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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

  

10 members have voted

  1. 1. How did you get along with the book, then?

    • Whoa. Changed my life.
      1
    • Well. That was pretty good, actually.
      8
    • Hmm. Interesting enough, I suppose.
      1
    • Meh. Nothing earth-shattering.
      0
    • Blah. Just... Blah.
      0


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Note: NO SPOILER TAGS NEEDED IN THIS THREAD. It is assumed that everyone will have read the book before joining in on the discussion,* so you may dissect plot twists to your heart's content.

 

* except me, unfortunately - I'm currently halfway through and sailing forth at unprecedented speed - but don't worry about ruining anything for me; in fact, I am finding this the kind of book where atmosphere and characters matter far more than any plotline, so in a sense it makes no difference to me how it actually ends.

 

 

We Have Always Lived in The Castle by Shirley Jackson

 

Synopsis from Amazon:

 

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.

 

A few general questions to get us all revved up:

 

1. Who was your favourite character and why?

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed / disliked more than the rest?

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre / by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

4. Were there any parts / ideas you struggled with?

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

A few more, borrowed from Book Club Queen.com:

 

a. Did you learn something you didn't know before?

b. Do you feel as if your views on a subject have changed / have you had life changing revelation reading this text?

c. What major emotion did the story evoke in you?

d. At what point did you decide if you liked the book or not?

e. If you could change anything, what would it be and why?

 

 

 

You shall have my own hard-pondered answers to these questions in the morning. In the meantime, I'm simply dying to hear your views so... get discussing, circlers!

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As promised, my hard-pondered answers:

1. Who was your favourite character and why?

Uncle Julian. I found him both funny and tender in his extremes. When he railed on passionately about the day of the murder he reminded me (in a good way, is there any other?) of Tim Curry's crime-solving butler in Clue, the film of the boardgame; when he starts forgetting people and things, he fills my heart with sadness - yet (like Merricat) I am happy that he has someone to look after him so lovingly.

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed / disliked more than the rest?

So far, my favourite bit would have to be Helen Clarke and Mrs. Wright's visit; the separate but related conversations (between Constance / Helene Clarke and Uncle Julian / Mrs. Wright) were handled really masterfully: almost with no need for speech indicators (I.e. 'he / she said'), each character had enough of an individual voice to be immediately recognisable. The scene crowded my head with sounds and made me giddy, which I find all the more impressive because I have next to visualisation skills - I mostly think in lines of typed text, and therefore usually find it really hard to visualise what I'm reading.

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre / by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

Although this is by no means the first work of gothic fiction I've read, it is the first by Shirley Jackson. I am enjoying it immensely, and would definitely give anything else of hers a go.

4. Were there any parts / ideas you struggled with?

During Merricat's walking game through the village at the beginning, it seemed to me like the Rochester house couldn't decide what side of the street it was on, which vexed me because I like to be able to have a blueprint of locations in my head.

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

I'm finding it exceptional in a refreshingly simple - yet not so simple as it may first seem - way, so definitely.

 

a. Did you learn something you didn't know before?

I've learnt that you can far more easily kill someone with the produce from your vegetable patch than with traditional poisoning, and that therefore arsenic is a silly way of offing people.

b. Do you feel as if your views on a subject have changed / have you had life changing revelation reading this text?

No - I think I am liking it so much because it speaks to feelings and opinions about the toleration of the other which are already within me.

 

c. What major emotion did the story evoke in you?

Compassion - I find myself wishing I could shelter the Blackwoods from the unrelenting judgment of the outside world.

d. At what point did you decide if you liked the book or not?

It drew me in pretty much immediately, with its balance of dark themes and joyful use of language.

 

e. If you could change anything, what would it be and why?

Even though I think it's intentional - Jackson doesn't really repeat herself otherwise - the constant use of the sentence 'I was chilled' niggles at me - Merricat's chilled, we get it, enough's enough.

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I'm trying to finish Son of a Witch before starting on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I should get it read over the weekend. I'm really looking forward to it - even more so after your comments, Giulia :)

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I am also about half way through the book, and enjoying it very much! So far Merricat and her compulsions have been a little irksome yet intriguing to me, right now, I suspect she is the arsenic killer... but who knows!

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

 

I don't think I have a favorite character, maybe Jonas, I just didn't LOVE any of the characters? I feel like Merricat is too quirky, Constance is too wishy-washy, and Uncle Julian while funny was so far gone that I just felt sorry for him. I loved to hate Charles in all of his fakeness, and even though I knew that Merricat was responsible for the fire, I liked to blame Charles for it (just like Merricat).

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed / disliked more than the rest?

 

I really enjoyed the scene when Uncle Julian was telling the story of the night everyone died to Mrs. Wright. It was very funny to hear Helen Clarke get all worked up about it, while Mrs. Wright was beside herself in curiosity. All the while Constance and Merricat sort of watched it all unfold, while Uncle Julian had his stage.

 

I disliked the part when Merricat went to the summer house- I really found that whole part to be boring, maybe I'm missing something significant, but I just didn't really enjoy that part.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre / by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

 

Yes, I've never read anything like this, and I liked it! I like the way Shirley Jackson writes, it is very easy to read, and you can tell that every word is meaningful. I think I may read more of Jackson's works in the future.

 

4. Were there any parts / ideas you struggled with?

 

I struggled with Constance and how trusting she was towards Charles. It was extremely frustrating to me (and I think Merricat as well) that Constance allowed Charles to fool her and even alter how she treated Uncle Julian and Merricat. Charles had no right to assume control of how things ran after only a few days in their house (as a guest) and Constance just fed right into it. :(

 

I was also sort of annoyed with the repetition in Merricat's narration the many references to death and visualizing people dead, going to the moon, and being chilled - to me it started to get sort of old after a while.

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

 

I didn't love the book, but I liked it very much. It wasn't the sort of book where I couldn't put it down, but I also maintained a great interest in the characters and what was going to happen next. It was interesting to see the change in how the villagers treated the Blackwoods after the fire. The Blackwoods were the same people and acted and lived much the same - but once their house and belongings were damaged the villagers felt very differently about them.

 

 

a. Did you learn something you didn't know before?

I've learnt that you can far more easily kill someone with the produce from your vegetable patch than with traditional poisoning, and that therefore arsenic is a silly way of offing people.

I second that! Why the need for arsenic?!

 

b. Do you feel as if your views on a subject have changed / have you had life changing revelation reading this text?

 

I don't think there are any revelations going on for me especially not life changing. I have been pondering the theme of how things aren't always as they appear. The Blackwoods appear to have everything: a huge expensive house, money, fancy belongings; when really all they have is each other (not even their sanity). Charles appeared to have good intentions but really was just a jerk and didn't even try hard to hide his true colors!

 

c. What major emotion did the story evoke in you?

 

I mostly felt pity for the Blackwoods, they were (fairly or unfairly) targeted by the villagers, lived in fear, and allowed Charles to take advantage of them.

 

d. At what point did you decide if you liked the book or not?

 

I liked it after reading the synopsis - I was so intrigued by the plot! Then I liked it even more when I fell in love with Jackson's writing style.

 

e. If you could change anything, what would it be and why?

 

I want to know more about what happened before the arsenic murder. :irked:

 

The unanswered question:

Why did Merricat poison her family? We can see why she was pushed to act on the Charles situation- but why her own family? She seems to talk favorably about her parents, and her and Constance both value their families belongings like treasure. So what was the catalyst?

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It's interesting that we have the same favourite scene; maybe that says something about how significant for character development that scene truly is?

 

While I agree that Constance is rather wishy-washy - to me, she made sense only as the object of Merricat's and (when lucid) Julian's affection, as opposed to a character in her own right - I wasn't that bothered by how little time it took Charles to influence her. It would have annoyed me in a more conventional, realistic novel; We Have Always Lived in the Castle though struck me as a fairytale, and we all know that in fairytales the maid is usually married to the prince within a day or two of having met the bloke. This is of course not a traditional tale of maids and princes, but the generalised feel of the background against which the main characters are pitted ('the villagers' were to me a single character, like a monster with far too many heads; even the dead Blackwoods had more substance than them) put me in mind of the vague 'rogues and villains' which - unlike the hero(ine)s - we can get by knowing next to nothing about.

 

Like you, I quickly got tired of Merricat being chilled. I was, however, affected by her visalising people dead - which I freely admit to often having done when ostracised and ridiculed as she was at her age - and fantasising about going to the moon - which seemed to me like such a heartbreakingly poignant way of expressing just how much she longs to feel safe at last. I also thought I spotted a reference to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (my favourite epic poem), where Orlando's friend flies on the back of a hippogriff to the moon, where all the things that are lost on Earth end up, to find the sanity that Orlando had mislaid following a love disappointment. Before a flying horse, Merricat had wanted a griffin (which is related to the hyppogriff), and it seems to me like she felt that (because everything on Earth was so strange, horrible and painful to her) the moon may well be the place to regain sanity and happiness.

 

My inner Curious George would also like to know more about the arsenic murder. That said, I think Jackson was trying to pass on the message that what happened didn't actually matter, because no one should be treated the way the Blackwoods were by the villagers - guilty or no.

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I think I like the Julian/Helen Clarke/Mrs. Wright scene so much because it is one of the few scenes that had me laughing. The rest of the book is enjoyable but not so comical as that particular scene - and it is so easy to visualize!

 

 

I also have to wonder- how long did the Blackwood girls live in their house? Did the house withstand time and weather for them to live out their days? I am assuming we don't have answers because it doesn't really belong to this story or the message that Jackson was sending... but you have to wonder! What would they have done if their house collapsed? Why not move to the dreaded summer house?

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1. Who was your favourite character and why?

 

I enjoyed all the characters very much, in different ways, but my favourite character was actually Constance; she was such a caring, nurturing person, quietly looking after Merricat and Uncle Julian and taking care of all their needs.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed / disliked more than the rest?

 

My absolute favourite part was when Mrs Wright and Helen Clarke came to tea. It really made me laugh.

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre / by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

 

I haven't read anything else by Shirley Jackson, but would be happy to try another book by her. I didn't think I had read much gothic fiction until I looked the genre up on Wikipedia, when I discovered many of my favourite books come into that category!

 

4. Were there any parts / ideas you struggled with?

 

I was very uncomfortable when Charles was insinuating himself into Constance's affections and making clear his dislike for Merricat, and the wild and cruel behaviour of the villagers when they were destroying the Blackwood's home and belongings was an unpleasant reminder of just how quickly the veneer of civilisation can disappear.

 

I also struggled with just how childish Merricat was. At eighteen I was an adult, married and running a home, so at times I found her self-indulgence tiresome. I know she was obviously unstable, but I kept having to remind myself that she wasn't about eight years of age.

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

 

Very! I thought it was very well written, and enjoyed the story all the way through.

 

a. Did you learn something you didn't know before?

 

Hmm, not that I can think of just now.

 

b. Do you feel as if your views on a subject have changed / have you had life changing revelation reading this text?

 

No, I'm afraid not!

 

c. What major emotion did the story evoke in you?

 

I really did enjoy the whole book, but I suppose the emotion I felt most of the way through was annoyance with Merricat's childishness.

 

d. At what point did you decide if you liked the book or not?

 

I liked the sound of the book, and enjoyed it from beginning to end.

 

e. If you could change anything, what would it be and why?

 

I would have liked Merricat to show some empathy for what Constance's life was like, caring for two people who never did anything for themselves, and help her more.

 

 

Wondering what caused Merricat to murder most of her family is very intriguing. I like to imagine that it was something to do with the quarrel Uncle Julian heard between Merricat's mother and father, with her mother saying "I won't have it, I won't stand for it, John Blackwood" and her father replying "We have no choice". Along with Constance saying that "Merricat was always in disgrace ... She was a wicked, disobedient child" it makes me imagine that perhaps Merricat overheard that she was going to be sent away, perhaps to school for discipline or even to a mental institution of some sort, and that she decided then to take drastic action to stop that happening!

 

I think one of the best things about the book is the number of loose ends like that there are to exercise your imagination on.

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I'm only up to page 50, read that much last night and haven't had much reading time today. I am enjoying it though, and although I haven't formed too many opinions yet, I must add that anyone that has read Faulkner would recognize these people. The neurotic and compulsive behavior is interestingly like what I expect of his characters.

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That's interesting, pontalba. I haven't read any Faulkner yet, but I bought a second hand Easton Press edition of The Sound and the Fury just this week (only £10 including postage so not as extravagant as it sounds!), so I might have to bump it up my TBR list. :)

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.......... I suspect she is the arsenic killer... but who knows!

I did too, although I was afraid it might be the too obvious choice. What I really want to know is WHY? Why did Merricat poison her parents and the one sibling? I got that the mother was probably not mentally sound and ruled the family when it was mentioned that no one went into the summer house because the mother didn't. And the reason the mother didn't [from what I could gather] was because she'd seen a rat in the door once. Duh, country, woods. You're gonna see critters sometimes.

Plus it was made obvious that Constance was complicit in the murders, after all, she did say she knew what was in the sugar.

Merricat probably used arsenic in the sugar because she knew who would eat it. ???

 

That's interesting, pontalba. I haven't read any Faulkner yet, but I bought a second hand Easton Press edition of The Sound and the Fury just this week (only £10 including postage so not as extravagant as it sounds!), so I might have to bump it up my TBR list. :)

The only Faulkner I've read so far is Absalom, Absalom! and enjoyed it throughly.

Jackson has a far simpler prose style, and gee, her sentences don't run on forever either. But. Her characterizations are spot on. I loved the fact that she presented all the neurosis of all involved in such a way that showed Merricat and Constance felt they were normal. I love unreliable narrators to begin with, and oh to be a fly on the wall when Merricat was walking through town on her grocery trip! Perfect presentation. Now really....some of the townspeople were pretty mean to her, and it gives some substance to her "paranoia". Plus of course all the damage they did to the house after the fire, and the nastiness. Mob mentality to the Nth degree.

The shame they exhibited for their crimes, the bringing of food, meals etc was certainly pale in comparison.

 

1. Who was your favourite character and why?

they were all perfectly done IMO, it's hard for me to pick only one favorite, I'd have to go with two at least. Merricat and Uncle Julian. He is so deliciously vague but so on target with his character assessment of Charles. And Merricat because even though she has done something truly terrible she is brave in her own way and defends her family, and she Loves freely and happily.

 

2. Was there a particular part you enjoyed / disliked more than the rest?

well, like most others, the tea party scene was priceless. But I also thought the part in the very beginning, Merricat's trek through the town was amazing. Jackson's description of Merricat's multitudinous fears was wonderful.

 

 

3. Was this the first book you've read in this genre / by this author, has it encouraged you to read more?

Yup, first Jackson, and I have two more in the stack. Love her style.

 

4. Were there any parts / ideas you struggled with?

Can't say there were.

 

5. Overall, was reading the book an enjoyable experience?

Definitely!

 

A few more, borrowed from Book Club Queen.com:

 

a. Did you learn something you didn't know before?

No.

 

b. Do you feel as if your views on a subject have changed / have you had life changing revelation reading this text?

Not a one.

 

c. What major emotion did the story evoke in you?

Pity and frustration.

 

d. At what point did you decide if you liked the book or not?

Immediately.

 

e. If you could change anything, what would it be and why?

Some clarification on the reason Merricat poisoned the family members. While I think I know why, I'd have liked at least one incident to be able to point to and say, yes, that's the tip of the iceberg.

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New, shiny, gripping questions coming up in a new, shiny, gripping post in just a minute (you didn't really think I'd abandon you, now did you?) but first, let me take up some of you guys' excellent points:

 

I also have to wonder - how long did the Blackwood girls live in their house? Did the house withstand time and weather for them to live out their days? I am assuming we don't have answers because it doesn't really belong to this story or the message that Jackson was sending...
I think that's precisely it, Jen - we're not told because knowing wouldn't (shouldn't...?) make a difference to our feelings about the story and characters. If pressed though, I'll say I'd like to think that the gothic fairy tale has its happy ending: traditional fairy tales usually achieve one no matter the amount of blood and tears shed in the intervening pages (just think of the ogre princesses who had their throats accidentally slit by their father in Tom Thumb, or the pit of snakes and venomous frogs the prince's mother tried sending Sleeping Beauty and her children into!), so I like to imagine that Merricat and Constance did live out the rest of their days in (their definition of) happiness.

 

I enjoyed all the characters very much, in different ways, but my favourite character was actually Constance; she was such a caring, nurturing person, quietly looking after Merricat and Uncle Julian and taking care of all their needs.
I hadn't looked at her that way; admittedly she is very strong - in an unobtrusive way, which has a realer quality to it than brute, pushy strengtht. Thanks for helping me see that, Ooshie.

 

I haven't read anything else by Shirley Jackson, but would be happy to try another book by her. I didn't think I had read much gothic fiction until I looked the genre up on Wikipedia, when I discovered many of my favourite books come into that category!
Out of interest, what would those be :)? I love gothic fiction and this latest delve into the genre didn't disappoint, so I'd be glad to scout out any good ones I might have missed!

 

Merricat probably used arsenic in the sugar because she knew who would eat it???
I think so - it seems to me like she wanted to protect herself and those of the family who she didn't perceive as being against her from those she did consider a threat.

 

I also struggled with just how childish Merricat was. At eighteen I was an adult, married and running a home, so at times I found her self-indulgence tiresome. I know she was obviously unstable, but I kept having to remind myself that she wasn't about eight years of age.
I on the other hand found her fascinating, but then I've always had a penchant for weirdness of character, and being prone to seemingly pointless daydreaming myself I found myself mesmerised by her bizarre inner life. I felt for her, and wished life was as easy as wishing yourself on the moon to escape from pain.

 

Wondering what caused Merricat to murder most of her family is very intriguing. I like to imagine that it was something to do with the quarrel Uncle Julian heard between Merricat's mother and father, with her mother saying "I won't have it, I won't stand for it, John Blackwood" and her father replying "We have no choice". Along with Constance saying that "Merricat was always in disgrace... She was a wicked, disobedient child" it makes me imagine that perhaps Merricat overheard that she was going to be sent away, perhaps to school for discipline or even to a mental institution of some sort, and that she decided then to take drastic action to stop that happening!
A mental institution was my guess, too - obviously detached from reality, she likely went to far with her defiance of rules other than her own at one point, causing her father to suggest she be sent away to be 'cured'. Her mother, though she protested against the idea, could have done more to actively protect her, and therefore (in Merricat's view) was no less dangerous than her father. The motive for the murder would then be at least understandable, given that the methods still around in the 1960s must have sounded like unadulterated torture, particularly for a teenager with the mind of a child who just wanted to live insider her own head.

 

I think one of the best things about the book is the number of loose ends like that there are to exercise your imagination on.
I'm normally not a fan of loose endings, but they didn't bother me here because I took it as a fairytale / fable / parable / allegory rather than a straightforward narrative novel.

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New, shiny, gripping questions (from The Reading Club):

 

  • Does the book challenge the stereotypes of its genre [gothic] in any way? Does it break the mould?
  • Do you feel that it was dated well?
  • What kind of person would you recommend this book to?
  • Do you agree with the reviews of the book you've read?
  • How well do the book’s cover and synopsis of your edition represent the book? Do they suit the story / do it justice?
  • If you were writing a sequel, what would you plan for the characters?

From Suite 101:

 

  • Which character does the author feel the strongest affinity with and why?
  • Which character does the author hate the most and how does the reader know that?
  • How does the author feel about existence and life? Does the author ultimately give hope to the human condition? How does the reader see that through the novel?

Expect my own views & musings very shortly - in the meantime, what d'y'all think?

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Out of interest, what would those be :)? I love gothic fiction and this latest delve into the genre didn't disappoint, so I'd be glad to scout out any good ones I might have missed!

 

Among those mentioned that I love were:

 

The Fall of the House of Usher - Edgar Allan Poe

The Monkey's Paw - W W Jacobs

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

I am Legend - Richard Matheson

Salem's Lot - Stephen King

Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice

The Shining - Stephen King

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

 

A few they mentioned that I own but haven't read yet are:

 

The novels of Anne Radcliffe (I own a set but shamefully haven't opened one of them yet!)

The Monk - Matthew Gregory Lewis

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

 

The genre is obviously much wider than I realised. Do you have particular favourites to recommend yourself?

 

particularly for a teenager with the mind of a child who just wanted to live insider her own head

 

I like that description of Merricat, BookJumper, that helps me think of her more kindly. :)

 

Now, off to think about these new questions...

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I've never really gotten to grips with Poe (my loss I'm sure, everyone I know who shares my tastes seems to revere him so it's all very odd), on the other hand I absolutely loved Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat - although I always thought they were flat out horror rather than gothic...? - so I'll look into the titles you mentioned :) my own favourites are:

 

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus

Carl-Johan Vallgren, The Horrific Sufferings of Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot, His Wonderful Love and His Terrible Hatred

Bram Stoker, Dracula

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

 

It's amazing how discussion may gently lead to shifts in one's perspective - you have helped me to think more kindly of Constance, whom I thought of as essentially a wet rag, and I have helped you to think more kindly of Merricat, whom you found childishly tiresome. Am I allowed to be excited by this twin epiphany, what with this being my first circle and all :giggle:?

 

Now for the new, shiny, gripping questions - Part #1:

Does the book challenge the stereotypes of its genre [gothic] in any way? Does it break the mould?

Gothic has always been about those who were scarily different. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is different from other books I've read which portray sympathetic accounts of misfits and outsiders however, in that after everything bad that befalls the Blackwoods, there is a happy ending of sorts. In comparison to something like Frankenstein, with its utter lack of hope for the Creature though his creator was in fact the true monster, this was a positively mirthful read. I always root for the Frankensteins and Blackwoods of literature, so I was glad to be surprised by a glint of redemption here.

Do you feel that it was dated well?

Absolutely - the language is still current, and (more importantly) so is the theme.

What kind of person would you recommend this book to?

Anyone pressed for time but still looking for a short yet deep, challenging, inspiring read.

Do you agree with the reviews of the book you've read?

When I researched the book in preparation for the Circle, I read a review on Amazon UK that concluded by saying,

 

'But there is also much tenderness to be found here alongside the pain and horror of the Blackwood family story. This is tragedy surpassing even the best work of Sophocles. Anyone who reads this novel and is not deeply affected emotionally is simply not human. If I could have reached into this fictional world and pulled Merricat, Constance, Julian, and Jonas out, I would have done so. The powerlessness I felt as a reader, quite unable to protect and comfort the characters, was truly agonizing, and it was sometimes all I could do to keep myself from getting up and running around the room in exasperation. Anyone feeling at all depressed really should not read this book; there is so much emotion stored in these pages that it really should come with a warning label.'

 

It was this review that made me want to read the book, and now that I have, I can say that I wasn't in the least let down.

How well do the book’s cover and synopsis of your edition represent the book? Do they suit the story / do it justice?

I shopped around for my particular edition (the Penguin Deluxe one) precisely because I loved the haunting black & white cover, the slightly unnerving presence of creepily-styled intriguing quotes sprawled where the blurb 'should' have been, and the beautifully old-fashioned look and feel of the rought cut page edges. Too bad the £12.99 sticker peeled a bit of black of the back cover...

If you were writing a sequel, what would you plan for the characters?

I wouldn't be writing a sequel at all; it doesn't warrant one, for it has successfully said everything it needed to say. If pushed, I'd write an extended dream sequence scene in which Merricat and Constance journey to the moon.

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Am I allowed to be excited by this twin epiphany, what with this being my first circle and all :giggle:?

 

It's your first??? Excitement definitely allowed! :friends0:

 

I was surprised by the range of titles that were mentioned under the "gothic" umbrella myself! Although three of the books you mention are classics, I haven't actually read them *ashamed*, and don't even own them, so I think I need to add those to my bookshelf. The Horrific Sufferings... sounds intriguing - I can see the idea of it working its way into my subconsciousness until I find I have accidentally added it to my Amazon basket!

 

  • Does the book challenge the stereotypes of its genre [gothic] in any way? Does it break the mould?

Well, without my venture onto Wikipedia, I would definitely have said it broke the gothic stereotypes, but I see now that it is part of a very wide body of work that covers a lot of different styles. Perhaps it broke the mould in its day, though? I would need to do a bit more research on that.

 

  • Do you feel that it was dated well?

I think it has dated very well, I wasn't at all aware of the time it was written when I was reading.

 

  • What kind of person would you recommend this book to?

Someone who enjoys fantasy or fairy tales as well as "straight" literature.

 

  • Do you agree with the reviews of the book you've read?

All the reviews I read were very positive, and I would agree with that assessment - I loved the book.

 

  • How well do the book’s cover and synopsis of your edition represent the book? Do they suit the story / do it justice?

My edition is the Penguin Modern Classics version,; I originally thought the front cover was black and white, but it is actually very muted colours, and the synopsis of the story was accurate. While the cover didn't jar with the book, I didn't think it really added to it. BookJumper, your edition sounds lovely!

 

  • If you were writing a sequel, what would you plan for the characters?

I wouldn't have a sequel, either. I think it ended perfectly, and would be spoilt by trying to carry the story on.

 

 

 

 

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A note to all circlers

 

My most sincere apologies regarding my sudden disappearance, as of Wednesday night I've been awaiting a (routine, I'm fine) operation and only now have I managed to get my hands on an internet connection of sorts - expect me back tomorrow with more answers, questions, and the universe knows what else... let us make these last ten days* count!

 

* should burning insights strike you after those are over, however, don't hesitate to fire them off and keep the flame of the thread burning (see what I did there?)!

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Good to hear that you are doing well BookJumper.

 

I'm afraid the book is kind of fading into the woodwork for me by now, it didn't leave me with any definite/strong feelings one way or the other.

I certainly don't think a sequel would have added anything, only drawn out a story that shouldn't be drawn out. That is part of the beauty of the story. The "what-ifs", and wondering/imagining how they made out in the long run, and putting our own cast on how they ended up.

 

This was soooo "Southern Gothic" to me, shades [as I mentioned] of Faulkner and I suppose every other depressed Southern writer of the last hundred-odd years. .

Take one inbred family, add a mysterious death or two, mix with a large rambling house on a forested estate. Viola! Jackson really pulled it together beautifully though, far outdistancing hack writers by several miles. It so easily could have descended into mawkishness, but didn't a bit.

 

It was obvious that some sort of madness/neurosis ran in the family, and equally obvious that it was stoutly denied, at least by Constance. The small minded citizens of the town were perfectly portrayed as the mob, come to the castle to kill the beast. /shiver/ Merricat wasn't an evil person, she was just afraid of everything and didn't have the mental filters/brakes to know how far to go in protecting her "domain" was acceptable.

Edited by pontalba

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I’m glad we all agree the book warrants no sequel. I think that very question is the product of an age where it staggers one to find a book, particularly a book of the gothic persuasion, which isn’t in fact part of a seemingly limitless series. I for one quite like finiteness: I find it satisfying, and there’s no risk of a good story being dragged on and milked beyond recognition.

 

I’m sorry you were underwhelmed by the book as a whole though, Pontalba. Is there anything that you would change if you could to make it more appealing, or was your dissatisfaction based on something you couldn’t quite place? It seems from your other comments that you thought it a good book, so I’d be interesting to know why you’re finding it forgettable.

 

I must admit, I (think I) know nothing about Southern Gothic and I definitely haven’t read any Faulkner. Are the genre / is the author worth investigating if I enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle very very much indeed?

 

I loved your definition of Merricat as someone who ‘was just afraid of everything and didn't have the mental filters/brakes to know how far to go in protecting her "domain" was acceptable,’ it’s apt and well-put. Personally, I find it a testament to Jackson’s skill that one suspects her to be the murderer from the very beginning, and yet one doesn’t hate her at any point in the book – the closest we’ve come to feeling negatively about her regarded her immaturity… hardly strong detestation.

 

Ooshie - further to my further reading suggestions, may I recommend Frankenstein first followed by Hercules Barefoot? Both are absolutely beautiful, Frankenstein has been one of my favourite books for the past ten years, and Hercules Barefoot (as well as being my revelation book of 2008) was the closest any novel has ever gotten to making me feel what I’d felt upon reading Frankenstein… so accidentally add away!

 

I don’t have much money to spend on books (like Erasmus of Rotterdam, what I do spend on books I take away from the food and clothes budget), so when I do make a purchase I make a point of shopping around for the best of all possible editions. The Penguin Deluxes aren’t cheap - £12.99 each, which for a book as small as We Have Always Lived in the Castle may seem like a needless splash for some. I consider it money well-spent, because a pretty edition goes a long way to enhance the reading experience.

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Which character does the author feel the strongest affinity with and why?

 

I don’t think this question is truly answerable (fellow circlers, correct me if you think I am talking rubbish!), because my writerly instint suggeste to me that the surviving Blackwoods – though they had a substance not to be found in the villagers – were more different extremised facets (the caring, the unhinged, the fearful) of a same rounded character than entirely different people. Therefore, I wonder whether Jackson actually perceived them as a cast of individuals as she wrote about them.

 

Which character does the author hate the most and how does the reader know that?

 

If the Blackwoods could feasibly be said to be aspects of the same personality, the villagers undisputably represent a single one-dimensional mentality; the contempt Jackson feels for them is to my mind apparent.

How does the author feel about existence and life? Does the author ultimately give hope to the human condition? How does the reader see that through the novel?

An interesting question I’m not quite sure how to answer – translation: help!

On the one hand, there would seem to be a pretty evident “sin (murder) + penance (torment at the hands of the villagers) + redemption (attempt make things right by the Blackwoods at the end)” process going on, but that kind of Christian analysis is undermined by the fact that there’s been no repentance to bring about the redemption: Merricat never regrets the murder, Constance never looks back on protecting her sister, and Uncle Julian seems more fascinated by the murder than disturbed by it. This could maybe be explained in terms of Merricat not having sinned at all, which however would make the threat the dead Blackwoods’ posed to her worse than I like to imagine it.

Thoughts?

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On the one hand, there would seem to be a pretty evident “sin (murder) + penance (torment at the hands of the villagers) + redemption (attempt make things right by the Blackwoods at the end)” process going on, but that kind of Christian analysis is undermined by the fact that there’s been no repentance to bring about the redemption: Merricat never regrets the murder, Constance never looks back on protecting her sister, and Uncle Julian seems more fascinated by the murder than disturbed by it. This could maybe be explained in terms of Merricat not having sinned at all, which however would make the threat the dead Blackwoods’ posed to her worse than I like to imagine it.

Thoughts?

 

First off, let me say this BookJumper. I didn't mean to give the impression of being underwhelmed by the book. Not so at all. It's only that I've read several books since and the details have begun to fade, and without perusing the book again, I can't remember some of the sequence of events, exactly. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in fact had a hard time putting it down when I had to. :)

 

Uncle Julian reminded me in many ways of my own Uncle that is getting up in years. They tend to dwell on "important" events in their lives. I don't think it has anything to do with whether they approve or disapprove of the event. It's just a question of reliving an exciting time in their lives. A time when they were, lets say, the peak of their human/manhood. When they feel they "counted".

In some ways it's the manner some people, myself included, love to discuss/dwell on certain aspects of a book we have read. A certain part will seem to be the key event, or swing vote, and we endlessly dissect it. It's interesting, and every teeny bit of it must be explained to our satisfaction.

 

Good points regarding repentance and redemption.

Jackson only briefly alluded to the mother, [i believe] and it was to say that the mother didn't like the summerhouse, [ I believe something, a rat, a snake...had scared her at some time] and if the mother didn't like it, no one was allowed to go there. Sort of a mega, "if mama isn't happy, ain't no one happy!" brought to it's peak. The mother was unhinged/neurotic/insane...I'm not sure the depth of her mental illness, but it was definitely there. In that sort of closed in atmosphere who knows what could have happened to the children, especially if they, one or both had inherited the mother's condition. In that atmosphere every oddity was magnified and seasoned.

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The responses to "Castle" have been so good, that I delayed saying something about it forlornly hoping that I could find something interesting to add.

 

I think one of Jackson's prodigious accomplishments is to allow the reader sympathy for Merricat, everything she says and does has a certain logic, to her at least, and we forget or don't allow ourselves to consider that Merricat is psychotic, and a mass murderess to boot. In this aspect I'm reminded of Psycho, a movie released only a couple of years before Castle was published. Norman Bates, mild-mannered, good-looking, wouldn't hurt a fly, is the male flip side of Merricat, he just wants to stay at home with "Mother" in his gothic castle on the hill. Both Jackson and Hitchcock were creatures of the Freudian Age, they were fascinated by the puzzle of evil behavior, what caused it, how it manifests itself.

 

Merricat fears the outside world, more specifically, the dangerous intrusion of the outside world, as did Jackson. Here's a quote I found from her:

 

"...I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from these...I delight in what I fear. The 'Castle' is not about two women...it is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book can turn me inside out."

 

In The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 by Stephen Moore, he defines a successful novel as "essentially a delivery system for aesthetic bliss". I'm not sure what Jackson was ultimately up to in Castle, it strikes me as so intensely personal and mysterious, but it sure does meet Moore's definition.

Edited by ethan

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I think one of Jackson's prodigious accomplishments is to allow the reader sympathy for Mirabell, everything she says and does has a certain logic, to her at least, and we forget or don't allow ourselves to consider that Mirabell is psychotic, and a mass murderess to boot. In this aspect I'm reminded of Psycho, a movie released only a couple of years before Castle was published. Norman Bates, mild-mannered, good-looking, wouldn't hurt a fly, is the male flip side of Mirabell, he just wants to stay at home with "Mother" in his gothic castle on the hill. Both Jackson and Hitchcock were creatures of the Freudian Age, they were fascinated by the puzzle of evil behavior, what caused it, how it manifests itself.

 

 

Absolutely! I am reminded of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Nabokov was able to elicit the same sympathy for HH, the ever unreliable narrator.

I hadn't quite made that connection before your excellent post and ideas. But it's all true.

 

Merricat only killed when her "world" was threatened at least, she didn't go among strangers, or the townspeople as some mass murderers would do. In the beginning I rather wondered if she would do just that, such was her fear of the townspeople. It seemed to be the sort of fear that could turn nasty. I do believe she would have killed....can't remember the cousin's name that came...and stayed with them. I am quite sure she would have killed him eventually as she considered him [rightly so] a specific threat.

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First off, let me start by saying how incredibly pleased I am to return from my little adventure to find you all discussing amongst yourselves :) good circlers o' mine.

 

Pontalba - so glad that I'd misunderstood your meaning, you'd alarmed me rather! It is true that it'd make for excellent discussion for someone to come along and say, 'What a positively ghastly book, I hated it. Discuss,' but for the life of me I can't conceive why anyone would say anything of the sort.

 

You make a good point about Julian's 'dwelling' on what must have been the most extraordinarily different day of his life. I agree that readers can act in very much the same way, and being a particularly pernickety close reader I must say I enjoyed Julian's constant poking at the same important questions with more than a twinkle of recognition.

 

The mother we know to have been very beautiful, which in gothic novels does tend to go hand in hand with insane unfortunately. Another tendency is to have madness be inheritable along the female line, and if she'd been as unhinged as her daughter, that would explain why she'd have opposed her husband in his plans (conjectured by us, but feasibly I think) to send Merricat away. Also - and I realise this now this very instant, how epiphanic - there must have been a reason for her family to lawfully be able to take away from her the Rochester House, which both Merricat and Constance seem to think should have been rigthfully hers.

 

Ethan - what kind of Reading Circle would this be if each of us thought too little of their opinions to share them :friends0:? Do come join in, that's what it's all about.

 

I found interesting that you called Merricat Mirabell - I think your name might have suited the book better in truth, there is after all a Mirabell castle in Salzburg, Austria (definitely a fairy-tale city, that).

 

Now, I haven't seen Psycho* except from its most celebrated scene (to my eternal shame), but one difference that springs to mind is that in said film one actually gets to see the horrified face of the violently murdered: I think the main reasons it's easy to forget Merricat's a killer is because we're told about the murder (by poison, we should remember; she might not have had the cold blood to literally shed that of her family) in retrospective wide circles, always focusing on the "before" and "after" as opposed to the actual moment of death. While I think Pontalba's right in saying she had the psychological potential to kill Cousin Charles, I believe Jackson might have avoided going down that route because being presented with another murder, one impossible to safely ignore as 'backstory', the reader might have empathised with Merricat less.

* I have also never felt the need to read/watch Lolita. Does that make me a terrible person?

Thanks for that quote from Jackson, it definitely does help put the book in context.

 

I'd like to hear more about why you think Moore's definition fits WHALITC :) I am not disagreeing with you by any means, just curious.

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BookJumper - My misremembering names of characters is a longstanding tradition, Mrs Malaprop resides in my sub-conscious.

 

pontalbo - Humbert is indeed a useful reference point, maybe the best unreliably sympathetic narrator of them all. He's a monster, but still....

 

aesthetic bliss - thats a toughie to talk about, it's so subjective. Nabokov is again applicable, he pretty much popularized the phrase, his novels the supreme examples. For me it occurs when an artist like Jackson uses words as a conjurer would, takes the stuff of the times she lives in, the happenstances of her life, and molds the details into a compelling fable that describes, but does not explain, retaining the inherent mystery of all things. Jackson could have written a realistic novel of a harried housewife, anguished and anxious, battling addictions and mental illness, trying to raise a gaggle of kids, at war with the prejudiced people of the town she lived in, Bennington Vermont (also the setting of Donna Tartt's The Secret History). It might have been a good story, but possibly dated and forgettable. Instead she wrote Castle, utilizing the macabre elements of gothic literature, but not its formulas, full of surprises, and said it all anyways, obliquely, and memorably.

 

But enough of my babbling. Heres a really good description of ae-bl I found somewhere in cyberspace --

 

 

With an electric sigh .... one inhales lyricism, poeticism; this is the proverbial aesthetic bliss..... described as neither happy, nor sad, but a tingling contentedness after closing a book and setting it gently down, squeezing the covers together, reveling in this invoked catharsis.

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