Saturday, June 9, 2012

Summer reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Well, that didn't take as long as I thought it would. Just part of one day. I listened to my book and cleaned the bathroom and the kitchen and worked on my knitting and had a very pleasant Saturday in the process.

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a story about two young women who, along with their elderly uncle, have locked themselves away in their ancestral mansion for six years after their parents, brother, and aunt had all been murdered in the house with arsenic (mixed in with the sugar they sprinkled over blackberries). The older sister, Constance, had been tried for the murders but was acquitted and now takes care of her uncle and the younger sister, Mary Katherine (or Merricat), who was only 12 at the time of the deaths.

The book is written in first person from the perspective of Merricat whose world is ruled by schedules, habits, rules, rituals, and patterns. She derives a sense of safety and power from these patterns of life, and she relies on charms and magic thinking to secure that sense of safety. Her habits are sacred to her. She goes into the village only on Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday is cleaning day, and, as she says, Thursday is the day she is the most powerful, spending the day in the attic putting on her parents' old clothing. Objects have power and she buries items around the property, or nails old books to trees, in order to protect the house. She has a cat named Jonas to whom she is deeply connected. Even though she is 18 years old, she remains very child-like and relies on Constance to feed her and to provide the necessary rules under which she may live comfortably.

Constance has a profound connection to food. While Merricat has an intimate knowledge of the woods surrounding the house, Constance knows the domestic space. She is most often found in the kitchen and rarely ventures beyond the garden. She is a master at growing, cooking, and preserving food.

The primary conflict of the story begins when their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts nearly all of Merricat's sacred habits. She calls him a ghost and a demon and it is clear that he is primarily interested in the large amount of money that the women have in the house. He is also startled at their lifestyle. While we see that they are more or less happy they certainly are not living the "normal" life. I think Constance feels this rather strongly. Normality is appealing to her, and she entertains not only Charles but another friend (who only comes to tea on Fridays) to try to get out of the house and lead a more "normal" life. At one point she says to Merricat that she regrets not putting their uncle in a hospital and that Merricat should have gone to school and lived this normal life. "You should have boyfriends" she tells her. Merricat responds that she has Jonas, and the two laugh. But Constance's longing for normality leads her to tolerate the disruption of Charles and she entertains the thought of moving on from the past (which their uncle talks of unceasingly).

Merricat does everything in her power to push Charles away, going so far as to empty his room of his belongings and filling it up with dirt, leaves, moss, and branches. Constance cleans up the mess but Merricat makes one final attempt to undo her cousin's presence and pushes his still burning pipe into the waste basket, starting a house fire. This certainly was the climax and the most intense and heartbreaking part of the novel. The whole village, who openly hates the women, arrive at the house to watch it burn, and even after the fire is put out the fire chief throws a stone at the house, breaking a window and inciting mad looting. The village people attempt to destroy what is left of the house and only stop with the the uncle's doctor finds him dead. "Did she kill him?" they ask, and when the doctor tells them Uncle Julian had had a heart attack they went home.

After the fire the women clean up the house as best as they can. The sacred kitchen is spared. We find out that Merricat is the one who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl and killed her family, but Constance never finds out that it was she who started the fire. They lock themselves away even more securely than before in the old ruined house and no one ever sees them again, but the village people frequently leave "offerings" at their doorstep: baskets of food with notes apologizing for the destruction they had participated in. And the two sisters live happily ever after. Constance has her garden and her kitchen and Merricat falls happily into a new routine, a new ritual.

Here is a good mini review of the book.

Some themes to explore later: the disruption and corruption of the domestic space, nature vs. society, community and xenophobia, the need for and the development of local mythology and scapegoats, which reminds me a great deal of American Gods and how belief creates tangible and powerful forces, and which also reminds me of Jackson's seminal story "The Lottery". It also reminded me a bit of Antichrist with the references to witchcraft and the focus on family and women in the domestic space.  I'll keep it in mind for when I start the International Horror class next month.

This might be a good book for when I start teaching, actually. This, or The Haunting of Hill House depending on the level of the class. I think this would be a good book for a 101 course.

No comments:

Post a Comment