Literature / We Have Always Lived in the Castle

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

A 1962 novel by Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story "The Lottery". We Have Always Lived In The Castle tells the story of the Blackwood family, the only three remainders of which are the narrator, eighteen year-old Merricat, her older sister Constance, and their crippled Uncle Julian. The three of them live in isolation in an old manor and are the target of suspicion and hatred from the people of the nearby village.

Everything changes when, one day, their cousin shows up for a visit...

This novel contains the following tropes:

  • Ax-Crazy: Merricat. Killing almost your entire family over being sent to your room is not a sign of mental stability.
  • Arc Words: "On the moon..." Merricat frequently imagines taking her sister to live on the moon, which she envisions as a perfectly safe, perfectly isolated magical kingdom. In the end, when the sisters are living in their half-destroyed home and have decided never to come out again, Merricat claims that they are finally on the moon.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Potentially justified, as Merricat likewise holds everyone (except for Constance) in contempt.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: The ending of the novel can be this depending on your interpretation of the characters. Mary Katherine finally gets her wish to have her sister all to herself and remains in perfect isolation with Constance, whose initial desire to return to the world is implied to be forever extinguished.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Constance and, from a certain point of view, cousin Charles.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Merricat.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Subverted with the villagers in the climax, who help to put the fire out but then start destroying the house themselves.
  • Big Fancy House: The Blackwood house, although not so much after all but three rooms burn down at the end.
  • Black Comedy: The account of the death of Merricat's family, as given by rambling Uncle Julian, who plans to write a book about it all.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Currently provides the page quote.
    • Merricat's shopping list. As she reels off her order to the grocer, she imagines the deaths of all the other shoppers.
  • Bury Your Disabled: The brain-damaged, wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian dies near the end of the novel of what is implied to be a heart attack.
  • Children Are Innocent: Subverted, as no one suspects the then twelve-year-old Mary Katherine of having murdered her family.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: At the end of the novel, ultra-feminine Constance must forever wear her pink dress, while her changeling, forest-child sister Merricat is stuck wearing brown.
  • Curtain Clothing: Since all their spare clothes have been burned in the Blackwood house fire, Merricat resorts to wearing tablecloths.
  • Determinator: Mary Katherine is frantic, but utterly unrelenting in her efforts to banish her cousin Charles from the Blackwood estate.
  • Dead All Along: Subverted. Near the end of the book, Uncle Julian reveals that he believes Merricat died in an orphanage during her sister's murder trial. A careful reader may have noticed that Merricat and Uncle Julian never speak to each other through the whole novel.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Merricat murdered nearly her entire family as revenge for always being sent to bed without supper.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Constance in regards to Merricat's exploits.
  • Familiar: Merricat's cat, Jonas, has no supernatural powers but functions as one of these.
  • Food Porn: Food plays an important role in the novel, and whole paragraphs are dedicated to describing what the sisters eat.
  • Foreshadowing: Merricat lists the death cap mushroom as one of the things she likes in the page quote, and has a habit of describing poisonous plants as an Implied Death Threat whenever Charles is eating something. Considering her fascination with anything poisonous, it's only fitting that she was the one who poisoned her family.
  • Gold Digger: Charles. Quite literally, at one point.
  • Gothic Horror
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Constance, in spite of her other flaws, seems to be a genuinely good person.
  • Harp of Femininity: Constance has a literal one.
  • Hate at First Sight: Mary Katherine towards her cousin. From her perspective, he is an intruder who disturbs her world. It only gets worse with time.
  • Hates Baths: Mary Katherine admits this in the opening paragraph of the novel.
  • Implied Death Threat: Merricat starts describing poisonous plants whenever her cousin Charles eats. He doesn't react well to that.
  • Incest Subtext: Charles to Constance, although Constance doesn't seem to notice. However, Constance also seems to have a vague idea that Charles will take the place of her dead father.
    • Merricat and Constance, big time. It's very possible that a central cause of Mary and Charles' conflict was that Charles was taking Mary's place in that respect.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The children of the town concocted one about the Blackwoods, and use it to taunt Merricat whenever they see her.
  • Let the Past Burn: In the climax of the novel, most of Blackwood House is destroyed.
  • Lovecraft Country: The novel takes place in a small, rural New England town.
  • Malicious Slander: Subverted.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Merricat suffered from this and there's more than a whiff of evidence that this might have been the reason she decided to kill her family. Now she corrects it with elaborate fantasies of a family dinner where her parents dote on her and force her siblings to defer to her wishes.
  • Morality Chain: Constance appears to be this for Mary Katherine.
    Mary Katherine: I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.
  • Perfect Poison: The sugar that the Blackwoods had sprinkled on their blackberries that night had been laced with arsenic. This also worked to spare Constance (though also pinning her as the culprit), since Merricat knew her sister didn't like sugar.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: The villagers have been waiting for years for a chance to become this. They finally get it when they vandalize the remains of the Blackwood house.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Merricat is Type D.
  • Promotion to Parent: Constance. She doesn't seem to mind.
  • Rambling Old Man Monologue: Uncle Julian due to his brain damage. He at least has the benefit of being pretty funny, and occasionally drops backstory.
  • Sadist: Mary Katherine. She loves to imagine the painful death of people she hates and even describes killing an entire nest of baby snakes just because she dislikes the creatures.
  • Shrinking Violet: Constance has not left the Blackwood home since the death of the rest of the family six years ago. She spends her time caring for the wheelchair-bound Julian.
  • The Sociopath: Mary Katherine.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Merricat loves exploring the woods, hates baths, provides for the family (in the form of going out for supplies) and is aggressive and demanding, while Constance is coded extremely feminine: cooking, cleaning, canning, gardening, wearing pink, and in general being gentle and nurturing.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Murdering your family for sending you to bed without supper, at the age of twelve?. It doesn't get much more troubling and unchildlike than that.
  • The Unfavorite: Merricat considers herself this.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Merricat When it's finally revealed that she killed her family, she tells her sister, not the readers
  • Would Hurt a Child: Mary Katherine makes several mentions of how she would love to see the village children die screaming... and she poisoned her young brother Thomas with arsenic when she was twelve.
  • Wrongly Accused: The people of the village think that Constance poisoned her family. She was actually tried for the crime and acquitted, yet the villagers remain suspicious. It was Merricat who did it.