Because the story revolves around a mysterious past event, much of the narrative prompts the reader to try to figure out exactly what happened on the fatal night of the poisoning. Throughout the novel, there is a sense that this truth lies just out of sight. For some characters (like the villagers and Uncle Julian), truth is the same as conjecture, and for the two characters that do know the truth (Merricat and Constance), their individual truths never quite line up.
Merricat’s narration is never reliable. The fact that the murderer narrates the story means that the reader can’t take what she says at face value; instead, one must constantly work to infer what Merricat is leaving out in order to figure out the true story. For example, Merricat never says outright that she tips Charles’s pipe onto the newspapers to start a fire, she only says that her eyes were seeing the light in strange ways. Furthermore, the reader quickly realizes that Merricat isn’t entirely sane, meaning, for example, that she might laugh at something that is actually evidence of her own murderous tendencies.
Just like the reader, the characters who don’t know the truth (everyone besides Merricat and Constance) are always working to find the truth or to fight for their version of it. The villagers refuse to believe the outcome of the trial, which found Constance innocent of the murder. Though they might not have the opportunity to accuse Constance to her face, their repetition of a rhyme about Constance poisoning Merricat shows that Constance’s guilt has attained almost mythic proportions among them, regardless of the fact that she’s innocent.
Uncle Julian’s love of recounting the night of his own poisoning provides important exposition about the murders. However, the fact that Uncle Julian’s storytelling is the most concrete account of that critical event adds to the impossibility of ever knowing what’s true. Uncle Julian is even less reliable than Merricat, as the poison affected his memory. In fact, he often asks Constance whether the poisoning ever even happened, and he believes that Merricat is dead, despite the fact that he sees her every day. If he struggles with these simple facts, how can the reader trust his memory of the details of a day six years ago? Uncle Julian himself admits that he’s not dedicated to providing others with the truth, saying that when he’s dead, his papers are to be “entrusted to some worthy cynic who will not be too concerned with the truth” (43).
Merricat and Constance seem to be the only characters who don’t obsess about the past, in part because they know exactly what happened. At the same time, however, this knowledge of the truth propels their lives as they fight to keep away from the characters who seek the truth (and the punishment that knowing this truth would invite). Shirley Jackson’s willingness to keep both her reader and her characters more or less in the dark suggests that the truth itself isn’t as important as what characters’ perceptions of the truth will lead them to do. Merricat’s goal is never so much to hide or reveal the truth as it is to protect herself and Constance from the ways in which other characters react to what they believe to be true, particularly the villagers’ hatred of Constance as an unpunished murderess.
The Relativity of Truth ThemeTracker
The Relativity of Truth 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!
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.”
“I really think I shall commence chapter forty-four,” he said, patting his hands together. “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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 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—”