All great authors, and even less than great authors, use literary devices. These literary techniques such as metaphor and wordplay sometimes contribute to the meaning of a story. This aspect of distinction might separate the good from the great authors, but nevertheless, I want to focus on some literary devices in the story by Shirley Jackson. She writes about a young girl and her sister and their life. This life includes living with the Blackwood family and the relationship especially between the sisters and the local village. I argue that Jackson uses literary devices, especially metaphor and narrative detail, to contribute to her overall story. The analysis is limited to a few examples, but these offer strong cases for the point at hand.
The story opens with a set of literary devices. Consider the opening lines: “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.” Here we see some plain statements of fact that introduce the main character, her name and age, but we also see a seemingly odd statement about being a werewolf. Mary likens herself to a werewolf because of the length of her fingers. This serves as a metaphor, by introducing the werewolf similarity, Jackson sets the mood for the rest of the story. We get a sense of something creepy, of something disturbing and even rejected. Mary continues, “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” The death-cup mushroom may be another metaphor, and the straight forward statement about dead family members contributes to the werewolf remark earlier.
Jackson has opened the story with a series of literary devices, especially the use of metaphor, that contribute to the eerie nature of the narrative. Next, consider the subtler techniques that Jackson employs. She describes the village from the point of view of the main character, stating, “I was always puzzled that the people of the village, living in their dirty little houses on the main highway or out on Creek Road, smiled and nodded and waved when the Clarkes and the Carringtons drove by.” These are literary details, the people waving and smiling, the dirty houses along the road. All of them furnish a clear picture in the readers’ mind. But Jackson also adds, “if Helen Clarke came into Elbert’s Grocery to pick up a can of tomato sauce or a pound of coffee her cook.” We hear about a pound of coffee and the tomato sauce can. These images equate to narrative detail and contribute to a concrete picture in the reader’s mind of what is happening. These differ from metaphor entirely. For they do not compare or equate two oddly matched things, but rather, they describe in realistic terms the nature of a scenario.
A similar use occurs later in the story, when, “one terrible morning I had dropped the shopping bag and the eggs broke and the milk spilled.” The mention of eggs breaking and milk spilling is unnecessary. The point is that Mary became frustrated as she was in a hurry. But Jackson adds these details nonetheless. She continues, “shovelling cans and boxes and spilled sugar wildly back into the shopping bag, telling myself not to run away.” In all, these literary details contribute to the reader’s imagination. It offers a concrete picture of occurrences that offer a real and close portrait of the story and characters. It seems to contribute to the imagination by working for it. In the case of metaphor, however, the reader must connect the dots, such as relating a werewolf to Mary.
The final dialogue of the story shows a use of metaphor but one a bit different from early on in the narrative. Jackson writes,
“We will have an omelette for breakfast.”
“I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”
“I doubt if I could cook one,” said Constance.
In this dialogue, we do have a bit of detail: the omelet eaten for breakfast. But for the most part this one seems to strike the reader as an odd occurrence again. One of the sisters says that she wonders whether she could eat a child. Constance claims that she doubts if she could cook one. These are weird statements for today, and probably for the girls then, but they recall the mention of a werewolf in the beginning of the story. The girls have been set up against the village for the entire story and now they conclude by banding together and reflecting on other people. We know that a werewolf will eat humans or at least drink their blood, and now the girls mention eating a little child. This evokes the metaphor from earlier in the story and contributes to the overall effect of eeriness in the narrative. Jackson has employed metaphor in a both an effective and continuous fashion throughout the story, as I hope has become clear even after a brief examination.
To conclude, the story of living in a castle involves two sisters, who we see always have and will live in a castle of sorts. They are rejected from their local community and sit together in comradery. Except for a few positive encounters, normally we see them struggling with the town. But most importantly, the sorrow and gloom of the story overrides its bright moments. Jackson contributes to these narrative plot elements with literary devices. I have offered examples of metaphor and of literary detail in order to demonstrate the use of literary technique and its influence on the story line. Many other examples would work. For instance, “‘Why do you suppose two old maids shut themselves up in a house like this? God knows,’ Charles said.” This is a rhetorical question posed within the character’s world but intended for the reader to reflect upon. I do not have the room to discuss each and every literary device in the story. However, Jackson clearly uses metaphor and literary detail and other techniques. These seem to contribute to the disturbing nature of the book. Its characters and context, its sequence and environment all see to trouble the reader who finds some empathy but also some fear in the sisters who have always lived in the castle.
- Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. 1962. Electronic.