1. Sisterhood in the Novel:
a) Discuss the nature of the two sisters, Merricat (Mary Katherine) and Constance and their roles both in their household and in the novel. Although Constance is presented as the “good sister,” might there be some indications of deep-seated flaws in her personality? Analyze the meaning of Constance's name in the story. Does she represent constancy? How so? You should also examine the character of Merricat: what does her strangeness indicate? What do you think Mary Katherine was like before the murders of her family members? Why is she the way that she is now?
b) Alternatively, you can compare and contrast the sisters to illuminate the meaning of these two closely bonded characters and study the nature of their relationship. How are the sisters alike and how are they unlike each other? Do they grow more similar over the course of the novel, and if so, how and why? What is the significance of their differences? How do they protect and support each other at various points in the novel? What are some of the ways in which their relationship is less than ideal? Ultimately, what does their bond of sisterhood really signify in the dark and twisted world of the novel?
2. Merricat as an Unrreliable Narrator:
What do Merricat’s narrations and comments indicate about her state of mind and personality? In what ways is Merricat Blackwood an unreliable narrator? How much of what she says is true? What makes her narration so unreliable: is it because she omits, hides and suppresses certain key facts or details? Or is she being deliberately deceptive and mendacious for some questionable or evil purpose? Or are her perceptions perhaps distorted and untrustworthy because of a mental disturbance? Or, finally, is her behaviour the result of some combination of all of the above? What does it say about Merricat’s character that she has such violent impulses and fantasies about others at times? Given her actions over the course of the whole story, why does Merricat make no confession and offer no regrets, as one might expect in a first person narration – does her lack of remorse indicate a lack of self-awareness or does it mean something else?
3. The Functions and Symbolism of Food Images in the Novel:
Nowhere in Jackson’s work is food more elaborately fetishized than in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, in which Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian have virtually nothing to do but inhabit their blighted house and eat the delicious meals that the older sister prepares for them, three times a day. Merricat comments, “We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.” What is the significance of all this food symbolism? Look at the descriptions and functions of food in narrative, and discuss what all of Constance’s excellent meals really signify in the world of the novel. Why is it significant that the entire family died while eating a meal? How does food undergird the domesticity of the narrative and its key emotional moments? What is the point of these images of food in understanding the characters as they evolve? Are there ways in which the food images undercut the story and raise disturbing questions?
4. Men in the Novel:
The Blackwoods have two male relatives left in the world, the senile old Uncle Julian and the dodgy cousin Charles, who seem to be less than ideal in many ways. What is their role and importancde? Why are the men portrayed as so dislikable, and venal or as foolish and incompetent? Merricat in particular does not seem to trust either of them, while Constance is too trusting and indulgent of both? What is the importance of Uncle Julian? What are Charles's intentions when he comes to visit the Blackwoods? The author never tells us exactly, but what can you infer from his actions? As well, you can discuss Uncle Julian's relationship with Charles Blackwood. How does the relationship change over the course of the story? Alternatively, you can compare and contrast the two men: what are their differences and their similarities?
5. The Ordinary Evil of the Villagers:
a) In some ways this novel explores the banality of evil through the prejudices and attitudes of all the characters. So, how are the villagers in this novel antagonistic and/or evil in their actions towards the girls, and what does this evil signify in the world of the novel? What are some of the petty ways in which the villagers torment the Blackwood girls, and what is their significance? Are the reasons behind their ill-mannered behaviour and hostility valid or not? Why does this hostility against the Blackwood family seem to precede the mysterious poisonings at the Blackwood house?
b) Do you think the villagers would behave differently toward the Blackwoods if they really knew them? Why or why not On the other hand, the protagonists of the novel also resent and disparage the villagers? Do they deserve it? What do their prejudices against the people of the town indicate about the Blackwood girls?
c) What do you make of the climactic scene during the fire when the mob of villagers gleefully exults in the house’s destruction, while also looting and smashing the family’s possessions? What do you make of the fact that they seem very threatening, almost on the verge of killing the girls? Why do they stop? After this cruel incident, why does their manner change at the very end of the story, and what do their apology meals and gifts now indicate about their characters?
6. The Mysteries in the Novel:
a) Discuss the crucial element of mystery in the novel "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." What are some examples of mysteries, both unresolved and solved, in the novel, and what is their primary meaning? What in your opinion is the central mystery of the novel and what does it signify about the characters?
b) Is there perhaps a mystery surrounding Merricat’s childhood and the family itself? Why is Merricat such a mysterious character in terms of her history, her motivations and the reasons for her destructive actions? Are there indications that she was terribly spoiled by an overly indulgent family, leaving her with no conscience?
c) Alternatively, do you think Merricat was instead the victim of some terrible abuse and dysfunction in the family? Why has Constance been reported to have said, “those people (meaning her father, mother, aunt, and little brother) deserved to die"?
d) Was the original Blackwood family deserving of their deaths or not? Why does the motive for their murders remain obscure and hidden in the narrative, and what does this final unresolved mystery signify to the reader? Finally, what do you make of the mysterious, and in many ways, inexplicable ending, which Merricat interprets as happy? Do the sisters deserve their fate?