Sibling Rivalry in Jacob Have I loved by Katherine Paterson

Published 17 Jan 2017

Clinicians and psychologists all agree that children begin to evaluate themselves at an early age by reference to their siblings and how their parents and other adults respond to them. (Leder, 1993) This method of self-evaluation gives rise to sibling rivalry which is characterised by competition, superiority and superiority complexes and self-identification problems. (Leder, 1993)

Katherine Paterson explores these elements of sibling rivalry in her work Jacob Have I loved. The novel takes place in the 1940’s on Rass Island off the Chesapeake Bay and depicts the difficulties of Sara Louise Bradshaw who feels upstaged by her twin sister Caroline in virtually every aspect of her social and familial relations. The novel focuses on Louise’s struggle with self-identity and self-perception as she tries to shake herself free of her twin sister’s shadow.

Louise’s jealousy of her twin sister Caroline is such that she cannot appreciate her own qualities and focuses more on those things that she determines Caroline has taken from her. Early on Louise laments:

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“From the moment Caroline was born, she snatched everyone’s attention all for herself.” (Paterson, 1990, 18)

Blinded by jealousy, Louise simply cannot see what is there. She does not perceive that her parents focus on Caroline and away from her has more to do with Caroline’s frail condition and Louise’s comparatively healthy condition. To Louise, her parent’s focus on Caroline is explained away by a preference for Caroline over her. This manner of self-evaluation is what psychologists and clinicians attribute to the turbulence of sibling rivalry.

In her self-evaluation, Louise perceives that her parents lack of concern for her physical well-being is tantamount to a lack of love for her. Likewise she perceives that her parents’ attention to her twin sister is demonstrative of a greater love for her sibling. Perhaps more telling is the manner in which Louise measures herself by reference to her sister. As psychologists and clinicians explain, siblings are “constants” and provide a means by which children evaluate themselves by comparison. (Leder, 1993)

Paterson accentuates sibling rivalry through comparison in a symbolic way. To this end she uses hands as a reference point for Louise. Louise describes Caroline’s hands in a way that ensures that she likens Caroline to the perfection she sees in her siblings hands: “Her fingers were long and gracefully shaped as those on the disembodied hands on the ponds ad…exactly the right length to show that she was naturally gifted.” (Paterson, 1990, 147)

For Louise, Caroline’s hands represent her musical talent with respect to the piano and likewise Caroline’s hands symbolize her beauty, a beauty that Louise is envious of.

Be that as it may, Louise also recognizes her sisters flaws, flaws that are consistent with the characteristics of sibling rivalry. The phrase “exactly the right length” lends itself to the suggestion that Caroline has been pampered and supported all of her life thus making her hungry for approval and rather dependant on others. By comparing Caroline’s hand to the “disembodied hands on the ponds ad” Louise is also recognizing the superficial nature of Caroline’s beauty. For her, Caroline’s beauty leaves her shallow and rather self-centred.

As previously noted sibling rivalry arises out of self-perception brought on by comparing the ways that adults and parents respond to siblings. (Leder, 1993) Obviously, Caroline’s health has caused her parents to respond to her in a very concerned and caring way which is quite different from the way the healthy Louise was responded to. As a result, Caroline apparently developed a feeling of superiority over her sister. In turn her sister developed a feeling of inferiority with respect to her sister.

Louise’s hands on the other hand “stubbornly refused to be softened.” (Paterson, 1990, 196) Louise’s hands are constantly rough and dirty as a result of her hard work. By contrast, Caroline’s hands are perfect because she does not work and benefits from her sister’s hard work. It is Louise’s work that contributes to the funding of Caroline’s musical pursuits on the mainland. In this comparison of the hands of the two sisters Paterson reveals the traits that pide the sisters and contribute to the sibling rivalry between them.

Caroline’s hands are beautiful because she only helps herself while Louise’s hands are rough and dirty because she helps others particularly her sister Caroline. In other words Caroline is self-centered while Louise is unselfish. Such disparity in their respective personalities provides elements of resentment between the two sisters giving way to sibling rivalry.

Beauty however, is a bone of contention for Louise and provides a subtle contribution toward her sibling rivalry with her sister. Louise is self conscious and rather sensitive when it comes to her physical attributes and her father’s jibing her over it does not help to close the gap between sisters, but rather only serves to make it wider. As a result of her rough and tumble veneer her father teases her by calling her “Old Scarface” a comment that brings Louise to tears. (Paterson, 20)

Although her father recognizes the different beauties his daughters are endowed with, Caroline’s physical beauty and Louise’s inner beauty, Louise does not recognize the distinction herself. This kind of outward response from her father, although innocent is also the catalyst for Louise’s self-perception which contributes to the jealousy that sews together intense sibling rivalry between herself and her sister.

Psychologists and clinicians all agree that sibling rivalry does not necessarily end with childhood and can carry over to adulthood. (Leder, 1993) Paterson capitalizes on this theory through Louise who eventually finds her own self identify but continues to feel isolated from those that surround her. She continues to be weighted down by her envy of Caroline and her feelings of inadequacy resurface as an adult. She is unable to accept that the love and attention given to Caroline does not take away the love that others feel for her.

Loiuse’s envy is not one-sided. Caroline also realizes that her sister shares a relationship with her parents on a very different level than she does. With her mother, Louise shares a bond that is founded on the desire to “leave…and build a life…somewhere else.” (Paterson, 1990, 227) Like her father, Louise loves the water and the benefits of working in the water. Moreover, her father only funds Caroline’s music school because he has more faith in Louise. As evidence of his faith in Louise her father tells her:

“Don’t tell me no one ever gave you a chance. You don’t need anything given to you. You can make your own chances.” (Paterson, 1990, 217)

The title of Paterson’s book is derived from Romans Chapter 9, verse 13 with the relevant part reading “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated.” (Romans 9:13) This part of Romans related the story of intense sibling rivalry between twin brothers Jacob and Esau and although Louise’s grandmother is well aware of the differential treatment of Caroline and Louise she recites the passage to Louise.

The intense sibling rivalry between Caroline and Louise is perhaps not as fierce as that between Jacob and Esau but it is obvious that Paterson wanted to create a parallel by choosing the passage from Romans 9:13 as the title for her work. Paterson seeks to explain Louise’s jealousy of her sister however and does so in a way that the reader is sympathetic with Louise and at the same time identifies those patterns pointed out by clinicians and psychologists. It is clear that Louise evaluates herself by reference to the manner in which her parents and others treat Caroline. The young adolescent Louise sees Caroline as beloved, admired and respected for her exceptional voice and piano skills.

Perhaps another sore point for Louise is the fact that others, particularly her parents focus their attentions to creating chances for Caroline leaving Louise to her own devices. Although the treatment of Louise helps to build her strength of character and independence it also provides the catalyst for her jealousy of Caroline. Louise cannot help but resent the fact that opportunities are handed to Caroline while she must make her own opportunities.

Caroline’s superiority complex a trend in sibling rivalry (Leder, 1993) is alluded to by Paterson in Jacob Have I Loved. For instance, Caroline fancies herself to be the ideal reflection of what a woman should be, delicate and physically beautiful. To this end she looks down upon Louise who loves the sea and working in it. Caroline sees her sister as dirty and smelly. Her grandmother’s response to Caroline’s characterization of Louise is one of tolerance and acquiescence because like Caroline, her grandmother regards the ocean as a will and unbridled arena unsuited for a woman. This kind of a response from an adult only serves to fuel the seeds of sibling rivalry. (Leder, 1993)

Louise however, breaks away from the sibling rivalry and pursues her own goals despite her grandmother and Caroline’s opinion. When her friend Call, a male friend who helps her father on his crabbing boats joins the navy, Louise is only too happy to take his place. Having taken herself out of her sister’s shadow at last Louise notes:

“I was, for the first in my life, deeply content with what life was giving me.” (Paterson, 1990, 187)

By going out to sea with her father Louise removes herself both physically and figuratively from beneath her sister’s shadow and discovers that she has an identity separate and apart from her sister’s. At sea she is Louise and no longer Caroline’s less endowed sister.

Paterson obviously believes as to psychologists and clinicians that sibling rivalry is primarily outgrown although it can resurface from time to time in adulthood.(Leder, 1993) By coming to the realization that she has her own identity separate and apart from her sister Caroline, Louise also comes to the realization that she is not required to depend on her sister for her own identity. She also develops an appreciation for her own inner beauty realizing that outer beauty is fragile and not self-defining. By coming to these realizations, Louise breaks free of her sibling rivalry with her sister.


  • Leder, Jane. “ Adult Sibling Rivalry.” Psychology Today. (Jan/Feb 1993) October 3, 2008
  • Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. Harper Trophy (1990)
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