An Ultimate Guide to We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Published on
March 9, 2024
An Ultimate Guide to We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Instead of focusing on paranormality, Jackson conveys a “vast intimacy with everyday evil, with the pathological undertones of prosaic human configurations: a village, a family, a self”. The novella disinterred the wickedness in normality, cataloguing the ways in which repression tips into psychosis, persecution, and paranoia, into cruelty and its masochistic, injury-cherishing twin.


Set in a secluded town, the novel chronicles the lives of the Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Constance, who are both outcasts in their community. Despite the antagonism they face from the townspeople, the sisters are able to find comfort in each other and in their ancestral home, where they live in relative seclusion.

Through the character of Merricat, Jackson examines the psychological impacts of isolation and persecution. Merricat is an eccentric and paranoid young woman who has been ostracized by the townspeople, who view her as a witch. Due to her isolation, Merricat's mental state begins to deteriorate, leading to an increase in her paranoia and delusions. Despite this, she remains fiercely protective of her sister and their home, and is willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe from the outside world.

Jackson's incorporation of Gothic elements, such as the eerie and dilapidated Blackwood estate and the supernatural beliefs of the townspeople, adds to the novel's atmosphere of unease and isolation. The novel also explores the consequences of societal persecution, as the townspeople's mistreatment of the Blackwood sisters ultimately leads to tragedy.

Genre and Narrative Conventions

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a work of gothic fiction, known for its eerie and uncanny atmosphere. The novel explores themes of isolation and madness through the eyes of the protagonist, Merricat Blackwood, who is haunted by the double of her dead father. The Blackwood family's remote, crumbling house serves as a symbol of their own decay and isolation, adding to the novel's gothic mood. Jackson also uses elements of the supernatural, such as the mention of Merricat's ability to "put things right" with her mind, and the use of symbols, such as the black cat, to depict the relationship between the natural and the unnatural.

The risk of nature’s revolting is challenged through the construction of Merricat as the embodiment of sympathetic magic — naturalising the unnatural. Particularly, she confronts nature’s anger through raw and natural elements: soil and leaves being scattered, fire being lit up. Jackson thus marries magic — characteristically an evil and unnatural power, with prehuman elements, so as to avoid readily vilifying Merricat. The fire aforementioned symbolically incinerates the female stronghold and feminine power, preventing it from being invaded.

The distinction between reality and fantasy is also blurred, which only adds to the sense of unease. The house symbolises both the physical and mental isolation of the Blackwood sisters, and the way in which they have cut themselves off from the outside world. By characterising Merricat as the antithesis of her sister, Jackson also highlights the themes of repression and rebellion, which are central to the Gothic genre.

Constance Blackwood is characterised as hypersensitive and afraid, whereas Merricat Blackwood, the fable’s first-person narrator, is attuned to “nature, to the rhythm of the season, and to death”. As the culprit in the unresolved crime that takes centrality in the narrative, she challenges patriarchal institution and the law of proprietorship, acting as the antithesis of a docile, domestic woman. Merricat’s ingenuous and defiant voice helps foreground the disintegration permeating the story. 


Isolation and Persecution

 The novel's isolated setting and its exploration of the psychological effects of isolation and persecution on the main character, Merricat, highlight the ostracisation of those who exhibit ‘otherness’. The protagonist and her sister Constance, who is afflicted by an anxiety disorder, are strongly attached, and their isolation is a defence mechanism against the social norms and rules propagated by their community.

 The tragic consequences of the townspeople's treatment of the Blackwood sisters further underscore the theme of the dangers of societal persecution. The novel suggests that isolation can lead to madness and self-destruction, as the Blackwood sisters are unable to cope with their isolation and gradually become more and more isolated from each other and from reality.

 Female self-sufficiency, Jackson suggests, specifically women's forceful establishment of power over their own lives, threatens a society in which men hold primary power and leads inevitably to confrontation.

Supernatural, Magic and Witchcraft

In "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," magic and witchcraft are presented as a means of coping with and resisting the difficulties and isolation faced by the main characters. For Merricat, her practice of sympathetic magic can be seen as a way of trying to exert some control over her circumstances and to find a sense of agency in a world that often seems unfair and unpredictable. By engaging in magical practices, Merricat is empowered to create some sense of order and meaning in her life, and to connect with a world that is beyond the narrow-mindedness and judgment of the villagers. Magic and witchcraft characters’ resistance and subversion of the expectations and norms of their society.

Jackson also uses the supernatural to represent the otherness of characters. The ghost in Gothic literature often manifests as a phantasmic spectre of a “Madwoman in the Attic” (a term coined by Gilbert and Gubar and the title of their work), an outcasted woman. However, in Castle, this role is filled by  Charles – a masculine presence – who is always referred to by Merricat as a ghost. By replacing the madwoman with a male ghost, Jackson enables the preservation of female power and subverts the relationship between men and women.


Power and Masculinity

The novel provides a critique of the causes and consequences of female victimisation and alienation (which have been explored briefly in the previous section). Jackson subverts masculine authority from the outset of the novel, which has already suffered a defeat at the hands of the protagonist through her poisoning. This poisoning has resulted in a transfer of power from Blackwood men to Blackwood women. The victim, John Blackwood, is a patriarch who "took pride in his table, his family, his position in the world" (p. 47). His preservation of wealth and material possessions is represented through the narrator’s description of the ways "he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favors for him". Acts of altruisms are replaced by quid pro quo transactions; John views all loans as financial investments and benefits the town’s scarcity of resources. Jackson establishes John as the archetypal patriarch and proprietor that dominates society.

 Julian, John’s brother, is characterised as the antithesis of John, dependent on his brother's charity and subject to his authority. He is emasculated by the lack of authority and the failure to accumulate private wealth. In a society that defines wealth as a male prerogative, Julian is outcasted, rendered both legally and symbolically powerless. His invalid state confirms that financial failure for men leads to powerlessness, dependency, emasculation. However, whilst his emasculation ensures the empowerment of Constance and Merricat, his insistent denial of Merricat’s existence is a reminder of her invisibility to the Blackwood men


Womanhood and Domesticity

Jackson uses Gothic tropes to marry the sanitised domestic space with psychological entrapment and horrors. Merricat and Constance “have always lived” in the castle, suggesting a sort of entrapment within the space. After her opening describing her character, Merricat remarks on the day to day life inside the structure with Constance and her family:

We always put things back where they belonged. We dusted and swept under tables and chairs and beds and pictures and rugs and lamps, but we left them where they were… Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order… and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world (Jackson 421)

In this passage, the collective “we” is inescapable. The narrative reads almost like a cleaning manual, dusting and sweeping various locations. Jackson’s use of domestic imagery alludes to the duties of female members in the Blackwood family – constantly working to maintain the order of the household and its façade, but lacking power and involvement.

 This depiction of domesticity is juxtaposed against Merricat’s rebellion, which culminates in her subversion of the Blackwood patriarchy. By establishing Constance as the head of the family through the murder, she replaces masculine power with feminine power. Constance and Merricat are contrasted in Jackson’s initial depiction, where Constance represents the domestic and traditional, and Merricat represents the creative and unrestrained. This depiction, however, is challenged through Jackson’s deconstruction of the domestic. Domestic tasks are portrayed as creative tasks instead of mundane, repetitive routinely chores. Constance, despite being relegated to the domestic sphere, discerns creativity. Similarly, Merricat’s rebellion is paired with self-imposed rules and insistence on routine, which helps Jackson further eradicate binary oppositions and rigid characterisations.


Idea to Explore:

The annihilating fire that transforms the Blackwood mansion into ““a castle, turreted and open to the sky”. Guiding notes:

Despite that the castle image is Gothicised, the structure is still filled with domestic bliss.

The fire exacerbates their isolation from the world and entrapment; they are more so contained in their home’s blackened walls.

However, the two are not bothered. Merricat remarks, “We were going to be very happy”

Their “great many things to do” become commonplace domestic tasks such as cleaning fragments of the former home, and barricading  themselves—literally and figuratively—against the outside world. 

Class and Wealth

In Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," the theme of class and wealth is evident in the hierarchy and distinction between the wealthy, aristocratic Blackwood family and the poorer, working-class townspeople. The Blackwood family's history of wealth and privilege is portrayed through their large, grandiose mansion and their pride in their family's legacy and proprietorship of the town. This distinction is further emphasized by the antagonism between the Blackwoods and the townspeople, represented through representations of the Blackwood’s proprietorship and snobbery towards others, resulting in persecution and isolation. The family is conscious of their snobbery towards the village, and simultaneously conscious of the role persecution plays in confirming their elevated self-image. The forewords of the novella refer to this double confession of culpability, a typical feature in Jackson’s texts. She propounds that, to revel in injury is a form of exultation, and to suffer exile from conformist groups, is not an implicit moral victory, but a form of bohemian one-upmanship.  

Merricat is aware of such animosity:

“The people of the village disliked the fact that we always had plenty of money to pay for whatever we wanted; we had taken our money out of the bank, of course, and I knew they talked about the money hidden in our house, as though it were great heaps of golden coins and Constance and Uncle Julian and I sat in the evenings, our library books forgotten, and played with it, running our hands through it and counting and stacking and tumbling it, jeering and mocking behind locked doors.”

The reference to “money hidden in [their] house” and the archaic equivocation to “great heaps of golden coins” allude to the economic disparity between the people and the Blackwoods, which results in class antagonism. Private property is a falsifier of economic relations, and the mansion symbolises the family’s ability to accrue wealth. The perceived prestige attached with the Blackwood family’s ownership of property and wealth creates divisions within society and fuels conflict.

Authorial Intent: What is it saying?


A Brooding Examination of Persecution and Paranoia

Jackson's narrative is heavily steeped in the motif of small-town New England persecution. Yet, she cleverly repackages this persecution, transforming it from a broad social critique to a deeply personal fable. Central to this narrative is the character development of the Blackwood sisters. Constance is depicted as hypersensitive and fearful, while her younger sister Merricat, the novella's first-person narrator, maintains a close bond with nature, the changing seasons, and the concept of death.

Merricat, implicated in a central unresolved crime, dares to defy patriarchal institutions and the law of proprietorship. She symbolizes the antithesis of the docile, domestic woman, her defiant and innocent voice echoing the thematic disintegration that permeates the narrative. This voice serves as a stark contrast to Constance's fear, demonstrating the psychological complexities and contradictions within the two main characters.


Sympathetic Magic: Marrying the Natural and Unnatural

Jackson's narrative also delves into the relationship between the natural and the unnatural, drawing heavily on Gothic tropes. Merricat, portrayed as the embodiment of sympathetic magic, challenges the risk of nature's rebellion, thereby naturalizing the unnatural. She confronts nature's fury with raw, elemental forces: the scattering of soil and leaves, the ignition of fire. By aligning magic—an inherently unnatural power—with prehuman elements, Jackson effectively prevents the reader from outright vilification of Merricat.

The symbolism of fire is particularly poignant in this context. It serves as a metaphorical barrier, safeguarding the female stronghold and feminine power from potential intrusion. This underscores Merricat's unconventional strength and her defiance of traditional gender roles.

Unveiling Class Antagonism: The Blackwoods and Their Pride

Class antagonism is another critical theme that Jackson explores in the novella. The Blackwoods' proprietary attitudes and their disdain for others lead to their persecution and isolation. The family is painfully aware of their snobbery towards the village, recognizing that this persecution only serves to cement their elevated self-image. Jackson argues that this reveling in injury is a form of exultation, suggesting that suffering exile from conformist groups is not just a moral victory but also a form of bohemian oneupmanship.


In-Depth Analysis of the First Chapter


The first chapter of the novella sets the stage for the drama that unfolds. Here, Merricat Blackwood is introduced as an 18-year-old living with her sister, Constance. Right from the outset, Jackson establishes the role of sisterhood in replacing heterosexual romance and patriarchal structures. Merricat's narrative provides an intriguing the juxtaposition of innocence and evil, reflecting her ideological escape from reality through magic. She imagines being “born a werewolf”, emphasising her existence as the foreign ‘other’, and the description of her “the two middle fingers on both [her] hands [being] of the same length”, representing physical abnormality, further highlights her otherness. 

The Blackwood family is portrayed as stagnant and dull, “never much of a family for restlessness and stirring”. The stagnated state of the family parallels the inanimacy of objects, “the books and the flowers and the spoons”. Framed using a polysyndeton, with the conjunction “and” being repeated, Jackson’s description of the family’s possessions connotes excess and abundance. The family takes care to preserve their material possessions, which are “dusted and swept under the tables and chairs and beds and pictures and rugs and lamps”, but “left them where they were”. The lack of utility of these furnitures renders them mere signifiers of wealth, or falsifiers of economic relations. Their wealth is preserved and transferred through patriarchal lineage, and marriages help the family accumulate further wealth and economic capital. Marital relations, and by extension, the Blackwood wives, are commodified in Merricat’s narration, with their identity being attached to their “belongings”, which help build up with “layers of Blackwood property”. 


The wealth of the Blackwoods are preserved and transferred through patriarchal lineage, with marriages serving as a means to accumulate further economic capital. The commodification of the Blackwood wives is evident in Merricat's narrative, where their identities are reduced to their "belongings," which contribute to the "layers of Blackwood property."


The gendered description of “the men [staying] young and [doing] the gossiping and the women aged with grey evil weariness” establishes the chasm between the lives of men and women. The passivity of the women standing “silently waiting for the men to get up and come home” demonstrates the drudgery and monotony of domestic lives. Women are disempowered by the laws, which act as patriarchal institutions that deprive them of proprietary rights. Merricat expresses her admiration towards The Rochester house, “the loveliest in the town”, which “by rights it should have belonged to Constance”. Their mother, despite being “born there”, lacks proprietary rights and is unable to transfer ownership to Constance. The binary language in Merricat’s narration — “disliked” and “liked”, establishes a childlike sense of injustice.


The theme of entrapment, a staple of Gothic literature, is evident in the depiction of Constance and Uncle Julian. Constance's inability to venture “past her own garden” is juxtaposed with Uncle Julian's physical immobility. In postmodern literature, the “garden” symbolises liminality — the in-between space between the confines of the domestic space and the public sphere. We may infer that Constance desires access to the outside world but fears the hostility of the townspeople. Merricat, on the other hand, is empowered by “the simple need for books and food”, representations of her needs, both spiritual and physical.


Similar to The Lottery, Castle also uses a cliched description of “the sun … shining” in a “fine April morning” to unveil the co-existence of good and evil. The “false glorious promises of spring … showing oddly through the village grime” create foreboding malevolence; Jackson eradicates binary oppositions by marrying natural imagery with references to beauty’s falsity.


Thematic ideas explained:

Evil in Normality: Jackson unravels the sinister aspects hidden within everyday life, focusing on the progression from repression to psychosis, persecution, paranoia, cruelty, and masochism.
Persecution and Paranoia: The narrative underlines the motif of small-town persecution, illustrating how societal persecution can tip over into personal paranoia.

Defiance of Patriarchy: Through the character of Merricat, Jackson challenges patriarchal institutions and the traditional image of the docile, domestic woman.

Sympathetic Magic and the Natural vs. Unnatural: Jackson illustrates he relationship between the natural and the unnatural, with Merricat representing sympathetic magic, which naturalizes the unnatural.

Class Antagonism: The theme of class antagonism is represented through the Blackwood family's snobbery, leading to their isolation and persecution.
Gothic Tropes and Entrapment: Jackson's use of Gothic tropes, such as physical and psychological entrapment, is highlighted through the characters of Constance and Uncle Julian.

Coexistence of Good and Evil: The narrative explores the coexistence of good and evil, often revealed through seemingly ordinary circumstances.


Key Symbolism

 Shirley Jackson's Gothic novel 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' features an array of symbols that reflect the genre's traditional themes of isolation, decay, and psychological turmoil. A strong understanding of Gothic tropes will enable a deeper understanding of how Jackson represents the invisible forces that shape the experience of her female characters. The conventions of female Gothic writing are deployed to interrogate the position of women within family structures as claustrophobic, oppressive and combative. The novel has been referred to as a Radcliffean Gothic (named after Ann Radcliffe, one of the earliest Gothic writers), particularly in its use of vulnerable heroine and malevolent Gothic spaces.

The symbols used in the novel include ubiquitous Gothic motifs such as the decaying mansion, reclusive characters, and ominous natural elements. This section will explore a few elements that may be missed by many VCE students in their studies of this new addition to the text list.

About the Genre: What is Gothic Literature?


Gothic literature is a genre of fiction that originated in England during the latter half of the 18th century but has transformed over the centuries. The genre has evolved from Romantic-era Gothic, characterized by supernatural elements, to the more psychological Gothic of the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite its evolution, Gothic literature typically involves eerie and mysterious scenarios that evoke sensations of fear, dread and suspense in the reader. While Gothic literature can vary in content and style, it is unified by a general preoccupation with death, darkness, hauntings, and entrapment.


Features of different sub-genres of Gothic Literature can be seen in various parts of Jackson's novel: for instance, supernatural elements such as omens, reminding us of the Romantic era, and the Uncanny - referring to the similarities between Charles and John, reminiscent of the psychological Gothic. Also, the text replaces monstrosity, visceral horror, and violence with psychological terror, paranoia, and psychosis, which is a common Postmodern Gothic feature.


Evocation of the Supernatural


One of the prominent features of Gothic literature is its evocation of the supernatural, and Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle". References to hidden secrets, curses and spells in the novel allude to the supernatural. However, unlike so many gothic writers, Jackson’s version of the supernatural represents a preferable alternative to life for her characters. Sympathetic magic - imaginative power - empowers Merricat, and allows her to escape the constraints to patriarchal power. The supernatural "life on the moon" represents an alternative economy to the exploitative and oppressive capitalist system of their town. The sisters eschew modernity and choose instead to reside in a dilapidated castle, which smells of "smoke and ruins", 'turrets and open to the sky". The upper level is unsuitable for habitation, thereby limiting their living space to the kitchen and living area. They opt for familiarity with their former dwelling and lifestyle over the formidable challenge of reintegrating into society, forging a novel sense of tranquillity within their private realm.


Even the novel’s setting and atmosphere are subjected to the will of the characters. No rogue spirits or hostile creatures haunt the woods surrounding the Blackwood mansion – only Merricat, who roams them as comfortably as if they are her bedroom. She sleeps on a bed of leaves beneath the tree and walks without fear because she has power and agency in this world. If anything haunts the grounds of her family property, it is her. She is the haunting. 


The environment and ambience portrayed in the novel are intricately tied to the actions of its characters. While no malevolent entities or otherworldly beings lurk amidst the foliage enveloping Blackwood manor, Merricat herself roams freely as if it were her sanctuary. Fearlessly wandering through the woods and taking up residence beneath a verdant canopy, she exerts control over her surroundings with ease. Indeed, if there is any presence that might be considered eerie on this familial estate, it is none other than Merricat - for she embodies an ethereal essence all her own that permeates every inch of space around her.


Murder and Madness


Evil seems to be domesticated and interiorised as madness in the novel, with most of its horror emanating from within Merricat's mind. Jackson's evocation of seemingly disturbed psychological states and association of these states with acts of violence is representative of her critique of societal norms and morality. A history of trauma and abuse is implied through the sisters' frequent references to the poisoning incident and their eventual isolation from society. Merricat's homicidal thoughts and anxieties are presented as an understandable response to the trauma and abuse she has endured, rather than a manifestation of inherent evil.


   “Their tongues will burn, I thought, as though they had eaten fire. Their throats will burn when the words come out, and in their bellies they will feel a torment hotter than a thousand fires.”


The novel portrays evil not as an external entity but rather as a domesticated and internalised form of madness that is prominently displayed in Merricat’s antagonistic relationship with the townspeople.


However, to subvert the male-centred narrative that associates these states with innate female 'hysteria', Jackson also focuses on the hallucinations and mental instability of Uncle Julian. The psychologisation of terror is herein revealed through the ambivalent psychological dimension that destabilises Julian's perception of reality.


Adolescence and Trauma


Traumatised adolescence and its location within dysfunctional family units are implicitly explored through Jackson's Castle, enabling an examination of Merricat and Constance's experiences. As an 18-year-old girl, Merricat has endured a significant amount of emotional and psychological trauma, which has ostensibly shaped her hostility towards the villagers.


There are no explicit references to her transition from childhood to maturity, yet the novel's folklore elements invite reading through a lens of initiation, where Merricat's withdrawal into ritualistic behaviours and her obsession with magical practices serve as coping mechanisms to such transition.


   “It’s spring, you’re young, you’re lovely, you have a right to be happy. Come back into the world.”


   “I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode; I ran to the back door and opened it to breathe. I wanted to run; if I could have run to the end of our land and back I would have been all right, but Constance was alone with them in the drawing room and I had to hurry back.”


Through Merricat's traumatic adolescence, Jackson highlights the impact of family dysfunction on mental health and development. Her fear of Constance leaving (e.g., panicking as Helen Clarke invites Constance out) and controlling personality are symbolised by the regimented routine of her weekly grocery outings, whereby she fulfils her role to ensure their self-sufficiency without a paternal presence.


Unreliable Narration


Gothic fiction, including Shirley Jackson's writing, frequently employs the use of an unreliable narrator as a tool for projecting the protagonist's emotional instability. This instability is often linked to Gothic themes of persecution and punishment and can manifest in forms bordering on madness or paranoia. In "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," Merricat vacillates between her internal reality - where she imagines taking revenge against those who have wronged her family - and presenting a veneer of normalcy during external interactions with others.


   “I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there in back of me without looking into their flat grey faces with the hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead.”


The portrayal of Merricat serves as an incisive commentary on gender roles that restrict women's power within society since her isolation stems from these constraints imposed upon her.

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