The first chapter introduces the reader to the novel’s narrator, Mary Katherine Blackwood, who is nicknamed Merricat. In the opening paragraph, the reader learns several critical things about Merricat: she is eighteen (although, as we get a better sense of her, we see her often act younger), she lives with her sister Constance, who she’s fond of, and the rest of her immediate family is dead. The opening paragraph also establishes Merricat as an unusual teenager—she mentions wishing she were born a werewolf and liking Richard Plantagenet (a historical Duke of York) and the death-cup mushroom.
The reader also learns early on that Merricat and the remnants of her family lead a quite isolated life. Because Constance and Uncle Julian, the two other surviving members of her family, don’t leave the house, Merricat has to go into the village to run errands, which she is unhappy about. She creates a game for herself as she walks through the village, and further explains in her narration how isolated her family is—they don’t accept mail or have a telephone, finding both “unbearable” for the past six years. Merricat hates the village, calling it ugly, and also mentions that the villagers are “afraid of Blackwoods.” The fear appears to be mutual—Merricat is afraid of being laughed at or hit by a car, and she also fears children coming too close to her and being scolded. As Merricat orders products in the grocery store, villagers gossip behind her back, and Merricat fantasizes about them being dead. At Stella’s cafe, a villager, Jim Donell, teases Merricat with a rumor that her family is moving, which greatly upsets her. Later, Merricat makes a rule for herself, vowing to be nicer to Uncle Julian whenever she sees a small piece of paper. As she returns home, Merricat fantasizes alternately of walking on the villagers’ dead bodies and enjoying a picnic with her remaining family, and makes another rule: to never think anything more than once.
As a testament to the extent of the bad blood between Merricat’s family and the rest of the town, the first chapter reveals that the villagers have even created a rhyme about Merricat and her family. As Merricat walks home, they call it out to her: “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?/Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me./Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?/Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”
From the start of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson establishes Merricat as an unusual teenager. In the novel’s first paragraph, she talks in a childlike manner, rattling off her likes and dislikes. It’s not immediately clear whether Merricat’s childish nature has always been a part of her, or if it’s a consequence of the loss of her family. Her affection for werewolves and poisonous mushrooms makes her a logical suspect for the poisoning of her family from the start.
As Merricat returns from the library, her childish, somewhat stunted nature is apparent. She also seems to be superstitious, stating that “if it was a very good day I would later make an offering of jewelry out of gratitude.” Yet despite her strangely whimsical and sometimes charming nature, Merricat has a morbid and cruel side that appears early in the novel as well. “I wish you were all dead,” she thinks regarding the townspeople she hates, adding that “I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true.”
There are also early hints that Merricat doesn’t like to think of the memory of her deceased family. Though she says the Rochester house, where her mother was born, is “the loveliest in town,” she also says that she “disliked seeing the house where our mother was born.” This line also shows one of Merricat’s quirks—she nearly always refers to her parents as “our,” rather than “my,” demonstrating the extent to which she depends on Constance.
It appears that Merricat’s family has lived in her house for a long time—she says they own “all the land between the highway and the river,” and the road is named after them. Yet Merricat also tells the reader that “the people of the village have always hated us,” indicating that in spite of her family’s status and apparent wealth, they are unpopular. As the novel continues, it will become clear why the villagers dislike Merricat and Constance, but this hatred is rooted in the events of six years prior, making Merricat’s assertion that her family has always been hated puzzling. The novel reveals little about the lives of the Blackwoods prior to the deaths of most of the family, making it ambiguous whether the townspeople have truly always hated the family, or if Merricat only imagines that they have. It’s worth noting that Merricat mentions that she and Constance used to go to Stella’s cafe after school, indicating that her family wasn’t always as isolated as they now are.
The first chapter also includes the first indication that there’s a chilling association between the Blackwoods and sugar, as the villagers in the store recoil with horror when Merricat asks for it. It also demonstrates Merricat’s deep connection to her home through her horror when Jim Donell suggests that her family is moving.