Study Guide

Jacob Have I Loved Hands

By Katherine Paterson

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It's been said that eyes are the windows to the soul, but Louise begs to differ—it's the hands that can tell you who someone truly is:

My mental project that fall was a study of all the hands of the classroom. It was my current theory that hands were the most revealing part of the human body—far more significant than eyes. For example, if all you were shown of Caroline's body were her hands, you would know at once that she was an artistic person. Her fingers were as long and gracefully shaped as those on the disembodied hands in the Pond's ad. Her nails were filed in a perfect arc, just beyond the tip of her finger. If the nails are too long, you can't take the person seriously, too short, she has problems. Hers were exactly the right length to show that she was naturally gifted and had a strength of will to do something about it.

In contrast I observed that Call's hands were wide with short fingers, the nails bitten well below the quick. They were red and rough to show he worked hard, but not muscled enough to give them any dignity. Reluctantly, I concluded that they were the hands of a good-hearted but second-rate person. After all, Call had always been my best friend, but, I said to myself; one must face facts however unpleasant.

Then there were my hands. But I've already spoken of them. I decided one day in the middle of an algebraic equation to change my luckless life by changing my hands. Using some of my precious crab money, I went to Kellam's and bought a bottle of Jergens lotion, emery boards, orange sticks, cuticle remover, even a bottle of fingernail polish, which though colorless seemed a daring purchase. (12.40-42)

Yup, Louise gets pretty obsessed with hands. She keeps thinking of the Pond's ad featuring a lady with perfect hands who's lovely and engaged. Louise will never be so wonderful, right? She also buys a bottle of lotion to soften her weathered and beaten-up hands. Maybe if she works really hard, she can turn herself into someone who's pretty and admired—someone more like Caroline.

For Louise, hands show who a person truly is. Both she and Caroline use their hands—Caroline for her music and Louise for rounding up crabs and oysters—but Louise only sees beauty and value in Caroline's hands. If she can just change her hands, maybe she can change her life. We're not sure that's going to work, though. Instead, it seems like Louise needs to rethink how she assigns worth to people.

What Louise doesn't realize is that she's using her hands to hold onto negativity. It's not her hands that need a makeover—it's her heart. Louise can't soften her hands because she can't relax her grip on all the bitter and hateful feelings she has inside. She's going need more than some lotion to transform that mess.

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