We Have Always Lived in the Castle Summary

Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us contact us.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of  We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

This peculiar tale follows the life of eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine, also known as Merricat, and her older sister, Constance. The two young women live with their elderly uncle in a large family estate. Constance takes care of Uncle Julian, who is an invalid due to the effects of arsenic poising. The poising itself happened six years earlier, and actually killed the rest of Merricat’s family. The murderer is unknown at this point in the narrative, though the reader later finds out that Constance was tried for the murders, but acquitted.

Constance and Julian never leave the family’s property, but Merricat walks into town every week for supplies, to get library books and visit the coffee shop. Merricat is the narrator of the story, and as such, the reader sees the town’s reactions to Merricat, and to her family as a whole, through Merricat’s eyes. The reader comes to understand that the townspeople do not like the Blackwoods (Merricat’s family), and she is taunted by both children and adults alike while in town. When Merricat is teased, she often imagines the person dead. Adding to her strange demeanor, Merricat often buries items all over the family’s property, in addition to nailing relics to trees, in an effort to protect the property.

Merricat’s quiet life is interrupted one day when her cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to visit. Both Merricat and Uncle Julian strongly dislike Charles, though Constance takes an interest in him and listens to his demands. Uncle Julian thinks Charles is greedy, like his father. Merricat’s disdain manifests in her placing dirt and sticks in his bed, and refusing to sleep in the house while Charles is there. To this end, Merricat sets up a camp in the woods to live.

As it turns out, Uncle’s Julian’s concerns about Charles are legit. Charles continues to ask for the papers of the deceased father, as well as access to the safe where the family’s money is kept. Uncle Julian, however, will not consent to any of Charles’s requests.

Merricat eventually feels that Charles is too much of a problem. One night, she sneaks into his room, sees a cigar still burning and throws it into a trashcan. As the family dines, the cigar starts a fire and the entire second floor of the estate is burned down. The commotion at the Blackwoods’ estate causes the villagers to come and watch. As the scene unfolds, the fire chief himself throws a rock though one of the windows, and the villagers suddenly begin destroying the property. They break dishes and windows, then pile up furniture to cart away later.

During the destruction, Uncle Julian dies of a heart attack, while both Constance and Merricat hide until the destruction is over. Charles attempts to carry away the safe, but eventually disappears. Merricat then takes Constance to her camp in the woods for the time being. After things have cooled down at the estate, Merricat and Constance move into the ruins of their home. They clean the kitchen and seal off the rest of the house, salvaging what they can from the debris. Additionally, they end up wearing Uncle Julian’s old clothing.

The pair live quietly in the house, making do with what they have. Constance previously stored a large supply of canned goods in the cellar, so they have food. Moreover, after a certain amount of time, the villagers again come to the ruins of the house, which is now covered with ivy. At night, the villagers leave food on the porch in baskets, along with apology letters. At the end of the novel, the reader finally learns that Merricat is the murderer who poisoned the rest of her family.

Though the narrative appears bleak, with death a constant theme throughout, the story is actually one of perseverance. The themes of change, constancy and prejudice also run throughout the narrative, making Merricat’s actions a topic of debate. Indeed, Merricat never really cared for her family’s attachment to heirlooms and material wealth, which was scattered all over the house as if on display. When the fire ravages the house, these items are all destroyed. When Merricat and Constance move back in, they then seal off the rest of the house, living in the kitchen. This symbolic act showcases how important the fire was to Merricat and Constance’s need for change. They now live in the kitchen, a symbol of family life, and no longer have access to the material displays of “family” that were ravaged by the fire. In this sense, they have grown from the fire, grown out of the fire, symbolically, to become a more holistic family unit.

Likewise, the destruction of the Blackwood estate by the villagers, though vigilante justice, is another symbol of growth. It is not until the villagers must witness and live with their destruction firsthand that they see just how prejudiced and destructive they have been. This in turn causes them to apologize and feed the two young women, showing thematically an extended family of caregivers and the role of forgiveness in people’s lives. Constance herself is symbolic of caregiving, as she is first seen taking care of Uncle Julian. Likewise, she is the one who stored the canned goods that will feed her and Merricat later in the novel. She also makes fruit preserves, thus highlighting the symbolism of her character as a metaphor for nurturing, something constant, as her name attests to. And so both girls, though one is the actual murderer and the other, initially accused of murder, show a level of change and perseverance by the novel’s end, where Merricat indeed ends the narrative by commenting on how happy the girls are now.