Sibling Rivalry, Classic Literature Edition

Diana has a gripe, and it's a gripe she's had for a long time: why is it always the youngest child who is the special one in
books? (And out of books too, but of course that's another story. So to speak.)
While this must be viewed in context, as the plaintive
cry of the oldest, not just in our family (where grammatically I suppose
she would be the older anyway), but among all the close surrounding
cousins. But even with that, one can't help but notice that, um, it's
pretty much true.
This goes for boys as well as girls, and it's most prevalent in the
really olde-tyme-sorts of fairy tales. And, as goes with the territory,
these younger/ests are not only the heroes/heroines but also the most beautiful. And good.
In fact, it's awfully hard to find a fairy tale in which it's not the youngest who is the center.
weird is that it's that way in more current books as well. Think of the
Wrinkle in Time books, with Charles Wallace being the most special,
even if our hearts belong to Meg. Think of Laura and Mary in Little
House on the Prairie (though I suppose Carrie and Grace were there, but
oh so unimportant; what mattered was that Mary was the older one, and
Laura was her younger sister). Think of Lucy in the Chronicles of
My own extremely un-learned theory is that it must be in reaction to
primogeniture, and as is the way of power everywhere, when one side
gets everything, art tries to shift the balance in the other direction. Is
that the way power works? Or is it physics, every action has an equal
and opposite reaction? Is that even a law of physics? Or am I just making this up?
At any rate, while much of the pain has passed away (along with the reading of fairy tales), this is something that
has caused a fair amount of concern in our household.
As for me, as a middle child, this is something I was entirely blind to
until Diana pointed it out to me. Did any of you get bothered by this?
And do you have any idea why stories are this way?

11 thoughts on “Sibling Rivalry, Classic Literature Edition

  1. I have never thought of this at all. What wonderful insight your girls (both of them) have in literature. I am impressed and a little jealous as well. Now I am sure as I read, I will see this injustice jumping out at me from every turn…Ramona anyone?


  2. You know — I’ve never thought of that, but you’re right! So interesting. I’m the eldest child, and when I really think about it, the eldest is always a bit boring or too good or persnickety or bossy or long-suffering. Hmmmm. I almost wish you hadn’t planted that seed…
    I like your theory about art swinging the other way from primogeniture. It makes me think of even the Bible (Jacob’s sons and the youngest the favorite, Joseph comes to mind).


  3. What a wonderful point. I remember noticing it as a child, but I only noticed it in stories like fairy tales, where I knew the older sibling had received the lion’s share of the inheritance, etc. (I also must have been old enough to know about things like that.) I never followed it through to more modern stories–even Ramona, you’re right. I guess that, like the current theme of “all men are idiots, and it’s hilarious,” creators of stories often try to right the wrongs and end up doing an injustice to both sides.


  4. I never noticed this either and I’ve been racking my brain to come up with something that breaks the trend. I’ve got “Little Women.” Of course, the oldest and the youngest suck and it’s the middle two who are special in LW. Clementine is nice and the oldest is the coolest. That’s all I’ve got, though. What a smart, smart little girl!!


  5. There’s a very nice A.S. Byatt fairy tale in one of her collections that embroiders on this theme, with the oldest child aware that she can’t solve the quest per traditional story structure, and she is thus free to go and find her own future. So she does.
    As a youngest child who was never the center of attention (there are probably 5% as many photographs of me as of my sister in infancy) it just seems natural, however. 🙂


  6. awesome point, marya. a.s. byatt’s new book (aptly titled ‘the children’s book’) is no exception. the eldest is very much aware that she is somehow outside of the magic created by the author (her mother), and pursues a different path. she also happens to be the only character who survives the turmoil intact (mind, body,and spirit).
    i can only think of a few modern books for children where the roles are reversed, but even then there is a caveat. in both the ‘fablehaven’ series and the ‘samuel blink and the forbidden forest’ series, the eldest IS the hero: wiser and more intuitive by far, rescuing the younger child from doom. but the younger child is ALWAYS the catalyst for action. in both cases, there would be no story (and no discovery of magic) without the rash decisions and impulsive actions of the younger brother/sister.
    as an eldest child, can you tell i’m still a little bit confused/annoyed that this is so? diana is definitely not alone in feeling this way. 🙂


  7. One for Diana–I picked up Howl’s Moving Castle last night (by her namesake Diana Wynne Jones) and it speaks to her condition. The heroine, Sophie, is an oldest child, and it begins:
    In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
    (It turns out the youngest child in the book is also annoyed by her prescribed fate–she just wants to get married and have ten children–so she takes steps to avoid it.)


  8. In the Edward Eager books -Seven Day Magic, Magic by the Lake- the siblings take turns. I remember this as being true of E. Nesbit as well. Such a long time ago that I read those though… Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (Four?) take turns also but Julian (oldest) is definitely the leader. I’m a youngest child so I heartily approved the youngest as hero/heroine pattern (Diana’s right- definitely ubiquitous) but found stories where the siblings were all in it together very satisfying and comforting. The Penderwicks (?) too.


  9. The list Davida linked to may have had a clue:
    “In Puss-in-Boots, the main human character is the youngest son of a miller; when the miller dies, his older brothers get any property and wealth left behind, and all he’s left with is the titular cat…”
    Being the youngest is a born condition of adversity, or at least it was for a really long time. Think of all the Austin books where the 2nd son is the “right man.” Why? He isn’t going to inherit and has to make his way in the world purely by merit. You’ve got to inspire those boys somehow.
    For girls, being the youngest often meant you did not come out in society until the oldest were married. And, your fortunes were tied to theirs in that their social circles dictated yours. (Though in Austin, the youngest could drag down the older.)
    In L’Engle though, I disagree. She’s got a huge oldest-love thing going. Not only is Meg the hero of the first two books, Charles Wallace doesn’t come into his own until the 3rd (then supported by Meg). Then, he completely disappears (something about top-secret government work) while Meg goes off and marries Calvin and her oldest, Polly, gets a bunch of adventures. (Calvin is an oldest.)
    And, Laura often remarked that Mary was infinitely more patient and good than she.
    Anyway, I think it’s not that cut and dry. There are tons of books where the oldest is the hero: One of my favorites is Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Patterson, which addresses jealousy toward the younger sibling.
    Full disclosure: I am an oldest.


  10. Sister Magic by Anne Mazer features a younger sister who has magical powers. I believe that my daughter told me that, in the sixth book, the older sister discovers that she, too, has powers — possibly even greater. Unfortunately, the series was canceled by scholastic so we will never know!


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