“Luckily fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar.”
Author: Shirley Jackson Published: 1962 Pages: 214
Mary Katherine lives in a house with her sister, Constance and her Uncle Julian. They eat together and talk as a family would, but there is an ever-present murmur of a haunting past which refuses to go unacknowledged. All three just want to live quietly and out of the way, but after the tragic death of the rest of their family years ago, the suspicion surrounding them, especially Constance as she was the one acquitted of the murders, inhibits their ability to lead quiet lives. Constance refuses to leave the house and Uncle Julian insists on living in the past. On Tuesdays, when Merricat ventures into town for groceries, she is met with taunts and little acceptance. So, after thearrival of their cousin Charles, Merricat’s defences are up and she must do all she can to protect the only family she has left.
I loved the way that Jackson portrays Merricat and Constance’s sisterly bond. Their devotion to each other far outweighs any obligation they may feel to uphold ‘normal’ dispositions or any urge to find their place in the cogs of the town’s ordinary machine. Most interactions between them end in an affectionate “I love you” or “I am so happy”, reiterating that their isolation from society elates them more than it does pain them. I found that the dynamic between the two often fluctuated from sisters to a mother-daughter bond to children, lost and unsure of what to do next, which is down to Jackson’s impeccable ability to create unique character relationships.
Merricat’s morbid tone coupled with the uncanny dialogue of the sisters makes reading this novel an unnerving journey of discovering the truth behind their family tragedy and the reason the two sisters so adamantly refuse to acknowledge their place in the rest of society. Merricat’s need for structure and repetition in her every day life highlights how much the family tragedy affected her and how it now allows her unhinged thoughts to manifest themselves in conversation with Constance and in her own narrative.
The novel is a brilliant reflection of how Jackson can masterfully manipulate the reader’s perception of the characters. Merricat’s disturbing thoughts should make her an un-relatable and distant character, but far from this, Jackson is able to create her as a sympathetic, though troubled, girl.
My only small criticism is that there was just something missing. It may have been my desire for the supernatural to appear, orperhaps for more interactions with outsiders from the town. But actually, I think it was just that I wanted more. The novel is only short and ends as it begins, in medias res (in the middle) and I think I craved more about the infamous trial in which Constance was acquitted, or for the very crime itself to take form possibly in a flashback of Merricat’s. I understand Jackson’s choice to omit these as their unspoken presence heightens the novel’s gothic atmosphere, but it was hard to gauge an understanding of the sisters’ relationship with their family and the rest of the town without it.
What’s overwhelmingly obvious is that the reason for this novel’s success is not its ability to embrace the uncanny, but in its ability to be so familiar while being equally unfamiliar. The town is ordinary, the house used to be “quite a local landmark” and the characters represent a somewhat unconventional, but nonetheless acquainted, family structure. With all the components to become a quaint American novel, Jackson’s ability to allow the gothic and uncanny to prevail becomes even more commendable.