Mary Katherine, You Are Rosemary’s Baby: On Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I have always loved Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  As it is one of the most widely anthologized short stories, it was one of the first narratives I’ve ever read, and one of the first that really made a profound effect on how I see reality. The horror evoked by that piece hits me every time. Although I read that piece at least every six months, I can still feel the mounting tension as the lottery draws near, the terror, isolation and alienation at the realization that one’s life will end because of a foolish unfair tradition, and the relief, and guilt, acquired in knowing that one’s existence has been given an extension.  The courageous exploration of these human experiences was the reasons why I fell in love with Shirley Jackson, even with just one short work, and when I received my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the last novel the author completed before her untimely death, I eagerly hoped that I would read something of that nature. Luckily, I read something more, something far darker, and something far more appalling than what The Lottery is; a narrative whose terror and coldness reaches down to the dark corners of our soul.

The novel focuses on the remaining members of the once great Blackwood family who live in a gargantuan estate on the top of small American town: the narrator, Mary Katherine, her sister Constance, and their ailing Uncle Julian. Hated and feared by the town, they have mostly kept to themselves in their fortress, only venturing into the town to get the necessary supplies they need in order to survive. In their solitude, they attempt to drive away the memory of their horrible past, which was the unfortunate death of their entire family, during a dinner, after they used sugar mixed with poison. During the course of the novel, we are given the impression that the shy but warm Constance was the wicked criminal behind this act, despite Mary Katherine’s fascination for sorcery/witchcraft, poison and her penchant for wishing death on everybody. Constance was even charged with murder and was almost imprisoned. And the blame on Constance would have continued if it not for the untimely visit of their cousin Charles.  Slowly, the world they have constructed for themselves becomes compromised. Under the weight of Charles’ presence and sheer need to question the manner in which they live, it crumbles, which great displeases Mary Katherine. Finally, the secrets are exposed, the readers are made aware of Mary Katherine’s true form, and the men and women of the small town, the people they have kept at bay for so long, just about had enough of their existence.

The appeal of the novel lies in the narration and characterization of Mary Katherine. She is someone obsessed with preserving the power she acquires through her youth and innocence. As she is the youngest in the Blackwoods, she has been treated most of her life like a princess. Everything has to go her way. Everyone must love and adore her. Everyone must adapt to how she acts and what she feels.  When a circumstance, or someone, poses a danger to this setup that she has come to known as what reality should be, she destroys that threat in the quickest way possible.  Often, when she thinks about the townspeople, when she hears them talk about her family in hushed tones, she wishes that “they were all dead and walking on their bodies,” but she does this in such a guiltless manner so staggering and terrifying. She is, in every sense of the term, blameless, unaware that her actions are maleficent, unaware that her fascination for poisons and the death cup mushroom is disconcerting, unaware that her fascination for witchcraft and sorcery is unusual.  And she has been constructed this way that when we finally learned that she was the one who killed all the Blackwood, we do not blame her. We accept it willingly, despite what our moralities dictate. It is in her nature to protect her life, it is an act of survival, it is simply right that she preserve what she has grown accustomed to. It is her privilege to be indulged. In that particular world, “Mary Katherine should have everything she wants… must have anything she likes… Mary Katherine must never be punished. In the novel, “everyone must bow (their) heads to (the) adored Mary Katherine.” A terrible idea, granted that, but one that is just, appropriate, and correct, making the novel much more horrifying than what it already is.