the characters are/are not and why Shirley Jackson wrote this novel. It was, of course, quite a fun discussion group. I believe we all ended up being unanimous in thinking of Jackson as one really messed up, emotionally unstable lady who hated both outside society and what she was perhaps expected to do at home. Much of this novel seems to be exaggerations of daily life and fears - Constance is agoraphobic and focuses on cleaning the house and cooking, Merricat is stuck in a never-changing childishness, Julian is stuck in time at the time of the family's poisoning, Cousin Charles is concerned only with money and material things. I found myself identifying with some of Merricat's quirks, but in her they are expanded upon until they become central to her strangeness. Jackson has a way of making even the mundane appear sinister, as with old canned goods described as potentially lethal, an eighteen-year-old imagining, like a child, her family worshiping rather than punishing her, and the decay of a summer house. The novel succeeds in being creepy simply because of how it twists the nature of things that, in unexaggerated forms, are quite average, and because of how it leaves the reader without much benefit of explanation - the situation in the book simply is what it is; there is no deeper reason for the way things have happened.

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