We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, adapted into a fairly faithful movie starring Taissa Farmiga and Alexandria Daddario in 2018, tells the story of the Blackwood sisters who spend their days at home sequestered away from the local villagers after surviving a tragic poisoning that killed their other family members. The sisters live out their days with their uncle, the only other survivor, isolated in a manor overlooking the village; Constance (Daddario) tends to the house and makes the meals, Merricat (Farmiga) runs errands in town, and Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) composes an ever-lengthening memoir on the night of the poisoning. And this, the novel reveals shortly, is just how Merricat likes it.
Although she is biologically eighteen years old, Merricat lives and behaves as she did when she was twelve years old. Instead of daydreaming about boys or marriage or college, Merricat instead imagines living on the moon where scarlet fish swim in the rivers and the inhabitants eat rose petals and wear rubies on their fingers. Childlike in both her boldness and simplicity, Merricat relies on Constance to make her meals, mend her clothing, and even to indulge her in playing make-believe. Constance, in turn, agreeably goes along with this arrangement, humoring Merricat’s daydreams and tending to her physical needs, with words no harsher than a gentle scolding for mischief such as forgetting to put boots on when running around outside. This arrangement is a pattern that Merricat is loathe to change. Merricat’s refusal to grow in age or maturity, preferring to keep her life in a state of enacted nostalgia, is ultimately what holds her and her remaining family back from reentering society and moving on from the tragedy that destroyed their lives.
And so this stasis of sorts might have continued had not Cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) appeared on the Blackwood property.
We can use We Have Always Lived in the Castle as a mirror for our own visions of nostalgia. While very few of us will have to endure circumstances quite as dire as those of the Blackwood family, it’s likely many of us have entertained visions of the past—real or idealized—that prevent us from fully following God and serving the world. While it’s easy in this election season to point to one rallying cry for a return to order or another, if we’re being honest, we must acknowledge that we have our own moments in time we’d like to return to. Perhaps it was our high school glory days or that semester studying abroad in Europe or even Thanksgiving dinners before our dear relative died. Maybe, like Merricat, we miss the days of being a carefree child before jobs and bills wore us out.
It’s tempting to dismiss Merricat’s clinging to childishness, like our own wistful longing, as something harmless or possibly even worth protecting. However, her childishness is not undergirded by a deeper layer of innocence or naivety, but rather a deep layer of selfishness. Merricat seeks to control Constance and keep their living situation in stasis. It is this deep need for control that is Merricat’s true sin: nostalgia. At its core, nostalgia is a selfish desire. Nostalgia is defined as a deep longing to return to a past time, presumably when times were better or when everyone was happy. Ostensibly, this definition would imply that everyone shares the same memories of good times or being happy, but in practicality, the one who is feeling nostalgic is the one who determines when and what the good times were. In this instance, it’s Merricat’s vision of the idyllic past that determines where her family stays in time.
When Cousin Charles arrives, Constance begins to change. Where her days have previously been occupied by thoughts of tending to Merricat and Uncle Julian, her day-to-day responsibilities are altered to include Charles. She starts to unfold in Charles’s presence and to awaken to her former way of thinking. She begins to think about the future again. Unlike Merricat who was a child when the poisoning happened, Constance was already a young woman of twenty-two; she is well-aware of the natural cycles of life. For a moment, it seems that Constance remembers the world outside of the Blackwood property. She laments, “I’ve been hiding here… I have let Uncle Julian spend all his time living in the past and particularly reliving that one dreadful day. I have let you [Merricat] run wild…” She warms up to the idea of leaving with Charles and going to live “like other people.”
Merricat, in contrast, is horrified by this prospect of change. In order for Merricat to continue living with Constance as they have been since the poisoning, time can’t pass. Merricat can’t grow older—to do so would be to change the relationship between her and Constance—but neither can Constance leave. From the very beginning of the novel, when Constance speaks of someday going out into the village, Merricat is “chilled.” Rather than being excited that Constance is feeling bolder and stronger, Merricat is horrified that her world as she knows it is warping. She feels a change coming that she can neither predict nor control and this disturbs her, so she devises a plan to burn Charles, and the changes he brought with him, out of their lives.We are called not to stay as we were found or as we wish we had been found, but to grow in spiritual maturity and knowledge of the Gospel; to remain focused on the past is to refuse to grow spiritually.
“Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions,” proclaims the Preacher (Ecclesiastes 7:10). The truth of the matter is that the there is no way for us or Merricat to return to a better time or to even remain in a present time on Earth; time flows in a single direction. We are called not to stay as we were found or as we wish we had been found, but to grow in spiritual maturity and knowledge of the Gospel; to remain focused on the past is to refuse to grow spiritually. Paul admonishes the church of Corinth for lacking in spiritual growth (1 Corinthians 3:1–3) and still only able to drink “spiritual milk” rather than eating “spiritual meat.” Similarly the writer of Hebrews chastises his readers for not drinking “spiritual milk” instead of eating “meat” at a time when he expects them to be old enough to teach (Hebrews 5:12–14). Neither writer is frustrated that their readers began at a spiritually young age, but only that they lingered there to the point of immaturity. Immaturity, as it turns out, leads to an inability to “distinguish good from evil.” In Merricat’s case, her immaturity results in a roaring fire that burns away the top floor of their home and kills Uncle Julian. What started as childish clinging morphed into a burning, remorseless evil.
Merricat’s remorselessness extends to the very concept of granting forgiveness for others. Instead, she envisions the slow death of everyone who’s ever wronged her. In her memory, instead of being sent to bed with no supper for being naughty on the night of the poisoning, Merricat is worshiped by her family members who say such things as “You must never be punished,” “Our beloved, our dearest Mary Katherine must be guarded and cherished,” and most hauntingly “Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.” Merricat’s vision of the past is a vision in which the past serves her; time and memory bow at Queen Merricat’s feet. There is an old saying popularized by Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies: “Forgiveness is giving up hope of ever having had a better past.” If forgiveness is the giving up of hope, perhaps nostalgia is the fear of never having a good enough future. How could the future compare to a child’s fantasy?
The novel ends with Constance and Merricat making a new life in the ruins of their house—a life that looks eerily similar to where they began. The top floor with their bedrooms has burned away and much of the bottom floor is damaged, so that the living area has been abbreviated and once again there has been a narrowing of focus on time and space. Their roles once again have resumed with Constance playing the role of Mother/Older Sister and Merricat as the doted-upon Child/Younger Sister.
Seeing the ruin that is their house, Constance seems to momentarily break free from Merricat’s nostalgic vision and laments at their loss of possessions. “Oh Merricat, what will we do? Where will we find clothes?” The only clothes available to them are tablecloths and Uncle Julian’s suits. Merricat responds dismissively, “I will wear a suit of leaves.” When this answer does not settle Constance’s concerns, Merricat says instead, “Listen to me, Constance. We are going to be very happy.” Although phrased like a promise, this is actually a command. Merricat is once again commanding the situation; things will go back as they once were. The Blackwood sisters will be happy again. By the time the book ends a few pages later, they are happy again. But at what cost? They have lost possessions, shelter, and connections to the local village. The only basis for their happiness now is Merricat’s nostalgic vision.
We can no more control the passage of time than Merricat can, but we can change our perceptions of it. Rather than insisting on a vision of reality on what could have been, should have been, or even was the best time in our lives, we are best serving our God and our community by letting go. To hold onto a nostalgic moment is to wittingly or unwittingly force others into playing along with our dreams. Perhaps the future is worth sacrificing the past for.