Constance and Merricat have cut themselves off from the world almost entirely since the deaths of their family. Although Constance fears the outside world, the story takes place at a time of change, when she’s beginning to wonder whether it’s time to face society again. She is partially receptive to Helen Clarke’s urging her to return to the world, though she’s also frightened at the prospect. Merricat also fears the outside world, but she feels just as much hatred towards it as fear. In other words, even as she wants to escape from the villagers, she also wants to kill them all.
Since Merricat unabashedly cherishes her isolation from the world, Constance’s ambivalence about isolation frightens Merricat. Merricat wants nothing more than to have complete possession of and control over Constance, and their continued isolation is key to this goal. Merricat frequently imagines going to live on the moon and taking Constance with her. The moon comes to represent her ideal life, and its most prominent characteristic is its removal from the world. On the moon, no one would bother the sisters, and Merricat could do as she liked, keep Constance safe, and never have to share Constance’s attention with anyone else.
The immediate conflict of the story centers on the threats to the isolation that Merricat cherishes—these threats consist specifically of Helen Clarke and Charles Blackwood. Both of these characters come to the house with the intention of removing the sisters from it. Helen Clarke argues that Constance should return to society, insisting that plenty of people still think of themselves as her friends. More to the point, she implies that it’s time for Constance to find a husband.
Charles seems to present himself as a potential husband; though he never says so outright, he quickly begins to discipline Merricat under the authority of “Constance and I,” and he undoubtedly seeks an honorable way to get his hands on the sisters’ money. In his refusal to bend to the strange way in which the sisters live, particularly the license that Constance gives Merricat to behave in whatever way she likes, Charles represents the rational, masculine, capitalist outside world. In fact, Charles doesn’t try to drag the sisters into the outside world so much as he tries to bring the outside world to their house and make them respect its rules and norms.
The sisters’ isolation ultimately amounts to a defense against living by these rules and norms. The outside world is ruled by men like Jim Donell, who hate the Blackwoods. The attempts of Helen Clarke and Charles to reincorporate the sisters into normal society are linked to a desire to make them conform to patriarchal standards and rules, particularly the valuing of marriage and money. At the end of the book, the sisters cut themselves off from the world entirely. Although they observe the people who linger outside, no one can see into the house. The sisters can watch the workings of society, but they choose not to adhere to it themselves, instead living happily by the rules that Merricat makes up herself.
Isolation 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.
“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.
“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.
“We are on the moon at last,” I told her, and she smiled.
“I thought I dreamed it all,” she said.
“It really happened,” I said.
“Poor Uncle Julian.”
“They came in the night and took him away, and we stayed here on the moon.”
“I’m glad to be here,” she said. “Thank you for bringing me.”
“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.”
“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.”