A chilly masterpiece about the small-minded circumstances and devastating consequences of bullying, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" is in the finA chilly masterpiece about the small-minded circumstances and devastating consequences of bullying, "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" is in the fine tradition of gothic women writers like Carson McCullers.
Jackson creates compelling empathy for a family of outcasts and the mentally-disturbed woman-child who decides to do something about their plight.
Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian Blackwood -- suffering from dementia and possibly heart failure -- live together in that icon of the dark imagination, a forbidding old house on the edge of wherever. But Jackson adds an important twist: The house is made spooky not by supernatural entities, but by the demons of the human mind and heart.
Ironically nicknamed "Merricat," Mary Katherine, the story's narrator, fills the tale with magical thinking, describing the many odd, fascinating, and disturbing ways she copes with loneliness, grief, and coming of age in a province of petty grievances.
America boasts a rich pantheon of powerful women writers who tackle subjects head-on their male counterparts broach obliquely at best.
From the angst of an alienated heart in the works of Jackson, McCullers and Sylvia Plath, to the bitter divide of racial injustice or the quiet repose of the retrospective soul in the stories of Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green," or Flannery O'Connor's "Everything that Rises Must Converge," female writers have a unique take on the American experience.
Jackson's tight, clean prose -- she could give Hemingway a run for his money -- beats with a dark heart of declarative sentences that wrap the novel in a lean 146 pages.
"I am chilled," Merricat declares, whenever contemplating a distasteful notion, like the thought of sister Constance venturing into the unwelcoming village.
Merricat's creepy encounters with her long-lost cousin Charles -- an uncouth, unwelcome invader by any other name, come to claim his share of the family fortune -- left me chilled, with Jackson hitting every child's emotional buttons, like the way Charles talks around Merricat.
Like the way he ignores her, even to her face. Like the way he talks to her beloved black cat Jonas, and the dread-inspiring thoughts he leaves in his wake. "I wonder if Merricat knows what I do to people who don't like me," Charles asks Jonas, in front of Merricat, of course.
The fate life -- and Merricat -- ultimately visit on the family comes as both inevitable and surprising. The town's response is tragic but typical, the devastation final, and the two young women strangely and peacefully resigned. If anything, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a prosaic ode to the inescapability of our personal choices.
We have always lived in castles of our own making, and we always will.
"I am an invisible man," wrote the American novelist Ralph Ellison, in the famous opener to Invisible Man.
You've probably heard of the Great American"I am an invisible man," wrote the American novelist Ralph Ellison, in the famous opener to Invisible Man.
You've probably heard of the Great American Novel, a title for which Invisible Man is a contender. But it is, no doubt, the Great African-American Novel.
A young, never-named black man, the novel's "invisible man" narrates what critics have called his "nightmare journey across the racial divide" with a "voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white."
Ellison's man-with-no-name is so likeable, he feels heroic. He's introspective, always questioning -- himself, his surroundings, the people around him, his place in the larger world.
He guides us, with grace, humility, and passion, across the heart of an America we would otherwise never see.
An instant hit on its 1952 publication, Invisible Man won the National Book Award with a compelling theme: that African Americans are often seen, even by one another, as black first, and human beings -- with feelings, thoughts, souls -- second, third, or never.
"I am invisible," the young man-with-no-name explains, "simply because people refuse to see me. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me."
When the young man reflects on the condescending gaze of a wealthy, white New Yorker, for instance, he contrasts North with South through the way each looks at a black person.
"It was not the harsh, uninterested-in-you-as-a-human-being stare that I'd known in the South, the kind that swept over a black man as though he were a horse or an insect; it was something more, a direct, what-type-of-mere-man-have-we-here kind of look that seemed to go beneath my skin."
Such is the stifling nature of America's dysfunctional relationship with skin color. Ellison probes that relationship in ways both naked and profound.