Bud R. Berkich
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson is a multi-layered work that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. The most common viewpoint is one that espouses the character of Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood as a conniving, selfish, spoiled and overall dangerous young woman who deliberately poisons and does away with a significant portion of her immediate family. But there is another way to look at Merricat, one that puts her in a more positive light. This viewpoint sees the entire narrative as an allegory and not to be taken literally. When seen in this way, the character of Merricat becomes somewhat of an “anti-hero” of sorts with a well-intentioned cause.
Before the allegorical interpretation of Castle is looked at in depth, it might be a good idea to give a brief recap of the narrative, for the benefit of those who have not yet read Jackson’s novel, or who have not read it in quite a while.
The novel centers around the characters of Constance Blackwood, somewhere around thirty years-old, and her eighteen year old sister Mary Katherine (known as “Merricat”). The sisters live with their Uncle Julian on the outskirts of town, in a large homestead surrounded by woods. Having very little contact with the rest of the townspeople, it is the dreaded job of Merricat to go into town on Tuesdays and Fridays to get her sister, uncle and herself needed supplies. Why this is a much-maligned task for Merricat is explained by the teenage girl in a very direct, succinct fashion: “The people of the village have always hated us” (Castle 4).
And why this longstanding hatred exists becomes evident when it is gradually revealed by Merricat that her sister Constance was once arrested for the multiple homicide of the Blackwood’s entire immediate family, including the girls’ father, mother, brother and aunt (Julian’s wife). In truth, although Constance has long since been acquitted of the charges against her, the townspeople have never stopped fearing or forgetting:
Merricat said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep! (16)
Of course, Merricat’s statement that “the people of the village have always hated us” seems to imply that the grudge the townspeople hold against the Blackwoods has tentacles that reach farther back in their dealings with the family than the events surrounding the supposed indiscretion of Constance Blackwood. Most likely, this friction has to do with class inequality, as can be implied by a study of Merricat’s vindictive statements regarding the villagers, and the statements and actions of the villagers themselves (for the initial basis of this implication, read closely chapter one of Castle. For its destructive fruition, see chapter eight). As Jonathan Lethem notes:
“Consider that great American taboo, class status… in Castle
the imperious, eccentric Blackwoods are conscious of their
snobbery toward the village, and conscious, too, of how the
persecution they suffer confirms their elevated self-image”
(intro, p. xi).
As a result of the destructive fire that sweeps through the top floor of the Blackwood estate and the subsequent vandalism of the estate by the townspeople, it is revealed by Merricat that her older sister’s arrest for the multiple murders of family members was actually a vicarious act on Constance’s part:
“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.” (110)
In the end, Merricat does not have to resort to this drastic action, for the townspeople initiate a strange ritual of forgiveness for deeds done against the Blackwood sisters and their property:
“Sometimes they brought bacon, bone-cured, or fruit, or their own preserves…. Mostly they brought roasted chicken; sometimes a cake or pie, frequently cookies, sometimes a potato salad or coleslaw. Once they brought a pot of beef stew…and sometimes there were pots of baked beans or macaroni. ‘We are the biggest church supper they ever had,’ Constance said once, looking at a loaf of homemade bread I had just brought inside.
“These things were always left on the front doorstep, always silently and in the evenings. We thought that the men came home from work and the women had the baskets ready for them to carry over; perhaps they came in darkness not to be recognized, as though each of them wanted to hide from the others, and bringing us food was somehow a shameful thing to do in public. There were many women cooking, Constance said. (Sic.) Once or twice there was a note in the basket: “This is for the dishes,’ or ‘We apologize about the curtains,’ or ‘Sorry for your harp.’” (139)
To understand an allegorical interpretation of Castle, one must understand that the characters become types and that they represent something. For example, Merricat could be said to represent a type of patron of the arts. She lives in the realm of the imagination, and dislikes those that are not of the same mind set (i.e., the villagers and her family members that are materialistic, harsh, backwards, uncouth, uncultured, etc.). And, if the reader will allow it, the artists that Merricat are entrusted with are her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. What is the art? With Constance it is the production and preservation of food (bottom of p. 2; 42), while with Uncle Julian it is the preservation of memories within the larger context of family history (bottom of p. 30; 32). Therefore, in her allegorical role of protector, Merricat goes from rouge to anti-hero. And from who or what is Merricat protecting her artists and their art? From the ignorant and the exploitative, represented by the townspeople, cousin Charles Blackwood and the ruling families. In this way, the townspeople become a type of the ignorant in society that fear art and artists and ridicule and threaten that which they know nothing about (4,6,11-17). Charles Blackwood becomes a type of those in society that attempt to take advantage of the artist and their art for financial gain (cp. p. 88 with 106,142-44). And finally, the ruling families of the Clarkes, Carringtons and the Shepherds represent the divorce of the business world from the arts and humanities; its false allegiance and exploitation (21-22,127-29). Looked at in this way, the narrative becomes a struggle between the artists (imagination– Merricat, Constance, Uncle Julian) and the materialists (ignorance– the villagers, the Blackwoods, Charles Blackwood and the ruling families).
Something should also be said here concerning the nature and role of the Blackwood house (i.e., the “castle”). In truth, the homestead seems to be representative of the whole spectrum of art in general, the ideal that must be upheld and defended at all cost (cp. p. 1 with chapters 9 and 10). In the end, the artists win out, even if the losses are severe.
And in her new role as anti-hero, Merricat is a stalwart defender of that ideal, more than adequate for the task:
“–indeed, Jackson’s vision of human life as a kind of squatter’s inheritance in a diminishing castle recalls the before-and-after of the two acts of Happy Days, where Beckett’s Winnie, first buried up to her waist, and then to her neck, boasts: ‘This is what I find so wonderful. The way man adapts himself. To changing conditions.’ As Constance and Merricat’s world shrinks it grows more defiantly self-possessed, and as threatening elements are purged their castle gains in representative accuracy as a model of the (dual) self. When at last the villagers repent of their cruelty and begin gifting the castle’s doorstep with cooked meals and baked goods, the situation mirrors that of Merricat’s playacting in the summerhouse– only this time the offerings laid at her feet are real, not imaginary. The world has obliged, and placed a crown on Merricat’s head. Her empire is stasis.” (Intro, p. xii)
Although on the surface Merricat Blackwood seems to be a evil, conivving personality, a reader cannot help but walk away from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle admitting that he or she actually likes and can sympathize with the teenage girl. Why? Most likely because the people that Merricat dislikes are people that are not likeable. They are, in effect, not good people but slaves to ignorance, greed and selfishness. It is also due to the fact that Merricat has an artist’s sensibility and sensitivity to beauty and style that identifies her with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian and separates her from the townspeople, Charles Blackwood and the ruling families.
But there is also another reason. It is because in the character of Merricat Blackwood, we see a partial portrait of the author Shirley Jackson. Indeed, a multi-layered masterpiece such as Castle requires a close reading of the text combined with the knowledge that Jackson’s writing most of the time is a reflection of herself in relation to her own personal experiences. While Jackson never poisoned her family, the struggles that she had with a feeling of ostracism by the townspeople where she lived is much documented. In truth, the spirit of Jackson’s personality can be said to “haunt” the personalities in her work, as Johnathan Lethem explains in the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of the novel:
“In Castle, Jackson revisits persecution with force and a certain amount of glee, decanting it from the realm of objective social critique into personal fable. In a strategy she’d been perfecting since the very start of her writing, that of splitting her aspects among several characters in the same story, Jackson delegates the halves of her psyche into two odd, damaged sisters; the older Constance Blackwood, hypersensitive and afraid, unable to leave the house; and the younger Merricat Blackwood, a willful demon prankster attuned to nature, to the rhythm of the seasons, and to death, and the clear culprit in the unsolved crime of having poisoned all the remaining members of the Blackwood family apart from Uncle Julian)” (Intro, pp.ix-x, emphasis mine).
Lethem’s remark comparing Jackson’s writing style in Castle as “personal fable” seems to lend credence to the idea that it also works on the level of allegorical interpretation. But whatever method of exegesis is supported, it cannot be denied that We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is a powerful work, and her characters, whether a reflection of herself or standing on their own terms, provide the reader with an insight and reading experience that should not be missed.
Bud R. Berkich currently lives in Manville, NJ. He is a fiction writer and poet. From 2003-2009, Bud was the founder and director of the Borders Poetry Group in Bridgewater, NJ. He also served as the liaison between booksellers and poets at three Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals (2004-2008). Bud’s favorite writers are: Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Jorge Luis Borges, Joyce Carol Oates, HP Lovecraft and VC Andrews.