Food acts as a symbol of power in this book. When Merricat felt ignored and disrespected by her family, she used food to destroy them. Now, even people who say they’re the sisters’ friends hesitate to eat their food, thus Merricat can manipulate Helen Clarke and Mrs. Wright by offering them food and making them show their fear. In contrast, it is a mark of power that the sisters can eat without fear, and a mark of trust in and love for each other that they eat with one another—after all, Constance knows what Merricat is capable of.
Furthermore, food preparation has traditionally fallen within a woman’s household duties, making it an instrument of oppression that keeps women in the home. Generations of Blackwood women have fulfilled this duty, as evidenced by the shelves of canned preserves in the cellar. But it seems as though the sisters have finally taken this legacy of oppression through food to turn it against the oppressive Blackwood men. If men have been reassured of their power in society by the image of a woman in her “rightful place” in the kitchen, then the poisoning turns that image on its head.
As Constance is always tending her vegetable garden or cooking, and the other characters, especially Merricat, are always eating what Constance has prepared, it sometimes seems that the sisters have little to do other than eat. Considering the poisonous association with food in the Blackwood house, though, it seems likely that their constant eating is essentially a daily reenactment of the fatal dinner, a manifestation of their conscious or unconscious obsession with the trauma of the past.
Food Quotes in We Have Always Lived in the Castle
...I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery store some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there. I was never sorry when I had thoughts like this; I only wished they would come true. “It’s wrong to hate them,” Constance said, “it only weakens you,” but I hated them anyway....
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
She took the groceries carefully from the bags; food of any kind was precious to Constance, and she always touched foodstuffs with quiet respect. I was not allowed to help; I was not allowed to prepare food, nor was I allowed to gather mushrooms, although I sometimes carried vegetables in from the garden, or apples from the old trees.
“Another child, my niece Mary Katherine, was not at table.”
“She was in her room,” Mrs. Wright said.
“A great child of twelve, sent to bed without her supper. But she need not concern us.”
I laughed, and Constance said to Helen Clarke, “Merricat was always in disgrace. I used to go up the back stairs with a tray of dinner for her after my father had left the dining room. She was a wicked, disobedient child,” and she smiled at me.
“An unhealthy environment,” Helen Clarke said. “A child should be punished for wrongdoing, but she should be made to feel that she is still loved.”
“First,” she said, “she bought the arsenic.”
“To kill rats,” Constance said to the teapot, and then turned and smiled at me.
... “She cooked the dinner, she set the table.... It was Constance who saw them dying around her like flies—I do beg your pardon—and never called a doctor until it was too late. She washed the sugar bowl.”
“There was a spider in it,” Constance said.
“She told the police those people deserved to die.... She told the police that it was all her fault.”
All the Blackwood women had taken the food that came from the ground and preserved it, and the deeply colored 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. Each year Constance and Uncle Julian and I had jam or preserve or pickle that Constance had made, but we never touched what belonged to the others; Constance said it would kill us if we ate it.
I ate tiny sweet raw carrots while Constance washed the vegetables and put them away. “We will have a spring salad,” she said.
“We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.”
“Mary Katherine should have anything she wants, my dear. Our most loved daughter must have anything she likes.”
“Constance, your sister lacks butter. Pass it to her at once, please.”
“Mary Katherine, we love you.”
... “Mary Katherine must never be punished. Must never be sent to bed without her dinner. Mary Katherine will never allow herself to do anything inviting punishment.”
“Our beloved, our dearest Mary Katherine must be guarded and cherished. Thomas, give your sister your dinner; she would like more to eat.”
“Dorothy—Julian. Rise when our beloved daughter rises.”
“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”
One of our mother’s Dresden figurines is broken, I thought, and I said aloud to Constance, “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
Constance stirred, and the leaves rustled. “The way you did before?” she asked.
It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years.
“Yes,” I said after a minute, “the way I did before.”
“I was very wicked,” she said. “I never should have reminded you of why they all died.”
“Then don’t remind me now.” I could not move my hand to reach over and take hers.
“I wanted you to forget about it. I never wanted to speak about it, ever, and I’m sorry I did.”
“I put it in the sugar.”
“I know. I knew then.”
“You never used sugar.”
“So I put it in the sugar.”
Constance sighed. “Merricat,” she said, “we’ll never talk about it again. Never.”
I was chilled, but she smiled at me kindly and it was all right.
“I love you, Constance,” I said.
“And I love you, my Merricat.”
“I believe the one you are wearing now was used for summer breakfasts on the lawn many years ago. Red and white check would never be used in the dining room, of course.”
“Some days I shall be a summer breakfast on the lawn, and some days I shall be a formal dinner by candlelight, and some days I shall be—”
“I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.”
“I doubt if I could cook one,” said Constance.
“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”