We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Table of Contents

  • Quote Bank for WHALITC
  • Essay 1 : “Family is the cause of all the problems in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ Do you agree?
  • Essay 2 : Merricat and Constance find safety in their ruined house, but they sacrifice their freedom. Discuss.
  • Essay 3 : “In We Have Always lived in the castle the women are stronger than the men” discuss.
  • Essay 4 : In We Have Always Lived in the Castle the villagers are motivated by fear more than anything else. Do you agree?
  • Essay 5 : “The world is full of terrible people,” says Merricat. How accurate is Merricat’s assessment of the people around her?
  • Essay 6 : IN WHALTIC, the Blackwoods see change as a threat. Do you agree?
  • Essay 7 : Safety is ultimately restored for the Blackwood sisters, but at what cost? Discuss.
  • Essay 8 : Merricat and Constance are both the heroes and the villains in WHALITC. Discuss.
  • Essay 9 : The choices Merricat makes are always based on self-preservation. Do you agree?
  • Essay 10 : How does Jackson create an atmosphere of menace in We Have Always Lived in the Castle?

Quote Bank for WHALITC

Theme Quote Character + Explanation
Female Power, Truth “Our beloved, our dearest Mary Katherine”

“Rise when our beloved daughter rises”


– Unreliable first-person narration

Female Power, Food, Truth “Thomas, give your sister your dinner, she would like to eat more” Merricat

– Importance of food as a symbol of female power

Female Power, Witcraft “Solanum dulcamara” Merricat (to Charles)

– deadly nightshade traditionally symbolic of fidelity and used to ward off evil

Female Power, Food “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die” Merricat

– Using food as a weapon

Female Power, Witchcraft “safeguards”

“buried baby teeth”

“marbles in the creek” totems formed a “powerful taut web”


– Her own branch of witchcraft

Family “rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit, maroon and amber and dark rich green, stood side by side in our cellar and would stand there forever”

“a poem by the Blackwood women”


– Blackwood females find identity in food

– Metaphor of poem indicates how food is an form of artistic expression for them

Family “Everyone else in our family is dead” Merricat

– Commencing paragraph of the novel, shows her chilling indifference to her heinous crime

Family, Patriarchy “A great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper”

“She was a wicked, disobedient child”

Merricat (spoken by Helen Clarke)

– Power of men to deprive women of food

Family, Patriarchy “looks like father”

“Is a demon and a ghost”

Charles Blackwood

– Characterised as a ghost of the John Blackwood

Family, Patriarchy “Got a kiss for your cousin Charles?

“I couldn’t breathe, and I had to run

Charles (to Merricat)

– Patriarchy and oppressive men of the Blackwood family haunts Merricat

Family, Patriarchy, Greed “We could have sold it… what kind of house is this?”

“Not important? Connie, this thing is made of gold!”


– embodies the male prerogatives of wealth and greed

Family, Patriarchy, Truth “[Merricat] is of very little consequence in my book”

she died “in an orphanage, of neglect”

Uncle Julian

– last remaining male member of the Blackwood family, still has their dismissive attitude towards women

Family, Patriarchy “men stayed young” and the “women aged with grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home” Villagers

– dominance of the Patriarchy

Family, Patriarchy, Truth “”I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.” Uncle Julian

– His obsession with the truth of the poisoning incident, while the women know the truth

Isolation, Antagonism “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?

Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me”


– chant symbolises their antagonism towards sisters

Isolation, Antagonism, Witchcraft “Why not let it burn?”

“Put them back in the house and start the fire all over again”


– symbolic execution of the Merricat and Constance in witch hunt

Isolation, Antagonism “smashing the rock through one of the tall windows of our mother’s drawing room” Jim Donell

– the pinnacle of order and justice, the “CHIEF”, ironically enacts his own vengeance against the helpless sisters

Isolation, Antagonism “The people of the village have always hated us” Merricat
Isolation, Antagonism “the mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks Merricat (about Villagers)

– zoological simile indicates the twisting of traditionally protective role of mothers

Isolation, Antagonism “Village was of a piece, time and a style, it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it” Village

– conservating, claustrophobic and insular nature of society

Food, Freedom food was “precious”

touched it with “quiet respect”

“We will have a spring salad”

“We eat the year away”

Merricat, Constance

– Spring salad indicates a new birth following the burning of their house, where they have freedoms

Freedom “We are on the moon at last” Merricat

– The fire as a transformative event that allows them to move past the events of the past, letting them live in peace and bliss

Freedom, Female Power “I am so happy … Merricat I am so happy.”

“I told you that you would like it on the moon”


– When she ultimately rejects Charles, she shows courage and maturity to reject the oppression of the patriarchy which she was inculcated in

Freedom, Witchcraft fire “content with the bedrooms and the attic Merricat

– Personification of the fire in destroying the remnant of the physical remnants of the patriarchal and patrilineal family

Freedom, Witchcraft “Six blue marbles buried to protect the house… had no connection with the house where we lived now” Merricat

– Growth past her witchcraft and being liberated from the chains of her past

Freedom, Patriarchy ““It’s a good thing Uncle Julian’s gone, or one of us would have to use a broken cup.” Merricat

– Symbolises the destruction of the patriarchy and the ‘broken’ nature of its tenets

Essay 1 : “Family is the cause of all the problems in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ Do you agree?

Shirley Jackson’s gothic novel WHALITC, set in a conservative and claustrophobic village, denotes the severe ramifications that oppressive societal expectations and conformist attitudes can have on the members of a nuclear family. While the plot revolves around the members of the Blackwood family, the cause of all the problems that plague them arise from the intense pressures of patriarchal standards placed upon the Blackwood sisters, contributing to the death of their family and the destruction of their house. However, it is also important to note the compounding effects that isolation can have on the demeanour and mental state of the characters and its contribution to the disasters of the novel. Through an analysis of the consequences of overbearing patriarchal values, expressed through the death of the family and the destruction of the house, in addition to the effects of isolation from the village, one can understand Jackson’s fable as an investigation into the complex web of relationships in a family which are often fraught with conflicts.

The two incidents in the novel that form the basis of plot – the death of almost all of the Blackwood family, and the destruction of the Blackwood estate – arise from the overbearing patriarchal nature that govern the family members. Indeed, the framing of the novel through the first-person narration of Merricat in her leading role in these events demonstrates the rebellion against the patriarchal and patrilineal characteristics of the nuclear family in the 19th Century. Firstly, her role in the poisoning of the family is construed within the symbol of food – an inherently female-oriented aspect of life in which the Blackwood women are seen to preserve “deeply coloured rows of jellies and pickles and bottled vegetables and fruit.” Through the use of polysyndeton, in addition to colourful imagery – “maroon and amber and dark rich green” – Jackson bombards the reader with the massive extent to which the women of the Blackwood family centred on food. In tying the value of food with the role of women, Jackson expresses the fundamental restriction of the women of the Blackwood family’s power and value when the male characters in the novel impose on their restrictions. This is displayed when Merricat is described as “a great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper.” In portraying the oppressive nature of the male characters, in ironically inhibiting their access to their own creations, Jackson illustrates how patriarchal society inhibits the well-functioning of the members of a nuclear family. Therefore, when Merricat poisons the family through their meal, food becomes a symbol of female power and of liberation from the oppression of the patriarchal power dynamics of families in the 19th Century. While through morally unsound methods, Merricat harnesses food as an instrument to champion her rights and win her autonomy within the remaining household. Thus, it is a result of patriarchal dominance in the family that is the cause of the first disaster in the novel.

The second disaster – the burning and looting of the Blackwood estate – serves as another symbolic act of rebellion against the patriarchal forces and societal pressures that confine and marginalise the Blackwood family. Pivotal to this is the character of Charles, who, as a cousin to Merricat, comes back as a “ghost” to ‘haunt’ her of the patriarchal and patrilineal nature of her previous family dynamic. He is seen to be a shadow of John Blackwood, who “used to record the names of people who owed him money.” As Charles seeking the family wealth and estate by marrying Constance, these two male characters are reflections of each other through the theme of greed. In bringing this family member, the equilibrium of Merricat, Constance and Uncle Julian is thrown into disarray, in which Jackson highlights the ramifications of the social expectation of wealth as a male prerogative. The fundamental concepts of the family unit such as marriage are called into question, as Charles’ attempt to lure Constance into a relationship signifies the abuse of the patrilineal and patriarchal nature of families in the pursuit of money. As a result, the burning of the Blackwood estate serves as a instrumental tragedy in which fire can be interpreted as a ‘cleansing’ element which destroys the impurities and injustices that plague the Merricat and the family. Similar to the death of her family, the destruction of the house signifies a rebellion against all the traditional roles and expectations imposed upon them by not only their family but from society, standing as a cathartic release from the burden of the past. The “six blue marbles” that Merricat had used to protect the house “had no connection with the house we lived now,” indicating the new life that the fire has afforded them. Therefore, Jackson expresses the fact that oppressive patriarchal figures within the extended family can result in – given enough pressure – disastrous acts of rebellion.

While the inhibiting influence of male figures in the Blackwood family contribute significantly to the disasters in the novel, the impact of the isolation of the family is crucial to not only the deterioration of Merricat’s mental state but of the village’s increasing tension and animosity. Jackson commences the novel by portraying the dire consequences of the death of her family, through the narration of Merricat who reflects casually that she “likes [her] sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and … Everyone else in [her] family is dead.” In opening with Merricat’s scattered thoughts in a journal-entry style, Jackson insinuates that the death of her parents are the cause for her eccentric mind, exacerbated by the pressures and tension from society. This stark antagonism is seen in Merricat’s fears of the villagers, who may “touch [her] and the mothers come at [her] like a flock of taloned hawks.” The ostracization of the family from the town results in the Blackwood family becoming a repository for the villager’s animosity and woes, exemplified through the menacing simile. Their position in the village becomes entrenched into one of antagonism as the murder of the family has no clear conclusion, leading to gossip and growing contentions. In expressing the oppression of societal conformity and of the deteriorating mental and physical state of the Blackwood sisters, Jackson highlights not only the gothic mood and themes of rebellion but the antagonism that arises from social segregation. Therefore, the woes of the novel lie not only within the Blackwood family’s gender power dynamic but in their social and physical isolation from society.

In conclusion, WHALITC examines the intricate web of family dynamics and the profound influence that it has on the lives of the Blackwood sisters. The novel presents the dire consequences of strained family relationships as a result of domineering male figures, exacerbated by their extensive isolation from society. Jackson therefore demonstrates the express need for family units to be resilient and respectful of all members’ voices and maintaining amicable relationships internally and externally.

Essay 2 : Merricat and Constance find safety in their ruined house, but they sacrifice their freedom. Discuss.

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