Sisters and Brothers and Fiction

What are your favorite works of literature with memorable sibling relationships?
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Siblings in literature! They love each other. They hate each other. They fight less when they become adults. They fight more when they become adults. They jockey for their parents' favor. Etc. So many dramatic possibilities.

I'm thinking of siblings because I recently read George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, which features a sister-brother relationship for the ages that's also reflective of their ages (Tom pulls rank on Maggie partly because he's older).

Those Tulliver siblings are quite a mismatch. Tom is harsh, stubborn and narrow-minded, albeit eventually focused and hardworking. Maggie can be forgetful and over-emotional, but she's much more loving and imaginative than Tom. Smarter, too -- even though her gender, in the hyper-patriarchal 19th century, denies her the education Tom receives. No wonder she's frustrated and unsatisfied.

Maggie and Tom's problematic sibling relationship makes for a gripping story with one of the most memorable endings in literature.

Reading The Mill on the Floss made me think of other novels in which siblings are prominent. The first that came to mind (partly because I reread it this month) is Fyodor Dostoyevsky's riveting Crime and Punishment, which stars the agonized outlier Raskolnikov and also features -- in a significant secondary role -- his admirable sister Dunya.

I also quickly thought of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, with its four very different March sisters who nonetheless get along pretty well. Another superb novel with a quartet of diverse sisters is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

Obviously, siblings who share genes more than personality traits are a staple of literature.

There are two sisters in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin -- one long-lived, the other short-lived, and polar opposites in other ways, too. A huge secret concerning the two is revealed at the end; let's just say one sister is more talented than she seems.

Jodi Picoult's heart-wrenching My Sister's Keeper also features two female siblings, one of whom was bred to medically help the other -- a fate she eventually rebels against.

Now, let's get some males in here! Didn't Dostoyevsky also write The Brothers Karamazov? I think he did.

There's the almost biblical rivalries of two generations of brothers in John Steinbeck's East of Eden; it's no coincidence that those siblings all have names that start with the same letters as Cain and Abel.

Siblings can be very competitive, in literature and real life.

Another complex relationship is between the title character in Alexandre Dumas' Georges and his older brother Jacques, who becomes a slave trader despite being part of a mixed-race family.

In James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, it's the older son (John Grimes) who's more appealing than the younger one (Roy) -- yet their difficult father prefers the less-sensitive Roy.

Then there are brothers who get along quite well. For instance, Al Joad looks up to the older Tom Joad in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Unfortunately, there are also brothers who love the same woman -- as do Adam and Seth in Adam Bede. The fact that one so genially accepts the other's interest in that woman is the only significant flaw in George Eliot's debut novel.

And when looking at plays, it's hard to forget the brother dynamics of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Getting back to mixed-gender siblings, how about the lively Weasley family's six brothers and one sister in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series?

In Emile Zola's The Ladies' Delight, Denise Baudu is a great sister who moves with her two younger brothers to Paris to seek work after the three are orphaned.

Another relocation occurs in Colm Toibin's absorbing Brooklyn, which has Eilis Lacey move from Ireland to the book's titular New York City borough while her sophisticated sister Rose and her brothers remain in Europe. Later, a major event brings Eilis back to her home country.

Then there's an early Cormac McCarthy novel, Outer Dark, featuring the relationship between the young woman Rinthy and her creepy brother Culla.

In Kurt Vonnegut's classic Slaughterhouse-Five, the brother-and-sister children of Billy Pilgrim don't have big roles but serve almost symbolic functions. Robert becomes a Green Beret -- embracing the militarism that essentially shattered his father's life (despite Billy being outwardly successful for years). Daughter Barbara thinks her (supposedly) time-traveling/alien-abducted dad has become nuts, making her sort of a stand-in for a society that often shows little understanding of how the savageries of war affect a person's psyche.

What are your favorite works of literature with memorable sibling relationships?

(Thanks to Dorothy Moody for recommending My Sister's Keeper, Donny Backes Jr./"donnyraindog" for recommending Brooklyn, and my daughter Maggie for urging me to finally read Slaughterhouse-Five.)


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