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…
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