Family in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson Essay
Updated: Dec 13th, 2020
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, written by Shirley Jackson and published in 1961, was the final novel of the author, representing several characteristics of her personality. As mentioned by Bartnett for the Guardian, the female characters of the novel are “yin and yang of Shirley’s own inner self – one, an explorer, a challenger, the other a contented, domestic homebody.” The novel tells the story of two sisters – Merricat Blackwood, who is characterized as headstrong and naïve, and her older sister Constance Blackwood, who avoids venturing any further than her garden. The main mystery behind the two sisters was that they were the remaining members of a large old family that died suddenly from poisoning. Thus, the topic of family is persistent throughout the novel, especially given the consequences that led to the death of almost all Blackwoods.
It is revealed that Merricat was the one to murdered her family, including parents, her aunt, and her brother, leaving only Constance and her uncle, who survived the poisoning of arsenic due to mere luck. Constance was the only family member whom Merricat truly loved, and despite her sinister actions, the author gave explanations for it by pointing out the oppressive nature of family relationships with regard to women. To get a deeper understanding of why Merricat had a chaotic and illogical attitude toward family life, the history and structure of the family as an institution should be considered.
Social rules and gender roles that exist within the family context are predominantly male-centered, which means that the power is usually patrilineal. For instance, the family name is generally passed down from fathers to sons who also have traditionally inherited the majority of the property. Daughters, however, we’re expected to follow family rules until they get married, when they had to come under their husbands’ rule. Therefore, there is a history of blatant oppression of females within the family context (Chae 262). Given the nature of family structure and power, it is not surprising that Merricat wanted to rid herself of the oppressive traditions that her family held.
The most negative aspects of masculinity in the novel are illustrated through the character of Charles Blackwood. He is obsessed with getting rich and thus tricks his cousins out of money under the disguise of pretending to help them. Charles even plans to make Constance his wife, which threatens the relationship between Merricat and her sister (Begonia). The marriage between Constance and Charles can not only ruin the sisters’ relationship but also severely damage the female-oriented family that Merricat wanted to preserve. Therefore, the institution of family and marriage is depicted in the novel as something that keeps women away from helping each other and maintaining solidarity. To a large degree, Jackson intentionally portrays marriage as a treat to familial relationships rather than a vehicle for strengthening them.
Familial relationships depicted in We Have Always Lived in the Castle are complex. Charles is already Constance and Merricat’s relative, which gives him the right to entire their house regardless of any efforts of preventing him from doing so (Lape 153). Merricat is always aware of the boundaries she must set for protection; she checks the fence that surrounds her property every week, uses talismans to safeguard herself from danger, has “hiding places” for escaping abuse (Jackson 76). Charles is very dismissive of her cousin’s practices and intends to take the power that she gained through murdering her oppressive family. He starts treating Merricat the same way in which her late family treated her in the past.
In contrast to Charles’ strive for money and power, Merricat is not interested in none of her financial inheritance. Rather, she places special importance on the cultural and historical value of the objects left behind by generations of Blackwood women who inhabited the castle. Canned food and chinaware have a special place in Merricat’s heart because they represent the contributions of Blackwood wives and daughters who were continuously oppressed by their husbands, fathers, and brothers. These objects show that women have always followed the stereotype of fulfilling their role of cooks for their families. Food is also a tangible symbol of women being crucial contributors to family dynamics when Merricat murders her family, food changes from the oppressive instrument to the beacon of liberation.
Role of the ‘Castle’
As mentioned earlier, Blackwoods’ family residence has always been of great value for Merricat and her sister, not from a financial but from a historical perspective. To Merricat, the house represented the nature and essence of its female inhabitants: “as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, as so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighing in, and keeping it steady against the world” (Jackson 1). The house was indeed a castle that protected Merricat from the outside world, and she cherished its history in the same way as she cherished her freedom and control over her life after murdering almost the entire family. Despite Merricat’s disdain with the traditional roles that women had to play in their houses, she still enjoyed neatening and cleaning it as an homage to the hard work that she previously had to do: “on Mondays, we neatened […] carefully setting the little things back after we had dusted, never altering the perfect line of our mother’s tortoise-shell comb” (Jackson 42). As the novel climaxes with Blackwood’s estate getting caught on fire that destroyed most of the building, both Merricat and Constance are devastated from the destruction of the place that they held so dearly to their heart despite the oppression that experienced.
Seeing the treasured objects of Blackwood women’s history destroyed is a shock to the sisters because both of them valued the contributions of their ancestors. The author writes, “silverware that had been in the house for generations of Blackwood wives […] tablecloths and napkins hemmed by Blackwood women, and washed and ironed, again and again, mended and cherished” (Jackson 114). These lines illustrate the attachment sisters had to the house and the respect they had for it. Overall, by the numerous ways in which Merricat tried to protect her house and maintain its history, it can be concluded that the ‘castle’ played a significant role in the main characters’ lives. Importantly, it reflected the long tradition of hard work that Blackwood women had to do to make the house feel like home. Unfortunately, no one except for Merricat and Constance understood the value of that work.
The Uncanny Story
In Gothic literature, the uncanny mode is used for providing a look at the darkest sides of humanity. To a large extent, the uncanny brings out the internal conflict that a character may experience because of (the) underlying external conflict (Kristinsson). In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the uncanny is manifested in Merricat’s struggle to get away from the oppressive nature of her family by making a decision to poison her relatives with arsenic. Again, the literary mode relates directly to the key theme of the novel – male-dominated family structures.
The atmosphere that persists in the entire novel can be characterized as uncanny because readers get to know that the protagonist murdered her family and still manage to sympathize with her. Also, the fact that Merricat’s sister also knows about the intentional killing does not seem too over-the-top for readers because they understand that the novel speaks about the most negative characteristics of people, which is inherent to Gothic literature. The uncanny qualities of the protagonist contribute to the overall eerie atmosphere of the novel because her actions are a secret to nobody.
To conclude, family relationships in We Have Always Lived in the Castle as extremely complex. For getting herself and Constance away from the oppressive family dynamics, Merricat makes a decision to murder her relatives. However, in the course of the novel, her family ‘haunts’ Merricat through the figure of Charles, who wants to take power over the Blackwood money and property, thus illustrating the most negative aspects of male-dominated families. The ‘castle’ plays a unique role in the novel; it provides shelter and sanctuary for both sisters while still reminding them of the long history of women being oppressed in its walls. Jackson’s novel is uncanny in its attitude toward family life and the use of Gothic symbolism.
Bartnett, David. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – A House of Ordinary Horror.” The Guardian. 2015, Web.
Begonja, Lucija. Female Characters and Setting in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Thesis, University of J.J. Strossmayer in Osijek, 2017.
Chae, Haesook. “Marx on the Family and Class Consciousness.” A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, vol. 26, no. 2, 2014, pp. 262-277.
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Penguin Modern Classics, 2009.
Kristinsson, Sebastian. “The Split Psyche and the Uncanny in Scottish Literature.” Skemman, 2016, Web.
Lape, Sue Veregge. The Lottery’s Hostage: The Life and Feminist Fiction of Shirley Jackson. Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1992.
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