The title of We Have Always Lived in the Castle came to Jackson first. The novel was initially about a pair of sisters named Constance and Jenny living together who decide to murder Jenny’s husband. While she was writing the book, Jackson’s husband semi-seriously ordered a book called Sex Variant Women in Literature. Checking the index of the book before dismissing it as “clearly trash,” Jackson found her own name and a description of her earlier novel, Hangsaman, as “an eerie novel about lesbians.” In keeping with the norms of her time, Jackson was vehemently opposed to this idea. But more than the idea of homosexuality itself, the idea of someone else determining the meaning of her work repulsed her. “Am I never to be sure of my characters?” she wrote. “Then Castle is not about two women murdering a man. It is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book [Sex Variant Women in Literature] can turn me inside out.”
When writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson envisioned Jenny—the character who would later become Merricat—as a fierce, independent person despite her isolation. “I want my Jenny in Castle to be absolutely secure in her home and her place in the world, so much so that she can dispose of her husband without concern,” she wrote. She also saw Jenny/Merricat and Constance as essentially the same, writing that “they are again two halves of the same person… together they are one identity, safe and eventually hidden.”
According to Jackson’s biographer Judy Oppenheimer, the novel is “almost a paean” to agoraphobia. “Constance and Merricat end up entombed and blissfully content. Merricat is not a passive creation; if anything, she is a conqueror. Yet her final choice, made with a flourish of triumph, is to opt for a suspended state, a kind of death-in-life. Writing Castle, Shirley shuffled through her options, and chose agoraphobia as the best answer for her characters—and, through them, for herself,” Oppenheimer writes. Indeed, Jackson herself suffered from agoraphobia in the wake of the publication of the novel. Soon after We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published, Jackson had a nervous breakdown, remaining in her house for six months. It took her two years to fully recover and begin writing again, hoping to finally leave her husband and be liberated. Sadly, she died before this dream could be realized.