[I decided to read this 1962 novel in three sections of a few chapters each. I wrote about each section before reading on.]
5 February 2019
The opening chapter is extraordinary. Whoever Mary Katherine Blackwood is, she isn’t comfortable here, in the ‘village’ where she’s doing the twice-weekly shopping trip. In fact she hates it, and the people in ‘their dirty little houses.’ Her excuse, as if she needs one (she doesn’t seem to feel that she does) comes after her four-page description of their grey little lives: ‘The people of the village have always hated us.’
I’m not going to unpack it all sentence by sentence, although I’m tempted. After her forthright announcement of her name, the rest of the short opening paragraph is an equally forthright description of her life now—‘I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance’—before, suddenly, she’s taking us somewhere very strange. She wishes she could have been born a werewolf, expresses a liking only for ‘Constance, Richard Plantagenet and … the death-cup mushroom.’ The paragraph ends with ‘Everyone else in my family is dead.’
This is a 1962 novel, and I’m reminded of other first-person narrators in American novels of the time. To Kill a Mockingbird, published the previous year, had just won the Pulitzer, and Jackson’s is the antithesis of it. Harper Lee’s adult narrator evokes a small-town childhood in order to present a child’s-eye-view of its deep-seated failings, and the voice is trustworthy, considered. However subversive that novel might attempt to be in political terms, narratively we feel we’re in safe hands. Jackson’s novel isn’t like that, it’s more like the most notorious first-person novel of the previous decade, Lolita. In Nabokov’s novel a narrator with some very dark obsessions is telling us things we aren’t sure about at all. Humbert Humbert isn’t merely unreliable, he plays games, almost daring us to believe or disbelieve his stories. Usually we hope he’s making them up, but fear he might not be.
But Mary Katherine Blackwood isn’t really like Humbert Humbert either. Far from being forthright with the facts of her recent family life, she has them trickle out with no intervention from her, apparently. Apparently. It’s Mary Katherine who, as it were accidentally, reports unlooked-for conversations during which the back-story is slowly uncovered. Meanwhile, she is blasé about revealing her own appalling arrogance, entirely blaming the ‘villagers’—whoever uses that word in America anyway?—for the painful embarrassment of her shopping trips. She has no idea that the laughter and snatches of gossip she hears are completely understandable—who wouldn’t want to jeer at such a snob?
As her morning progresses, we get to know her coping strategies. They are as bizarre as everything else inside her head. She sets herself little challenges, such as whether she can get past a particular threat without crossing the road, and loses imaginary points if she fails. She gets treats for an uncle she hadn’t mentioned at first—he hasn’t made the list of her favourite people—and imagines having a nice lunch outside in the garden with him. Or she imagines herself living in a little house on the moon, far away from this awful high street. Or, feeling humiliated, she imagines murdering everyone laughing at her. ‘I am walking on their bodies.’ Whoo.
We remember all that death in the first paragraph, including the murderous Richard III and the deadly mushrooms. She remembers her parents, the ones who clearly taught her all she knows about snobbery—her father blocked off a right of way across their land, adding to everybody else’s walk to the highway because her mother didn’t fancy common people anywhere near their lovely house—so they can’t have died too long ago…. We find out a little more, sort of, when she sets herself her usual challenge of having a coffee at the place run by the only woman she knows who isn’t unfriendly. And it’s one of the days when she has bad luck, as she thinks of it, because the man she most hates comes in and starts to wind her up about her rich family and her reclusive sister. What is he implying about the deaths? It’s hard to tell exactly, but he reminds his intellectually challenged friend that he shouldn’t ever accept an invitation to dine with Constance and Mary Katherine. Except he doesn’t call her that, but her childhood nickname, ‘Merricat’. Everybody does.
She manages to get through the terrors of the walk home, and we meet Constance. The two women seem locked into childishness. Merricat’s little self-challenges outside had seemed more childish than adolescent, right down to not stepping on cracks, and now the banter between the two is girlish, ‘Lazy’ or ‘Miss Idleness,’ and we can see how stunted they are emotionally. And over the next 30 or so pages, Jackson reveals more and more about why they are like this. Constance never, ever goes beyond the gates that Merricat assiduously keeps locked—and Merricat is ‘chilled’ when she drops a hint on this particular day that she might, one day. I’m filing that away for later, because we wonder why Merricat is so keen for her sister to stay locked away. For her own safety? Or for Merricat’s? Because…
…as a result of an unprecedented departure from the usual form of the weekly visit by Helen Clarke, the only person who ever calls—she’s brought her timid little friend, who starts to ask leading questions about the deaths—we find a few things out. It’s as though there’s been enough scene-setting, and Jackson needed the new input so she can get on with the business of assembling the details of the family catastrophe. Julian, the uncle, is now confined to a wheelchair, his mind as damaged as the rest of him. He loves to have an audience for his painstakingly reconstructed memories of the fateful evening six years ago, when the sugar for dessert had been contaminated with enough arsenic to kill anyone who used it. Despite having washed the sugar bowl before detectives could examine it, Constance had been cleared of the murders of their parents and several other family members.
Ah. And just as Julian keeps mentioning how none of the victims knew that this would be their last day in the house, their last meal, their last whatever, Merricat mentions more than once that this will be the last of the weekly visits. Something is afoot—Constance has not only dared to make her way further down the drive than ever before, she has looked in the direction of the village enough times recently for Merricat to count them. What’s going on? Her twice-weekly trips are a torture, but she would apparently rather do them than risk reintroducing Constance into the world. After Helen Clarke had suggested it was time she did, and rekindle her former social life, Merricat had been keen to laugh conspiratorially with Constance about it when they were alone again. Then, during some bantering chat about the future near the end of Chapter 3, Merricat asks Constance if she will look after her when she’s old, as she looks after Uncle Julian. When Constance’s reply is, ‘If I’m still around,’ Merricat is ‘chilled’ again.
She, Merricat, doesn’t seem to realise how damaged she is. It is a daily imperative for her to keep things exactly as they have been since before the catastrophe, and any change is a threat. One of her challenges to herself is to be more sympathetic towards Uncle Julian, perhaps to offset some falling-off of her own (no doubt imaginary) former kindness. In the little world she’s created for herself, everything bad is outside the gates. She wore her mother’s shoes on her shopping trip, as though for protection. The same goes for her impenetrable aloofness—her contempt is like armour-plating.
One last thing. I’ve just looked back at the opening of the novel, and realise that this really is the start of some kind of alteration in their lives. As always, she had changed her library books on her shopping trip, and she tells us on the first page that the last time she looked, ‘they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones that would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.’
I really don’t know what’s going on. Merricat’s world seems like a child’s simulation of ordinary domesticity, with Constance in her garden, or cooking, or pickling vegetables as the Blackwood women have always done, while Merricat looks after their broken-down uncle and tries to find some kind of solace in her cat. Routines are paramount, and she takes comfort in them to the last sentence of the chapter: ‘and then after dinner it would be night and we would sit warmly together in the kitchen where we were guarded by the house and no one from outside could see so much as a light.’ Fine. But whatever world she’s created isn’t fit for purpose and, apparently, it’s all about to come crashing down.
And another thing. if it wasn’t Constance, always the one to cook for the family, who put arsenic in the sugar, who was it? Merricat of the murderous fantasies? Don’t ask me. But, as she looks at those library books, what situation is she in? Is she even alive?
The plot thickens. And not only the plot—the atmosphere is so thick with menace and claustrophobia you can hardly move. The big new thing—and he is a big new thing, with his round face and appetite—is the arrival of a cousin, Charles. In Merricat’s presentation of him, he’s a monster of male arrogance and selfishness. If he really says some of those things to Merricat, especially about getting his own back on her if she doesn’t do as he says, then he really is a nasty piece of work. And there’s no reason to disbelieve his goggle-eyed greed. It goes beyond vulgar materialism—he makes a big fuss whenever Merricat has had her hands on anything valuable because, we quickly realise, he has plans to marry Constance. That’s his property she’s been burying or nailing to a tree as a totem.
For Charles to win Constance over is like taking candy from a baby. She can do nothing to resist, and almost immediately starts to see the weirdness of their domestic arrangements through his eyes. And his appalled astonishment at Merricat’s behaviour is not at all surprising. Whenever she is supposed to be narrating this, and her eighteen-year-old self might well be some years in the future, she is old enough, surely, to understand that her fantasies of power are worse than babyish. It goes beyond immaturity, I guess—she genuinely doesn’t seem to understand that self-invented superstitions and penances don’t achieve a thing. It’s like that wonderful story by Bill Bixby, ‘It’s a Good Life’, in which a boy is born with the ability to bring about absolutely anything he wants by the power of his mind. Like him, she has some pretty murderous thoughts, but she doesn’t seem to realise that’s all they are.
Constance begins to sound almost as grown-up as her 28 years (if Julian is right about her age) as she describes rather ruefully her hiding away for six of them. She admits to having allowed ‘Merrycat’ to do whatever she wanted—as if she could have done anything about it. In fact, Merricat has invented a set of shamanistic religious practices, and when she tests them against the immovable object that Charles soon becomes, it’s clear to everybody except her what a strange bubble she’s been living in. When he first arrives she stays out for a day and night, and pretends next morning that he was never there. She is genuinely shocked when she finds out he was, and sickened by the idea of his still being asleep in their father’s bed. Her war of attrition begins, low-key at first, but ever more desperate and, basically, bonkers. She keeps listing the Latin names of poisonous plants and mushrooms to Charles, almost like an incantation, and when she takes things out of what he now considers his room and replaces them with sticks and dirt—and pours water in the bed—it’s the last straw. This happens in Chapter 7, which is as far as I’ve read, and…
…and I’m not sure where Jackson is going to take it. Whilst it’s difficult to gauge how much of Merricat’s narrative is to be believed, things are looking bad for both the sisters and their uncle. I’m fairly happy to believe that Charles really is as patronising towards Constance as Merricat tells us, and as callously insensitive towards the ever more pathetic-seeming Julian. But it’s a sign of how bizarre Merricat’s world is that one of the many things she hates about his takeover is that he tries to talk her cat into being on his side. She tells us about how she has to explain things to put him right. The cat, I mean. It’s a David Copperfield situation at the moment, with the Murdstone-like interloper making the narrator’s life a misery while her only ally is not only powerless to help, but seems to take his side. Is Constance going to marry him? Both of them have come close to announcing it, but the incident in the room has momentarily put Charles off his stride. He would have expected Constance to be more forthright in her condemnation, but she seems to have at least some power to resist the most hateful things he says. She particularly dislikes his treatment of poor old Julian….
There’s plenty more to write about these chapters, but I’m tempted to read on to the end and come back to them. But one last thing. Jackson likes to give her characters a hard time when it comes to getting a grip on what is and isn’t real. I’ve said a lot about Merricat already, but at the end of the chapter, following her trashing of the bedroom and the ensuing row, she goes to a dirty, derelict summerhouse. Charles has invaded most of her private hiding places, but here she can fantasise about the family, alive again, all treating her like royalty: ‘Bow your heads to our adored Mary Katherine,’ her father tells the rest of them. Places, like things, are alive to her. She hates to hurt their feelings, and takes as much comfort from them—and from her cat, of course—as from Constance herself.
Julian’s grip on reality is as shaky for a different reason. He constantly mistakes people for other family members now dead—except, once, when he thinks that ‘Mary Katherine’ died in the orphanage she was sent to during the trial—and he can’t remember things he asked for a minute ago…. But his confusion sometimes lets him see better than anybody else. He knows Charles very well, and when he speaks to him one time, imagining that he is addressing John, the father, it’s a perfect hatchet-job: ‘You are a very selfish man, John, perhaps even a scoundrel, and overly fond of the world’s goods; I sometimes wonder, John, if you are every bit the gentleman.’ Charles’s reaction is, of course, dismissive. ‘It’s a crazy house.’ Well, yes. But Charles really is the ‘bastard’ that Julian calls him at other times.
As for Constance…. Her responses to the new realities are becoming more interesting. She seems to be too naïve and trusting to understand what Charles is up to—he’s clearly a gold-digger and now routinely wears their father’s gold watch and chain, which Merricat over-winds on purpose to break it—but they aren’t married yet. She hasn’t simply buckled, even if her years of seclusion have depleted any resources she might have had to deal with a bully—another word Julian uses, now I think of it. Merricat has told us several times that this is the last day of things being as they had been, and that from now on they will never again be as before. But we don’t know what exactly is going to bring the change about.
Time to read on.
Chapters 8-10—to the end
Ah. Quite near the end, Merricat wonders what sort of fairy-tale they are in. Hansel and Gretel, perhaps, as she and Constance go to hide out of harm’s way in the woods… but we already know that isn’t the one. Maybe it’s the James Whale movie version of Frankenstein, the one where the villagers burn down the building the monster’s hiding in. That doesn’t quite happen here, but when the upstairs of the Blackwood house does catch fire, the locals come along in car-loads and cheer. The local fire chief is Jim Donell, the same nasty piece of work who gave Merricat such a hard time in the coffee-shop all those chapters ago. He apologises to the villagers that his job obliges him and his men to put the fire out… which they do, as the spectators jeer. Charles’s calls for the men to help him remove the safe—he’s been obsessed by that safe since his arrival—sound increasingly like a cry of despair.
The ground floor, aside from water damage, remains pretty sound—until Jim Donell himself initiates a spree of destruction. He calmly throws a rock through a tall window and, while Merricat and Constance continue to hide, watching, the villagers trash almost everything the fire didn’t reach. More windows are smashed, furniture is hurled against walls, and everything breakable is shattered. Every drawer is turned out, almost every piece of crockery and silverware broken, bent or stamped into grotesque shapes. It seems Merricat wasn’t wrong when she said everyone hated them. But their discovery of all this destruction comes later. They aren’t out of harm’s way yet because…
…when the villagers see them, they surround and threaten them. And this isn’t only a weird fairy-tale, it’s a nursery rhyme too. ‘Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?’ is a line we might mistakenly think is spoken by Constance, having lost her sanity, believing herself to be safe. But it’s the villagers’ little rhyme about the murders. It goes on: ‘Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep? / Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.’ Gothic disregard for plausibility? I couldn’t possibly comment. But the danger is real, and they are only saved by the arrival of the voice of sanity. It’s Jim Clarke, the doctor husband of Helen, who tells them to stop and think about what on earth they think they’re doing. Maybe it’s a satire on Atticus’s speech to the lynch-mob in To Kill a Mockingbird—or not a satire, but a reprise. Atticus is getting nowhere until Scout arrives and chats amiably to one of the men, and Jim Clarke fares no better. The turning-point is much darker: he has been to the back of the house, and returns to announce that Julian is dead. After some defiance at first—‘Did she kill him?’—the crowd disperse.
The real echoes aren’t from Frankenstein but Jane Eyre. It’s the madwoman who burns down Rochester’s house, and it’s the madwoman who burns down this one. Merricat, removing some of Charles’s intrusive things from what she still regards as her father’s room, blithely sweeps his smouldering pipe into the wastebasket. We’re not at all surprised—and I’m sure she isn’t either—when, at dinner, he smells smoke and starts to panic like a rabbit. Constance is as unimpressed as Merricat, and lets him rush off to get help. And I remember in the first chapter that Merricat complains about the family’s earlier loss of one of the handful of prosperous-looking townhouses in the centre. It had been her mother’s, and it was called Rochester House.
The sisters are left alone. Both of them seem to think that they will simply be able to go back to the house, but not yet. Instead, they go to one of Merricat’s secret places in the woods and comfort each other through the summer night. The long Chapter 8 ends with Merricat fantasising aloud that she would like to ‘put death in all their food and watch them die.’ Constance replies, ‘The way you did before?’ and it’s confirmation of what we’ve known all along. ‘It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years,’ Merricat narrates, then she says aloud, ‘Yes … the way I did before.’ The end.
Except, of course, it isn’t the end. If it had been, it would be a huge disappointment—you can’t end with one of the least surprising reveals ever—but that’s not what the final chapters are about at all. However… deciding what they are about isn’t easy, because what the sisters are able to construct is a workable domesticity of their own invention. The contents of the house might be mostly smashed up, and the front is burnt out and open to the sky, but the structure of the back seems sound. It must even be watertight, because they are able to set up living quarters, mainly in the kitchen. They find exactly two unbroken cups that still have handles, and enough provisions beyond an unopened door into the larder and cellar to restore Constance to her role as cook and homemaker.
Plausible? It doesn’t matter for Jackson, who seems most interested in the way that Constance and Merricat are able to become a functioning unit. And it doesn’t matter for the reader—this reader anyway—because Jackson makes a psychopathic murderer and her loving minder so engaging. The afterword in my edition, by Joyce Carol Oates, opens with this: ‘Of all the precocious children and adolescents of mid-20th Century American fiction […] none is more memorable than “Merricat”.’ Yep. Meanwhile Constance, poor, put-upon, always-put-others-first Constance, has the security she craves. The fact that it’s her psycho sister who’s helped her to find it is part of the glory of these chapters.
What’s left to say? Some details of the sisters’ first few days and weeks of their new life show how this little universe works. The indefatigable Clarkes, both of them, try as hard a they can to persuade them to come and live in safety with them. But, under cover of darkness, Merricat has created a barricade to deter intruders, and put up shutters of cardboard and wood to stop anyone even looking in. After several failed attempts, including the suggestion that they might want to attend Julian’s funeral, they give up. Their uncle is dead, and it isn’t at all surprising that they consider nothing at all could possibly be gained by their showing up. It’s never been about show, and neither of them is going to start caring about the world now—any more than Constance cared when Helen tried to get her to come out from her self-imposed seclusion on that final ill-fated visit. Might Constance have taken the bait if Merricat hadn’t been around?
The question seems irrelevant, because society at large is irrelevant. The villagers made their feelings clear, and when, to the great surprise of both sisters, baskets of prepared food start to be left on the half-ruined porch, the sisters take it in. But it’s on their own terms: it’s a point of honour for Merricat that she only opens the door to take it in at night. And, as often as not, Constance deconstructs the meat stew, or whatever, and re-prepares it in her own way, properly.
What I find most interesting is that any idea of morality simply doesn’t apply. The sisters know who is to blame for a whole family being murdered, and so do we. The villagers act on their suspicions and turn into a mob when the opportunity arises. Then some of them seem to want to make some kind of atonement. Fine, if it makes them feel better—and I don’t know if that’s what the sisters think, or if they don’t bother to waste any thought on it. It helps them to live, that’s all. And I’ve never known such a morally ambiguous story feel so satisfying. ‘Oh, Constance, we are so happy.’
And, though I don’t know how Jackson has brought it about, so say all of us.
A few days later, I’m not sure I agree with myself about Constance. I’ve presented Merricat’s happy ending as though it really is the way she thinks of it, and not a temporary fix. Really, they are no safer than they were at the end of Chapter 3, before the catastrophe of Charles’s arrival. Then, ‘we would sit warmly together in the kitchen where we were guarded by the house and no one from outside could see so much as a light’—and she could write exactly the same complacent lines now. But this isn’t the beginning of the rest of their lives, obviously, and Constance won’t be able to play out the role of willing minder unto death. That first day, when Merricat had playfully asked her if she would look after her until she dies, she is ‘chilled’ when Constance reminds her that she, Constance, might not always be around. For Merricat, things have to stay exactly as they are now—‘We have always lived in the castle’—and she only accepts change when there really is no alternative. The smouldering pipe in the wastebasket seems to be the first time since the multiple murders that she resorts to a truly desperate solution.
Both sisters are totally unworldly, but in very different ways. While Constance sees only the best in everybody, making no judgments about them—she doesn’t need to forgive Merricat, because she never condemned her in the first place—for Merricat, everyone is an enemy. If they leave her alone, fine. If not, she wants to wreak lethal revenge. Once in her life, she has been able to do it, and most days she seems to fantasise about doing it again—because while Constance, with the connivance of Merricat, has turned her back on the world, Merricat is forced to endure its horrors. She relies on that armour I mentioned at the start, a force-field of supercilious disdain—strengthened by her mother’s shoes—and a self-invented mythology of superstitious challenges and rewards. (A first-person narrator I haven’t mentioned so far is the possibly murderous Frank in Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. In that novel there’s an even more elaborately worked-out regimen of behaviour to perpetuate a self-invented myth.)
At the root of it is how the sisters rely on each other. Merricat makes Constance depend on her, portraying the outside world as a place nobody would want to go to. I suspected almost from the start what her motive must be—to keep things as they are, and Constance away from prying questions. (Those padlocked gates aren’t really for keeping people out, obviously.) Meanwhile, although Merricat never says it, she wouldn’t last a day without Constance. What we don’t know is how Constance would manage without Merricat. The way Merricat presents it, she saves Constance from the prying eyes of the crowd after the fire, and protects her with those barricades. But, even before Charles’s arrival, Merricat had needed to work really hard to steer Constance away from the temptations of an outside life that Helen Clarke was laying before her. Helen, presented as a dull busybody by Merricat, even mentions the possibility of boyfriends…. I don’t remember Merricat saying that she was chilled by that, but she must have been.
I don’t disagree with my first impression that they are both emotionally stunted, as Merricat cuts Constance off from any thoughts of having a mature life. Constance had been the only one Merricat had wanted to survive the poisonings—she doesn’t like sugar—because she was, and remains, the only person ever to have offered her unconditional love. I think this is the terrible irony of Constance’s fate. She must have understood Merricat’s death-obsession from the start, but proved her love for her by washing out the sugar bowl and going through the horror of a trial for murder. Her love, not blind but open-eyed, condemns her. Or… she evaded a moral choice when aged 22, and she will never be able to put it right. Or… given Merricat’s crime and Constance’s cover-up, there is nothing left for either of them but a kind of limbo. ‘We are so happy,’ says Merricat, and Constance would no doubt agree.
Early on, I wondered whether Merricat is actually still alive when narrating all this. I’m still not sure.