Voice of Women in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Jackson’s last completed novel and a best seller, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is her most radical statement on the causes and consequences of female victimization and alienation, a theme that runs throughout her work. When the book opens, masculine authority has already suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Mary Katherine Blackwood, its narrator although the identity of poisoned is not revealed or confirmed until the climactic scene much later. The poisoning has resulted in a transfer of power from Blackwood men to Blackwood women. The motive of the poisoning is not clear at first, but we are given clues in the characterization of the victims throughout the narrative. Merricat follows strict rituals to get through her days. In fact, she plans how to furnish her house on the moon where she wants to live with her sister.
Merricat and her sister Constance are like night and day, different but complete. While Merricat is the uncivilized good woman with regenerative power, “a virtual handmaiden of nature, raising and canning fruits and vegetables, and tending flowers all over the estate,”322 and also caring for uncle Julian with patience. Merricat wanders in the wood all day, Constance, on the hand, does the household duties and welcomes Merricat in the evenings. She plays harp, which Merricat admires, and she can “put names to all the growing things.”323 Michael L. Nardacci makes an interesting observation regarding the two sisters. Even the women’s names are suggestive: Instead of civilized “Mary Katherine,” the narrator is usually called by the nickname that evokes a witch’s companion spirit- “Merricat” “Constance on the other hand, emerges as a character who is trying to keep link with the past, maintaining her home and its occupants in the same style.324
Throughout the novel, Merricat checks her position with Constance by saying, “I love you.” If Constance answers, Merricat is assured that no trouble exists between them and that their little, isolated world will continue on as usual (68). Merricat finds that the world in which she lives is not to her satisfaction; although her means of changing her situation (murder) is morally wrong, Merricat takes her world and fate into her hands, changing it in the only way she found available. Although Merricat spends most of the novel fighting to maintain the social structure she has created, she originally displayed her warrior state before the opening of the novel by retaliating against the patriarchy which had inhibited her. Merricat acts as warrior because she rids herself of those who try to dominate her without her approval. She not only fights her dragon (the familial domination) but she attacks it head on and without warning. Merricat is the only one of Jackson’s three characters who approaches her situation not by looking inward to try to fix herself but by looking outward and attacking the societal problem.
The novel ends with Merricat’s second successful battle against the patriarchy. Even though Jackson ends her story with a reestablishment of the new female ruling class, the structure is obviously not our which would appeal to many people. But is it better than being dominated by men? Jackson may be saying yes simply by ending the story in that light. However, We Have Always Lived in the Castle does say for certain that while the patriarchy leads many women to crumble under its power, some women fight back and actually succeed in staving off the effects of that society’s structure.
- Docherty, Brain. Introduction: Horror, the Doul of the Past. American Horror Fiction. Ed. Brain Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s press, 1990.
- Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in The Castle, New York: Penguin Books, 1948.
- Nardacci, L. Micheal. Theme, Character, and Technique in the Novel of Shirley Jackson. New York. 1979.
- Parks, John G. Chambers of Yearning: Shirley Jackson’s Use of the Gothic in Twentieth Century Literature, 1984.
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