We have always lived in the castle’s weird and enigmatic Merricat analysis

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying the novel ‘We have always lived in the castle’ by Shirley Jackson in Units 3 & 4 AOS 1.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) Narrator

The opening chapter establishes Merricat as the 1st person narrator of the novel who narrates using a mordant [harsh], sarcastic and biting tone but also grim humour from her own perspective. In her narrating she is unreliable as she can deceive readers when it suits her. She tells us from the start her relationship with her sister Constance and her opinion of the world which is clearly affected by her eccentric state of mind. “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf” (p.1). She tells us about what she likes and dislikes “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet (King of England in 1483 assassinated his 2 young nephews who stood in his way to the throne), and Amanita phalloides (poisonous death-cup mushroom). Everyone else in my family is dead.” (p.1)

Why is everyone dead?

Six years ago, the Blackwood family – John Blackwood (father to Merricat & Constance), Ellen Blackwood (mother), Aunty Dorothy (married to Julian, John’s brother) and Thomas (young brother of the girls) mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning at a family dinner. Julian survived but was disabled and mentally affected by the arsenic. Constance was tried for the murder of her family and acquitted, although everyone in the town believes she is guilty. What we learn late in the novel, though, is that it was Merricat, twelve years old at the time, who poisoned her family. She put arsenic in the sugar because she knew that her beloved sister Constance did not use sugar. Why Merricat poisoned her family is the strange terrain that Jackson’s novel explores. The answer is never entirely clear, although what is clear is that Jackson never gives us anything like a motive that would, from a normative [standard] perspective, to either explain Merricat’s actions or justify her family’s slaughter.

Why did Merricat poison her family?

Jackson’s Merricat shows herself to be angry, unruly, wilful, and resistant to change. She is also violent, describing her hatred for the villagers she encounters in her twice-weekly trips to the village; she imagines them suffering and dead on the ground. She also seems obsessed with punishment. What does become clear is that her family punished her for her wild behaviour, for roaming the grounds, burying objects, wielding her magic spells of protection around the sister she loves. Early on, Constance tells the one person who still visits the girls, a friend of her mother’s, Helen Clarke, that Merricat “was always in disgrace” and that she was a “wicked, disobedient child” (p.34). Later, in a scene that is crucial in illuminating her character, Merricat hides outdoors and fantasizes her parents talking about how she must never be punished, must never be sent to her bed without dinner; they tell Merricat’s brother to give her his dinner and insist that Merricat must always be “guarded and cherished” (p.96). One can only presume this is pretty much the opposite of how Merricat’s parents actually treated her.

Merricat’s parents punished her & sent her to bed without dinner

Jackson walks a fine line here. On the one hand, Merricat seems to have a primal intolerance for what seem to be quite acceptable forms of parental discipline. All we know for sure of Merricat’s past is that her parents punished her by sending her to bed without dinner. Merricat responds to these banal punishments with rage, and to the extent that she has a motive for killing her family, it seems to be precisely this intolerance for punishment. Merricat wanted revenge being sent to bed without dinner made her angry and she also did not have the loving family she wanted.

Merricat was singled out because she diverged from gender norms

There are also hints that Merricat was unfairly singled out by her parents because of her divergence from gender norms. There is no sense that her brother Thomas, who spent at least some time, for instance, climbing trees, was subject to the same discipline as Merricat. He got to eat his dinner. Merricat is clearly not a beautiful, charming young woman like Constance, and she is not a boy like Thomas. Herein, perhaps, lies some of Merricat’s rage and some of her justification.

Merricat is strange, weird, enigmatic, and possibly a psychopath or paranoid schizophrenic

Merricat is an isolated, estranged hypersensitive young female protagonist, socially maladroit [awkward], highly self-conscious and disdainful of others. At times she appears more childlike than her 18 years and behaves as if mildly retarded, but only outwardly, inwardly, she is razor sharp in her observations and hyperalert to threats to her wellbeing. Like any mentally damaged person she most fears change in unvarying rituals of her household. Merricat’s strangeness, her demonic energy, her predilection for magic and casting curses appears to be self-invented witchcraft but she does not align herself to the male power of Satan. For 100 pages she taunts readers with her sharp, teasing and at times funny voice, but tells us only what she wants us to know, and not why she has a complete absence of guilt for poisoning her family. It seems what Merricat wants is to be alone with her cat Jonas and with Constance. Is Merricat a typical product of small-town America? Much of Merricat’s time is spent outdoors. She appears like a tomboy who wanders in the woods, unwashed and her hair uncombed, distrustful of adults and of authority.

Could there be an unambiguous notion John Blackwood abused his two daughters?

One assumption for the reason Merricat poisoned her family was because their father was abusing Constance and herself. We do not know for sure that it was specifically sexual abuse, but it is only hinted at. But the absolute strangeness of Jackson’s novel, and Merricat Blackwood, is rendered glaringly familiar. At the root of it all is an abusive father: Merricat killed the abuser and the rest of the family who allowed the abuse to continue and then she saved her sister and herself. Charles’s similarities to Merricat’s father are made explicit several times in the book. He wears Mr. Blackwood’s clothes, he sleeps in his bed, he is greedy, much like Mr. Blackwood, (who kept a book full of names of people who owed him favours and cash.) Charles arrives around the same that Mr. Blackwood’s book falls of the tree, breaking Merricat’s “protective spell.” (p.53) All of this, along with a few of Merricat’s strange aspects leads us to believe that Merricat was sexually abused by her father. The rest of the family either did not know, or refused to do anything about it.

Hypothetical reasons why Merricat poisoned the family

It is never stated what Merricat did get sent to bed without supper, but if all of the previous evidence is considered, this is what might have taken place:

  • Merricat is abused at least once by her father, probably fantasizing about her moon dreamhouse during the act. The mother witnesses, or is at the very least aware of the abuse, but does little to stop it.
  • Merricat tells on her father to the rest of the family, who does not believe her, and she is sent upstairs without dinner. The only one who believes her is Constance, who was also possibly abused. She comforts Merricat.
  • Merricat poisons the family for revenge. She chooses the sugar, knowing that Constance would not eat it.
  • Constance washes the bowl immediately afterwards to hide any evidence that Merricat was the killer.
  • Merricat does not just hate Charles because he reminds her of her father, she also hates him, at least subconsciously, because she fears he will abuse her the same way.

Merricat’s fantasies are alarmingly sadistic

Definitely Merricat’s fantasies are not only childish but alarmingly sadistic hating the villagers enough to see herself “…walking on their bodies” (p.10) and “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die” (p.10). She has unmitigated hatred hoping the Elberts and their children were “lying there crying with pain and dying” (p.9). Certainly, the villagers taunt Merricat treating her like an outsider with the village children chanting a hectoring rhyme to intimidate her and embeds the notion that Constance poisoned her family “Merricat said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me” (p.16).

Moreover, Merricat’s hatred for cousin Charles, who has literally changed their lives when he invades the Blackwood household without having been invited, is shown clearly in Merricat’s description of him as a “ghost” (p.61) who has positioned himself at the head of the dining room table and looks like their late father. Merricat sees Charles for what he really is a scoundrel after their money and dehumanises him using her witchcraft ideas she “could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web” or she “could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been” (p.89). Merricat laughed when she found a round stone similar to the size of his head and she would bury it in the hole saying “Goodbye Charles” (p.89)

Merricat’s Confesion p. 130

Throughout the novel there is the prevailing threat of the murderous Merricat whose fantasy life is obsessed with rituals of power, dominance, and revenge “bow your heads to our beloved Mary Katherine … or you will be dead” (p.111). Certainly, it is the hideous arsenic deaths that constitute the secret heart of the novel and how could such a passive character like Constance be accused of murder when she acknowledges Merricat did poison the family on page 130. Merricat “I put it in the sugar”. Constance “I know, I knew then”. Merricat “You never used sugar”. Constance “No”. Merricat “So I put it in the sugar”. Constance sighed “Merricat we’ll never talk about it again. Never” (p.130). So, the sisters are linked forever by the deaths of their family, as in a quasi-spiritual-incestuous bond by which each holds the other in thrall.

The sisters are finally happy in their ‘castle’

It is also true that by isolating themselves after the fire from a world that hates them, treating them as others, the sisters are happy at last. Possibly Merricat who is psychologically damaged would not survive in a world of normal people and Constance helps to protect her sister from the cruel people and live in their house that had turned into a magical place transformed “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p.120). Against all expectations the Blackwood sisters are happy in their private paradise “on the moon” (p.133).

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Audio Content to Analyse for Analysing Argument Year 12 Unit 4, AOS 2

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying the audio SAC assessment for Analysing Argument Unit 4, AOS 2.

Audio texts such as radio talkback shows, speeches and podcasts can be powerful forms of communication and persuasion. Listen for elements that have language choices and arguments presented along with impact of other sound elements that help to position the listener to agree.

Radio Programs / Talk Back Radio

Radio programs, especially talk back radio programs which are live to air, feature unprepared and unscripted conversations between radio presenters and listeners who call in to express their views. The radio presenters openly express their own opinions on the issues being discussed.

Audio content to listen for in relation to Issue/Arguments

  • Whose viewpoint is being presented? – radio presenter – expert on issue – listeners who call in
  • What is the issue?
  • Does the presenter convey or openly express a point of view on the issue or story? – if so, how? – what effect does this have on the listener?
  • Is the presenter open to hearing alternative points of views? – from callers on talkback – or does the presenter oppose callers and challenge their arguments?
  • What persuasive techniques are presented in the discussion? – analogies / anecdotes / humour / repetition / rhetorical questions / emotive language / attacks on people or groups

Audio content to listen for in relation to speaker’s voice

SAC Assessment Criteria for Audio Content requires these audio elements to be included in your written analysis:

  • Intonation – variation in pitch (note of voice) – speakers may vary their pitch depending on the response they seek to elicit from the audience – a higher pitch can be used to add additional emphasis to a rhetorical question – a lower pitch can be used to underscore that a particular argument is serious and should be carefully considered by the audience
  • Pace – the speed at which a person speaks – speakers vary their pace throughout a discussion to emphasise certain points – a speaker might slow their pace to highlight a key word or concept – increase their pace to create a sense of urgency or alarm
  • Pauses – breaks in the flow of the speech or conversation – intentional breaks are often used after a speaker states an important point, giving the listener time to consider what has been said – or to recall particular arguments after the conclusion of a speech
  • Rhythm – a strong, regular repeated pattern of sounds – created through a pattern of stresses – steady rhythm speech can convey confidence and certainty encouraging listeners to view the speaker’s argument as strong and well founded
  • Stress or emphasis – how forcefully or loudly certain words, or parts of words are said – stress can be used to emphasise words and give extra weight to repeated words – encourages listeners to give more attention to these terms and reflect on why they are important
  • Tone – the mood or feeling created by word choices, delivery, and other persuasive techniques – tone helps to convey the speakers attitude towards the topic and evoke specific emotional responses from the listeners – urgent tone might position listeners to take action
  • Volume – how loudly a person speaks – speakers often increase the volume of their voice to emphasise an important point or speak more quietly to encourage the audience to listen more closely in a calm reassuring tone

Sounds effects other than words

  • Music – how does the music type set the atmosphere? – does the music complement or contrast with the spoken content? – how does the music convey or enhance an emotional aspect? – build suspense, express sadness, triumph, or joy
  • Sound effects – do the sound effects blend or stand out? – like a jingle noise to change topics in a podcast

All Resources created by englishtutorlessons.com.au Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian VCE Curriculum

Analysing Argument Year 12 Quick Revision for Written Texts

This Resource is for Mainstream English Year 12 Students studying Unit 4, AOS 2 Analysing Argument Written Text.


(1)    What is the argument the author is making?

(2)    How are the techniques used by the author & the language around arguments?

(3)    Why does this technique & language affect the audience? The author’s intention to make audience do something:

  • Think something – logos – appeals to logic, research, graphs, reputable people as evidence
  • Feel something – pathos – emotional response, idioms, cliches, attacks or praises, emotive language rhetorical questions
  • Do something – ethos – act ethically & responsibly – call to action for the readers to actively get involved in the issue

Written Text Article Analysis = How to start annotating

  • Begin at the top of the article and analyse it in a chronological order
  • Look at the big picture [context] and how it may have wider considerations for the author’s arguments
  • Look at the language around the arguments and how the author transitions tone and language to examine the arguments
  • Do not forget all the visuals [including banners on top of websites or podcasts] and how they are relevant to the written text
  • Essay start of the document is called the ‘opening strategy’ / middle is called ‘the body strategy’ and the end is called ‘the closing strategy’
  • Include a brief conclusion how the author used language to persuade the audience


There is an ongoing debate about xxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Context) In response to the issue is an [text form = opinion piece/letter to the Editor/Editorial/Podcast] by xxxxxxxxxx titled “xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx” published on [date] xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx by the [source] xxxxxxxxxxxx (Author/Title/Source) [The author’s name] contends in a xxxxxxxx tone, that xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (Tone/Contention). Her/His [text form] targets xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx positioning her/his audience with [type of language], transitioning from [example pathos to logos] (Audience). She/He bases her/his appeals to xxxxxx with “quote phrase” to stress the importance of xxxxxxxxxxxxx (Intention). The accompanying [visual form = photograph/cartoon] of xxxxxxxxxxxxx by [name of cartoonist or title of photograph] signals xxxxxxxxxxxx and endorses [author’s name] contention that xxxxxxxxx with the intention to xxxxxxxxxxxx (Visual/Intention)

All Resources created by englishtutorlessons.com.au Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian VCE Curriculum