Thoughts on We Have Always Lived in the Castle
I used to think my favorite thing to do was staying at home and not interacting with anyone else minus a few people. This would happen occasionally with canceled plans and I will feel the euphoria of social obligations being taken off my plate. I've had small tastes of never leaving the house and it was not the welcome answer to all my woes. Quite the opposite. It made me want to leave the house even for menial and unnecessary tasks just to escape my brain for a moment. I started to feel like I wasn't allowed to leave even as the walls closed in around me. In these moments I would either succumb to the anxiety, not ideal, or escape through other means mainly reading or writing.
With my semi agoraphobic ways mostly behind me I can sympathize with the sister in We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. They have a town full of people actively hating them so that's a bit different but the need for isolation to truly escape the wandering eye of outsiders that I relate to. Having a home no matter what form it takes where outside influences aren't allowed in unless permitted is the goal. Back in my more neurotic days my bedroom was my sanctuary. The only place I could relax and be myself with no judgement. For this and other reasons it took a lot to coax me out of my room. Basically only food and hanging out with the few people I enjoyed interacting with.
Constance and Merricat are sisters in the grips of a parasitic relationship that seems weird only to those outside of it. If you don't know the story it starts with the sisters and their uncle living in the old family house that only one of them dares to venture out from to get the essentials in life, food and books. Everyone else in their family was poisoned one night at dinner with arsenic in the sugar bowl. Constance, the maker of the doomed meal, was put on trial and acquitted. Merricat was mysteriously absent from this dinner. Uncle Julian was handicapped by ingesting a small amount of sugar. Cousin Charles, the unknown interloper who upends things, tries to loosen Merricat's grip on Constance but hardly makes any headway since her roots are deep and her manipulation equally fierce.
I almost read this story in one sitting because it was so engrossing. There are no easy answers for the swarms of questions filling up my brain. Why poison your family members and kill them? Why do the townspeople who are supposed to help you decide to ruin your house? And then why do these people feel so bad afterwards that they bring food to your doorstep? I was not surprised that the people in a town who have come to loathe a family and everything they stand for would decide to essentially to destroy the house and family in one final act of violence. They face no repercussions but the guilt that overtakes a few helps the girls survive once they hole up in the house never to be seen again.
Roaming around a destroyed and slowly decaying house makes the two girls into living ghosts. People start to explore their property because now they have broken and torn into their house the grounds are no longer sacred. The adults are cautious and the kids are wary but less afraid. The girls watch everyone to make sure they won't pass the threshold into the house again. Merricat grows more neurotic by checking that the front door is locked every morning and night while adding boards to the windows so not a crack of sun gets through.
The story is told from Merricat's point of view so we don't know what Constance or others are thinking or feeling besides from body language clues. Merricat's mind is in constant turmoil as she needs to obsessively remind herself to be nice to Uncle Julian but doesn't hold back on wishing everyone else outside of the house was dead. Her only acts of violence that we see carried out are against pitchers and other household items that are broken unceremoniously. She also likes to bury treasures and talismans in the backyard and thinks they provide protection against outsiders.
The book ends with both of the girls saying over and over how very happy they are. It is hard to believe and maybe they are saying it out loud to make it real. On some level I think they are telling the truth which makes this a horror fixture that everyone should visit at least once. They need and feed off of each other. To stay alive they must be and remain very happy.