We Have Always Lived in the Castle Book Summary - We Have Always Lived in the Castle Book explained in key points
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle summary

Enter a Disturbing Labyrinth of Family Secrets and Dark Neurosis

4.7 (13 ratings)
21 mins

Brief summary

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a captivating novel by Shirley Jackson. It tells the story of two eccentric sisters who live secluded in their family's grand mansion, haunted by a dark secret that threatens their delicate existence.

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    We Have Always Lived in the Castle
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    A family set apart

    We can’t get into the text of We Have Always Lived in the Castle without mentioning the remarkable opening lines. It begins innocently enough, with our narrator stating, “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and live with my sister Constance.” But then she says, “I have often thought with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf.…” She mentions that she dislikes dogs, washing herself, and noise. She likes her sister, the fifteenth century Duke of York, Richard Plantagenet, and the death cap mushroom. The short paragraph ends with the words, “Everyone else in my family is dead.” 

    From this striking introduction, we quickly realize that there will be a fair amount of mystery and unease, given that we learn everything from the unusual perspective of Mary Katherine, who often goes by the nickname Merricat. We’re told that the Blackwoods have always lived in their big house in the small unnamed village where the story takes place. But it’s some time before we can put the pieces together to find out how the rest of her family died. In fact, we learn that there is another member of the Blackwood family who is still alive and living in the house with Merricat and her sister: Uncle Julian, who is in ill health and confined to a wheelchair.  

    The story begins with Merricat having to go into town to get groceries and books from the library. This trip is fraught with tension, as we come to understand that the Blackwoods are the pariahs of the town. Something happened six years ago that resulted in the deaths of many in her family, but as Merricat explains, the working-class townspeople didn’t like the wealthy and cultured Blackwood family even before the fatal incident took place. 

    So, Merricat now dreads these weekly trips into town. It is the only time anyone at the Blackwood residence leaves the fenced-in property. When she makes these trips, the community largely shuns her, but some children tease her and some of the men in the community are quite passive-aggressive toward her. Through these interactions, we can surmise that Merricat’s family was poisoned, and that Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian were the only ones to survive the fateful dinner service. In the case of Uncle Julian, he barely survived, and it was the poisoning that left him feeble and wheelchair-bound.

    After Merricat returns home, the surviving Blackwoods are visited by Helen Clark, who is one of the only townspeople to visit or be welcomed at the Blackwood residence. She comes by for tea once a week, and this week she has unexpectedly brought a companion with her, Mrs. Wright.

    The eccentric Uncle Julian, who is obsessed with the events surrounding the poisoning, uses the presence of this unexpected visitor to describe in detail the fateful dinner six years ago. As he explains, the poison used was arsenic, and the tasteless ingredient was sprinkled on top of the fruit that was served for dessert. The poison killed John and Ellen Blackwood, Merricat and Constance’s parents, as well as their younger brother Thomas, and their aunt Dorothy. Uncle Julian tells Mrs. Wright that Mary Katherine was not present at the dinner table, as she had been sent to her room before dinner as punishment for misbehaving. Constance was the only one at the table not to be poisoned, since doesn’t like berries and she never took sugar, but Constance had also made a point of washing out the sugar bowl containing the arsenic before the police arrived. Despite this, Constance was arrested and put on trial. She was acquitted of any wrongdoing.

    While Mrs. Wright is fascinated at hearing these details, Helen Clark is mortified by the lurid recounting that Uncle Julian is happily providing. Helen cares about Constance, who is now 28 years old, and wants everyone to forget about the whole sordid affair. Helen hopes that Constance will come back into society, rather than be confined to the house and her garden, as she has been since her trial.

    Merricat, on the other hand, is quite content to keep the outside world at bay. She has grown accustomed to life being just the three of them in their house, along with her beloved cat Jonas, who follows her around wherever she goes. Merricat often daydreams about riding a winged horse to the moon with her sister, where they would be safe from any and all harm. In the meantime, she buries things in the yard and nails books to trees, infusing these items with meaning and purpose in an effort to keep out evil intruders. Unfortunately, these spells and bits of witchcraft can’t prevent the arrival of someone who will indeed change everything: their cousin Charles.

    ANALYSIS

    All right. So let’s step aside for a minute to unpack what we have so far. As we mentioned earlier, there are a lot of real-life parallels between the book and Shirley Jackson’s own life. It’s not hard to see the town represented in the book as a stand-in for North Bennington, Vermont.

    Jackson had settled into this town in the early 1940s with her husband, the Jewish literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. By the early 1960s, Jackson was quite ill, and she rarely left her house because of both her poor health and the anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic attitudes of the small town’s residents. As Merricat says in the book, the town had always hated the Blackwoods, even before the murders took place. Aside from a few friendly families, most of the townspeople hate the Blackwoods because they’re different. They’re cultured, wealthy, and don’t share the same close-knit, conservative, working-class values embraced by the rest of the community.

    In Jackson’s earlier short story The Lottery, which also takes place in a town that is recognizable as North Bennington, the villagers are likewise a shameful mob. They mindlessly engage in a violent yearly ritual and pass on the torment from generation to generation, without question. We Have Always Lived in the Castle expands upon this unflattering picture of Jackson’s own neighbors.

    Nevertheless, Merricat’s utter hatred for the townsfolk can come across as excessive. From the start, we’re presented with an unusual, if not completely unreliable, narrator. After all, one of the first things we learn about her is that she wishes she’d been born a werewolf. But that’s just the tip of the Merricat iceberg. She also spends a lot of time seeing omens, both good and bad, and coming up with magical bits of witchcraft to fend off evil. That evil is embodied by everyone who isn’t her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. In other words, Merricat sees the entire world outside the gates of her home as a threat. If she had her way, everyone else would be dead.

    Due to her extreme sensitivity and often violent reactions, some critics have suggested that Merricat might be a paranoid schizophrenic. There’s also an element of arrested development in her. While she is eighteen years old, it’s as if she is frozen in time as a 12-year-old – the age she was when the murders took place. But at times she’s also funny, insightful, empathetic, and disarming in her observations. In the history of literature, she’s a unique narrator, and one you could spend a lifetime analyzing.

    Adding to her unusual characteristics, Merricat is both extremely honest and withholding, especially as it pertains to the central mystery of the story. What is the full story of the poisoning? Why did it happen, and who did it? Constance, who had the one dish that contained no poison, was acquitted of the crime, but the general public isn’t so convinced. Uncle Julian also believes that Constance was innocent, and there are some other signs to take into consideration. Merricat, for instance, is seemingly obsessed with poisonous things like her beloved death cap mushroom. Also, in a brief but telling aside, it’s mentioned that while Merricat is responsible for fetching the groceries, she isn’t allowed to prepare food – that job belongs entirely to Constance. What do you think happened? Let’s read on and find out.

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    What is We Have Always Lived in the Castle about?

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) tells the mysterious tale of the eccentric Blackwood sisters, Mary Katherine and Constance, who live isolated in their family estate after a tragic incident. As the sisters navigate their peculiar world, dark secrets unravel, making this a gothic and suspenseful exploration of family, mystery, and the haunting power of the past.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle Review

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) tells the haunting story of the Blackwood sisters as they live a secluded life in their family's ancestral home. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With its gripping and mysterious plot, it keeps readers hooked from start to finish, craving answers to the family's dark secrets.
    • The book explores themes of identity, alienation, and the destructive power of societal judgment, providing thought-provoking insights into human nature.
    • Shirley Jackson's masterful writing immerses readers in an atmosphere of tension and unease, making the book an exhilarating and unsettling read.

    Who should read We Have Always Lived in the Castle?

    • Fans of gothic fiction
    • Readers who enjoy a strong female protagonist
    • Anyone interested in classic literature

    About the Author

    Shirley Jackson was an influential American writer known for her distinctive literary contributions to the horror and mystery genres. With a penchant for exploring the psychological depths of her characters, Jackson achieved acclaim with iconic works that include The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. Her legacy as a trailblazer endures in the realm of dark fiction, showcasing a unique ability to infuse ordinary settings with an eerie, unsettling atmosphere that continues to captivate readers.

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    We Have Always Lived in the Castle FAQs 

    What is the main message of We Have Always Lived in the Castle?

    The main message of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is that secrets can corrode even the closest of relationships.

    How long does it take to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle?

    The reading time for We Have Always Lived in the Castle varies depending on the reader, but it typically takes several hours to read. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is We Have Always Lived in the Castle a good book? Is it worth reading?

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is worth reading for its atmospheric storytelling and psychological depth.

    Who is the author of We Have Always Lived in the Castle?

    The author of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Shirley Jackson.

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