51 pages 1 hour read

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1962

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more. For select classroom titles, we also provide Teaching Guides with discussion and quiz questions to prompt student engagement.

Summary and Study Guide


We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a contemporary gothic novella written by Shirley Jackson. It was first published in 1962. It is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known to her family as Merricat, and tells the story of the misfortune that befalls the secretive Blackwood family when the outside world encroaches and Merricat’s peculiar values are put to the test. In this story, Jackson underscores themes of rebellion versus conformity in a world of class, murder, cooking, and even a dash of witchcraft. This summary refers to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, published in 2006.

Plot Summary

Blackwood Manor is a large family estate that houses a peculiar trio: 18-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, the protagonist; her older sister Constance; and Uncle Julian. The other Blackwoods were murdered after ingesting arsenic-laced sugar. Constance takes care of Merricat and Uncle Julian, who survived the poisoning but uses a wheelchair ever since. Uncle Julian, who is obsessed with the murders at Blackwood manor, relitigates them at every turn while getting no closer to an answer. What he knows is that the poisoning itself happened six years earlier while the family was having dessert. The sugar was poisoned with arsenic, and it was used to sweeten the blackberries for dessert. Constance doesn’t take sugar, so she didn’t eat any while Merricat had been sent to her room early without supper as punishment. The rest of the family, however, consumed the dessert. Merricat’s parents John and Ellen, her aunt Dorothy (Julian’s wife), and her younger brother Thomas died. Constance was accused of committing the murders. Though tried, she was eventually acquitted.

The story is told from Merricat’s point of view, and she describes a weekly schedule of unerring regularity. Constance now has agoraphobia and obsessively cooks and pickles foods from the family’s garden. Uncle Julian uses a wheelchair, so neither he nor Constance leave the family’s property. Merricat secures the essentials for their survival by walking into town every week for supplies and library books. Though Constance was acquitted, the townspeople still strongly believe she’s guilty, and there’s palpable dislike for the Blackwoods. Merricat is often taunted ruthlessly when she journeys to town, both by children who sing a crude nursery rhyme about her and by the gossiping adults. The Blackwoods only connection to the surrounding village is through regular visits from Helen Clarke and the town’s doctor, who regularly assesses Julian’s health. Merricat buries items all over the Blackwood estate to protect the property from townspeople and bad spirits. Her thoughts often turn to murder and mayhem, especially when her rigid schedule is undermined. She is often shocked and disturbed when Constance suggests a change in the usual routine or curiosity about the outside world.

Soon, their cousin Charles Blackwood arrives, undermining Merricat’s rigid schedule. Now that Charles’s father (Julian’s brother) has died, lifting the extended family’s stonewalling of Merricat and her sister, Charles is free to do as he pleases. He claims he has arrived on a charitable mission to help the Blackwoods. Constance welcomes Charles and the change he brings. However, Uncle Julian is befuddled by Charles’s presence, and Merricat perceives him as a purely malevolent presence, a “ghost” haunting Blackwood Manor. As she creates various passive charms and spells to get Charles out of the house, Charles begins to assess the monetary value of every little trinket in the house and keeps asking about the locked safe and the rumored fortune held within. The conflict escalates between Merricat and Charles, and Charles finally makes the fatal error of suggesting to Merricat that she will be sent to bed without her dinner. Soon after, Charles’s pipe starts a fire in a wastepaper basket that burns the top floor of the house down. The firefighters arrive, as do many of the villagers. The strangers form into a mindless and unaccountable mob, and after the fire has been put out, the mob begins throwing rocks at the windows of Blackwood manor. They rush the house, breaking furniture and dishes, their actions fueled by years of pent-up frustration and fear of the Blackwoods.

During the destruction, Uncle Julian dies of a heart attack while both Constance and Merricat hide in the woods until the destruction is over. Charles, ever greedy, attempts unsuccessfully to carry away the safe but eventually disappears. While hiding, Constance admits she has known all along that Merricat is the murderer. Merricat admits to the crime and says she placed the arsenic in the sugar bowl because she knew Constance wouldn’t eat any. After the mob leaves, 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 and no longer go into town for anything. 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, the townspeople eventually feel guilty for their actions, so they journey to the manor, which is now covered with ivy, to make amends. At night they leave food on the porch in baskets along with apology letters. Though the townspeople feel guilty, they’re also afraid of the girls now more than ever. Constance and Merricat use this fear to their advantage, living a life of isolation that Merricat calls “happy.”

Related Titles

By Shirley Jackson