The following Literary Analysis Portion of the Research Project was submitted by Jeffrey Maramba, for fulfillment of partial requirements in the course taught by Professor Patten, English 112A, in May 1995 at San Jose State University.
Hands, Crabs, and the Island: Louise’s Changing Self-Image in Jacob Have I Loved
Sara Louise Bradshaw’s changing perception of herself and her role in the world is at the center of Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. Throughout the book, Louise searches for a role that will satisfy her needs. However, she faces many conflicts and problems in this search. Many people try to impose upon her their own perceptions of who she should be. In the end, it is Louise who must make the choice that will determine her role in life. Interestingly, the choice Louise faces in the book is not immediately one of action but one of perception. Throughout the book, she struggles with the idea of choosing how to perceive everything she sees around her. This question of perception applies not only to the people around her but also to the non-human things. Her hands, the crabs, the island-all these things change in meaning as Louise develops herself-image. By understanding the idea of choice and further developing her view of the things around her, Louise is finally able to complete her difficult but ultimately rewarding search for a role in life.
One of the problems Louise faces in her search is her jealousy of her twin sister, Caroline. Louise so envies her sister that she is blinded to her own good qualities and the appreciation other shave for those qualities; she chooses only to see what Caroline has taken from her. She blames Caroline for taking the love and attention of all the people around her: "From the momentCaroline was born, she snatched [everyone’s attention] all for herself’ (18). Her parents, forinstance, have been so preoccupied with Caroline’s delicate health since birth that they do not remember where Louise was in the first moments of her life. Because she is healthy and has not caused her parents any worry, Louise fears that this lack of worry is equivalent to lack of love and caring. Paterson uses the image of the two sisters’ hands as symbols of their differences. Louisesees Caroline’s hands as a reflection of her perfection: "Her fingers were as long and gracefully shaped as those on the disembodied hands in the Pondg ad … exactly the right length to show that she was naturally gifted" (147). Caroline’s hands play an important role in the story. They symbolize her musical talent–they allow her to play beautifully on the piano. They also symbolize a kind of beauty. Louise is jealous of this beauty, but she also reveals an awareness of the limits ofthis kind of beauty. The comparison of Caroline’s hands to those on the Ponds ad shows that this kind of beauty is easily exploited for commercial purposes. It is used for purpose of selling products.
In the description of Caroline’s hands, Paterson uses words that have negative connotations. The use of the word "disembodied" exposes the flaws of Caroline’s kind of beauty. To disembody means to separate the spirit or soul from the body. The kind of beauty Caroline possesses is only physical; it is separate from her inner spirit. Despite Caroline’s talent and beauty, she is unable to connect with her parents and the island as Louise does. Caroline, for the most part remains shallow and self-interested. The phrase "exactly the right length" also has negative connotations. It suggests that Caroline’s hands, and consequently, her beauty, is calculated–these things are measured for accuracy. The phrase also calls attention to the fact that Caroline has been cared for and protected all her life. In contrast to Louise, Caroline has been brought up to conform to expectations. She needs constant display of approval. She is also dependent on others. It is up to Louise, her parents, and Captain Wallace to give her the means to develop her voice and go to the mainland.
Louise’s hands, however, receive notice because they are often dirty and rough. Louisedoes not fit into the kind of perfection and beauty to which Caroline belongs. The condition of her hands reflects her hardworking and generous nature–they "stubbornly refused to be softened"(196). Ironically, the profits of her hard work are what allow Caroline to get her voice lessons in the mainland. Paterson exposes a polarity here between the two sisters and their hands. Caroline’s hands may be perfect and beautiful, but she has not done anything for anyone other than herself. Her only concern is for the advancement of her own talents. Louise, on the other hand, has rough and dirty hands, but this condition is a direct result of her hard work and generosity. Louise finds satisfaction in doing something for other people, whether earning money to send Caroline to themainland or helping rebuild Captain Wallace’s storm-beaten house.
But at this point Louise stiff does not understand that beauty is a matter of choice and perception. She stiff has "delusions of beauty and romance" (5). The commercial concept ofbeauty that the media and society impose upon her blinds her to her true inner beauty. Louise is sensitive about her looks: "Once my father referred tome teasingly as ‘Old Scarface’ and looked perfectly bewildered when I burst into tears" (20). Louise’s parents accept the different kinds ofbeauty that their daughters possess.
It is Louise’s parents who allow her to perceive the beauty that lies within her. Her father shares with her the beauty of the water and their life around it. Alone with Louise on their boat, her father could expressively sing to the oysters–he knows that she understands. Her mother also opens Louise’s eyes to a new perception of beauty in a subtle way. She tells Louise that when she leaves the island, she will miss her more. This reveals a lot to Louise. While Caroline’s sufface beauty is appealing, Louise’s inner beauty–her ability to work and to connect with her parents and the island–is felt more deeply. As Louise says, "That one word [more] allowed me at last … tobuild myself as a soul, separate from the long, long shadow of my twin" (228).
Another image Paterson uses to show Louise’s changing perception of herself is that of the crabs. Aside from thinking of them as food and as a means of profit, Louise closely identifies with the crabs, especially the females:
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. rd 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. (184)
To shed means to lose some part by a natural process. The shedding of the crabs is clearly a metaphor for Louise’s own growth and development. Because she must lose her identity as a child and must grow a new one as an adult, it is as long and painful for her as the crabs. Her sympathy for the she-crabs and her identification with them reveal her inner perception of being a woman.
Louise sees her being a woman as a limitation. It prevents her from helping her father, who "needed a son and I would have given anything to be that son, but on Rass in those days, men’s work and women’s work were sharply divided, and a waterman’s boat was not the place for a girl" (21). More importantly, society’s perception of what women should be prevents her from doing something she passionately desires–being a waterman. Her sister and grandmother frown on her love of the sea and her love of the life surrounding it. Caroline complains that Louise smells and looks dirty. Her grandmother abhors the water because it is a wild and untamed place, a place unfit for women.
Louise cannot stand the future she sees for herself as a woman on the island. Just as "there was nothing left" for the she-crabs when they mature, Louise sees her future life on the island as "a lifetime of passive waiting … for the boats … the crabs … the children," and finally death (43-44). For Louise, this kind of life is empty and immensely unsatisfying and she often prays to become a boy. It seem unfair to Louise that her father would take her friend Call to help him on the boat big not her.
But Louise realizes that she does not have to conform to what society thinks or says.When Call leaves for the navy, Louise takes over his responsibilities on her fathees boat. Disregarding Caroline, her grandmother, and society, Louise goes out with her father and helps him with the crabbing and the oyster tonging. Working in the water provides Louise with a sense of purpose and belonging–"I was, for the first time in my life, deeply content with what life was giving me" (187). Unlike the she-crabs whose fives are purposeless after they shed and lay their eggs, Louise finds that she is capable of making choices and determining the course of her own life. Despite the problems and impositions that society places upon her because she is a woman, she can choose her own role in life.
Louise’s realization that she has choices prompts her to change her view of her life. She no longer perceives her being a woman as a limitation or as being like a she-crab; she begins to see itas an aspect of herself that has many possibilities. She realizes that she does not have to dependon anyone to determine her life for her. She does not even have to remain on the island. She decides to become a doctor.
If problems faced Louise when she wanted to help her father in the water, even more problems face her when she decides to become a doctor. Her advisor discourages her from being a doctor, saying that "the chances of a girt even a bright girl like you getting into medical school were practically nonexistent" (23 1). He tells her to dream of becoming a nurse instead. The old Louise probably would have seen this advice as another limitation of being a woman. But the new Louise is no longer a she-crab content to "just get soft and die." She is not a crab but a crabber: "For a few days I was desolate, but then I decided that if you can!t catch crabs where you are, youmove your pots" (23 1). Louise does not give up her dream; instead, she just decides to pursue it in her own way. She becomes a nurse-midwife in a small Appalachian village where doctors were scarce. Since the village of Truitt is "completely surrounded by mountains" and "the nearest hospital a two-hour drive over terrible roads," Louise functions more than just as a nurse-midwife. She not only delivers babies, but she also provides medical care for all the adults and children, even the animals. Despite the obstacles that society places in her path (represented by the advisorand his warning), Louise’s new perception of her role as a woman impels her to pursue her dream in another way.
The theme of choice and perception that runs throughout the novel is perfectly captured in the short speech Louise’s mother gives near the end of the novel: I chose the island," she said. I chose to leave my own people and build a life for myself somewhere else. I certainly wouldn’t deny you that same choice." (227) Louise’s mother has made her choice in life, and she makes it clear to Louise that she too must make a choice. This speech also touches upon one of the recurring symbols in the story-the island. As Louise develops her understanding of choice in life, her -view of the island also changes.
Initially, Louise’s failure to grasp the idea of choice drives her to isolation. Just as the island is surrounded by water and is separated from the mainland, Louise feels isolated from all the people around her. The chief cause of her isolation is, as discussed before, her jealousy of her twin sister Caroline. When her adolescent insecurities surface, Louise focuses her jealousy and hate on the beautiful delicate, talented Caroline.
The jealousy and hate that Louise harbors against her sister are the products of limited perception; her inability to realize that she has choices blinds her to reality. She does not realize that the attention other people give to Caroline does not diminish their love for her. As Louiseworks with her father on his boat, she realizes how important the water surrounding the island. Correspondingly, Louise realizes that she has the choice of looking at things differently. Paterson delineates the two polarized ways of perceiving the island. Instead of seeing the island as a symbol of her isolation from other people, Louise could look at the island as a piece of land surrounded bywaters that enrich it and give it life. It provides the islanders not only with food but with their livehhood–oysters, crab, and other shellfish.
Just as Louise realizes that the water does not merely exist to isolate the island, she also realizes that she can choose to see the high regard in which other people hold her. Her parents admire her generosity in contributing her crabbing earnings for Caroline’s music lessons.Furthertnore, she shares with each of her parents a closeness that Caroline does not. With hermother, she shares the spirit to "leave … and build a Iffe … somewhere else" (227). With herfather, she shares a love of the water and the silent contentment of working in it. Although Captain Wallace gives Caroline the money to go to music school, it is only because he has greater belief in Louise: "Don’t tell me no one ever gave you a chance. You doift need anything given to you. You can make your own chances" (217). While Call marries Caroline, he shares with Louise countless experiences that can never be taken away.