One of the defining qualities of literature is its ability to create a connection between the audience and a seemingly alien and impossible-to-relate-to character. The book begins, and a protagonist is presented. Immediately, it is apparent that you have nothing in common with this character, yet you trudge on through the novel. Now, if this person is described well enough and has just enough relatable humanity, you realize a connection to this person that you did not recognize before. We Have Always Lived In The Castle goes through these motions, but with a very important final step added: in the end, we realize that we actually cannot relate to this character. We have been duped, and we have been the antagonist all along.
A Struggle in the Reader
Shirley Jackson's final novel is presented through the perspective of Mary Katherine Blackwood (aka Merricat), a quirky and morbid girl who lives in isolation with her uncle and sister. Merricat's perspective is a unique blend of heart-warming admiration for her family and gruesome distaste for the people of the village. The novel begins with Merricat being ridiculed on her way home from the store (at this point the audience does not know why she is being treated this way), and she explains her feelings towards the townspeople: "I thought of them rotting away and curling in pain and crying out loud; I wanted them doubled up and crying on the ground in front of me." The juxtaposition of the poor treatment with this macabre death wish creates a conflict in the reader: we are supposed to feel bad for this girl? That's a pretty strong condemnation for some seemingly innocent teasing.
As the book progresses, the reader learns more about the past of the Blackwoods and why they receive this poor treatment. Constance, Merricat's sister, was accused and acquitted of poisoning and killing a large portion of the Blackwood family (their parents, brother, and aunt). This would seemingly distance the reader from the protagonist, but the reveal of these gristly details are intertwined with genuine, loving interactions within the family. The loving relationship between the Blackwoods, including Constance's protection over her little sister and Merricat's pledge to be kinder to her Uncle Julian, make the characters relatable and harbor empathy in the reader. Speculation that the family is made up of homicidal maniacs falls by the wayside.
A Phantom in the Castle
The connection to the Blackwoods is only enforced when Charles Blackwood, the cousin of Merricat and Constance, is introduced. Charles seems genuine enough at first, but Merricat paradoxically refers to him as a "ghost" throughout his stay, and is constantly inconveniencing him. She puts dirt and broken glass from outside into his bedroom, and rattles off facts about fatal fungi: "The Amantia phalloides . . . holds three different poisons. There is amanitin, which works slowly and is most potent." The poor cousin's stay and the seemingly unwarranted treatment by Merricat leans the reader toward bewilderment and annoyance at the protagonist, until it is revealed that Charles has only returned to retrieve money left behind by his uncle (the father of Constance and Merricat). Jackson lures us away from Merricat, only to reveal that she was right all along. Charles truly was a ghost: a phantom, hiding his true motivations from nearly everyone.
Shirley Jackson could have ended the book with Charles being revealed as a terrible human being, and a typical story conflict would have been resolved. Instead, Jackson is sure to enforce a truly terrifying fact: Charles is not a terrible person. He is merely a normal person. This idea is solidified when the Blackwood house is caught on fire (by Merricat, no less: and she never feels any remorse for her actions). After the fire brigade arrives and puts the fire out, the townspeople (along with the men who just put out the fire) storm the Blackwood house and trash everything in sight. It is the most startling moment of the novel, and it is made even more horrifying when the audience understands that we are part of that wild mob. The reader has been privy to information about the Blackwoods, but like many other modern mysteries and urban legends, everyone else only knows what they are told by others. A gap is created between the reader and Merricat that is never bridged. The novel ends with a strange amalgamation of feelings within the reader: the Blackwoods have found peace, but it is understood that we cannot relate to their feelings.
Most books evoke some type of inward reflection after being completed. Sometimes that reflection involves seeing ourselves in a character or discovering parallels between the story's journey and our own lives. Finishing We Have Always Lived In The Castle undoubtedly causes reflection, but it is also a humbling, unsettling moment. Despite the reader's best efforts to find a piece of Merricat within ourselves, it is a failed battle. The Blackwoods are true pariahs, and most cannot relate to their plight. The true horror is uncovered when we realize we have more in common with Charles than Merricat, even if we are not all insufferably greedy. We are all ghosts in the eyes of the Blackwoods.