There are two things that I really like about We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The first is the aesthetic and sensation it gives, mainly surrounding food. This is a novel you can taste and smell. It is breakfasts of tea, toast, jams, pancakes and eggs; dinners of roast meats, vegetable soups and fresh salads; desserts of pies, cakes, cookies. The food is wholesome and substantial. And despite the place of sugar-as-murder-instrument, it doesn’t taste too sweet. It’s like a full meal encompassing protein, vegetables, and dessert, rather than something made of pure sugar and with no nutritional value. It is in many ways a synesthetic experience to read this novel.
Secondly, I like the construction of characters. Merricat and Constance could be monsters, but we are on their side. To look at them from the village’s perspective, you can see why they’re feared. Obviously you have the supposed cold-hearted murderer and the girl devoted to her. More conceptually they are monstrous. They are presented as witches: the strange rituals and spells performed by Merricat, like burying objects, nailing books to trees, or practicing protective incantations; living off the land like near-animals (which Constance attempts to correct during Charles’ stay), with great knowledge of plants and poisons; Constance obsessing over preserves like potions and Jonas acting as familiar to Merricat, who seems to communicate with him in an unnatural way. There’s Merricat’s insistence that she comes from the moon, making her alien, as well as Uncle Julien’s comment that she’s dead, making her a ghost. And there is fear of mental illness in the form of Constance’s agoraphobia. The two of them are interpretably monstrous, in terms of reality, the supernatural, and stigma.
So to me it’s significant to have two women outcasts as protagonists, where it never goes to romance seriously. They aren’t fixed by a man or find love, instead they regress further into isolation because the outside world is a hostile, terrible place. And that’s really empowering. It’s empowering to hear “Yes, those people are as bad as you think, yes, you’ll feel better alone, yes, hiding from life is the best choice.” In another book, Merricat would have the boyfriend that Constance suggests a girl her age should have, and Constance would have ended up with Charles, while both of them would return to society to be happy in the company of others. But they don’t and that’s beautiful.