We Have Always Lived in a Flashback
Illustrated by Angela Chiarelli
In the novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson describes the intensely isolated and very much hated Blackwood family, consisting only of Constance, Mary Katherine, and Uncle Julian. Six years prior to the novel starting, the majority of the Blackwood family was murdered by arsenic poisoning disguised as sugar. While Constance was accused of murder, eventually she was found innocent, resulting in nobody ever being found guilty. Now six years later, Constance, Mary Katherine, Uncle Julian, and the villagers are still deeply affected by the murder. For each remaining Blackwood and the townspeople collectively, change brings a lot of insecurity, resulting in them having an inability to handle it or move on from it. This is seen with Uncle Julian avidly trying to reconstruct the past by writing about the murder. For Constance it’s seen with the fact that she hasn’t stepped off the Blackwood property since the murder trials. For Mary Katherine, her resistance to change mainly involves being Constance’s protector. Finally, for the townspeople their reluctance of change is seen with them taking care of the Blackwoods at the end of the novel despite still hating them.
Uncle Julian is a walking embodiment of the past as he forces his mind to constantly live there. He does this through obsessively writing a book to completely reconstruct in detail the days before, the day of, and the trials following the murder. The day of the murder he almost died as well, which could be said to be the reason he is obsessed with that happened that day. This obsession can be seen through his frequent and sometimes irrelevant questions about the events of the days before, during, and after the murder. For example, “Constance… I do not seem to have any information on whether your father took his cigar in the garden as usual that morning (Jackson, 30).” This has no relevance to the murder, but it really exemplifies how he treats each detail as highly important to uncovering the truth. He also has extensive knowledge about the murder because of his multiple pages of notes and newspaper clippings about the murder, as seen with how he thoroughly explains the day of the murder to Helen Clark and Mrs. Wright when they come to tea. These two elements show his obsession stems from draw conclusions for himself. He, like everyone else, is haunted and disturbed by the murder and wants to uncover the mystery behind it. Soon after Uncle Julian tells Helen and Mrs. Wright the story of the murder and they leave, Uncle Julian says to Constance “it really happened (Jackson 55)?” This demonstrates that the book is the only thing that keeps the murder real enough for him to come to an understanding. However, in doing this he imprisons himself in the past. The past controls him by not letting him rest until he gets the truth, making him unable to move on.
In reconstructing the past, it gives him purpose to keep on living. The story is the only thing that keeps him from dying mentally. When Charles says that the murder isn’t allowed to be discussed, Uncle Julian becomes quieter and more withdrawn and his health started to deteriorate, demonstrating this point. As Mary Katherine puts it, “[Charles] makes Uncle Julian sicker (Jackson 114).” From this we can say he likely would have physically died a lot sooner if he didn’t have the book keeping him tied down to the world. For this reason, Uncle Julian isn’t able to simply move on because if he did, he would never reach any conclusions as to what really happened. He has more of a need to understand than a want to, which drives his actions.
The process of Constance being accused and then acquitted of murder traumatized her so much she now never leaves the Blackwood property. The reader can speculate the reason why from several passages showing that Constance was treated poorly and made a spectacle of by the reporters who invaded her privacy, as seen Mary Katherine flashback. She even has a hard time going far onto her family’s property as seen with her saying“’[l]ook how far I’ve come today (Jackson 27).” This indicates that even going far on her own property is a bit unsettling but rewarding to her. Also, according to Mary Katherine’s narrative, Constance has difficulties with speaking to new people. This can be seen with how Constance is slightly trembling and speaking faster than normal throughout her tea time with Helen and Mrs. Wright, who is an unexpected guest, though still trying to carry out a pleasant conversation. Mary Katherine, when she notices Mrs. Wright, wants to send them away, but Constance would not allow for it. These two examples show that Constance is trying to break from her past. She starting to try to go further on the property to desensitize herself to the potential of the outside world and she is trying to have conversations with new people to help herself grow. But, shadowing all of her attempts is insecurity. This is why she doesn’t go further onto her property and trembles in Mrs. Wright’s presence; she is somewhat fearing the change she is inflicting upon herself. All of her progress reverses however towards the end of the novel when the villagers end up purposefully destroying the house. When this happens she decides she never wants any more visitors at the house and she no longer wants to leave the house, like she was starting to convince herself to do in previous chapters. This shows her insecurities getting the best of her, resulting in her not wanting to move forward with her life any longer, keeping her not only in the past of the murder, but that past of the villagers’ actions.
Mary Katherine is extremely protective of Constance and dislikes any sort of change, but especially resists it if she thinks it will affect Constance. For example, whenever anyone mentions Constance leaving, Mary Katherine becomes “chilled” because it upsets her. This can be seen as Mary Katherine feels the house is the only place where Constance can be protected and they can be together. If Constance was to decide to leave, Mary Katherine would lose the only person in the world she loves and she wouldn’t be able to fulfill what she feels is her role, making her insecure. Mary Katherine wants to shelter Constance from the cruelty of the outside world. This essentially means forcing Constance to live in the prison she constructed for herself. In attempt to shelter her, Mary Katherine also uses “… [a] box of silver dollars…, [a] doll buried in the long field, and [a] book nailed to the tree’’ as protection symbols because she believes“…so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us (Jackson 59).” In other words, she is trying to ward off anything that will alter their lives negatively. Mary Katherine is also superstitious so when she notices various omens that makes her believe change is happening soon, it makes her feel very uneasy. Omens are seen as foreshadowing something negative. If she sees change as the product of the various omens, then that means she would be protecting the house from that change since she feels it will cause harm. Mary Katherine seems to be content with her life before Charles comes along because everything is stable and constant. Having change would completely throw off this stability so she highly opposes it. When Charles arrives everything does change and so she loses that stability. Because of fear that Charles brings her since he is the source of change, she convinces herself and tells Constance that “’[h]e was a ghost…I dreamed that he came, but then I dreamed him away. (Jackson 88).” Despite believing that he is a dream or ghost, she admits to herself that he does leave physical reminders of his presence around the house like his footsteps, his pipe, and handkerchief, stating that he does actually exist. This is her repressing this presence because it gives her fear. She also wrecks his room so as to confuse Charles who “is a demon/ghost’’ so he will leave. Merricat wants to be Constance’s protector and it appears that Charles’ presence will ruin that. With change, it’s almost like she doesn’t know what to make of it so she slips into a distorted reality, so she calls Charles a ghost/ demon. She seems to understand he is there, but she doesn’t want to believe it so she begins to repress, causing these delusions.
From the very first chapter to the very last pages we can see the villagers resisting change, though focus of this resistance shifts. Throughout the majority of the novel, the townspeople direct a lot of hate towards the Blackwoods because they are still very affected by the murder. Then towards the end of the novel, the villagers go completely savage on the house, which results in a shift in what they will be resisting change for. They smash windows with rocks, break dishes, and destroy everything they come into contact with, all while chanting the children’s taunting nursery rhyme. Its only when they realize Uncle Julian has died that they stop. After this incident the villagers oddly start maintaining them by bringing them food like “… bacon, home-cured, or fruit, or their own preserves…Mostly they brought roasted chicken; sometimes a cake or pie, frequently cookies, sometimes a potato salad or coleslaw (Jackson 204).” The villagers doing this can be interpreted as the villagers needing the Blackwoods. The Blackwoods are a part of the town as much as anyone else, no matter how much the villagers hate them. They maintain them to avoid the change of not having the Blackwoods. Constance and Mary Katherine seem to realize that the villagers need them because they no longer seem to mind the villagers being on their property. In fact they watch the townspeople from where the townspeople can’t see them. Because of the way they ridicule the townspeople it seems that they are manipulating the townspeople because they know that villagers want them to come out. But they stay inside to punish them for what they have done.
Also, another reason why the villagers keep them alive is to try to make it up to themselves for what they have done. Doing this prevents needing to think too hard about why they went so savage on the house. It can arguably be said that the reason the villagers went savage on the house is because the Blackwoods and their house is a constant reminder that there are cracks in the “Perfect American Society” that let in the darkness. This image of the “Perfect American Society” is one they try to uphold greatly. So when they get the chance to obliterate the reminder that America is not perfect, their primal selves come out, clouding their resistance for change. Now that they have destroyed the house, it solidifies that there are these cracks and it’s their fault this time. In other words, they try to repress this realization by giving food to the Blackwoods.
This is all to say that all of the characters of this novel use the elements of their past to determine their actions. It determines Uncle Julian’s actions because the past pushes him to write his book on the murder. Then with Constance, her past with the townspeople pushes her to imprison herself. Mary Katherine lives in the past simply because she is so resistant to any sort of change, mainly to protect her sister. The villagers at first are stuck in the past of the murder, but then it shifts and they live in the past because of their actions towards the Blackwoods. This inability to change of all the character keeps them all stuck in the past, unable to grow and move on. This means that they have always lived in a flashback.
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived In the Castle. The Viking Press, 1962.