• Email
  • Print

The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson

oates_1-1008092.jpg
June Mirken Mintz
Shirley Jackson, 1938

We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.

—Merricat, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Of the precocious children and adolescents of mid-twentieth-century American fiction—a dazzling lot that includes the tomboys Frankie of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1946) and Scout of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the murderous eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark of William March’s The Bad Seed (1954), and the slightly older, disaffected Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Esther Greenwood of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)—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). At once feral child, sulky adolescent, and Cassandra-like seer, Merricat addresses the reader as an intimate:

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-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Merricat speaks with a seductive and disturbing authority, never drawn to justifying her actions but only to recounting them. One might expect We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be a confession, of a kind—after all, one or another of the Blackwood sisters poisoned their entire family, six years before—but Merricat has nothing to confess, still less to regret. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a romance with an improbable—magical—happy ending. As readers we are led to smile at Merricat’s childish self-definition, as one who dislikes “washing myself”; it will be many pages before we come to realize the significance of Amanita phalloides and the wish to have been born a werewolf.

In this deftly orchestrated opening, Merricat’s wholly sympathetic creator/ collaborator Shirley Jackson has struck every essential note of her Gothic tale of sexual repression and rhapsodic vengeance; as it unfolds in ways both inevitable and unexpected, We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a “happy ending” is both ironic and literal, the consequence of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice—of others.

Like other similarly isolated and estranged hypersensitive young-woman protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s fiction—Natalie of Hangsaman (1951), Elizabeth of The Bird’s Nest (1954), Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House (1959)—Merricat is socially maladroit, highly self-conscious, and disdainful of others. She is “special”—her witchery appears to be self-invented, an expression of desperation and a yearning to stop time with no connection to satanic practices, still less to Satan. (Merricat is too willful a witch to align herself with a putative higher power, especially a masculine power.) Her voice is sharp, funny, engaging—and teasing. For more than one hundred pages Merricat taunts us with what she knows, and we don’t know; her recounting of the tragic Blackwood family history is piecemeal, and in the tangled backstory there is an echo of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—that masterwork of unreliable narration in which we are intimate witnesses to a naively repressed young woman’s voyeuristic experience of sexual transgression and “exquisite pathos.”

Like the innocent pubescent-girl protagonists of The Member of the Wedding and To Kill a Mockingbird, Merricat Blackwood appears to be a typical product of small-town rural America—much of her time is spent outdoors, alone with her companion cat Jonas; she’s a tomboy who wanders in the woods, unwashed and her hair uncombed; she’s distrustful of adults, and of authority; despite being un- educated, she is shrewdly intelligent and bookish. At times Merricat behaves as if mildly retarded, but only outwardly; inwardly, she’s razor-sharp in her observations and hyper-alert to threats to her well-being. (Like many damaged people, Merricat most fears change in the unvarying rituals of her household.) A mysterious amalgam of the childlike and the treacherous, Merricat is “domesticated” by only one person, her older sister Constance:

Wear your boots if you wander today,” Constance told me….

I love you, Constance,” I said.

I love you too, silly Merricat.”

There is a lovely lyricism to her observations when she’s alone and out-of-doors:

The day outside was full of changing light, and Jonas danced in and out of shadows as he followed me…. We were going to the long field which today looked like an ocean, although I had never seen an ocean; the grass was moving in the breeze and the cloud shadows passed back and forth and the trees in the distance moved….

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Even in this pastoral setting Merricat is brought back forcibly to the prejudices of her upbringing: the Blackwoods’ contempt for others.

If Merricat is mad, it’s a “poetic” madness like the madness of the young heroine of Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest, whose subdued personality harbors several selves, or the madness celebrated by Emily Dickinson—“Much Madness is divinest Sense—/To a discerning Eye—/Much Sense—the starkest Madness—/’Tis the Majority….” Her condition suggests paranoid schizophrenia in which anything out of the ordinary is likely to be threatening and all things are signs and symbols to be deciphered—“All the omens spoke of change.” Merricat is determined to deflect “change”—the threat to her household—through witchcraft, a kind of simple, sympathetic magic involving “safeguards”:

the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; as long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us.

Merricat—surely like her creator—is one for whom words are highly potent as well:

On Sunday morning the change was one day nearer. I was resolute about not thinking my three magic words and would not let them into my mind, but the air of change was so strong that there was no avoiding it; change lay over the stairs and the kitchen and the garden like fog. I would not forget my magic words; they were MELODY GLOUCESTER PEGASUS, but I refused to let them into my mind.

By degrees we learn that there are many household tasks that Merricat isn’t allowed to do, like help in preparing food or handle knives. Minor frustrations have a violent effect upon her:

I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode…. I had to content myself with smashing the milk pitcher which waited on the table; it had been our mother’s and I left the pieces on the floor so Constance would see them.

It’s ironic that Merricat’s aristocratic disdain of other people derives from her identification with her rich New England family—now nearly extinct—whom she seems to have hated violently when they were alive. It may have been her parents’ disciplining of her that precipitated the family tragedy when, as Uncle Julian reminisces, Merricat was “a great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper.”

In the novel’s opening, suspenseful chapter, Merricat must make her way from the Blackwood manor house at the edge of the village into town, as the intermediary between the remaining Blackwoods and the outer world:

Fridays and Tuesdays were terrible days, because I had to go into the village. Someone had to go to the library, and the grocery; Constance never went past her own garden, and Uncle Julian could not.

Here is no Grover’s Corners as in Thornton Wilder’s sentimental classic of small-town America, Our Town: this is a New England town of “dirty little houses on the main highway”—a place of unmitigated “ugliness” and “rot” inhabited by individuals poised to “come at [Merricat] like a flock of taloned hawks…birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws.” Hostility toward the Blackwoods seems to have predated the Blackwood poisoning scandal:

The people of the village have always hated us…. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villagers belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them.

I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.

Merricat’s fantasies are childish, alarmingly sadistic: “I am walking on their bodies”—“I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”

I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries…stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves.

Such unmitigated hatred, out of all proportion to any source within We Have Always Lived in the Castle, suggests a savage Swiftian indignation that passes beyond social satire of the kind written by Jackson’s older contemporaries Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken, into the realm of psychopathological caricature. (Jackson’s difficulties with her fellow citizens in North Bennington, Vermont, are well documented in Judy Oppenheimer’s harrowing biography Private Demons (1988): the suggestion is that Jackson and her husband, the flamboyant “Jewish-intellectual” cultural critic Stanley Edgar Hyman—who taught at Bennington College—aroused resentment, if not outright anti-Semitism, in their more conventional Christian neighbors.)

The animosity of the villagers for the Blackwoods suggests both the priggish racism of Jackson’s subtly modulated short story “Flower Garden”—in which a newcomer to a New England village unwisely befriends a resident black man—and the barbaric behavior of the villagers of Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery,” in which a yearly ritual of scapegoating and stoning to death is enacted by lottery. Here, in a place said to closely resemble the North Bennington of Shirley Jackson’s day, a dirge-like tune of unknown origin prevails from generation to generation, unquestioned by the brainless local citizenry: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a jeering chant follows in Merricat’s wake when she ventures into town:

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!

In the village, life is crude, cruel, noisy, and ugly; in the Blackwood manor house, life is quiet, sequestered, governed by the daily custom and ritual of mealtimes, above all inward—“Almost all of our life was lived toward the back of the house, on the lawn and the garden where no one else ever came…. The rooms we used together were the back ones.” The Blackwood house isn’t haunted in quite the way that Hill House is haunted (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…”) but its former, now deceased inhabitants emerge in portentous times, in Merricat’s sleep, calling her name—to warn her? To torment her?

By degrees we discover the secret of the Blackwood house—the poisonings, by arsenic, six years before, of the entire family except Constance, then twenty-two years old, Merricat, then twelve, and their Uncle Julian. Constance, who’d prepared the meal that day, and took care to wash out the sugar bowl before police arrived, was accused of the poisonings, tried, and acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence; Merricat was sent away for the duration of the trial, then brought back to live with Constance and her uncle in their diminished household. (Julian, who has never recovered from the trauma of arsenic poisoning, persists in believing that Merricat died in the “orphanage”—despite the fact that he and his niece inhabit the same house.) Merricat’s uncle is preoccupied with writing up his account of the poisonings:

In some ways, a piece of extraordinarily good fortune for me. I am a survivor of the most sensational poisoning case of the century. I have all the newspaper clippings. I knew the victims, the accused, intimately, as only a relative living in the very house could know them. I have exhaustive notes on all that happened. I have never been well since.

Why no one seems to suspect—as the reader does, immediately—that the unstable Merricat, not the amiable Constance, is the poisoner is one of the curiosities of the novel, as it’s a mystery why Constance is so indulgent of Merricat, who contributes nothing to the household. Certainly there’s little subterfuge in Merricat’s teasing of others, in alluding to various kinds of poisons; her tormenting of her cousin Charles contains a transparent threat:

The Amanita phalloides,” I said to [Charles], “holds three different poisons. There is amanitin, which works slowly and is most potent. There is phalloidin, which acts at once, and there is phallin, which dissolves red corpuscles…. The symptoms begin with violent stomach pains, cold sweat, vomiting…. Death occurs between five and ten days after eating.”

Constance’s mild reproach: “Silly Merricat.”

In much of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, food is fetishized to an extraordinary degree; ironic then, that the Blackwood family should be poisoned by one of their own, out of a family-heirloom sugar bowl. That the food fetish has its erotic component is suggested by the means of poison—Amanita phalloides—and by the way Merricat so totally depends upon her older sister as a food provider, as if she were an unweaned infant and not a “great child” grown into an adult. Sexual attraction per se is virtually nonexistent in Jackson’s fiction: the single sexual episode in all of her work appears to be a molestation of some kind, short of rape, that occurs in an early scene of Hangsaman—“Oh my dear God sweet Christ, Natalie thought, so sickened she nearly said it aloud, is he going to touch me?”—but the episode isn’t described, and is never acknowledged by the afflicted young woman, who gradually succumbs to schizophrenia.

Nowhere in Jackson’s work is food more elaborately fetishized than in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have virtually nothing to do but inhabit their blighted house and “eat the year away” in meals that the older sister prepares for them, three times a day, like clockwork, as in a Gothic parody of the comical self-portraits Shirley Jackson created for the women’s magazine market in the 1950s. In such best-selling books as Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1956), a housewife-mother’s frustrations are transformed by a deft twist of the wrist into, not a grim account of disintegration and madness, still less the poisoning of her family, but light-hearted comedy. (It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-eight, shortly after the publication of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism, and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom—as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.)

As Merricat has uneasily sensed, “change” is imminent, and will bring with it the invasion of the Blackwood household. Without having been invited, the sisters’ boorish cousin Charles arrives, intent upon stealing their deceased father’s money, which he believes to be in a safe; he dares to take Mr. Blackwood’s position at the head of the dining room table—“He even looks like father,” Constance says. Unwisely Charles threatens his young cousin Merricat: “I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to do with you…. But whatever I do, you’ll remember it.”

It’s a measure of Constance’s desperation that though Charles is not a very attractive man, she appears drawn to him, as a way into a possible new life, a prospect terrifying to Merricat. Yet the slightest wish on Constance’s part for something other than her stultifying robot-existence causes Merricat to react threateningly, for the sisters’ secret is the intimate bond between them that sets them apart from all of the world. Throughout the novel there is the prevailing threat of the murderous Merricat, whose fantasy life is obsessed with rituals of power, dominance, and revenge: “Bow your heads to our beloved Mary Katherine…or you will be dead.”

The hideous arsenic deaths constitute the secret heart of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as unspecified sexual acts appear to be at the heart of The Turn of the Screw: the taboo yet irresistible subject upon which all thinking, all speech, all actions turn. The sisters are linked forever by the deaths of their family, as in a quasi-spiritual-incestuous bond by which each holds the other in thrall. Food shopping (by Merricat), food preparation (by Constance), and food consumption (by both) are the sacred or erotic rituals that bind them, even after the house has been partly demolished by fire and they are living in its ruins:

It is a very happy place, though.” Constance was bringing breakfast to the table: scrambled eggs and toasted biscuits and blackberry jam she had made some golden summer. “We ought to bring in as much food as we can,” she said….

I will go on my winged horse and bring you cinnamon and thyme, emeralds and clove, cloth of gold and cabbages.”

Witchcraft is a primitive attempt at science; an attempt to assert power by the powerless. Traditionally witchcraft, like voodoo and spiritualism, has been the province of marginal individuals of whom most are women and girls. In Shirley Jackson’s novel of multiple personalities, The Bird’s Nest, the afflicted young heroine’s psychiatrist—aptly named Dr. Wright—tries to explicate the bizarre psychic phenomena he has been trying to “cure”:

Each life, I think…asks the devouring of other lives for its own continuance; the radical aspect of ritual sacrifice, the performance of a group, its great step ahead, was in organization; sharing the victim was so eminently practical….

The doctor spoke slowly, in a measured voice…: “The human creature at odds with its environment…must change either its own protective coloration, or the shape of the world in which it lives. Equipped with no magic device beyond…intelligence…the human creature finds it tempting to endeavor to control its surroundings through manipulated symbols of sorcery, arbitrarily chosen, and frequently ineffectual.”

Shirley Jackson is rarely so explicit in her thematic intentions: it’s as if her literary critic/English professor husband Stanley Edgar Hyman were lecturing to her, in a manner that sounds like mild self-parody even as it helps to illuminate both the tangled Bird’s Nest and the ruined Castle.

After Merricat sets a fire in the Blackwood house in the hope of expelling her detested cousin Charles, the yet more detested villagers swarm onto the private property. Some are firemen who seem sincere in their efforts to put out the fire but most want to see the Blackwood house destroyed: “Why not let it burn?… Let it burn!” The jeering rhyme is heard again:

Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

Radical change has swept upon the Blackwoods through the agency of Merricat, ironically. The fire she sets causes the death of Uncle Julian; the sisters are forced to flee into the woods; villagers enter the private residence and vandalize it. Yet when the sisters return, in a tenderly elegiac scene, they discover that though most of the rooms are uninhabitable, all they require—a kitchen, primarily, where Constance can continue to prepare meals for Merricat—has been left intact. As if by magic the old house has been transformed: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.” Against all expectations the Blackwood sisters are happy in their private paradise “on the moon.”

I love you, Constance,” I said.

And I love you, my Merricat.”

Constance has succumbed to Merricat entirely: the “good” sister has yielded to the “evil” sister. Constance even berates herself for being “wicked”—“I should never have reminded you of why they all died”—in this way acknowledging her complicity in the deaths. Now we understand why Constance never accused Merricat of the poisonings or made any attempt to defend herself against accusations that she was the murderer, for in her heart, she was and is the Blackwoods’ murderer, and not Merricat; that is, not only Merricat. Her acknowledgment tacitly guarantees the sisters’ permanent expulsion from the world of normal people—a world in which the psychologically damaged Merricat could not survive.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends on an unexpectedly idyllic note, like a fairy-tale romance in which lovers have found each other and even the villagers, repentant of their cruelty, pay the Blackwood sisters homage by bringing food offerings to them, left at the ruins of their doorstep:

Sometimes they brought bacon, home-cured, or fruit, or their own preserves…. Mostly they brought roasted chicken; sometimes a cake or a pie, frequently cookies, sometimes a potato salad or coleslaw…. Sometimes there were pots of baked beans or macaroni.

Here is the very Eros of food, an astonishing wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the agoraphobic is not pitied but revered, idolized; the destruction of her house isn’t death to her, but a new life protected by magic: “My new magical safeguards were the lock on the front door, and the boards over the windows, and the barricades along the sides of the house.” Repeatedly as in a rapture Merricat cries, “Oh, Constance, we are so happy.” The sisters’ jokes are slyly food-oriented, of course:

I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”

I doubt if I could cook one,” said Constance.

  • Email
  • Print