Family is an intensely fraught subject in this novel. On one hand, the only person in the world whom Merricat loves is her sister, Constance, and almost everything Merricat does is motivated by this love. On the other hand, Merricat has murdered her parents, her brother, and her aunt, and she lives with her uncle who survived the murders simply due to luck. While Merricat’s attitude towards family might seem to be chaotic and illogical, Jackson’s portrayal of the gendered nature of family life and the tendency for the traditional nuclear family to oppress women gives insight into Merricat’s extreme actions and desires.
To understand Merricat’s attitude towards family, one needs to consider more broadly the gendered history and structure of the family. Laws and social rules surrounding family structure have long been patrilineal, defining family power and identity solely based on men. For example, the family name is traditionally passed down through the male line, and sons have traditionally inherited family property instead of daughters. Women have been considered to be under the rule of their fathers until they marry, when they come under the rule of their husbands. It could be said that family is in itself an instrument of female oppression, and thus, through destroying her family, Merricat ends these oppressive traditions.
Jackson uses Charles Blackwood, the sisters’ cousin, to represent the worst of masculinity. He is obsessed with money (a sphere traditionally considered masculine), and he comes to the house with the goal of wringing money out of the sisters under the guise of helping them. In order to do so, he seems to be plotting to marry Constance, which adds a strangely incestuous element to the family relations. Because of Charles’s ambitions to marry Constance, he becomes the central danger to the relationship between Merricat and her sister—his striving to lure Constance into a relationship would not only pull her away from Merricat, but would also pull her out of the female-centric world that Merricat has created in their house. In this way, marriage is painted as an institution largely concerned with keeping women from owning property (a common and potent feminist critique of marriage) and an institution that keeps women from being in solidarity with one another. As such, Jackson portrays marriage as undermining female familial relations, rather than creating new family.
Adding to the complexity of this dynamic, Charles is already family. Because of this, he has license to enter the house, despite the sisters’ efforts to keep out almost everyone else. Charles attempts to control Merricat more than anyone else does. He refuses to accept her behavior and he threatens her in the very house which she thought she had made entirely her own. In this way, he takes away the power she gained by killing her family and begins to treat her the way that they treated her, as shown when she asks whether he’s going to punish her by sending her to bed without dinner. This was the punishment that spurred her to put the arsenic in the sugar bowl, which bodes ill for Charles. Ultimately, Merricat’s desire for control over the household trumps Charles’s familial right to it, which underscores the triumph of women over oppressive familial structures.
Fittingly, Merricat is neither interested in her financial inheritance nor in the heritage of her male forebears. Instead, she focuses on the stories and objects related to generations of Blackwood women who have lived in the house before her and Constance. Many objects in the house, such as the china, have come to be there as part of these women’s dowries, but the inheritance most important to Merricat and Constance is food. They treasure the shelves and shelves of canned food in the cellar, which represent the contributions of generations of Blackwood women to the household.
On the one hand, the food stores prove that Blackwood women have always fulfilled the traditionally female role of cook. However, the food is also a tangible reminder that women have an important history in the family, and it sets up food as a site of resistance and a link among Blackwood women. Just as food changes from oppressor to instrument of liberation when Merricat murders her family, the Blackwood family, over the course of the novel, turns from a source of gendered oppression to a source of power through its matrilineal inheritance and focus on sisterhood.
Family and Gender ThemeTracker
Family and Gender Quotes in We Have Always Lived in the Castle
I must have known what she was going to say, because I was chilled; all this day had been building up to what Helen Clarke was going to say right now. I sat low in my chair and looked hard at Constance, wanting her to get up and run away, wanting her not to hear what was just about to be said, but Helen Clarke went on, “It’s spring, you’re young, you’re lovely, you have a right to be happy. Come back into the world.”
Once, even a month ago when it was still winter, words like that would have made Constance draw back and run away; now, I saw that she was listening and smiling, although she shook her head.
“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.”
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.
“Merricat,” Constance said; she turned and looked at me, smiling. “It’s our cousin, our cousin Charles Blackwood. I knew him at once; he looks like Father.”
“Well, Mary,” he said. He stood up; he was taller now that he was inside, bigger and bigger as he came closer to me. “Got a kiss for your cousin Charles?”
Behind him the kitchen door was open wide; he was the first one who had ever gotten inside and Constance had let him in.... I was held tight, wound round with wire, I couldn’t breathe, and I had to run.
“My niece Mary Katherine has been a long time dead, young man. She did not survive the loss of her family; I supposed you knew that.”
“What?” Charles turned furiously to Constance.
“My niece Mary Katherine died in an orphanage, of neglect, during her sister’s trial for murder. But she is of very little consequence to my book, and so we will have done with her.”
“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.”
“She certainly wanted her tea,” I said to Constance when I came back to the kitchen.
“We have only two cups with handles,” Constance said. “She will never take tea here again.”
“It’s a good thing Uncle Julian’s gone, or one of us would have to use a broken cup.”
“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—”
“If you let me go this time, you’ll never see me again. I mean it, Connie.... Take a last look,” he said. “I’m going. One word could make me stay.”
I did not think he was going to go in time. I honestly did not know whether Constance was going to be able to contain herself until he got down the steps and safely into the car.... Charles looked back once more, raised his hand sadly, and got into the car. Then Constance laughed, and I laughed... and we held each other in the dark hall and laughed, with the tears running down our cheeks....
“I am so happy,” Constance said at last, gasping. “Merricat, I am so happy.”
“I told you that you would like it on the moon.”
“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.”