Tag Archives: isolation

Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” – A Life of Seclusion and Imagination

16 Aug

“My Name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.”

(Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

I recently got my hands on this little mystery novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by the American writer Shirley Jackson. It was originally published in 1962, just three years prior to Jackson’s death. The title of the novel definitely intrigued me and when I opened the first page I was lured enough to continue reading it. I am perplexed at just how simple the style and form of the novel are, and yet how mysterious and strange the story itself is. The way Jackson writes makes writing seem effortless and easy.

The novel tells a story about two sisters who live isolated and alone in their castle at the edge of a small village in Vermont. The sisters, a twenty-eight year old Constance and an eighteen year old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, live with their uncle Julian and their cat Jonas. The villagers hate the family because of the tragedy that had happened six years before the novel reacts; the whole family, apart from Merricat and Constance, was poisoned by means of the arsenic-laced sugar on their blueberries after supper. Only the uncle Julian survived; Merricat was sent to her room that night as a punishment, and Constance was the only one who didn’t put sugar on her blueberries. Constance was blamed for the poisoning, but nothing could be proved.

When the novel begins, Merricat is going out to village to get books from the library and fresh groceries since Constance is an agoraphobic and doesn’t leave the garden of their castle. Merricat and Constance live their peaceful, isolated life together happily. The only thing that disrupts this peace is the arrival of the intruder, their cousin Charles whose motives are not sincere, for he is only after their inheritance. Merricat can intuitively sence the arrival of change, as personified in the character of Charles: A CHANGE WAS COMING, AND NOBODY KNEW IT BUT ME. Constance suspected, perhaps; I noticed that she stood occasionally in her garden and looked not down at the plants she was tending, and not back at our house, but outward, toward the trees which hid the fence, and sometimes she looked long and curiously down the length of the driveway, as though wondering how it would feel to walk along it to the gates. I watched her. On Saturday morning, after Helen Clarke had come to tea, Constance looked at the driveway three times.”

Castle Hill Ruggle, Ohio. Built in 1878.

His visit ends in a house fire and a ransacking of the castle by a deranged group of villagers. At the end of the novel, Merricat admits that she is the one who poisoned the family and Constance says that she knew that all along and they agree not to talk about it ever again. I love how the strange is the normal in their home. Constance is completely unphased by Merricat’s strange habits or behavior, and she never shows any rash emotions such as anger, snapiness, impatience, no, she is always calm, composed and sweet-mannered, like a doll. Constance always finds a way to justify Merricat’s behaviour, even the murder of their parents, uncles, brother etc. I find it amazing that the novel is told from Merrica’t point of view and even though she specifically states that the rest of her family is death, she never admits to us, the readers, directly that she was behind it.

All sugar. Like, zero arsenic.

Here is a little passage with conversation between Merricat and Constance. I really like Merricat’s view on life here:

The rain started while we sat in the kitchen, and we left the kitchen door open so we could watch the rain slanting past the doorway and washing the garden; Constance was pleased, the way any good gardener is pleased with rain. “We’ll see color out there soon,” she said.

“We’ll always be here together, won’t we, Constance?”

“Don’t you ever want to leave here, Merricat?”

“Where could we go?” I asked her. “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.”

“I wonder sometimes.” She was very serious for a minute, and then she turned and smiled at me. “Don’t you worry, my Merricat. Nothing bad will happen.”

(March 1995. ‘What makes a good finale? Gowns that look just as good on the way out.’, Picture found here.)

Whilst reading the novel, I found myself liking Merricat’s personality which is crazy because she is a pychopatic murdered who killed everyone in her family at the age of twelve. Still, there are things about her that I like and even find relatable; her hatred for everyone in the village; for example, when she says: “I wished they were all dead and I was walking on their bodies.” I like that her love is very limited; she only loves Constance and her cat Jonas. I love how she lives in her own little world and daydreams about going to live on the moon. I love her imagination and her strange little rituals which she perceives as a way of keeping her safety. I love how childlike Merricat is and how, despite being eighteen years old, she still runs around her house and garden as if she were a younger teen, she is completely oblivious of the fact that she is becoming an adult. And Constance behaves towards her in a motherly and nurturing manner, further cradling Merricat into her prolonged state of childhood. I love how she hates guests and anyone intruding the solemn space of her castle, for so do I! And I am envious that, unlike Merricat, I have not the means to completely isolate myself from society but rather, I am forced to participate in it, one way or another. So, in a way, this novel describes the ideal life for me; away from everything and everybody. Oh, I can just imagine Merricat slamming the doors to Charles’s face and playing Iggy Pop’s song “I’m Sick of You” very loudly; “I’m sick of you and there ain’t no way/ Don’t want to know, don’t want to see/ Don’t you ever bother me/ Sick of hanging around your pad/ Sick of your Mom and sick of your Dad…”

Edgar Degas: I can see that you are lonesome just like me

6 Dec

“I can see that you are lonesome just like me
And it being late, you’d like some company
Well I turn around to look at you, and you look back at me
The guy you’re with, he’s up and split, the chair next to you’s free
And I hope that you don’t fall in love with me…”

(Tom Waits, I hope that I don’t fall in love with you)

Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1876

Muted colour palette of greys, beige and browns instantly conveys the drab and depressing mood of the café. The café portrayed is the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes; a famous meeting place for the Impressionists and many other artists and composers such as Erik Satie and Ravel. The angle from which the man and the woman sitting in the café are seen also adds to the mood of the painting; it’s almost like a film scene and we are in the place of the camera, we see the lonesome pair as if we are sitting at the table across of them, we are the voyeurs observing them, trying to untangle the tale of their lonesomeness and detachment. The model for the pipe-smoking man with a hat and a beard was Marcellin Desboutin, a fellow artist, and indeed he has a bohemian, untamed look to him. The woman is dressed in a more fashionable way and the model for her was the actress Ellen Andreé who posed for other Impressionist artists as well.

They both look lonely and despite being physically close, they seem emotionally distant from one another. They are both silently staring into the distance. The man is smoking a pipe, only a half of which is painted because Degas used the very popular Japanese ukiyo-e style method of strange angles and perspectives and the result is a more intimate, direct and natural scene. They don’t look like they are posing, they look like they were caught in their natural habitat. There is a glass of absinthe on the table in front of the lady, but she seems to be thinking of something other than her drink. They both look tired; tired from life in general and perhaps tired from the night before. In contrast to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vibrant, lively and garish scenes from cafés and cabarets, this painting has a grey, party is over, hangover mood. The grey morning after which doesn’t have the flashy lights and vibrant colours that the evening parties have. I spent a lot of time gazing at this painting lately and two songs kept coming to my mind, especially the lyrics, Tom Waits’ “I hope I don’t fall in love with you” and Johnny Cash’s song “She used to love me a lot”. First the lyrics to Tom Waits’ song:

Well I hope that I don’t fall in love with you
‘Cause falling in love just makes me blue
Well the music plays and you display your heart for me to see
I had a beer and now I hear you calling out for me
And I hope that I don’t fall in love with you

(…)
Well if you sit down with this old clown, take that frown and break it
Before the evening’s gone away, I think that we could make it
And I hope that I don’t fall in love with you

Well the night does funny things inside a man
These old tomcat feelings you don’t understand
Well I turn around to look at you, you light a cigarette
I wish I had the guts to bum one, but we’ve never met
And I hope that I don’t fall in love with you…

And now very similar lyrics of Johnny Cash’s song “She used to love me a lot”:

I saw her through the window today
She was sittin’ in the Silver Spoon cafe
I started to keep going
But something made me stop
She used to love me a lot

She looked lonely and I knew the cure
Old memories would win her heart for sure
I thought I’d walk on in
And I give it my best shot
She used to love me a lot

I sat down beside her and she smiled
She said where have you been it’s been awhile
She was glad to see me
I could almost read her thoughts
She used to love me a lot…

Frans Masereel – Streetlights, Paris in the evening

22 Nov

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”

(Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart)

Frans Masereel (Belgian, 1889-1972), Streetlights, Paris in the evening, 1939

Belgian painter Frans Masereel’s painting “Streetlights, Paris in the Evening” really captivated me these days. I just love it so much! The mood is so dark and strange and so fitting for these dreary late autumnal November days. The more I gaze at this painting, the more I am sinking in this atmosphere of isolation and gloom which are so alluring. The buildings, so tall and so dark, with countless soulless little windows, appear threatening and cold. They don’t look inviting and friendly, they look like big ghostly figures ready to swallow up the tiny figure of a man in a red shirt. The sharp, vertical lines serve the same purpose as in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s paintings of Berlin streets; to create a sense of anxiety and looming threat. The light of the street lamps colours the pavement in warm yellow hues. The clouds, painted in dark blues and greys, look so robust and strong as if they could crush down the buildings underneath them. It seems the painter took great deal of time to paint the sky and it certainly adds to the mood of the painting. The sky in the distance is tinged with orange. Patches of red, yellow and blue on the otherwise drab facades give me goosebumps of joy because they break the icy coldness of the buildings’ appearance. Can you feel it?…. The cold, frosty breath of isolation blowing through the streets like autumnal wind. Perhaps the entire street scene is actually seen through the eyes of the man in red shirt, perhaps he is the focalizer of this painting and the reason why the street looks so alienating and empty, the buildings so threatening and gloomy, the sky heavy and dark and about to fall on him and crush him, is because he perceives the world around him that way. This is how the evening in Paris seems to this isolated small individual who is wandering the streets alone and lonely, with a mask of despair on his face and a sense of dread weighing his legs and slowing his walking pace. Every little window on every building is an abyss of darkness ready to swallow him in ….. he must hurry! Hurry before they get him.

Frans Masereel, La vespasienne sous le métro, 1926

Frans Masereel, Metro aerien (Hochbahn), 1926

To end, I decided to include these two paintings Masereel painted in 1926. I love all the bold black lines swirling and cutting the space in a very exciting way. The lines, along with the bright turquoise and yellow neon lights really create an atmosphere of a vibrant and chaotic nightlife. It’s interesting to compare the years in which the paintings were made and what was going on at the time; the roaring twenties were an exciting time and these paintings capture this excitement and glamour, and the painting above, with a very different mood, was painted in 1939; the year World War Two started.

Edvard Munch – The Lonely Ones (Two People)

8 Feb

In this post we’ll take a look at Edvard Munch’s painting “The Lonely Ones”.

Edvard Munch, The Lonely Ones (Two People), 1895

A man and a woman are standing on the shore, gazing at the sea. The waves crush on to the shore as the two of them stand there in silence, just one step away from each other, and yet emotionally distant. The whiteness of her dress stands in contrast with his sombre black suit, which visually further connects the insurmountable difference between the sexes. The murmur of the sea, louder than their loneliness, matches the turmoil that rises in their soul. Are they a couple who just had an argument, or two lovers who have, after being drunken with love, now sobered and realised that nothing, not even their love, will spare them the loneliness and feeling of isolation that they experience as individuals, that they are forced to face the world alone, that one is alone even when they are holding a loved one in their arms?

Turquoise and pink rocks on the beach and the sea waves take on psychedelic shapes as Munch swirls with his brush just as he did in the famous “Scream”. As hopes crush into bitter disappointments, the reality fails to make sense and the man and the woman gaze longingly at the sea searching answers to their inner voids. In his book about Munch, J.P. Hodin writes: “It is as if Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Sexual Love were represented in the medium of painting. Man and woman are like elements which come into contact, obsess one another but cannot become united. Woman is an enigma to man, a sphinx which he must always contemplate searchingly.”

Still, that disconnection, this misunderstanding between man and a woman alone on the shore reminds me more of something that Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving: “Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside.

Edvard Munch, Separation II, 1896

In “Separation” above we again see a man and a woman, together on canvas yet painfully and deeply alone, drifting into opposite directions, aimlessly like paper boats on the lake. His dark eyelids are closed, his mouth mute. Her long hair seems to be flying in the wind, caressing his shoulder, stirring the silence with its murmur, mingling with the sweet nocturnal air. The striking titles of many of Munch’s paintings point at his desire to portray the whole range of different emotions and states: separation, loneliness, fear, anguish, consolation, pain…

Connecting love with pain, and ultimately loneliness, is a theme often exploited in the world of art and poetry, but Edvard Munch and his contemporaries in the decadent and spiritually rotting society of fin de scle had a particular penchant for it, to the point of rejecting love or a lover. In his youth, Munch was shy and reticent, not much is known about his relationships with women apart from the fact that they brought bitter disappointments, and he tended to fear any signs of affection or closeness because they most certainly carried anguish with them. Holdin again writes: “Love turned into distrust of woman. When Nietzsche spoke of love he saw it as the eternal war, the mortal hatred between the sexes. ‘Man fears woman when he loves, he fears her when he hates.”

Munch was a friend with many writers of the days and he was influenced by their writings and their ideas. Swedish playwright Strindberg was similarly interested in conflicts of love, and in 1897 wrote in his diary: “What is Woman? The enemy of friendship, the inevitable scourge, the necessary evil, the natural temptation, the longed for misfortune, a never ending source of tears, the poor masterpiece of creation in an aspect of dazzling white. Since the first woman contracted with the devil, shall not her daughters do the same? Just as she was created from a crooked rib, so is her entire nature crooked and warped and inclined to evil.

Edvard Munch, Consolation, 1894

Holdin ends his thoughts about the paintings “The Lonely Ones” with a glimpse of hope: “No, Munch does not hate woman, for he realizes that she has to suffer as he suffers himself.” How splendid of him to console us!

John William Waterhouse – Lady of Shalott: I am half-sick of shadows

3 Sep

English painter John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849; the same year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London. So, he wasn’t a member of the original Brotherhood, but his style and subject matter show that he embraced their aesthetic and continued the themes ranging from Shakespeare to Arthurian romances and mythology. He created a world of beauty and dreams that served as a refuge from grey and harsh reality for Victorians who were such escapists. Waterhouse portrayed the legend of the Lady of Shalott three times, in 1888, 1894 and 1916. Although the version from 1888 is by far the most popular, today we’ll take a look at the other two.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

“Who is that?”, Elaine stood up quickly, abandoning her tapestry, and in two-three steps approached the window of her lonely tower, with long curious, thirsty glances soaking up the beauty of the sights never before seen directly. Her long velvety hair spilt in dozens of cascades on her back, like a shimmering murmuring waterfall, reaching her waist. Yearning, fear and gentle admiration coloured her pale, beautiful face. Never before have the beams of sun, nor the moon, drops of rain or spring zephyrs caressed it. Her white gown, its flimsy sleeves and dozens of silk petticoats, shines like the moon on the night sky against the darkness of her tower, but its gentle rustling is too far from the ears of a lovely knight who happened to be passing by. “Who is he?”, wonders Elaine, stepping forward with one leg, but leaning on the chair with her hand as soon as the words of the ancient curse run through her mind. Golden thread that wrapped itself like a snake around her dress seems to warn her too about the consequences of her actions… but Elaine can’t resist! She resisted gazing for so long, relying on shadows, pale reflections of the world in her mirror, but today the temptation to look was too irresistible, for she saw a knight riding from Camelot, passing her tower by, his armour glowing in the sun, his coal-black curls flowing underneath his helmet; it was none other than Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
       The Lady of Shalott.” (*)
***

One sight was enough for this beautiful, naive, vulnerable lily-maiden to fall in love. Her heart ached not solely for the handsome and distant knight who innocently passed by her tower, unaware of her sad destiny, but for the music, lights and liveliness of Camelot, for people and their chatter, but her curse was never to feel the world, but to gaze at it passively in the mirror, a stale reflection was to replace the vibrancy of reality. The moment she left her tapestry, drawn to the window like a moth to the light, she felt her soul overwhelmed with love and the same moment her world fell apart for the curse has come upon her, and she cried.

 As I’ve already said in the introduction, Waterhouse painted three different portrayals of the sad life of the Lady of Shalott, but thematically and chronologically they go into different directions; the first painting, from 1888, shows Elaine floating to her death while the last one, from 1916, shows her contemplating over her life of isolation. I am certain that, had he painted three more, they would all be as imaginative, dreamy and original. This is the first, and the most famous 1888 version of which I wrote about here. It is a true gem indeed and a symbol of Pre-Raphaelite artistic vision:

So, in the last painting of the series, we see Elaine before her downfall; she’s sitting above her tapestry, taking a rest, her hands behind her head, staring dreamily into the void, while through the window we see the magnificent grey towered castle of Camelot whose red roofs shine in glory. Elaine looks wistful, but not determined, she’s lost in thoughts but not yet ready to act, with her rosy cheeks and rosy dress she looks like a lonely rose in a long-forgotten garden, and I can see a spider weaving a veil of silver and dew around her gentle petals, hushing her heart, lulling her to sleep and forget reality. This is what Lord Tennyon, a beloved poet of the Victorian era, tells us of Elaine’s life of isolation and longing:

She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
 
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
***
Loneliness is making her tired and restless, her eyelids grow heavy, her gaze weary, while the pale face reveals that she is curious, impetuous, nervous…. but she is naive and knows nothing of the world, and yet she longs for something she can’t describe and pines for memories that not belong to her, sighing and whispering to the stale air of solitude “I am half-sick of shadows!” Oh, poor little maiden, will her life be wrapped in a pensive veil of gloom forever?

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1916

“I watched life and wanted to be a part of it but found it painfully difficult.” (Anais Nin)

Everyone speaks of an unlived life, and through reading Jack Kerouac’s novels of wild adventures, drinking, promiscuity, and also of self-indulgences and extremes of rock stars, I’ve created in my imagination this glamorous, yet false, vision of a life lived to the fullest, but as I grow older I am more of an opinion that adult life is very sad, and that world is a confusing and scary place, one I’d rather not venture. While gazing at Elaine in her lonely tower, I can’t help but think “Don’t gaze through the window, don’t long for Camelot, there’s nothing for you there!” So, for me, the legend of the Lady of the Shalott brings to mind the conflict between living life and daydreaming. I am so fond of daydreams because they are so sweet, and life is so often so unfulfilling and sour. How to live and be truly happy when life crushes all your ideals just like the sea waves crush the rocks on the shore? And is a life spent in daydreaming a wasted one? “To be or not to be?”, Hamlet asked himself. To live or to daydream, that is the question!

How do you feel about Elaine’s destiny, and the conflict of life vs daydreams. Share your thoughts with me.