We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator introduces herself as Mary Katherine Blackwood (or Merricat) and says she lives with her sister, Constance. She wishes she had been born a werewolf. She doesn’t like washing herself, dogs, or noise, but she does like Constance, Richard Plantagenet, and the death-cup mushroom. All of her family members besides Constance are dead. The library books in the kitchen are more than five months overdue, and she anticipates them remaining so forever. Everything in her house has always had its place and has belonged to the Blackwoods for generations.
The opening paragraphs make it clear from the outset that Merricat is not exactly a conventional person. It’s important to note that she says “all of” her family is dead, as this hints at the death of Uncle Julian much later in the book—she’s writing from some time after the end of the novel, recalling the events of this period of her life. Additionally, her affinity for werewolves and poisonous mushrooms primes the reader to consider Merricat a suspect in the poisoning of her family.
Themes
Family and Gender Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Merricat recalls that she got the library books on one of the terrible days when she had to go to the village, since neither Constance nor Uncle Julian ever went. On the way home she always went into Stella’s café for coffee because, if she didn’t, she knew Stella would think she was too afraid to go in. Stella would ask after Constance and Uncle Julian, and if anyone else entered, Merricat would leave.
Though Merricat doesn’t yet state the reasons she hates going into the village, she makes it clear that the village is a bad place. Her pride that she goes to Stella’s café, and her eagerness to prove that she isn’t afraid, likely indicate just how afraid she is.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
Merricat carefully chose library books for herself and Constance. In the evenings, Uncle Julian liked to see Constance reading, and would ask her about her book. The last morning that Merricat goes to the library is a beautiful day in April, and she wishes she didn’t have to walk through the village. She stands on the library steps and plans her path, wanting to avoid the general store, where men sit outside. She decides it’s best to go past the Rochester house, though she doesn’t like this fancy house where her mother was born.
The fact that Merricat is looking back on this time in her life, along with the fact that this will be the last time she goes to the library, implies that major changes have occurred since that day to alter her way of life. It begins to become clear that the people are what she hates about the village. Furthermore, her mother’s birth in a fancy house suggests that Merricat herself may be upper-class.
Themes
Family and Gender Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Wealthy people like the Clarkes and the Carringtons live outside the village, and Merricat doesn’t understand why the villagers are friendly towards them but not towards the Blackwoods. Village politics often split between the villagers and the wealthy families. The Blackwoods’ land is enclosed by a fence, and the villagers have always hated the family.
If the villagers are friendly towards other wealthy families, then the Blackwoods’ wealth can’t be the only thing that turns people against them. Perhaps the Blackwoods’ fence, symbolizing a desire to keep people out and a sense of superiority, contributes more to the villagers’ hatred.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
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When Merricat does the shopping, she pretends she’s playing a board game in which various circumstances make her approach or retreat from the finish line. This day starts out well. She walks quickly, knowing that someone is watching her from the post office. She avoids looking at the Rochester house, where the yard is in disrepair. The house should belong to Constance now.
Merricat begins to show her tendency towards creating her own reality as she pretends her life is a board game. In addition, one of her motivations throughout the book will be escaping the watchful eyes of the villagers, which is shown here as she feels someone watching from the post office.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
The Relativity of Truth Theme Icon
When Merricat crosses the street, local drivers always give her dirty looks. She imagines that if she stepped into the road, someone would swerve towards her and everyone would laugh to see her jump away. In the middle of the street, Merricat observes the ugliness of the buildings and thinks how it matches, or perhaps comes from, the ugliness of the villagers. She wishes the stores would rot.
Merricat begins to display not only fearfulness of the village, but outright hatred, and she believes that this hatred is returned to such a degree that the villagers wouldn’t hesitate to threaten her life. Even before knowing what causes this hatred, the reader can feel its deep, clinging roots.
Themes
Guilt and Punishment Theme Icon
Constance has made Merricat a shopping list. The villagers hate the fact that the Blackwoods always have enough money, and since their money isn’t in the bank, the villagers seem to think that the family has piles of it sitting around their house. Merricat is always helped immediately in the grocery store, and the owners try to keep everyone else away from her. Merricat is afraid of the children and mothers, but today there are few in the store. The store goes quiet and everyone freezes while she’s there.
The world outside the Blackwood house cares deeply about money, unlike Merricat and Constance themselves. This will become a bigger issue later. Merricat and the villagers seem to both feel afraid of each other, which intensifies their mutual hatred.
Themes
Guilt and Punishment Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Merricat tells Mr. Elbert which food items she needs. When she mentions Uncle Julian and sugar, the people in the store react with horror. Mrs. Donell mentions that the Blackwoods have always had good food, and Merricat wishes everyone in the store were dead. She imagines finding them all dying and stepping over them as she gets her groceries. Constance always tells her not to hate the villagers, but Merricat doesn’t listen. Mr. Elbert writes Merricat a receipt, and she checks his math carefully as a form of revenge.
This scene presents the first indication that there’s some odd association between the Blackwoods and sugar, but Merricat feels no need to inform her reader what that is yet. Merricat’s fantasy about the villagers dying reveals her shockingly cruel and violent streak. Ironically, though, her actual revenge is extremely mild compared to her imagined revenge.
Themes
Guilt and Punishment Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
As Merricat leaves the store, she hears the shoppers behind her preparing to go about their business again. In order to make it down the street and past the watching people, Merricat imagines setting the table in the garden for lunch. She can hear the people talking to each other about the Blackwood girls and Blackwood Farm. Merricat holds her grocery bags carefully, because she once dropped them and the villagers shouted while she gathered her groceries.
Merricat causes quite a stir in the village, but it’s not yet clear why. The reader’s first foray onto Blackwood land is through Merricat’s imagined setting of the table. It’s significant that this is a ritual around eating, since so much of the Blackwoods’ lives revolve around food and poisoning.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
There’s a crack in the sidewalk in front of Stella’s café. Merricat remembers roller-skating and bicycling over it when the villagers didn’t yet express hatred of her family. The crack was even there when her mother was growing up, and she imagines it has been there ever since the village came to be.
The fact that Merricat wasn’t always hated in the village proves that some specific event caused the villagers’ attitude to change. The crack, forever present, seems to symbolize something flawed within the fabric of village society.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
Stella made a couple of changes to the café with the insurance money after her husband’s death, but it’s almost the same as when Merricat and Constance used to come here after school. When Merricat enters, Stella greets her and asks after Constance and Uncle Julian. Stella is slightly kinder than the other villagers.
If Merricat and Constance used to go to school, then they must have once interacted in a relatively normal fashion with large groups of people, which seems almost unthinkable in light of their fear of people throughout the book.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
Merricat only comes to the café for reasons of pride, so she orders black coffee even though she doesn’t like it. Jim Donell comes in. He and his wife are particularly cruel. He sits right next to Merricat, too close. He says he’s heard her family is moving. She wants to leave the café, but she stays and denies that the Blackwoods are moving. Jim Donell ponders the nature of gossip while Merricat tears apart a paper napkin and wishes death on him. She thinks of how Uncle Julian is dying, and she mentally promises to be kinder to him.
The villagers have little fear of threatening or ostracizing the Blackwoods, so it’s interesting that Jim Donell chooses the Blackwoods’ departure from their house as a sufficiently awful rumor with which to confront Merricat. She, too, reacts as though it’s awful, indicating her deep connection to her house. Although Merricat never really interacts with Uncle Julian, she always reminds herself to be kinder to him, suggesting she might feel some guilt for poisoning him.
Themes
Guilt and Punishment Theme Icon
Isolation Theme Icon
Stella tells Jim Donell to leave Merricat alone, but he continues wondering aloud why the villagers are saying that the Blackwoods are leaving. He’s constantly stirring his coffee, and Merricat wants to stop the spoon. Joe Dunham comes into the café, and Jim tells him that Merricat is denying that her family is moving away. Jim pretends to regret the departure of old families and laughs over the fact that many of the Blackwoods are already gone.
Jim attempts to control reality by imagining or saying what he hopes to come true in an attempt to make it come true, which mirrors Merricat’s own behavior. Additionally, his comments show the villagers’ class-based resentment of the old, wealthy families in the area, of which the Blackwoods are one.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
The Relativity of Truth Theme Icon
Jim Donell remarks on the Blackwoods’ isolated way of life. Merricat knows that he could go on talking for a while. She imagines she lives on the moon. Stella tells Jim to cut it out, and he says he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be invited to dine at the Blackwoods’. Joe Dunham remarks that he once fixed the Blackwoods’ step and never received payment. This is true, because he didn’t properly rebuild the step. Jim says he should go ask for payment, but if he gets invited to dinner, he should refuse.
Merricat uses her imagined moon as a way of escaping from an unpleasant situation, as she often does. Though Jim insults the Blackwoods’ hospitality as a jibe about the poisoning, his comment does suggest that the villagers don’t like how the Blackwoods have long held themselves apart from the villagers. Joe Dunham’s one visit to the house supports the sense that the villagers have only been welcome there to do jobs.
Themes
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Stella tells Merricat that she should go home. Jim Donell lets her get off her stool, saying they’ll all help the family pack when they leave. Outside, she hears Stella, Jim, and Joe laughing. She imagines her house on the moon. Now she just has to pass the town hall, where people make licenses and count fines and won’t bother her.
Though Merricat considers Stella the nicest of the villagers, Stella doesn’t defend her—she laughs along with Jim and Joe—and her kindness is limited to giving Merricat an opportunity for escape.
Themes
Isolation Theme Icon
Merricat realizes the Harris boys are in their yard, but she doesn’t want to have to go the other way home, which is harder. She imagines them crying in pain on the ground. They chant a rhyme about Constance poisoning Merricat with a cup of tea. As Merricat walks past, she hides inside herself and thinks about living on the moon. Once when she passed the Harris house, the boys’ mother watched them taunting her from the porch. Merricat asked her to stop them. She told them without emotion to stop calling names, and then she laughed. Merricat imagines the boys burning from their words.
The chant that the Harris boys sing and the villagers repeat throughout the book indicates that they believe Constance was guilty of the poisoning. Though they don’t think to blame Merricat, they hate Merricat just as much as—perhaps more than—Constance. Though Merricat’s thoughts about the Harris family are cruel, their actions are also incredibly heartless, suggesting that cruelty feeds cruelty.
Themes
Guilt and Punishment Theme Icon
The Relativity of Truth Theme Icon