Book Club Questions: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Like most of Shirley Jackson’s work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle manages to be a concisely unsettling story. Jackson frequently manages to challenge our first impressions, as well as our initial expectations from when the story began. Although many are only familiar with her famous short story The Lottery, Jackson’s other works are well worth reading, and I definitely encourage you to pick them up. This particular novel might be a good fit for you if you are a fan of cagey narrators, a mild spookiness factor, and depictions of society’s vicious enmity toward the “other.”

Discussion questions below the cut!

At various points in the story, Merricat makes it clear that she is telling the story in retrospect, after some kind of momentous event. How does this retrospective point of view change your experience as a reader?

Uncle Julian seems to live in a world that is inconsistently real. For instance, he tells Charles that Merricat died in the orphanage, even though Merricat is often sitting right in front of him. He also often confirms with Constance that the poisoning actually happened, even though it is his primary topic of conversation. What purpose does Uncle Julian serve in this story? Why is he included, and what does he add to the reader’s experience?

Many murder mystery authors (such as Agatha Christie) talk a lot about the psychology of the murderer in their books – that a murderer’s character is revealed by the way in which they kill. Do you think Merricat would have been able to kill her family in a different way – such as stabbing them or setting the house on fire with them trapped inside? What does your answer reveal to you about Merricat’s character?

Jackson herself was agoraphobic, particularly in the last years of her life when she was writing this novel. How does she create a sense of anxiety and agoraphobia in this novel?

Although Charles is eminently dislikeable due to his clear gold-digging nature, his attempts to get Constance to move on and open up to the possibility of a normal life could be seen as not entirely unreasonable. With mental illness, much tension and frustration can be a result of society’s pressure on the mentally ill individual to conform to the “mentally well” ideal and not exhibit signs of their illness. I recently read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green and Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin – two books about teenagers trying to manage their often crippling anxiety. Their constant yet heavily challenged striving for wellness makes a sharp contrast to Constance’s complete yielding to her agoraphobia by the end of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Would you say Merricat encourages Constance’s anxiety, or does she merely understand and accept it? Do you think the two (encouragement and acceptance) are sometimes conflated when discussing mental illness in our society? What would have been your own approach to Constance’s anxiety and agoraphobia?

Constance often takes entire blame for Merricat’s actions –  the poisoning and the fire being two major examples. Does Merricat ever seem to think she herself is at fault? When, if ever, are we to blame for the actions of others?

Merricat calls on her own version of witchcraft throughout the novel. Is this witchcraft of hers really any different from devotion to a mainstream religion like Christianity? Whether you think the two are similar or different, justify your answer. How would you define witchcraft in general? Why do you think Jackson included a blend of homegrown witchcraft in this novel?

Comparisons can easily be drawn between We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Lottery. How would you characterize Jackson’s perspective on humanity, specifically when it comes to the group versus the individual? Keep in mind that Jackson lived through WWII and spent time living in a very anti-intellectual and anti-semitic New England town (North Bennington, Vermont). Do you agree or disagree with her perspective?

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