Monday, July 16, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle: A look at Shirley Jackson's literary barriers


Barriers are, for me, the central image and metaphor of "We Have Always Live in the Castle" by Shirley Jackson. Barriers to movement, to change, and to understanding thread the narrative and slowly cinch tighter and tighter around the protagonist. These barriers provide the story's meaning, form and structure, and its larger value. 

 It is no accident that we begin the story during the course of one of her periodic trips beyond her house into the hostile territory of the surrounding village. By seeing Merricat outside of her element, we get a better view of the restrictions that color her life. As the story progresses, Merricat's world begins to shrink and shrink until all that is left is a single barricaded kitchen. This increasing claustrophobia functions a little bit how suspense and drama might in another story. Merricat's response to change and conflict is to pull back, to barricade, and to hide. The natural conclusion of this story occurs when Merricat finds an equilibrium with the outside world, a tightly controlled citadel shielding the only things of any importance to her. I sincerely do not doubt Merricat's pronouncement at the end of the story that she is happy. Like a symphony that finally arrives at the chord that completes the melodic progression, this statement is meant to bring the conflict of the story to a close. Whether we, the readers, are happy with the arrangement that Merricat and her sister are able to work out is not important. That they are happy is what matters.

In constructing the story, Jackson deliberately puts barriers in front of our understanding. With the exception of Uncle Julian, no one in the story is particularly interested in uncovering the causes and consequences of the fateful dinner that wiped out the Blackwoods. Constance is wracked by guilt over the events of that night and avoids the topic. Merricat also avoids the topic out of the fear that it will disrupt her relationship with her sister. The townsfolk, while whispering about the murders and shunning the survivors, nevertheless bury the true meaning of the murder under layers of propriety. A reader interested in discovering why Merricat killed her family or why Constance covers for her will not get much help from Jackson's choice in a narrator. Merricat is simply not interested in revealing what lies in the basement of her life. She is concerned with magic and protection. We see her elaborate and continued efforts to prevent the outside from getting in. The truth, behind the motives and methods of the murder, only serves to undermine Merricat's determined defenses.

So this can be a very frustrating read. And a rewarding one. It's a little bit like a mystery story where we are trying to piece together a narrative through the crumbs Merricat provides for us. But the answer to the mystery is not central to the meaning of the story. Ultimately, in terms of resolving the conflict of the story - will Merricat be able to remain with her sister - the mystery is not important. 

What is important is the evolving relationship between Constance and Merricat and the question of whether they will be able to stay together. That is the important question because that is the only question that concerns Merricat, the narrator of the story.
One moment in the story that illustrates that occurs after the terrible fire that destroys half of the Blackwood's home. Hiding from the village, Merricat confesses something that Constance already knows and that the reader must strongly suspect: that she is the true murderer. In a lesser story, this moment would be reserved for the final pages or even words of the story. Rather, Jackson chooses the moment of this confession so that it seems to provoke more questions than it answers. It the confession introduces a conflict between Merricat and her sister. Merricat is in doubt whether her sister will stay with her when various townsfolk and relations come to the ruins of their house. They are tempters, working to pry Constance from Merricat. The tension in these scenes is only removed when Constance apologizes to Merricat for being 'wicked' and, reminding her of 'why they all died.' Merricat is 'chilled,' by this Constance's confession, which gradually reassured. Past this point, the narrative begins to enter a resolution stage, where the sisters gradually settle into a new role as the town's catered pariahs.

The value of this story for me, as a writer, is the use of deliberately simple language to paint a fantastical mental world. Merricat's voice, which is artfully restricted and obscure, points to a technique of creating a world of magic, buried horror, and darkness with an economy of language. Jackson doesn't need to construct towers of artful prose to tell Merricat's story, a simple and direct voice serves the story far better. In fact, Jackson seems to highlight this choice early on by having Uncle Julian adopt a very lofty language while describing the sordid details of his family's death. Jackson seems to suggest the truth of the night is simple but also terribly beside the point.
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