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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