Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The novel Brothers and Keepers is a memoir by John Edgar Wideman. The book explores the lives of two brothers: Robert and the author, John. The two, in spite of being from the same family and growing up in the same neighborhood, lead extremely different lives. John, the educated and well-to-do brother, tries to watch over his younger brother but can do little to prevent him from getting into trouble. Robert ends up incarcerated for life; however, through discussions with his brother, he begins to turn his life around and earns a college degree from prison.

Nature Versus Nurture

Nature versus nurture is a central debate in the lives of John and Robert. As brothers, John and Robert share the same genetics. They also share much of the same upbringing: living in the same neighborhood, being raised by the same parents, and so on. However, the circumstances in their lives (i.e., their nurture) do eventually diverge, and things spiral out of control, making Robert's life increasingly ill-fated. The actions and circumstances in the brothers' lives show the impact of upbringing and life events on a person's life, but also call into question whether nature can be reduced simply to a person's genetic makeup or whether there are other innate elements that determine a person's course in life.

Brotherly Love

John cares very deeply for his brother, and he endeavors to help Robert throughout his life. Even after Robert goes on the run for the robbery and murder he committed, John shows that he won't give up on his brother no matter what circumstances he faces. Eventually, when Robert is arrested, John visits him frequently in prison to encourage him to learn from his mistakes. His resolution and brotherly love eventually help his brother improve his life drastically.


Through Robert's story, John highlights the possibility of salvation for even those in the direst of circumstances. Robert has had a terrible life and is imprisoned without the possibility of parole for the remainder of his days. However, due to his own efforts and the unconditional love of his brother, he turns his life around and gets a college degree, becoming a positive force and influence on the other inmates.

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