Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

Sara Louise Bradshaw, known as Louise, lives with her father, Truitt, a waterman; her mother, Susan, a former school teacher; her paternal grandmother; and her twin sister, Caroline. Louise goes "progging" for crabs with her friend McCall Purnell (Call), follows world events, dreams of romance and glory, and struggles with her jealousy toward her talented, charming sister. The return of Captain Hiram Wallace, an old man who left Rass in humiliation fifty years ago, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing war, and Louise's adolescent questions and desires create conflicts that intensify her envy of Caroline.

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Aside from the man Louise marries, Joseph Wojtkiewicz, and a pipe-smoking, sexist college advisor, all of the important characters in Jacob Have I Loved live on Rass Island. There are really two narrative voices in the book: the older Louise looking back at her troubled past from a vantage point of health and accomplishment, and the adolescent Louise living through the emotional difficulties of her childhood. Since Louise narrates the entire novel, all the characterizations—especially that of her sister Caroline—are subject to her biases. Louise considers Caroline vain, selfish, and overly demanding on the family for financial and emotional support. Caroline is justifiably proud of her abilities and sometimes mimics those with less talent, but she cares for her family and her sister. Sure of the love of those around her, Caroline radiates confidence and happiness.

Louise's love for her father is less ambiguous. Truitt Bradshaw is a quiet, loving, hard-working waterman who still "follows the water" despite a World War I injury that left him "game-legged." He sings to the oysters as he harvests them, and Louise enjoys some of her happiest moments fishing with her father after Caroline has left for school on the mainland and Call has entered the navy.

Susan Bradshaw, intelligent and unassertive, is an enigma to her daughter. Louise cannot understand why Susan married the uneducated Truitt or how she tolerates her quarrelsome, irritating mother-in-law. When Louise finally discusses these questions with her mother, Susan explains that she once dreamed of going to Paris and writing poetry there. Unable to fulfill this fantasy, she decided to teach school on Rass, seeing the isolated island as an ideal writer's haven. Once settled, she fell in love with Truitt and decided to stay on the island. When Louise decides to marry the poor, uneducated Joseph and live in an Appalachian valley similar to Rass in its isolation, she gains a greater understanding of Susan.

Grandmother Bradshaw, in her early sixties during Louise's adolescence, is twisted and spiteful, a parasitic invalid. She wields the Bible and her own bastardized form of Methodism like a weapon against her family. The old woman taunts Louise for loving Captain Wallace and launches vicious attacks on Louise's innocent mother. She hides behind the biblical injunction that children honor and respect parents while attacking those that she ought to love. When Grandma quotes the biblical passage, "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated," Louise believes that God, much like her family and friends, is condemning her without cause. Only when she reveals her pathetic lifelong infatuation with Captain Wallace does Grandmother Bradshaw merit any sympathy; otherwise, the old woman serves primarily as a warning to Louise not to let her life become warped by bitterness. Hiram Wallace fled Rass as a young man after an embarrassing experience. He returns to Rass fifty years later, still handsome but wiser, and serves as a mentor to Caroline, Louise, and Call. He provides money to further Caroline's musical education on the mainland and gives Louise the encouragement she needs to seek a life away from Rass. While Caroline needs his gift, the Captain says that Louise is strong enough to make her own way. Captain Wallace also provides the male role model absent from Call's life, and his friendship gives Call the strength to work for Mr. Bradshaw, enlist in the navy, and succeed in the world beyond the island.

Caroline's difficult birth, her childhood illnesses, and her beauty and talent cause her parents and others who love her to fear for her vulnerability. Louise, denied attention and feeling unloved, hungers for the affection bestowed on her younger twin. The bitterness of assumed rejection, fanned by Grandmother Bradshaw's cruelty, develops into hatred. Louise dreams of killing Caroline, believes that she has lost her parents and grandmother to her sister, and suffers as both Call and the Captain also appear to prefer Caroline. But when Caroline leaves for school on the mainland, Louise benefits from working with her father and receiving the undivided love of both parents. Two conversations are pivotal to Louise's growth and eventual separation from Rass: a discussion with the Captain in which he challenges her to follow her desires, and her mother's statement that she and Truitt would miss Louise more if she left than they would miss Caroline. Reassured of her parents' love, Louise is set free from her anxieties, which are curiously similar to those that once plagued Caroline. Only much later, when working as a midwife when she delivers a set of twins—one of whom suffers from a difficult delivery and ill health—does she fully understand her sister's vulnerability.

In the end, Jacob Have I Loved is about love; Louise discovers the frustrated love behind her grandmother's hatred for Captain Wallace and behind her own hatred for Caroline and Rass Island. Over the course of the book Louise learns that negative feelings often have the power to obscure positive ones and realizes that many of her relationships have reflected her grandmother's influence. During adolescence, for example, she belittles Call, undervaluing her companion's friendship until he gains Caroline's attention and marries her. Only with the Captain's help does Louise finally recognize that she is slipping into behavior that threatens to endanger her relationships with others. Like most of Paterson's works, this novel shows that love provides the freedom to be obligated to others.

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