Siblings in Fiction Get Along or Have Friction

The sisters from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog post about some of literature’s memorable sibling relationships — including those in The Mill on the Floss, Crime and Punishment, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Blind Assassin, among other novels.

I thought I would update that today by discussing siblings in several books I’ve read since 2014, starting with two recently finished novels: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer.

Why are literature’s sibling relationships potentially compelling? We like when fictional sisters and/or brothers get along, lament when they don’t, feel uneasy when they’re super-competitive with each other, see the unfairness if one sibling is much more intelligent/popular/successful/better-looking, hate if the parents blatantly favor one child over another, etc. Those of us with siblings can certainly relate to some or all of the above.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quirky, disturbing novel (no surprise with Ms. Jackson) that often centers on the interactions between main character Mary Katherine and her decade-older sister Constance — who’s almost like a mother to “Merricat.” They live an isolated life, and…is one of those two young women guilty of having mass-murdered several of their family members?

The Praise Singer is a well-crafted historical novel focusing on ancient Greek poet Simonides. One interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between the protagonist and his older brother Theas when they’re both living at home as boys. Their father blatantly favors Theas — who’s more handsome, charismatic, and confident than Simonides. But Theas treats Simonides affectionately, encourages him, and defends him. Theas goes on to become a successful adult, even as his poet brother becomes widely famous.

Another historical novel is Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies — in which three of the four Mirabel sisters become revolutionaries opposing the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship at great risk to their lives. The trio (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa) have quite different personalities, and don’t always get along, but share a hatred of the brutal regime. The fourth sister (Dede) is less revolutionary, and takes a somewhat divergent path in life.

As in The Praise Singer, there is unfortunate parental favoritism in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brookyn. Katie Nolan prefers her son Neeley over her daughter Francie, yet Francie (the novel’s protagonist) and her younger brother get along well for the most part — taking some psychological comfort in their companionship as they deal with a charming but often-irresponsible alcoholic father.

Also getting along well are Jemmy and Mandy — the young son and younger daughter of Brianna and Roger, who bounce around in time more than once in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. The two kids (the grandchildren of Brianna’s 20th-century-born mother Claire and 18th-century-born father Jamie) are a familar touchstone for each other during their unorthodox lives.

An example of a dysfunctional sibling relationship is the one between Hank and Leland in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Hank is more confident and physically stronger than his more intellectual half-brother Leland, and the oil-and-water mix between the two helps fuel a lot of the drama in the novel.

Any novels you’d like to mention with memorable sibling characters?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s bus service resuming, LGBTQ news, and COVID’s effect on two parades — is here.

71 thoughts on “Siblings in Fiction Get Along or Have Friction

  1. Hi Dave,

    I feel like I read your blog on a Monday afternoon with every intention of commenting within 48 hours, but something swallows the week up, and here we are and it’s Monday again.

    I hope you enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle? I thought the sisters had a wonderful relationship. I just got through a big chunky novel where everybody had the same voice. Not so with Jackson’s writing. Not only was Merricat one of the most unique characters I’ve ever read, I also greatly enjoyed her interaction with the people (and cats) around her, particularly her older sister. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say yes, I’m pretty sure one of them is a murderer. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

    I was thinking of Jodi Picoult’s siblings in My Sister’s Keeper but of course by the time I write it down, Kat Lit has beat me to it! Such interesting dynamics in a family where one of the children has been born for spare parts. And Picoult doesn’t shy away from the heartbreaking stuff. Definitely handy to keep the tissues nearby!

    Lastly, I’ve just finished reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and what a wonderful relationship those two sisters have. Geographically separated so that they barely appear on the same page together, there is nevertheless a bond which creates so much love and hope in a novel that was otherwise pretty grim. Absolutely riveting though and one I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan!

      I’m VERY glad you recommended “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” Memorable/macabre novel, and the sisters in it indeed have an excellent (albeit quirky) relationship. And, yes, Shirley Jackson knows how to make each of her characters sound different.

      “My Sister’s Keeper” was painful to read, but really compelling. As Kat Lit and I have discussed, the ending is problematic but everything up to that is almost pitch-perfect.

      I read “The Color Purple” many years ago, so I’ve forgotten most of the details. But I do remember being very impressed/depressed with the novel and the way the relationships (good and bad) were depicted.

      Like

  2. As far as sisterly relationshps, one book I haven’t read, but is tops on my tbr list, is Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino–a crime novel about two prostitutes who were murdered narrated by the sister of one of the victims. I’m never disappointed reading Japanese lit, can’t say for sure why that is, but seems to me they are so skillyfully crafted, e.g. Murakami, Mishima, Ishiguro etc. Also must mention The Lemon Sisters by Shalvis and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? by Farrell. Right now I’m reading Anna Pasternak’s bio about Wallis Simpson,The American Duchess. When it comes to individuals on the world stage I continue to find her the most perplexing individual ever. Great post Dave. Thanks, Susi

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi!

      “Grotesque” does sound intriguing (and very downbeat, of course). I haven’t read a lot of novels by writers from Japan or of Japanese descent, but the ones I have were quite interesting. Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” Murakami’s “After Dark,” Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”…

      I didn’t know “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” was a novel before becoming a movie! One of those instances where the film version becomes more famous than the book that inspired it.

      Wallis Simpson was indeed a puzzling person.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Les Enfants Terrible” by Jean Cocteau is my first candidate for the week’s topic– Paul and Elizabeth, a dangerous duo, brother and sister, whose childhood games and rivalries insulate them from the world, yet destroy them and others who they invite to play, and to love.

    I am reading just now Walter de la Mere’s “The Return” (1922), but I haven’t finished it, so I’m not sure to what degree the hints and momentary forebodings regarding the pair will be significant/consequential to the novel’s outcome. A brother and sister– that theme again!– Herbert Herbert and Grisel Herbert,who no one else in the village seems to know, have taken main character’s Arthur Lawford under their sympathetic wings and on occasion into their rambling old wooden house.

    Pertinent to a discussion we had here a little while back, Arthur is a fictional character, one of the few in contemporary fiction so far as I have found who is recovering from the Spanish Influenza, and his recovery has been slow, enervating and tedious to himself and his wife Sheila.

    On a walk that ends in a churchyard near home, he seats himself on a stone bench as evening comes on, falls into a trance state and upon awakening and returning home, when he looks into a mirror, to his consternation and horror, appears to himself to have been transformed, nearly, into someone else, yet with some vestige of his old face and self remaining. He becomes convinced that the occupant of centuries-old grave near the old bench, a Huguenot suicide named Sabathier, has managed to escape his tomb and enter Arthur’s body, though not quite to take it entirely over.

    How much of this is wild fancy? To what degree might this be laid at the feet of his protracted weakness from flu? Do others– his wife, his doctor, his daughter– see what’s left of him or the old Huguenot in his altered face? Or a bit of both?

    I’ve got a few dozen pages left in this strange tale to find out! I admit I don’t always quite get some of the goings-on, and plan a re-read, but I am at certainly enjoying Mr. de la Mere’s descriptive powers:

    “The green and brightness if the morning must have been prepared for overnight by spiders and the dew. Everywhere the gleaming nets were hung, and everywhere there rose a tiny splendour from the waterdrops, so clear and pure and changeable it seemed with their fire and colour they shook a tiny crystal music in the air.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! The sibling relationship in “Les Enfants Terrible” sounds really interesting, and really toxic. The title certainly offers much more than a hint of that.

      And — wow! — a fictional character actually recovering from the devastating flu of 100-plus years ago! A seeming rarity in fiction of that time; as you noted, several of us here had discussed that in recent months. Wanting to move on from the disaster of that flu and “The Great War”…

      And what a weird path that novel’s story takes — almost Kafka-esque in a way, and also remindful of some fiction I’ve read where someone enters into or is turned into another person. (“The Mirror” by Marlys Millhiser is one example.)

      That IS a highly descriptive excerpt in your final paragraph. Walter de la Mare can write!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Siblings in fiction. . Dynamite – Sisters have a bad press – thanks to Martina for including Lear – cue for suggesting brothers got there first..*. Several people have covered the four March sisters, but their almost exact contemporary, Katy Carr was the eldest of six. My sort of girl, but only until she fell off that swing, broke her back and acquired a halo too. What Katy Did At School suggests that as sisters Katy and Clover are weird – for liking each other – conflict regarded as normal. .
    * my favourite rabbi comment,’ of course it’s fiction, ever met a talking snake.?’

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Esther! Authors (usually male ones) can indeed put plenty of their sexism and misogyny into their fiction, and that can definitely affect their depiction of sister characters. Fortunately there are some sister depictions by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Liane Moriarty, etc., that feel authentic. And by some male authors — even long-ago ones, such as Wilkie Collins in “No Name.”

      “What Katy Did” sounds like a real ahead-of-its-time classic. Will see if my local library has it. It IS sad that her spirit was reined in somewhat with that terrible accident. 😦

      Like

  5. Dave, I don’t remember what I posted on this topic back in 2014, though I suspect it probably had to do with Jane Austen and/or “Little Women.”🙂 They were already mentioned by others, but I’ll add my two cents worth on both once again. As much as I loved “P&P” and the relationship of Jane and Lizzie, the sisterly bond between Elinor and Marianne in “S&S” was much more interesting and realistic. As M.B. alluded to, their two quite distinct natures are personified by the book’s title. Another quite intriguing sibling relationship was that of Mary and Henry Crawford in “Mansfield Park,” both of which characters were much more interesting than the very virtuous (and rather boring) Fanny and Edmund.

    “Little Women” was probably the first novel that I fell in love with as a young child, though the edition I first read was a large illustrated paperback, very much abridged version of the story. I can still picture it in my mind, especially the way the sisters looked and were dressed), and I’m so sorry that I didn’t keep it! I do remember commenting on one of your columns a while ago about the fact that my favorite sister was Amy, not Jo, like everyone else’s seemed to be, in spite of a “certain burned manuscript.” 🙂

    Other sibling favorites from childhood were “The Dana Girl Mysteries” by Carolyn Keene, “The Hardy Boys” by Franklin Dixon, and of course “The Bobbsey Twins” by Laura Lee Hope, I’ve got quite a few older, used editions of the Dana sisters and the Bobbsey books on my shelves. What a lot of fun they are to read!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit, for all the great thoughts on various sisters and brothers in fiction! I agree that the sibling relationships in “Sense and Sensibility” and “Mansfield Park” are interesting and well-drawn, even as the sisters in “Pride and Prejudice” are more “famous” Austen characters. Yes, the Fanny and Edmund relationship in “MP” isn’t scintillating, though Fanny is of course an admirable character in several respects.

      Each of the “Little Women” sisters have their strong points and appeal, though I guess Jo is my favorite — perhaps partly because of her aspirations to be a writer. 🙂 That illustrated paperback would indeed have been great to keep, but real life often dictates otherwise. 😦 There are some things I really wish I had kept that seem more important now than they did then.

      And thanks for the mentions of those classics for younger readers!

      Liked by 1 person

      • While I don’t have that first “Little Women” book, about ten years ago, I did treat myself to buying (online from a collector) a full set of Madame Alexander “Little Women” dolls, including Marmee and a young Laurie. They are in quite good shape, other than poor Laurie, whose head is hanging on by a thread and is unable to stand! 😏 Oh well, they are housed in an IKEA dollhouse display case, along with my Illustrated Junior Classic hardcover from 1947, and sit in the bay window of my new home.

        Some of the other books about siblings by contemporary writers that I’ve enjoyed are: “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver; “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult; and “Three Wishes” by Liane Moriarty (about triplets). I think I recall mentioning all of them on other columns of yours. I found the endings of the first two problematic, to say the least, but the Moriarty novel was a delight to read, very funny but some sad moments as well. I think you know that I love all of her novels!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Those “Little Women” dolls sound very nice, despite that head hanging by a thread. 🙂

          “Big Brother” and “My Sister’s Keeper” are definitely dramatic, fraught sibling-centric novels — and I agree about their endings being problematic after the first 90% of each book was quite good. I’ve read a lot of Liane Moriarty, but not “Three Wishes” (yet). She is indeed one of the best contemporary authors out there!

          Like

  6. Well Dave, you know I can’t let this post go by without mentioning Pride and Prejudice, one of my favorite novels and a very fine example of the complexities of sibling relationships 🙂 I also just finished reading Sense and Sensibility by Austen, comparing the very different personality traits of two very close sisters, and I enjoyed that very much. And for younger reading, I might toss out the Ramona Quimby books – I always enjoyed not only reading about Ramona’s shenanigans, but also the dynamic between her and Beezus, which was heartwarming at times yet still very realistic with sister rivalry at others. And finally, I recently read the novel Fifty Words for Rain . It was a very good book with beautiful writing, exploring a sibling relationship in post-war Japan with a young man held in the highest esteem by his aristocratic grandmother, while his half-sister is cast down, hidden away, and outright abused because of her mixed race. However, the siblings are still able to forge a strong bond despite their cruel grandmother. It’s well worth a read if you have the time. A very fun topic this week. As someone who has six siblings, plus seven siblings-in-law, I always enjoy reading about sibling relationships!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, “Pride and Prejudice” is well worth mentioning, and there are certainly some memorable sibling relationships in other Austen books, too.

      I also liked your mentions of the Ramona Quimby books and “Fifty Words for Rain”; the latter sounds very compelling, heartbreaking, and inspiring — from seeing your excellent description of it and googling it as well.

      Wow — you have six siblings? That’s a lot! Probably not much that’s sibling-related would surprise you in any novel. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Hmmm, Dave, this one is a little difficult for me. I always relate completely and entirely to one character and never really notice the siblings. I can think of Katy from What Katy Did and her relationships with her 5 siblings, especially little Elsie. I loved this series of books. There was also Scarlet O’Hara and her two insipid sisters from Gone with the Wind. There was Martha, the young maid from The Secret Garden, who has lots of siblings and feels such pity for poor lonely Mary. I don’t like Jane Austen so I will not mention her books although I have read them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie! I hear you about relating mostly to one character. Even novels that strongly feature siblings often make one of those siblings “first among equals” — as with Maggie in “The Mill on the Floss,” Francie in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc. But some exceptions — the brothers in “The Brothers Karamazov” get roughly equal time, though not exactly equal.

      Liked by 2 people

        • Many readers are quite happy to have one main character and one main point of view. That definitely can make a novel easier to read, and often more absorbing! But it’s impressive when some novels juggle several main characters and points of view — as in the aforementioned “The Brothers Karamazov” as well as “Prodigal Summer” (Kingsolver), “As I Lay Dying” (Faulkner), “The Robber Bride” (Atwood), etc.

          Like

  8. What interesting proposals you are presenting us, Dave, and I think it would be “The Praise in Singers”, which I would like to read immediately! I am afraid that I can’t think of any other books about siblings, except some of those, which have already been mentioned such as “A Tree Grows in Brookyn.”

    Liked by 4 people

  9. I love my siblings — three sisters. And they all figure in my latest book (non-fiction): “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Especially my sister whose son was murdered that day. Sigh.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Bill. Nonfiction books can indeed also have a strong sibling element. Glad you have a great relationship with your three sisters, and so sorry that one of them — and your extended family in general — experienced that tragic loss on 9/11. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Inevitably Jane and Elizabeth Bennet popped to mind – but I haven’t read your original post so unsure if this has been mentioned previously. Such a diverse range of characters in one family alone but it always makes me feel glad that Elizabeth never says a bad word against Jane – which slightly softens her character I think.
    I could only really think of characters from children’s fiction – the Baudelaire children in ‘A serious of unfortunate events’ sprang to mind. As did ‘Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland’. However, I can remember the name of her cat (Dinah) but can’t remember if there’s a name for her sister! Which perhaps shows how important the relationship is there! And, of course, the Weasley siblings in the Harry Potter series.
    ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ by Kate Atkinson deals with family relationships and siblings. I read it many years ago so have forgotten a lot of it but I do recall it was excellent.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! For some reason, I didn’t mention “Pride and Prejudice” characters in my original post so I’m glad you mentioned them here! Great characters in a great novel.

      (My 2014 siblings piece appeared on The Huffington Post site, before I started this blog, and I try not to give HP extra traffic because they treated their bloggers, commenters, and readers so badly during that time; hence, no link here. 🙂 )

      I appreciate all the examples you offered of siblings/sibling relationships in children’s and YA fiction — definitely a major element of many of those books. The Weasley family is so memorable!

      Liked by 3 people

      • H Post will no longer be referred to!! So, a bit like Taylor Swift, you’re taking control of your earlier work and repackaging it – excellent idea!

        There were lots of references to books this week that I haven’t heard of – which is only a good thing in one respect as it broadens horizons. I’ve only read a handful of Shirley Jackson’s stories so do need to delve further.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ha, Sarah! 🙂 I like that analogy! 🙂 And I like a number of Taylor Swift’s songs (“Love Story,” “Blank Space,” “You Belong With Me,” “Shake It Off,” etc.).

          Same with me — many novels mentioned this week that I wasn’t familiar with. A very good thing indeed! Various additions to everyone’s too-long to-read lists. 🙂

          Shirley Jackson is such an offbeat writer. Really interesting to read her stories and novels.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Your comment about Alice’s sister’s name in Alice in Wonderland led me to look it up. Here is what Wikipedia says:

      Alice’s older sister, who reads a book without illustrations or dialogues, sits on the bank with Alice at the beginning of the book. Alice falls asleep with her head in her sister’s lap and has the dream about Wonderland. When Alice awakes, she tells her sister about her dream, and the book closes with her sister daydreaming about what Alice will be like as a grown-up.

      Some believe that she is named Lorna after Alice’s real-life sister. Her name was never revealed in Disney’s film, but she was named Mathilda in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr. She is named Aida in the 1995 film. In the 2010 film she is married and her name is Margaret.

      So it seems she is actually nameless and people assign her names at will.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennet. One sister,estranged from her twin, passes as White although is Black. They lead two completely different lives, one running away from her past.

    It’s a page turner,a gripping novel.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine is a really interesting book set in rural England during WW2. Its focus is the relationship between two sisters as observed by their niece (the narrator). It’s one of those “What really happened?” kind of books. I reread it every now and then hoping I can figure out the answer.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Wonderful post Dave. Always think sibling relationships are rich seams to mine for readers and writers–especially the difficult sibling relationship. Equally, you mention Little Women and these relationships are inspiring. East of Eden has two memorable sibling relationships, the one between Adam and his half brother and then, between his sons.

    Liked by 4 people

  14. Dave – you had me from the “siblings” in your title. I will always remember the first time I read “Little Women” written by Louisa May Alcott. I became the 5th sister, tagging along with Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy as they moved from childhood into adulthood. When the family faced their first Christmas without their father, Marmee (the mother) asks the sisters to give their Christmas breakfast away to an impoverished family, I was inspired by their self-sacrifice. And of course, all was made right by Ms. Alcott when Mr. Laurence, their elderly neighbour send over a surprised dinner to make up for their breakfast.

    The most poignant was Beth’s journey. “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

    What I learned from Little Women was that important truths and advocacy could be addressed using a gentle voice. Kindness, compassion, and tolerance are powerful forces for change.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca, for your eloquent take on the four sisters in “Little Women” — very different people but all good people who basically got along. (Well, most of the time. There was a certain burned manuscript… 😦 ) You remember that novel well from your reading of it from the vantage point of being sort of the fifth sister!

      Beth’s journey was indeed poignant — very.

      And I loved the sentiments expressed in your final paragraph!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rebecca, what you have said above about Beth is interesting to me. Certainly Jo was my favourite character and the one I personally identified with the most. She was strong and reliable and the sister I most wanted to be like. Of course, she also liked to write…

      Liked by 2 people

      • My dear Robbie – goosebumps. If you look at another comment I mad, you will see that Jo was the one with whom I felt a kindred spirit. I was so pleased when there was a sequel to Little Women. “Simple, genuine goodness is the best capital to found the business of this life upon. It lasts when fame and money fail, and is the only riches we can take out of this world with us.” Louisa May Alcott, Little Men

        Liked by 2 people

  15. I have a good one for you: October Light by John Gardner. An elderly Vermont brother and sister get into a feud when the sister moves in with her brother and he blasts her color televion with a shotgun. She then goes up in the attic and goes on a hunger strike. The book is a tad scatalogical in places, but if you’re not the squeamish type, you’ll enjoy it.

    Liked by 5 people

  16. Yes, The Mill on the Floss is an excellent example of a bad sibling relationship! Thank you for recommending it to me. There are so many novels which involve this theme, but the two more recent novels which come to mind are Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours. The former is about two sisters separated during the German occupation of France and the latter about a group of siblings separated from their father and basically abducted by an ‘adoption’ agency. Truly heartbreaking and based on real incidents of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Many young adult novels focus on sibling relationships as well.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      Yes, the sister-brother relationship in “The Mill on the Floss” is fraught — with most of the blame on the brother and the patriarchal-ness of society. Glad you liked that truly great novel!

      Both “The Nightingale” and “Before We Were Yours” sound very compelling and sobering.

      So true that a lot of YA novels focus on siblings. Makes sense given that many of those books’ readers are young people still living at home with siblings.

      Liked by 5 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s