Isolation is perhaps the most obvious theme of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. By the end of the novel, Merricat and Constance have successfully cut themselves off from the rest of the world, living in their “haunted” house. At the start of the novel, Constance fears the outside world and isolates herself, but as the narrative gets underway, she is starting to reconsider this lifestyle and is open to being persuaded to return to the world. One of the central questions of the novel is whether or not she will do so. Meanwhile, Merricat happily isolates herself from the other villagers, who she fears and hates in equal measure. Because Constance is more ambivalent about human nature, she isn’t convinced that the villagers are all bad, which scares Merricat. Merricat is thus determined to convince Constance to surrender to living in isolation with her. The conflict revolves around Charles, the sisters’ cousin, who intrudes on their life and encourages Constance to come back to the world. Charles also represents broader social norms of masculine authority and capitalism, which the sisters rebel against. Ultimately, by driving away Charles and the villagers, Merricat is victorious and happily lives in isolation with Constance.
Family is a particularly complex theme in the novel. Merricat loves her sister Constance deeply, so much that this love is one of the first things she mentions about herself in the novel’s opening paragraph. Yet Merricat also murdered the majority of her family, with Uncle Julian only surviving due to luck. Jackson portrays Merricat’s family as gendered according to American social traditions—her father’s safe hides the family’s money, which he presumably earned, while the basement full of preserves represents the endurance of the power of the Blackwood female line, which is often linked to food. (For example, Merricat killed her family by poisoning the sugar, while Constance’s role as the head of the household is often shown through her gardening and cooking.) Charles Blackwood represents the continuation of male authority in the Blackwood family, and his physical resemblance to the sisters’ father is often mentioned. He seeks the sisters’ money, which they care little about, and attempts to control Merricat’s magic, a form of feminine witchcraft. He also attempts to lure Constance away from Merricat and the female-centric world she has created in the Blackwood home. Family is thus closely linked to gender in the novel, and Merricat’s destruction of her nuclear family gives her the opportunity for female liberation.
Through the dynamics of the Blackwood family and the town as a whole, Merricat’s world is split starkly into male authority and female power. The magic that Merricat practices and believes in can be seen as a form of witchcraft, a strongly female-coded practice, and by the end of the novel, the Blackwood sisters are perceived as almost like witches by the villagers, who whisper that they eat children. Male authority, seen in the sisters’ father, John, and their cousin Charles, is strongly linked to money, which is embodied in the family safe that Charles tries to steal. This connection makes sense, given that men have traditionally been the breadwinners of American society while women have been relegated to the home. Yet it is in the home—and in food, another strongly feminine symbol—that the Blackwood sisters derive their power. By locking themselves in the home, Merricat and Constance free themselves from patriarchal male authority. Food is a locus of power for both sisters. The household revolves around the meals Constance prepares, drawing on the garden she tends and the preserves that generations of Blackwood women have created. Similarly, Merricat’s defining display of power—killing her family—occurs through her poisoning of the family’s sugar.
The level of guilt that Merricat feels regarding her murder of her family is consistently ambiguous. Outwardly, she displays no sense of responsibility, much less guilt, for the crime, unbothered by Uncle Julian’s constant retelling of the night of the murders. For most of the novel, she does not even acknowledge her role as the killer. Yet some small moments indicate that Merricat feels more guilt and remorse than she lets on. For example, she wakes up one morning briefly forgetting that her family has died, suggesting that the memory of them haunts her more than she acknowledges. Constance’s guilt in the murders is also ambiguous. Though she did not kill her family, she blames herself for their deaths (and, later, for the fire that destroys much of the Blackwood home, which is also most directly Merricat’s fault.) Constance did buy the arsenic initially, and she has kept her knowledge of the true killer hidden. Constance also resents the villagers for their behavior towards the Blackwoods far less than Merricat does for the bulk of the novel, perhaps feeling that she deserves their treatment.
Closely linked to the theme of guilt is that of punishment. The villagers feel that Constance, who they believe is guilty of the murders, was never adequately punished for them, since she was acquitted, and seem to take it upon themselves to deliver this punishment. (They also punish Merricat, despite not knowing that she is the true killer.) In this manner, Jackson illustrates the ways in which a lack of legal or official justice can lead to the chaos and cruelty of mob justice. Merricat also dwells on the punishment she was given on the night of the murders (being sent to bed without dinner), which is what drove her to kill her family in the first place. In one scene, for example, she fantasizes about her family telling her that she should always get what she wants and must never be punished—a vision of the apology she believes she deserves from them. (Merricat blaming her entire family for punishing her is another example of the messiness of extralegal justice and revenge, since it was presumably her parents that punished her and certainly not her little brother Thomas, who she also killed.)
The unknowability of truth
From the start of the novel, the events of the night six years ago that killed most of Merricat’s family are shrouded in mystery. The only two characters that know the true events, Merricat and Constance, seem uninterested in them, caring little that Merricat murdered her family and virtually never discussing this truth. Uncle Julian, in contrast, is obsessed with the events of the night, but he too avoids the truth in exchange for sensationalism—in one instance, he mentions outright lying about his wife’s beauty, while his memory problems often cause him to second-guess the events he writes about. He also believes Merricat is dead and unimportant to the night of the poisoning, even though he sees her every day. Merricat’s narration is also unreliable. Along with never outright mentioning her guilt in the poisonings in her narration, Merricat also glosses over setting the house on fire at the end of the novel, creating ambiguity over how intentional this action was. Meanwhile, the villagers refuse to believe the official version of the truth, which is that Constance is legally not guilty of the murders. Ironically, however, they punish the wrong person, since Constance truly did not kill her family. Ultimately, the lack of clarity over the night of the murders suggests that the actual truth isn’t as important as individual characters’ perception of it.
Despite their closeness and shared delusions, Merricat and Constance differ significantly in their perception of human nature. Dark, unstable, and negative, Merricat has a pessimistic view of other people, believing that the villagers are fundamentally bad people and relishing in their mutual hatred of each other to some extent. She also seems to view her own family bleakly, defining them by what she sees as an unjust punishment (the reader can’t judge whether this perception is true or not, since Merricat never actually explains why she was punished) even though, at least according to Uncle Julian, her family was generally normal and probably showed her affection as well. Merricat views Constance as a near-saint in contrast to her general misanthropy, showing how black-and-white her worldview is. Constance, on the other hand, has an optimistic view of human nature and other people. Though the villagers torment her in particular and believe she killed her family, she considers returning to the world and questions whether people are really all bad. She welcomes Helen Clarke and, later, Charles into her home, despite the latter’s ulterior motives. Ultimately, however, Merricat converts Constance to her misanthropic views by the end of the novel, convincing her to remain in isolation in their home.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.