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We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (original 1962; edition 2006)

by Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (Illustrator), Jonathan Lethem (Introduction)

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2,8701572,016 (4.06)496
Title:We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
Authors:Shirley Jackson
Other authors:Thomas Ott (Illustrator), Jonathan Lethem (Introduction)
Info:Penguin Classics (2006), Edition: Deluxe, Paperback, 160 pages
Collections:Your library, Read but unowned
Tags:2013, Gothic, Family, Mystery, Audiobook, Unreliable Narrator

Work details

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Recently added byJMlibrarian, jeff_h, jlsimon7, private library, myers3, ashcval, TheAmateur
Legacy LibrariesRalph Ellison
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English (154)  Italian (2)  All languages (156)
Showing 1-5 of 154 (next | show all)
A perfect little psychological horror novel. If only I had first read this when I was 12 or 13! The reader never knows for certain what is true. Did Uncle Julian really survive the poisonings? On the first page it states explicitly that "everyone else in our family is dead." Did Merricat really survive the orphanage? Uncle Julian says she didn't. Is Constance as crazy as Merricat or even crazier? What if Constance is really telling this whole story from (dead) Merricat's viewpoint and continuing to play the "little mother" out of guilt? What if therefore there is no Cousin Charles; he is only a projection of Constance's thwarted sexuality? The schoolboys' taunting chant becomes a chilling refrain in the fire scene, and perhaps it is the closest thing to the truth.
"'Merricat,'" said Constance, "'would you like a cup of tea?'" "'Merricat,'" said Constance, "'would you like to go to sleep?'"
IS Merricat the poisoner? Or were the police (and is the legend) correct? ( )
  JMlibrarian | Mar 3, 2015 |
Six years ago, the Blackwood family was wiped out when someone slipped arsenic into their sugar. Only three people survived the tragedy: Uncle Julian, a shadow of his former self after the poison worked through his system; pretty Constance, who declined the sugar, and Merricat, who was sent to her room without supper. The town has long suspected Constance killed her family, because she washed out the bowl after the poisoning, destroying the evidence, and was the only person at the table who didn’t use the tainted sugar. Adding this to the town’s dislike of the haughty Blackwood family, and the three family members are shunned. Only Merricat travels into town to pick up food supplies and library books, while the others remain hidden in their great mansion. But the quiet routine the family has settled into is disrupted when a forgotten cousin comes a-calling, determined to bring the Blackwoods back to their former glory.

The story is narrated by Merricat, a strange young woman obsessed with superstitions and protective magic. Although she’s eighteen, it’s very easy to forget this, as she speaks and acts more like a child half her age. Sometimes I think she has a touch of OCD, because she’s constantly rationalizing, “If I do this, than this can’t happen. If I do this, than this WILL happen.” But maybe that’s paranoia (I’m not so good with mental disorders) instead. Certainly, Merricat is paranoid, and it quickly becomes clear that she’s unreliable. Do the townspeople hate her as much as she claims, or is it all in her head? The reader is left to decide. As the story goes on, Merricat reveals herself to be increasingly troubled and prone to violent outbursts when she doesn’t get her way.

Constance, by contrast, begins the book as the odd one. She’s the quiet, reclusive sister who never goes out, patiently cleaning and cooking and caring for her aged uncle. Yet as the book progresses, and Merricat’s disturbing characteristics emerge, Constance shifts towards normal. By the end of the book, she seems a weary woman trying to protect the world from sociopathic child, not hiding away because she’s scared. In the rare moments that she interacts with the outside world, a glimmer of the delightful young woman she may have become had the family not been beset with tragedy shines, but it’s quickly swallowed up into the dark gloom of the Castle.

Yes, I really did feel sorry for Constance. She’s constantly working to tend the garden or clean the house while her sister Merricat – at eighteen, more than old enough to do proper chores - plays and frolics outdoors. When Charles flirts with her, is it any wonder that she responds? It’s the only time she’s been given any attention for the woman she is, not the murderess of local notoriety or the nursemaid or the playmate.

It’s a chilling psychological tale, told by a young mind twisted by circumstances unknown. Merricat never really talks about her childhood, but it’s clear something terrible must have happened for her to be so warped. Or maybe nothing did – maybe she’s just a broken person who spent too much time reading about poisons and running wild without discipline. Everything about the book is unsettling and creepy. No wonder it’s become such a classic horror novel. ( )
  makaiju | Feb 22, 2015 |
An author I had never read in earnest until now because of being put off by early attempts. In Jackson's case, it was because I figured out what the twist in "The Lottery" was going to be within the first few pages. And I confess, I figured out the twist in _Castle_ early on, as well. But...that doesn't change the fact that it's a masterpiece. From the very first paragraph, you're sucked into a world so real and so logical that you can't think more than superficially about how wrong it is. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. And funny, and horrible. ( )
1 vote emepps | Jan 23, 2015 |
An interesting short work by Shirley Jackson that has echoes of The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery, but which doesn't reach the heights of those two works and also has little in the way of an ending.

The story explores many topics that Jackson touches upon in her other writing: the hidden hostility of a small town community suddenly being vented, the old house with history hidden in the woods, the ambiguous ghost story. Here the remaining Blackwood family members are pariahs to the nearby town because of a murder that begins as murky, but that the story gradually explains. The ultimate explanation as to the perpetrator is obvious from early in the story, but it's the reaction to the information being stated out loud that is more interesting and important. While at first Constance is considering rejoining society after a long exile, by the end it is clear that the remaining Blackwoods will continue to isolate themselves, possibly forever.

Characters choosing to completely cut themselves off from the world can be a resolution, but here it is unclear whether the characters feasibly can take such action, or if Constance has the will to do so, meaning that the book just feels like it ends, not that there is an ending. There is also a dangling thread left suggesting that there is a ghost story here hidden in plain sight, that likewise gets little resolution. While there does not seem to be sufficient evidence for the supernatural angle, by the end of the story the Blackwood sisters have turned themselves into figurative ghosts.

This was an interesting read because of the tone and the experiences that it evoked, but it lacks an ending and covers topics that Jackson explored elsewhere to greater effect, so I rate it a 3/5. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
[WARNING: SPOILERS, not that it matters too much for this novel!]

Shirley Jackson liked to shock, like many of the best, most enduring artists in history. And this, her last novel, achieves that aim in masterful fashion. The narrator, Merricat, is an 18 year old girl, living in a small New England Town. In the first page we know that she is not entirely normal - she appears mildly obssessed with the supernatural and superstition. Merricat comes from the Blackwood family, who seem to have lived in a grand house forever. They are rich, snooty, devoted to keeping order, and hoarding possessions. They are also very private, building fences to keep people off their extensive land. And now the remaining Blackwoods, her ailing uncle Julian and older sister Constance, try to live only in the back of the house, with two of them never leaving it, as if revelling in their agoraphobia.

The first source of shock in the novel comes early from the townsfolk themselves. Merricat is sent out to get the groceries, but it's clear that almost the entire town resents and hates her and her family, and would far prefer it if they all disappeared. Given she is young and female, the coldness of their behaviour is particularly shocking and creates a sense of forboding - although is there a chance Merricat is paranoid? She certainly reacts with childish extreme violence in her mind, wanting just about everyone she meets to die a horrible painful death. Therefore we are never entirely certain that what Merricat describes to us is what actually happened.

The second source of shock is Merricat herself. Jackson has done her voicing so wonderfully that the reader can easily fall into the assumption that she is a normal girl around 8 (even though she is actually 10 years older than this). But normal she most definitely is not. She is utterly obsessed with superstition, and her hatred of change is as vitriolic as her devotion is to her older sister, Constance (a play on the word "constant?"). She puts up talismen everywhere, buries objects, and seems to have an unhealthily comprehensive knowledge of poisons. If something doesn't go exactly as she likes it, she can get violent, smashing crockery on the floor or worse. Or she creates elaborate stories saturated with escapism, such as living on the moon.

Why is the world so threatening to her? It turns out that 6 years ago the large Blackwood family was almost completely wiped out in one dinner, via arsenic in the sugar. Merrycat survived as she was sent to bed without supper, Constance survived as she doesn't like sugar, and Julian had a little sugar, so he was crippled for life, a shadow of his former self. Constance washed out the sugar bowl afterwards, both setting herself up as the prime suspect, and avoiding a conviction due to lack of evidence. But all the townsfolk are still convinced, as perhaps Julian is, that Constance was the murderer. This is one reason why she never ventures out.

But, we find out towards the end of the book (though it isn't the biggest ever surprise, really!) that Constance wasn't the murderer - little 12 year old Merricat was. Did she murder almost everyone out of spite because she was given a rare punishment to be sent to bed without supper? Perhaps she's always just been like this - never growing a proper moral sense, always lashing out violently to the slightest perceived danger. Or perhaps this old, dysfunctional family has darker secrets, that include abuse of Merricat, and Constance was always her sympathiser and attempted protector? We never know the answers to these questions, and can only suspect that someone this warped had to have some very unpleasant events to warp her.

What is clear, though, is that Constance has done all she could over the 6 years to protect Merricat from the world, and the world from Merricat. Merricat is still very much treated like a child - not allowed to prepare food ever, not allowed to play with knives, and so on. She doesn't go to school, and is amazingly ignorant of the world. The sense of timelessness doesn't just pervade the old house and old family, but especially Merricat, who seems unable to develop emotionally, held fast, either by her own broken mind, or her sister's desperate attempts to live with someone who is psychopathically prickly.

The climax of the novel comes after Charles, a cousin, comes to stay, probably just to get his hands on the family wealth. Constance is attracted to him, perhaps sexually (though there is nothing overtly sexual at any point in the novel), but definitely because of the freedom and normalcy he promises her, compared to the drudgery of acting as a cook and servant for Julian and Merricat. Merricat utterly despises Charles (for justifiable reasons), and ends up burning down half the house in response. The townsfolk dutifully come to put the fire out, despite many in the crowd chanting to burn it down, but then en masse they re-enter the carcass of a building, and destroy what they can in a primitive and very disturbing example of group violence, reminiscent of Kristallnacht (Jackson's husband was Jewish and they were victims of considerable anti-semitism themselves). Charles joins the town in his hatred of the house and its inhabitants. Julian is the clearest casualty, presumably being killed by the shock of it all.

In the aftermath, the kitchen becomes the only livable place for Constance and Merricat. The townsfolk begin leaving regular food offerings for the two women, not so much out of guilt or sympathy, but probably because they are even more convinced now that the two are powerful witches. You would think that would be the final break up of the Blackwoods, but no, Constance and Merricat board themselves in and continue, seemingly indefinitely, to live in this one room, proclaiming how happy they are. Merricat probably is. But one can't help but suspect that Constance is screaming inside at the weight of the responsibility she has, to take care of her childish, but supremely destructive sister.

There is something slightly pulp-fiction about this plot, but it is written so deftly that instead it feels like the most intriguing literature. At times the language is lyrical, poetic. It is also very subtle. Most of the time, there are mundane descriptions of food and cleaning, and only occasionally do lines of real significance come to the surface, as if almost everything in Merricat's life is a kind of escape. Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the novel is that she shows no signs of escaping from her guilt, or grief at the lost family. She never shows remorse, and only seems to care for Constance and her cat. Merricat's escape instead is against a world that is so incredibly dark and frightening that you do really need to barricade yourself away from it all. And perhaps the greatest achievement of the novel is that, by the end, with the excesses of the town's brutality and superstition, combined with the twisted ways a mind can occasionally form, we do understand why Merricat and Constance should make such an extreme action as choose to imprison themselves in a derelict house. ( )
1 vote RachDan | Dec 1, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 154 (next | show all)
Of the precocious children and adolescents of mid-twentieth-century American fiction ... none is more memorable than eighteen-year-old "Merricat" of Shirley Jackson's masterpiece of Gothic suspense We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

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Shirley Jacksonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Franzén, TorkelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pareschi, MonicaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. 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. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
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!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
The quiet, isolated life of the Blackwoods--eighteen-year-old Merricat; her older sister, Constance, who may have poisoned their parents six years ago; and their wheelchair-bound uncle--is disrupted by the arrival of a cousin pursuing the family fortune.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143039970, Paperback)

Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives--cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more--like some of her other fictions--as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of." --Sarah Waters

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:42 -0400)

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.

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