This novel revolves around an unsolved crime: the murder of Merricat and Constance’s family six years earlier. While Constance was initially blamed for the poisoning, she was acquitted at her trial, which left the public with no clear answer about who was actually to blame. Meanwhile, Merricat—the real murderer—is never publically suspected, though, privately, Constance knows Merricat was responsible. The extent to which Constance was complicit in the murder is never fully clear, and, as a result, issues of unresolved guilt and punishment permeate the story, leading to discord among the characters.
The villagers, who are intensely interested in the murders (seemingly because they remain unsolved), believe that Constance did, in fact, murder her family. The notion that Constance has evaded her due punishment seems to torment the villagers, causing them to taunt the sisters and exile them from the life of the town. The villagers’ harassment of the sisters throughout the novel indicates that unresolved questions of guilt and the appearance of justice shirked are powerful motivators of violence.
This dynamic is more subtly apparent in the internal life of the Blackwood family. While Constance was not responsible for the murders directly, the extent to which she was complicit remains unclear. Constance bought the arsenic in the first place, and she failed to call the doctor soon enough to save her family. She even told the police that the family deserved to die. All of this seems to contribute to Constance’s consistent sense of guilt throughout the novel, indicating that perhaps she, like the villagers, feels that she has not been given her proper punishment. Constance repeatedly takes the blame for circumstances that are far more the result of Merricat’s actions than her own, and she also feels guilty about the isolated, haphazard way in which she and Merricat live, even though Merricat clearly relishes it. Charles makes her see their life from an outside perspective, which leads her to think that Merricat deserves a better, more social way of life than what Constance provides.
Merricat, on the other hand, was directly responsible for the murders, and she expresses no clear feelings of guilt or remorse at her actions; she sometimes even laughs while Uncle Julian describes the night of her crime. Instead of feeling that she deserves punishment, Merricat seems to feel that she and Constance deserve more from life than they have been given. This is, perhaps, because Merricat has a clearer vision of the wrongs to which she and her sister have been subjected at the hands of their family, and thus she feels that the murders were justifiable punishment for the family and a way to establish a better life for herself and Constance.
The dynamics of guilt and punishment in this novel work to create an unsettled feeling, as almost nobody takes what would seem like proper responsibility for their actions. No one is brought to justice, and few characters really even seek out justice. Instead, the novel harbors murderers and rioters almost sympathetically, suggesting that humans are given to chaos far more than laws can account for. Since everyone has a different sense of what is just in any given situation, no one can ever be satisfied that justice has been served, causing perpetual guilt and violence as characters avenge and atone for perceived wrongs without the ability to obtain closure.
Guilt and Punishment ThemeTracker
Guilt and Punishment 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.”
“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.”
I brushed the saucer and the pipe off the table into the wastebasket and they fell softly on to the newspapers he had brought into the house.
I was wondering about my eyes; one of my eyes—the left—saw everything golden and yellow and orange, and the other eye saw shades of blue and grey and green; perhaps one eye was for daylight and the other was for night. If everyone in the world saw different colors from different eyes there might be a great many colors still to be invented.
Very carefully he put up his hands and took off his hat saying CHIEF and while everyone watched he walked slowly down the steps and over to the fire engine and set his hat down on the front seat. Then he bent down, searching thoughtfully, and finally, while everyone watched, he took up a rock. In complete silence he turned slowly and then raised his arm and smashed the rock through one of the tall windows of our mother’s drawing room. A wall of laughter rose and grew behind him and then, first the boys on the steps and then the other men and at last the women and the smaller children, they moved like a wave at our house.
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.”
“Will you sleep in there? In Uncle Julian’s bed?”
“No, Merricat. I want you to sleep in there. It’s the only bed we have.”
“I am not allowed in Uncle Julian’s room.”
She was quiet for a minute, looking at me curiously, and then asked, “Even though Uncle Julian’s gone, Merricat?”
“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.”