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We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson – Book Discussion


We Have Always Lived in the Castle

My reasons for choosing We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson for our discussion: I consider it a haunted house story–but the house is haunted by living people. Weird people. People that only Shirley Jackson could have come up with.

Jackson did strange people in weird little towns better than anyone else I can think of. From The Lottery to The Summer People and now with Castle, everyone looks normal, and nobody is.

Let’s do a quick recap before getting into a couple of questions:

Summary of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

When the book opens, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian Blackwood are the only ones left at the stately Blackwood house. Merricat is our narrator. Constance is her older sister. Julian vacillates between dementia and coherence.

It is largely through his fragmented conversation about the past that we learn what has happened here:

Every other member of the family was poisoned during dinner six years earlier. There was arsenic in the sugar. Constance didn’t eat sugar, ever, so she survived. Uncle Julian ate a little bit, so he lived, but he’s still reeling from the effects. Merricat was sent to bed without dinner as a punishment, but we don’t know what she was being punished for.

Constance was accused of the murder, but was acquitted in court.

Now Constance hasn’t gone out of the house in six years. When Merricat goes into the village for food and books, she is treated with hostility and questions about when they’re finally going to leave town for good.

Later, a cousin, Charles, arrives. He’s the character you get from central casting when you need a real dick of a relative who suddenly shows up to get a piece of the family fortune. He immediately begins feuding with Merricat, who feels that she must protect Constance from him.

Merricat winds up throwing Charles’ lit pipe into a wastebasket and the upper portion of the house catches fire. The townspeople gather to watch, but mob mentality suddenly breaks out and they begin throwing rocks through the window and smashing whatever they can.

Merricat and Constance escape into the woods. Charles runs away like a loser, after a failed attempt to get the safe out of a bedroom. Uncle Julian dies with heart trouble during the fire, or so it would seem to suggest.

The final portion of the book involves Merricat and Constance boarding up the ruined upper portion of the house and living in the kitchen and the cellar. They board up the windows, Merricat dresses in tablecloths, and they survive on the food that the contrite/ashamed townspeople begin leaving on the doorstep.

Oh, and we learn that Merricat was the one who poisoned them all, and Constance always knew.

This is where it gets more interesting.

What do we know about Merricat?

I can’t remember when I realized she was 18, but it surprised me; she seems much, much younger in her narration. Like a feral child with simple, naive ideas. To protect the family, she does things like nailing a book to a tree and creating magic words to keep them all safe.

She has long conversations with Jonas, her cat. She buries things. She pretends that their house is the moon, and is constantly elaborating on how wonderful things are when you’re living on the moon.

A typical passage from Merricat:

I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.

So here’s the question: why did she poison her family? By the time I learned this, I thought, well of course she did, she’s crazy. But that’s not enough.

We learn about her guilt during this exchange with Constance, after the fire:

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.

“Yes,” I said after a minute, “the way I did before.”(161)

Shortly after this conversation, Constance apologizes for making Merricat remember “why they all died” (190). And then, this is as close as we get to any sort of reason for why did she did it.

Merricat says:

I put it in the sugar.

I know. I knew then.

You never used sugar.


So I put it in the sugar. (191)

Given how I look at Merricat’s reasoning ability, I can see her possibly getting rid of everyone else just so she could have Constance with her. But there’s no much else to go on here.

What do you think? Any other clues as to why she did it?


One last thing: Shirley Jackson was an agoraphobic. After learning this, it was hard for me to read We Have Always Lived through any other lens. The book is claustrophobic at its beginning, and by the end, there’s hardly any air left at all. The house has literally shrunk, as has the cast of characters and the options available to Merricat and Constance. They’ve become ghosts, or myths. Never seen, but always there.

That’s it for me. I’d love to hear any thoughts you had while reading.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Candy October 4, 2011, 5:28 am

    I loved this book. From a writer’s point-of-view, Jackson’s use of repetition with slight variations to create the claustrophobia from the opening pages is brilliant. I caught myself thinking… I’ve read that before, no, this time she’s focusing on her shoes. The final reckoning, the town’s people turning on them and the remorse in the form of dinners on the doorstep, seal the isolation. Wonderful images!

  • Jim Janney October 4, 2011, 6:07 pm

    I remember reading that book. I felt like I was holding my breath the whole time.

  • Vanessa May 28, 2012, 8:29 pm

    I’ve only just finished this and wishing so badly I could discuss it with someone! Anyone on goodreads?

    A few observations:

    1. Completely agree with Jim… I was holding my breath the entire time. I felt there was this looming dark storm cloud over the whole novel. I felt like I had to read very meticulously, so as not to miss some small detail that would lend a hint to “why did she poison them??!!”

    2. From the start, i knew that it was Merricat and not Constance who had actually done the deed. Constance was much to pure and kind (albeit completely out of touch). Merricat took pleasure in stepping over dead bodies while grocery shopping. It seemed pretty clear after that that Constance was pinned for a crime she didn’t commit.

    3. One of the most revealing passages I felt was Merricat’s memory of her family telling everyone that she was never to be disciplined in any way and that she was their most precious child. I kept thinking, was this her reconstructing the memory in a way she would have wanted it to be? Was her family afraid of her “bad seed” tendencies? Was everyone – Constance included – just made to bend to her every will, and when they didn’t she would act out in some horrible way? I don’t know!! It’s a mystery – I’m just speculating!

    4. Merricat’s character, despite being very strange, I came to take for what it was: childish, psychotic and superstitious. Constance, on the other hand, was the true mystery to me. She didn’t seem to live in fear of her sister evil nature, and yet she went out of her way to appease her in every possible way. She seemed delicate, aloof and kind, and yet she had been through this horrible ordeal. She has no feelings of hatred, regret or contempt for anything or anyone, despite being unjustly accused of something awful. She didn’t seem like a real person! Who would act like that?

    5. I absolutely LOVED all of Merricat’s superstitions, especially whispering her “safe” word into coffee cups and spelling them out in her food before anyone could hear them aloud.

    6. Josh – I completely agree about the age thing. I was shocked when it really hit me that this girl was 18! I thought she was at least 10 years younger. The way her mind works was very juvenile, and yet when she talked of death as if it was simply something she could wish upon people and make happen…. uhg creepy!

    My conclusion: Shirley Jackson is a genius.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 28, 2012, 8:41 pm

      Vanessa, I’m on Goodreads. Please come add me!

  • Jennifer October 7, 2012, 6:42 pm

    Just finished reading this book.

    It’s obvious that Merricat poisoned her family because they punished her that night. (Her “memory” of her family is a wish-fantasy of the whole family gushing about how they just LOVE her, that she’s the BEST, and no one must EVER punish her.) If she could do something like that, just because they sent her to bed without dinner, it’s obvious something was not right about her from the get-go.

    There’s a clue to that in one of Uncle Julian’s memories. He remembers a quarrel between Merricat’s parents; her mother was saying, “I won’t have it, John!” and her father answering, “We have no choice.” Could that have been an argument about putting this disturbed little girl away–with her mother in denial that Merricat’s that far gone, and her father trying to make her see the truth? Could her mother have won the argument, and it ended up costing her her life?