Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Wrongdoings and Getting Judged for Them

I remember my first run-in with an authority figure that wasn’t one of my parents. I was seven, and I had to sit on the step for saying some cheeky rhyme with the word ‘bum’ in it, in front of the new preps. Rather than taking my punishment with a quiet dignity, I cried the entire time I was on the step – I wasn’t the most rebellious of youth.

Each person’s own unique and ongoing relationship to the rules they’re told to abide by, is fascinating and not always fair.  Regardless of whether you choose to challenge or comply with moral or societal restrictions, the influence rules have in sculpting who we are, is immeasurable. And sometimes, you’ll fight the law and the law wins.

So if you’re in the mood to ponder the judicial process, here are a few bits of writing which are thankfully much shorter reads than Crime and Punishment (just don’t read Crime and Punishment I proper struggled)

The Trial (Franz Kakfa, 1925)

Like Kafka’s other stories, The Trial is often considered particularly chilling because it’s said to foreshadow life under Nazi occupation – an era which Kakfa never lived to see.

Originally written in 1915 and published posthumously, The Trial tells the story of Josef K. who wakes up one morning told he has been charged for a crime which is never revealed to him by a mysterious bureaucratic system.

Josef K. hopelessly fights his case even though he doesn’t know what exactly he is being charged with, to a powerful yet invisible, system that’s structure is unknown.

Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose, 1957)

A short American screenplay which, as you’re promised, has twelve men in it that are sometimes arguing (it never escalates into a street fight though which is a bit of a let down).

Set in a sequestered jury room, the jurors need to reach a unanimous verdict on the 19 year old defendant accused of killing his father. If found guilty he’ll be sentenced to death.

In short, the play is the jurors arguing into the night, attempting to determine whether there is a reasonable doubt. It’s also meant to make you think about how much personal prejudices can be put aside to ensure they don’t ‘obscure the truth’.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde, 1898)

Written after his release, this powerful poem describes a hanging Wilde witnessed during his two year prison sentence of a Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge who had murdered his wife in a jealous rage for suspected infidelity.

A statement against capital punishment, Wilde humanise’s Wooldridge by detailing his movements as he walks toward the scaffold. He attempts to capture the pain of witnessing a fellow man die ‘a death of shame’; his underlying point being that we are all sinful yet not all of us are forced to die this way. Repeatedly the poem describes the ‘wisful eyes’ of Wooldridge on this fateful day, and comes back to this one poignant verse,

‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!’

Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1472)

I have two favourite parts of this classic epic poem/brochure of what to except if you’ve been a bit of a wrongin during your life,

  1. That God seems to be a fan of handing out very specific ironic punishments
  2. People who were unable to commit to the church because it was before their time-period are still sent to the first circle of hell for not believing in God. That’s a bit of a dick move.

The first of three poems (I have only read this one though, cause I thought it would be juicy), Inferno is about Dante getting himself lost in the forest and the ghost of Virgil needing to lead him through the nine circles of hell to get back onto his path.

Vixens

Look, we’re all human. Even the most moral of us are flawed. I’m sure, at some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced an internal struggle with choosing between the right thing to do, as opposed to the more fun/less mature course of action.

But then there are some people who take being a shit-lord up a notch. These are the types of characters in fiction who we love to hate, and whose terrible personalities/life decisions tend to be the root of the whole plot.

Here are three of my favourite female antagonists from literature who were just the worst.

 Cathy Ames (East of Eden, 1952)

I actually finished reading East of Eden two days ago. It had been a few years since I’d read anything by John Steinbeck, I forgot how much I loved his writing.

Anyway, the reason I read this book really fast was because every time I tried to put it down, Cathy would manage to do or say something, that completely topped the last previous shitty thing she did.

Who can leave a book for the night when Cathy goes and drops this line, ‘I wasn’t too tired for your brother’ – holy shit Cathy you actually said that to his face!!!!

East of Eden is beautiful and so much more than the awful things Cathy does, I’m even willing to forgive Steinbeck for calling one of the minor characters ‘Cotton Eye’ (NO! WHY! WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GET THAT BLOODY SONG STUCK IN MY HEAD!!!).

But Cathy’s storyline is what kept me so enthralled; and you know you’re dealing with a truly terrible character when this is how the introduction of her character begins,

‘I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents’

Cathy has a talent for manipulation and is easily able to make herself the object of mad obsession. I don’t want to give too much away, but she takes what she needs and gets a perverse kind of pleasure in bringing out the worst in people. She’s also really crap at hiding her true evil nature anytime she has some alcohol.

Abigail Williams (The Crucible, 1953)

The Crucible was one of my year 12 books, and it has the honour of being the only assigned reading I had in High School, that I didn’t think sucked.

My English teacher gave what is possibly the best summary of its plot when she said, ‘Abigail really shits on her own doorstep’. Yes, yes she does.

The Crucible is a fictional play of the 1692 Salem witch-trials, based loosely on historical accounts. Like the actual events, what starts the allegations is Reverend Samuel Parris catches young girls – including his daughter Betty and adopted niece Abigail, dancing in the forest around a fire with his Barbados slave, Tituba.

The girls initially deny their actions were witchcraft, yet out of fear they begin accusing their neighbours of conspiring with the Devil.

In the play, Abigail is a bit of a ring leader, and the accusations quickly become less about self preservation and driven more by revenge and hate.

Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, 1606)

Macbeth is another set text I had for High School English. I was definitely too young to get something out of it (there was a lot of immature snickering on my part, when Lady Macbeth says ‘unsex me here’).

I remember we all had to watch the Roman Polanski film adaption from the 70s. There was this scene with a whole gang of really old naked witches hanging out in a cave. I really don’t understand what anybody got out of making that scene, there’s no mention of them being naked in the original play and I had to go wash my eyes out with turps.

Anyway, Lady Macbeth is the wife of Scottish nobleman Macbeth, in the classic Shakespeare tale of why you probably shouldn’t kill a king. Lady Macbeth’s ambition is the driving force behind Macbeth stabbing the king so that he could gain the throne.