Review – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

WeHaveAlwaysLived“I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud.  Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead.  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, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick from Mrs. Donell while she lay there.  I was never sorry when I had thoughts like that; I only wished they would come true.  “It’s wrong to hate them,” Constance said, “it only weakens you,” but I hated them anyway, and wondered why it had been worth while creating them in the first place. (15)

All I could say when I finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle was, “Man, that was one weird little book!”  I still think its, but in a totally good way.  It’s a perfect read for RIP IV; it’s so delightfully creepy and frightfully suspenseful.

Constance and Mary Katherine, along with their Uncle Julian, live in their family house, the Blackwood house as it is known in their small town and only venture into town when they need supplies.  When Mary Katherine goes into town, it is a constant assault from the angry townspeople, but the readers have to be patient to figure out what exactly it is that the town hates so much.  It’s this suspense that propels the reader along, desperate for some sort of explanation for Mary Katherine and Constance’s strange behavior.

When their cousin Charles arrives, the suspense steadily intensifies, until the climactic moment when the emotions overwhelm the town and culminate in a terrifying scene.  Here the truth is revealed, but it still leaves the reader unsure of what exactly to think.  This is where you should stop reading, if you haven’t read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, because I’m about to break out the spoilers.

Please highlight the below text to read the spoilers!

I have been thinking a lot about this novel and whether or not I believe anything Mary Katherine told me.  She’s a narrator who, we learn at the end, is mentally unstable.  She is given to anger that leads her murder people she truly loves and she has strange habits such as burying fetishes.  The quote I picked from the novel was very telling for me, because Mary Katherine insinuates that she has “created” the town.  So what exactly does that mean?  Is she delusional?  Is her power trip so involved that she believes she has created the town from her own thoughts?  Or is it something more?

This is where my theory comes in.  At what point, or to what lengths, can we trust Mary Katherine as a narrator?  I think there’s no doubt that she’s unreliable as a narrator, but how far does it go?  I think it could be read to go even further than I originally believed: perhaps it is all in Mary Katherine’s head.  Everything from the town, to the forest, to her cat, to Constance.  It would be some kind of explanation for the mysterious way people always act to the extreme.  I like Evas reading that Constance is very brave, for taking over the care of her sister, but I think there might be another reason.  It is certainly a world that Mary Katherine would have preferred; having her sister give up her life entirely to take care of her is a fate almost worse than death.

One other scene also led me to believe this.  Uncle Julian went insane after being exposed to the arsenic and facing the death of his entire family, but at one point he said something very strange.  I believe Charles was talking to him and said: “Why won’t your niece speak to me?”  Or something to that effect, and Uncle Julian responded: “I don’t have a niece.  She died in the orphanage.”

Here we are again with two readings.  Most likely he is projecting his own desires for Mary Katherine’s death after the brutal murder of his wife and brother’s family.  He just said that because he prefers to believe that she is no longer living.  But maybe, just maybe, there is more to that simple sentence.  Maybe Mary Katherine did die and this is her version of heaven.  Maybe Mary Katherine is still in that orphanage, thinking up this disturbing world, where everyone lives for her.

I don’t really think there’s one right answer to this question, just several ways of reading it.  That’s what makes this book so darn good, in my opinion.  There are at least three ways to see this strange story, and many more that I haven’t thought of.  I really loved it and can’t recommend it enough.

How much do you trust Mary Katherine? Were you confused by her and the townspeople’s actions?   Did you catch any other subtle hints in the novel to explain some aspect of the story?

90% – A quick, suspenseful and psychological read.  Highly recommended, especially for this time of year!

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26 thoughts on “Review – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  1. That’s an interesting theory! I want to reread the book soon, and I’ll definitely look at it with that in mind. 🙂 However, I tend to think of unreliable narrators as being somewhat distinct from the author…*spoiler*if it’s all in Mary Kat’s head, if she’s making everything up, then it’s almost as if she’s the author. And I’m not sure I like that very much…it just doesn’t seem as if anything negative would happen if it existed only in Mary Kat’s imagination, especially the annoying ‘cousin’.*end spoiler*

    1. SPOILERS SPOILERS
      In a way though, Merricat got exactly what she wanted with cousin Charles, she got the house and Constance completely to herself. All the bad things were a means to the disturbing end of solitude.
      END SPOILERS

  2. I like your interpretation, Lu! I hadn’t thought of that, but I think I’d almost rather believe it, because by the end of the book I felt SO sorry for Constance. On the other hand, if that was the case, then it kind of lessens the impact of the book for me. It makes things a lot less disturbing – and less powerful – than they would be if we took them at face value, you know?

    1. I know, poor poor Constance! I don’t know if it lessens the impact for me, so much as it makes me question what Merricat does to me as a reader by making me believe her.

  3. I have this on my list. I loved Hill House, and I loved the Lottery… but I have read mixed reactions to this book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    1. I can’t wait to hear what you think! My housemate has been bugging me to read Hill House after bugging me to read this, and I’ve got it laying around somewhere, so I will get to that in a couple weeks!

  4. I think you should give Shirley Jackson’s short stories a try. I find that her townspeople are always really really odd. And of course, everything is always a little bit on the creepy side.

    I think I like the book better when I assume that Merrikat didn’t lie about everything and wasn’t dead. If this is what life was like for them, the reality of it has more of an impact.

    What a thoughtful review though! I’ve never seen someone have such great theories on this novel!

  5. I’m reading this one at the moment and you’re right there is something damn creepy about it!

    I’ll come back and read the spoiler part in a day or so, when I’ve finished reading it, but can I just say I love the fact that Eva’s name appears adrift in the middle of the spoiler space, as she is the one responsible for me reading the thing in the first place!

  6. I loved the excerpt you quoted – very eerie and strange. Reading the comments, it sounds like this book will appeal to Shirley Jackson fans, of which I am one. I’m definitely going to have to check this one out.

  7. Okay, I’m back. I went straight to the library to see if I could put a hold on this book, and see that it IS by Shirley Jackson!! I’ve requested it – I haven’t read this one. (That will teach me to read reviews more thoroughly).

  8. Whoa, I’m really intrigued! I didn’t read the spoilers because this seems like something I’d like to check out…but I’m really tempted to! OK, hitting the submit button before I scroll up there and highlight the text…!

  9. I read this yesterday and was all over the internet trying to figure out the ending. I had many of the same ideas as you did. Could the villagers really be that bad? That quote about the people in the village caught my eye too. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll have my thoughts up later this week.

    1. Chris,

      There were just so many little clues in there, I think there is something bigger that Jackson is hinting at. I wish I knew what! Though I’m not so sure that the villagers couldn’t be that bad!

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