Throughout the novel, the actions of the female characters reveal a desire for revolt against the patriarchy. Due to family tragedy and social isolation, Merricat and Constance have power over their day-to-day lives that is unusual for young women in the 1960s, and the book is concerned with the sisters’ struggle to defend that power from men who would usurp it. The sisters’ ultimate triumph is that they succeed in banishing these men from their lives. Jackson, then, presents a vision that could be seen as a kind of feminist utopia, in which the sisters reject many structures and icons of male power, such as money and the traditional nuclear family, and are able to make a woman-centered life for themselves that includes only the two of them.
In this book, male power is especially present in money, as men have traditionally been breadwinners and have used this position to control women. Blackwood men in particular base their identity and success largely on their ability to make money. By entirely disregarding the value of money, Merricat and Constance simply deny the power of men. Their money sits in their father’s safe, and they use it only to buy necessities. When Charles arrives, he’s scandalized by the sisters’ indifference to their wealth, but they simply laugh at his attempts to get into the safe and put a price to all the objects in the house. Essentially, they shed much of the power that men may have over them by choosing not to rely on or value money.
Additionally, witchcraft has long been associated with women who transgress social expectations, and Merricat creates her own brand of witchcraft as she buries protective objects all over the property and decides on words that she believes are powerful. Her cat, Jonas, even acts like her familiar, an animal believed to aid witches in their work. The destruction of the house through fire and the villagers’ throwing of objects mimics the execution of witches by burning or stoning—except in this instance, Merricat and Constance not only survive the symbolic execution, but find themselves happier than ever after it, as it leaves them entirely out of reach of the male-centric world, with only each other for company.
Merricat and Constance also rely on feminine power as vested in the traditional female connection to food preparation. In fact, their lives revolve almost entirely around food, and by the end of the book, they spend practically all of their time in the kitchen, with Constance preparing food and Merricat eating it. Though women have long been made responsible for preparing food for their husbands, the sisters subvert this patriarchal tradition by enjoying their food alone, without any men, after Uncle Julian’s death. Despite the outside pressures of society, Merricat and Constance ultimately find happiness being alone together, to the exclusion of all male company besides their cat. In a world that largely believes that women need men, the sisters’ preference to live without them amounts to a bold statement.
Female Power ThemeTracker
Female Power Quotes in We Have Always Lived in the Castle
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!
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.
“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.”
“In a tree,” he said, and his voice was shaking too. “I found it nailed to a tree, for God’s sake. What kind of a house is this?”
“It’s not important,” Constance said. “Really, Charles, it’s not important.”
“Not important? Connie, this thing’s made of gold.”
“But no one wants it.”
“One of the links is smashed.... what a hell of a way to treat a valuable thing. We could have sold it,” he said to Constance.
“We should have faced the world and tried to live normal lives; Uncle Julian should have been in a hospital all these years, with good care and nurses to watch him. We should have been living like other people. You should...” She stopped, and waved her hands helplessly. “You should have boy friends,” she said finally, and then began to laugh because she sounded funny even to herself.
“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 could feel a breath of air on my cheek; it came from the sky I could see, but it smelled of smoke and ruin. Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky.
“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.”