What makes for a captivating protagonist? Motivations they pursue like a shark? Someone or something they’ll die (or kill) to protect? Are we won over by disparate internal ideals, such as tenderness and hatred in equal measure, that lead to unpredictable choices and actions? What about a dark past unpeeled layer by layer throughout the story, and an uncertain future they desperately try to stabilise through both fantastical and homicidal behaviour?
For eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or ‘Merricat’ to you and me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we’re granted access to Merricat’s mind to see the world through the eyes of a bizarre, funny, loving, hating, murderous teenage girl. The story is a lot of things; the character of Merricat is even more. She’s a rich tapestry of conflicting and complimentary components that we can’t help but find simultaneously endearing and horrifying. But it’s her relationship with her sister, Constance, and their identical desires for a solitary life together (desires identical, yet arguably founded in a place of love for one sister, and fear for the other) that I was most drawn into. Not only can we learn a lot as writers from Merricat’s deconstruction, but also from an analysis of the sisters’ relationship with each other, and the outside world. Let’s get to it.
The novel opens with Merricat’s introduction of herself. We’re already given a hint as to how her mind works when she chooses to prioritise details such as the size of her middle fingers, her desire to have been born a werewolf, and her dislike for cleaning dogs, before taking the time to mention that most of her family is dead. As she runs errands in the village, we learn that the villagers not only harbour significant disdain for the girl, but also for the Blackwood family as a whole. Since we follow Merricat’s train of thought, and these details are of a lesser consequence in the magical world she perceives around her, the reasons for this disdain are not yet revealed to us.
This establishment phase of the book focusses on getting us into Merricat’s peculiar mind, the eccentric lens through which we’ll witness the story unfold. We are told that her sister is agoraphobic (hence Merricat’s duty of collecting supplies from the village) and that her Uncle Julian is in some way incapacitated, both physically and mentally. It is through her uncle’s ceaseless ramblings that we learn the details of the Blackwood family’s tragedy: all but Merricat and Constance were poisoned when arsenic was mixed into the family’s sugar bowl and sprinkled over blackberries at dinner. Uncle Julian survived his dose, although it permanently crippled his mind and body. Constance, being the only member of the family not to take sugar – as well as having been the one to wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived – stood trial for the murder but was eventually acquitted. As for Merricat, she’d been sent to her room early that night without dinner. The hostility of those in the village is caused by their belief that Constance was falsely absolved of her guilt, although there’s evidence that the Blackwoods have always had a turbulent relationship with the villagers.
It becomes clear that not only is Merricat’s love for her sister and their way of life an intensely protective one, but that this love is the driving force behind all of her barmy actions. She nails a book to a tree and buries household items as ‘safeguards’; when the book falls down, she takes this as a bad omen that a threatening change is coming, then performs more odd rituals. Unsurprisingly, they don’t work, but she was right about the impending change: their estranged cousin Charles comes to stay, bringing with him a reproachful and antagonistic attitude to Merricat, whilst trying to convince Constance to leave the house and start a new life for herself. The teenager makes every effort to eradicate this threat from their blissful life of isolation, eventually knocking Charles’s still-lit pipe into a wastepaper basket in an effort to frame her cousin for the resulting fire.
After the house’s near-destruction, Uncle Julian’s death by implied heart attack, and the villagers’ ransacking and laying waste to their home, Merricat takes the shell-shocked Constance to her den in the woods. Here, they speak for the first time in six years of the circumstances surrounding their family’s death:
“One of our mother’s Dresden figurines is broken, I thought, and I said aloud to Constance, ‘I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.’
Constance stirred, and the leaves rustled. ‘The way you did before?’ she asked.
It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years.
‘Yes,’ I said after a minute, ‘the way I did before.’”
Contrary to the intention of revenge this exchange implies, the sisters return to their now roofless house – which resembles a castle “turreted and open to the sky” – to reclaim their diminished space and rebuild their lives of solitude. The villagers finally realise their guilt and begin leaving food outside the sisters’ door, and Charles attempts to reinsert himself into their lives. Constance has none of it. All she needs is Merricat, and all Merricat needs is her. As the novel concludes, their lives of joyous solitude begin anew.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is packed with themes, amongst them family, isolation, guilt, punishment, the relativity of truth, and social judgement. Whilst these are all undeniable undercurrents in the novel, I’m surprised how rarely the themes of love and fear are brought up, particularly as one connected motif relating to the reasons for each sister wishing to preserve their lives of reclusiveness.
Early on we get a feeling of Merricat’s love for their home and its surrounding grounds, and her descriptions of their life together give an image of a fantastical, other-worldly existence. While Constance’s love equals Merricat’s, hers is more grounded in reality – and therefore fear. She clearly sees how easily this life could slip away from them, and maybe even what could become of her sister if she was left to fend for herself or the truth of her past actions came out. I took from her care and patience with her sister that she understood the teenager’s dangerous side, posing even a possible threat to Merricat herself. This patience manifests in her cleaning up of mugs she randomly smashes on the ground, and her giving the girl the freedom to exist in her fantasies. Constance shows no signs of resentment towards Merricat for what she did to their family, only a longing to provide her sister with the cushioning of this world they’ve built for themselves. She does, at times, express guilt at having cut Merricat off from the outside world and allowing her to live a life so different from other girls of her age, but you get a sense of her understanding that this arrangement might be Merricat’s best hope for a normal(ish) life.
Constance, of course, benefits from the same cushioning. They are co-dependent, with Merricat venturing into the village to pick up supplies, and Constance seeing to most household duties. It could be argued that Constance is the most functional of the pair, with her fear of leaving the house and its grounds (probably inspired by Jackson’s own later-life agoraphobia) arguably more conquerable than Merricat’s ingrained perception of the world, reliance on sympathetic magic, and, of course, her murderous tendencies. Many would argue that Merricat is the most ‘far gone’ of the sisters, with Constance even being tempted when she’s pushed by others on occasion to step out of her isolation and make a new life for herself.
Constance is not defined by her psychological issues to the same extent as Merricat, and the narrative makes it clear there could be hope for the older sister beyond the Blackwood house. We can assume she chooses Merricat over the possibility of a new life in part out of an understanding that her sister needs this insulated existence to function, but does the teenager really require this level of cocooning? Is her mental stability really in such danger of see-sawing back out of control should this unusual lifestyle slip away from her? To answer these questions, and gauge in just how precarious a state her psyche is, let’s turn our attention to Merricat.
Yes, she’s unstable, but her actions come from a place of love. Her motivations are simple: to protect Constance and conserve their way of life, and she deals with any threats to these motivations in superstitious ways based on fantastical beliefs. (Check out the rather difficult-to-acquire-a-decent-copy-of The Mafu Cage for another tale of sisterly love taken to the extreme; think We Have Always Lived in the Castle doused in Shakespearean tragedy.) Merricat’s narration suggests she’s living in some kind of fairy tale, yet her casual thoughts of murder contrast this outlook sharply, the result being a multi-faceted character whose mind we crave to explore further. In fact, the younger sister is made up of only a few fundamental properties, yet it’s the ingenious combination that makes her so fascinating.
Merricat is often used as the perfect example of an unreliable narrator, yet she keeps nothing from us (or herself) throughout the novel. She is accepting – albeit disregarding – of her murderous past, and is really only unreliable in the sense of her magical perception of the world. Yes, a character’s distorted perception can be enough to render their stream of consciousness unreliable, but I wonder if it was Jackson’s intention for us to tune our minds to Merricat’s wavelength so that, although we don’t agree with her actions or judgements, we begin to understand where her logic comes from. The fact she killed her family is kept from us for many chapters, but that’s not through deception or repression or any kind of psychological barrier. She just has other stuff she’d rather talk about.
I’ve read claims that the eventual reveal of Merricat’s guilt for the Blackwood’s murder is too obvious, and that you know the truth long before it’s given. While I’ll admit mention of poisonous mushrooms in the opening paragraph is only the beginning of many such hints, I think Jackson made a clever move in setting up Merricat as the (almost too) obvious contender, hoping to double bluff us into trying to figure out a more complex explanation. When the reveal is finally given, I found the simplicity elegant. Prior to this I’d felt led into problem solving/murder mystery territory. When the bomb eventually dropped it felt perfectly satisfying, with everything to have come before suddenly making perfect sense. Read it at surface level, and Merricat is obviously the killer. Engage and let Jackson lead you down her avenues of mystery and guessing, and the identity of the Blackwoods’ murderer will move and unnerve.
“When I think of Jackson’s creation of Merricat, I’m reminded of that line from The Usual Suspects: ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’, and I think Jackson’s work is a bit like that. She tells us first of all that the Devil does not exist (‘Here is the world, it is like this.’), but then undermines this the further we get into the story. With tiny details she gnaws away at supporting beams that seem unimportant until the whole structure begins to teeter. We are turned on our heads, which is the cleverest thing a writer can do via the unreliable narrator – but by first making us love this strange, broken girl, then in revealing her true nature, Jackson breaks our hearts. That’s what the best writing does. For the reader, Merricat will delight and disturb; for the writer, it sets a very high bar to which to aspire.”
Angela Slatter, On the Masterful Creepiness of Merricat
Much has also been written of Merricat’s psychological state and her possible psychosis or sociopathy. Merricat’s past murderous actions were probably early attempts to protect her sister, since it’s implied Constance was essentially treated like a servant by her parents, taking care of all the chores and cooking. We also know that Merricat and Constance have always been close since, during Merricat’s regular punishments when she was sent to her room without dinner, Constance was the one to bring her food. It’s fair to assume that Merricat was likely trying to ‘help’ her sister by wiping out the family, and, once we begin to tune into and (kind of) grasp the way the teenager’s mind works, we begin to understand her twisted logic. The root of nearly all her actions are founded in the preservation of their shielded lifestyle and her love of this existence she shares with her sister. Of course, Merricat is unremorseful and stunted in her growth, but, in her defence, she shows affection and even empathy for her sister. These are not traits we’d usually associate with psychopathic tendencies, and it’s this blurriness as to what’s actually ‘wrong’ with our little Merricat that makes her even more fascinating. We’re unable to attach a label to her with ease, the novel presenting just enough ambiguity to allow diverging opinions and theories as to the true nature of the young Blackwood girl, all equally valid.
Merricat and Constance’s love for each other is the most touching part of the novel. Part of the reason we so completely buy into their affections is their disregard for the family’s extensive wealth. The villagers talk as if the sisters hide behind locked doors, jeering and counting and playing with their money, but nothing could be further from the truth. Where the pair find greatest value is in their little routines and small everyday objects; their father’s safe and the expensive jewellery discarded throughout the house are of little consequence to them. This leads us onto a third character in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that plays as significant a role in the novel as the two sisters: the Blackwood house. As in so many other Jackson works such as Like Mother Used to Make or, of course, The Haunting of Hill House, the home is tied to the protagonist’s psyche, yet also becomes a character in its own right. Not only do elements of the house reflect psychological facets of the sisters, but we also we get a feel for how the Blackwood family operated through the generations. Through the house’s unused rooms, brimming with memories and artefacts of its years as a family hub, and through the rooms Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian make use of as their regular habitats, we learn much of the past and present occupants, and it takes on a life of its own.
The novel utilises the house in three stages of space and time: pre-arsenic poisoning, pre-fire, and post-fire. It is here, post-fire, that we see most clearly Merricat and Constance’s disregard for material wealth. They care only for the re-establishment of their bubble, their island of solitude. Through passages detailing charred rooms closed off forevermore, the staircase’s destruction, and, of course, the damaged roof allowing the sky to be seen, we are shown the new world the sisters will inhabit, and there’s barely a complaint from Merricat or Constance for their loss of space and valuables after the house’s part-destruction. It’s via this disregard for riches of any kind, closing off most of the house and happily accepting just a few rooms, that we see their true concern: each other. In her stories, Jackson often uses the home as an external projection of a character’s sense of individuality, yet, interestingly, the Blackwood home in all its extravagance and excess couldn’t be further from what really defines the sisters. In that wonderful passage in which Merricat takes Constance to her woodland den after the house has burnt down – where for a short sequence we finally see all her odd habits (the blanket of leaves, the branches over the door) make perfect sense for what’s needed in that moment – we see the sisters just as content in the makeshift den as they could be in any home of any luxury. It’s not the size and extravagance of the Blackwood house that appeals to them, it’s the isolation. After the fire, the girls are quick to reclaim not the damaged parts of the house or ruined rooms, but their routines – their stability. It’s the few closed-off rooms the sisters make use of in which the house really reflects the sisters’ inner selves. The home is a womb, and all Merricat and Constance want is to stay forever in utero.
In the end, the Blackwood sisters are two halves of one whole, with each providing the other a crucial component in the maintenance of their seclusion. Despite how outsiders perceive Merricat and Constance, their every action comes from a place of love.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle shows us that not everyone that lives in the solitary pleasure of their own company are the monsters we may assume them to be. Not everyone needs everyone else; the Blackwood sisters didn’t, Jackson didn’t throughout her later-life agoraphobia, and those we leap to judge might not. Over and above such lessons, Castle is a trip, an escape, a lens through which to see gritty real-world tragedy with the fantastical tint of a magic-inclined teenage girl. You come out the other side struck by the texture and richness of the characters, and feel both warmth and shock at what they’re capable of. I wanted to wrap up and protect Merricat and Constance, yet also felt wary and unnerved, and it’s this juxtaposition in the qualities of a character that not only bring them to life, but demand our attention time and time again.