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The novel begins in the late 1930s on Rass Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where thirteen-year-old Louise lives in the town of Rass. As the novel follows Louise into young adulthood, the setting shifts from Rass to the University of Maryland, where Louise briefly attends school, to Truitt, an Appalachian town in West Virginia, where Louise practices midwifery and meets her future husband. The novel spans more than a decade, moving from the pre-World War II era into the 1950s.

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Paterson establishes the significance of her Chesapeake Bay setting by opening the book with a preface entitled "Rass Island," a first-person narrative in which Louise evocatively describes the island. Because Paterson's plot develops out of a nostalgic rendering of Louise's adolescence in Rass, the author uses the preface to illustrate her protagonist's attachment to the village that has been home to the Bradshaw family for two hundred years. The image of a young Louise squishing her toes in the salty mud and watching for the return of her father's boat links the book's protagonist to its setting and symbolizes Louise's deep roots in her community.

Literary Qualities

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The first-person narration of Jacob Have I Loved determines many of the book's literary devices. Literary allusions are confined to books Louise has read, and the symbols in the novel derive from Louise's perceptions. Since a strict Methodism pervades Rass, it is not surprising that the Bible provides the chief source of allusion and symbolism. Grandmother Bradshaw, a religious hypocrite, incites Louise's jealousy by citing Romans 9:13, "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." Louise cites Proverbs 25:24, "It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house with a contentious woman," to combat her grandmother's persecution of Susan. The value that Truitt and Susan place on good conduct, generosity, and love adheres more faithfully to the spirit of the Bible than Louise and Grandma Bradshaw's use of the book to control or irritate others. Like her grandmother, Louise often blames failings or fears on fate and views the absence of love as a pattern of divine condemnation.

As Rass Island erodes into the sea, Louise feels herself retreating from others. Cut off from outside sources of communication, the island itself becomes a symbol of Louise's spiritual limitations. Even the crabs—peeling their shells, mating, and dying—become symbols of the way Louise thinks about herself:

Shedding its shell is a long and painful business for a big Jimmy, but for a she-crab, turning into a sook, it seemed somehow worse. I'd watch them there in the float, knowing once they shed that last time and turned into grown-up lady crabs there was nothing left for them.... Males, I thought, always have a chance to live no matter how short their lives, but females, ordinary, ungifted ones, just get soft and die.

Louise's psychological projection upon the natural world typifies the novel's symbolism. The symbols reveal Louise's thought processes. Later, when Louise moves to a valley in the Appalachian Mountains and examines her neighbors' ties to the natural environment, she begins to understand her own symbiotic relationship with Rass Island.

The symbols, allusions, and narrative point of view combine to make Jacob Have I Loved a strong psychological novel. Although Louise feels rejected, defeated, and depressed throughout much of the book, she ultimately escapes a trap that is largely a projection of her own mind. Louise longs for love but must first convince herself that she is worthy of love.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

There is little in Jacob Have I Loved to cause concern among parents and teachers or serious discontent among readers, but the book does explore potentially controversial issues—among them Louise's sexual attraction to Captain Wallace, Grandma Bradshaw's spiteful, self-righteous use of religion, and the limitations placed on Louise by a sexist educational system and by her marriage to an uneducated man.

Louise's attraction to Captain Wallace, which arises out of compassion, is not explicitly sexual, and the competition between Louise and her grandmother for the Captain's affection is sad rather than arousing. Curiously, Louise is most attracted to the Captain's hands; she considers them beautiful and thinks that the work she does makes her own hands ugly.

The secular virtue of the card-playing Captain and the natural goodness of Louise's parents make these characters more attractive than Grandma Bradshaw, a religious hypocrite, but the plot of Jacob Have I Loved affirms the basic tenets of religious belief as well by showing the power of love and faith over hatred and doubt.

Paterson's portrait of Louise has disturbed some readers who feel that, in deciding to become a midwife rather than a doctor, Louise compromises her ambitions. Most people, however, will find Jacob Have I Loved a beautiful and psychologically penetrating book. Paterson offers a wise treatment of envy, hatred, and love in a novel that both entertains and educates its readers.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

Bell, Anthea. "A Case of Commitment." Signal 38 (May 1982): 73-81. An excellent critical overview of Paterson's work, emphasizing the influence of her religious beliefs.

Goforth, Caroline R. "The Role of the Island in Jacob Have I Loved." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9 (Winter 1984-1985): 176- 178. Examines Louise's symbolic relationship with Rass Island, and shows the island to be a refuge, limitation, and source of danger.

Haskell, Ann. "Talk with a Winner." New York Times Book Review (April 26, 1981): 52, 67. This short biographical portrait of Paterson includes critical commentary on Jacob Have I Loved.

Huse, Nancy. "Katherine Paterson's Ultimate Realism." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 9 (Fall 1984): 99-101. Huse shows how Paterson's novels "combine the accuracy and literal truthfulness expected of realism with another kind of power usually associated with ethics and religion."

Jones, Linda T. "Profile: Katherine Paterson." Language Arts 58 (February 1981): 189-196. A revealing interview with Paterson that contains observations on her narrative style and ethical aims in writing fiction.

Namovicz, Gene Inyart. "Katherine Paterson." Horn Book 57 (August 1981): 394-399. Namovicz, a writer and friend of Paterson, examines the relation between life and art in this biographical portrait.

Paterson, Katherine. Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Elsevier/Nelson Books, 1981. Contains critical essays on aspects of writing for children, autobiographical essays, and the Jacob Have I Loved Newbery Medal acceptance speech. In 1988 Paterson followed Gates of Excellence with a related volume, The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children.

"Sounds in the Heart." Horn Book 57 (December 1981): 694-701. A revealing self-portrait.

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