WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE – Shirley Jackson (1962)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson (first cover Paul Bacon)Harold Bloom – the literary guru that claimed literature and politics should have nothing to do with each other – challenged the idea that Shirley Jackson’s work should be included in the Western canon. Nevertheless, in 2001 he edited a volume of Jackson’s short stories. There he wrote that “Her art of narration [stays] on the surface, and could not depict individual identities. Even ‘The Lottery’ wounds you once, and once only.”

Bloom is dead, and in 20 years time his work likely will only be read by a few academics. I think there’s a fair chance Shirley Jackson will still be read widely 50 years from now.

I’m not trying to dis academia, but Bloom’s tale is stark warning for us meta-writers to not confuse talking taste with pontificating. I have not read The Lottery – I will – but based on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I’d say that Bloom’s claim about Jackson’s “art of narration” is a bit off.

The Western canon seems a bit of an outdated concept, or, at least, it is outdated as an apolitical idea: the reasons why something becomes a “classic” surely ain’t devoid of politcs. Either way, there is no doubt about the fact that Shirley Jackson belongs at least in the canon of speculative fiction – that peculiar subset of literature.

It turns out that We Have Always Lived in the Castle doesn’t contain any speculative or supernatural elements, yet it evokes an uncanny atmosphere that will delight many readers looking for Otherness. However strange it may be, Jackson manages to stay close to the human experience, and as a result she has written a book that will keep on resonating with generations to come.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Jackson’s final novel, published three years before Jackson died, 48 years old.

Jackson was troubled. She had taken amphetamines on and off for weight loss, and near the end of her life she was prescribed barbiturates for severe anxiety & agoraphobia. She “felt patronized in her role as a “faculty wife” [of literary critic Stanley Hyman]” and “ostracized by the townspeople of North Bennington”. This led to alcohol abuse, on top of the tranquilizers, amphetamines and heavy smoking. Some of that will be familiar to those of you who have read Castle, but it would go to far to see this as autobiography.

An important element in the power of this short book is its straightforwardness. Some might say it could be read as a metaphor for mental illness, but in a way, that is mistaken: this is no metaphor at all. It simply describes the real deal. Yet those of you weary of too much psychology should not fear: Castle is a simple story, and there’s not even a whiff of psychoanalysis or therapy talk.

That is not to say we don’t get a glimpse into the main character’s internal world: Jackson writes through the eyes of the 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, and ‘Merricat’ is a bit of a cynic – “the sun was shining and the false glorious promises of spring were everywhere”. She lives in the family mansion with her older and even more reclusive sister, Catherine, and their older uncle who has troubles with his memory. The rest of the family died in mysterious circumstances.

There are a few thematic angles Jackson explores: snobbery & elitism, mob rule, social ostracism, male entitlement, shame & regret, greed, troubled communication, the tendency to prey on the weak, and the attraction between the sexes. All these themes are weaved together effortlessly, and never spelled out as a MESSAGE. Jackson registers and keeps moral condemnation of the page – something that seems harder and harder to do this day and age of internet fueled outrage.

Obviously lots of bookish types have felt themselves outsiders during certain parts of their lives, or might still feel different from a society full of jocks. The paradox of Castle is that while Jackson plays into these feelings of her readers, in the end we might realize we don’t actually want to identify with Merricat and her sister, even though we wish them well.

Jackson not only refrains from judgement, she also refrains from explaining what’s maybe the basic mystery of this book: why do Mary and Catherine act the way they act? Yes, they love each other, yes, they might still suffer from shock, but we never get real reasons for what jump-started the narrative years ago. It is suggested Mary was maybe spoiled, but that’s about it.

Castle is a comedy of manners too, and Jackson’s prose is excellent. I’m really eager to read more of her work – it is diverse if I’m to believe what I’ve read about it. I’ll start with ordering the classic The Haunting of Hill House as well as The Lottery and Other Stories. Or maybe I should just get the canonical 2-volume Library of America edition. Maybe that’s too much. What do you think?

Shirley Jackson (Werner Wolff)


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16 responses to “WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE – Shirley Jackson (1962)

  1. Aonghus Fallon

    My one beef with Shirley Jackson is that both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle lack a clear American context, even though Jackson was an American author – e.g. We Have Always Lived in the Castle could just as easily be set in some remote part of rural England.* I think establishing the broader societal context (and contrasting two very different worlds) would have made for a better book in both cases. Coincidentally, I was reading a collection of her short stories last month and the anthology included an unfinished novel – Come Along With Me – in which Jackson does precisely that. I reckon it had a lot of potential.

    * A film version was shot just down the road from me in an old Anglo-Irish manor. The one room ‘Americanised’ was the kitchen (ie, a massive old fridge etc). Everything else was left untouched.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very good point, and I guess I agree, even though I felt it to be American somehow, but that’s probably just because I knew Jackson was American, and that directed my perception.

      On the other hand, there’s a certain timelessness to the story, or at least, it seems a bit out of time, so in that sense, does its broader societal context matter? And then there’s another question: how big was the difference between New England and England back in the days – at least, for the purpose of this novel?

      Do you recommend the short stories?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Paul Connelly

        My sense is that after the war the tide of regionalism ebbed quite a bit, so more stories were set in unspecified locations that had a certain feel, like “suburb” or “small town” or just “away from the centers of power” without identifying where exactly. So we never get specific information about where Merricat or Hill House or the town of The Lottery are. We may “know” that Bradbury was using Illinois as the setting for many of his stories, but I don’t think anything in the stories is explicit about that. Even Heinlein takes this approach in many of his short stories. We had just fought a titanic war. Before that we may have been a collection of regions, but now we thought of ourselves as one big country, and literature began shifting a little in that direction. (You can take this with as many grains of salt as needed.)

        Liked by 2 people

        • I think that’s very true, Paul – re a lack of regional specificity in a lot of American literature, especially from the Fifties on – but the characters in We Have Always Lived in the Castle also sound entirely English to me. I think an American reader can put them in context (e.g. Jackson’s background seems to have been very similar) but as a non-American reader I’d have liked to know more.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, that could very well be. I don’t think we need lots of salt with it. Television, Hollywood and pop and rock music added to the unification of Western culture, but the war must have been a factor too.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never reading any Jackson but I’ve seen her name come up a few times. I’ll be reading more of your reviews of her work before trying any of it. The lack of speculative elements is a bit of a turnoff for me, as shortsighted as that may sound.

    Liked by 1 person

    • She wrote 6 novels. At least two of them, Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, do have speculative elements. The Sundail might have, depending your interpretation it seems. Her short stories often have speculative stuff as well. We’ll see when I get around to reading something else by Jackson – it shouldn’t take more than a year, possibly sooner. Don’t hold your horses on my account 🙂

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  3. Aonghus Fallon

    Yeah (re the timelessness); the fact that both books unfold in a narrowly defined space gives them a claustrophobic quality and that very much works in their favour.* I just reckon a few discreet touches – a brief description of the local town, having a few of the locals as minor characters – might have been no harm, although maybe this is as much my problem as it is Jackson’s? An American reader might not have the same problem.

    Jackson wrote The Lottery quickly and in one go, as far as I can remember. It works primarily for its shock value, a lot like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Overall, her short stories didn’t make much of an impression on me – I think they’re pretty much eclipsed by her books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, you are right, I don’t think such a few discreet touches would have done the novel harm.

      Re: short stories. Good to know. I might just buy individual novels one at at time, instead of that LOA edition. On the other hand, I do want to acquaint myself with her short stories too. We’ll see.

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  4. Aonghus Fallon

    * to use a very different author as an example: Stephen King would be at pains to establish the history of Hill House. He’d describe locals’ attitude towards it, and maybe even have a scene set down in the local bar.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t have any reason to trust Harold Bloom on anything, but I remember reading ‘The Lottery’ not too long ago. Knowing exactly what the plot was about, the whole thing felt like it was written for the punch line. Maybe it just wasn’t representative

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I always appreciate authors who deal with important issues without climbing on the proverbial soapbox and preaching, so I might very well add Jackson to my TBR on the strength of your very intriguing review.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting timing. I just finished The Haunting of Hill House today, the first of her “longer” works I’ve read, and I very much enjoyed it. I can see many of the themes you mentioned, and it fits very well into any dicussion of the problems in her life, such as feeling an outsider and various mental conditions, finding their way into her fiction. I also agree with you in that I loved her prose. The writing style really drew me in, and pulled me into the story. It was an almost pernicious pull that drew me into Hill House and into the minds of the various folks staying there. Very effective, especially for this sort of horror/thriller/psychological story.

    I’ve read The Lottery a couple times now, once in school and I recall it having a very powerful affect on me, and then years later. But that second reading was so long ago I think I’d enjoy reading it again. I’ll also add We Have Always Lived in the Castle to my list to read. Like you, I’m now very interested in exploring more of her writing.

    Liked by 2 people

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