Study Guide

My Sister's Keeper Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Cain Unable

    The title is a play on the Biblical phrase "Am I my brother's keeper?" uttered by Cain to God, in a sassy way. Yes, that Cain, the one who, you know, killed his brother. More on that in a bit.

    We hear the phrase "Am I my sister's keeper?" (4.6.13) from Jesse, who says it to Julia, much in the same sassy way Cain says it to God. He's basically saying, "I have no freaking clue where she is." We're not suggesting that Julia is a god-like figure, although it is interesting to think about how Anna's fate (and therefore Kate's) lies in Julia's hands, depending on what her recommendation is to the court.

    Anyway, back to the Bible. In this instance, keeper means protector, watcher, or defender. Taking that into considering, who is Kate's keeper? If it's Anna, does this mean that, like Cain, she would be responsible for killing her sibling? But is Kate even the "sister" in question? It could be Anna. Who, if anyone, is in charge of defending her? This gets turned over a few times in the book, and the title is a shout-out to this conundrum.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Crash Into Me

    Everything is looking pretty good in the final chapters of My Sister's Keeper. Anna reveals that Kate doesn't want her kidney and this whole trial was her idea, meaning that it's okay for Anna to keep her kidney and for Kate to die, so that Anna doesn't seem like a villain. Taking this into consideration, the judge grants Anna medical emancipation from her parents and awards power of attorney to Campbell, who feels like he's built a little surrogate family: "I will have Julia, and I will have Anna" (10.6.19). Yay.

    Then… well, the unthinkable happens (especially if you're seen the movie, which has a different ending): Anna and Campbell get in a car accident right after the trial, and Anna is killed. Since Campbell has power of attorney over Anna, he tells them to donate her kidney to Kate. Anna dies, Kate lives, and nothing is as it was intended to be.

    Later, in the epilogue, Julia and Campbell get married, Jesse becomes a cop, and Brian and Sara feel guilty for pretty much neglecting Anna for thirteen years (as well they should). So, in short, it's a happy-ish ending that's decidedly unhappy when it comes to Anna.

    Did you see that car crash coming? (If Campbell did, Anna might still be alive…) Do you think the ending is about how random things can change, or end, our lives forever? When you think about it, a car accident isn't any more or less random than Kate's leukemia, right? Judge DeSalvo is done, Shmoopers, so you be the judge.

  • Setting

    Upper Darby, RI

    Upper Darby is a fictional Rhode Island town near Providence. Neither Rhode Island nor Upper Darby are really integral to the story—honestly, My Sister's Keeper could have been set in any predominantly white suburban town—but there is a slightly deeper meaning to the choice of Upper Darby as the site of this legal brouhaha.

    We're told that "There's a Little Compton, but no Big Compton. There's an Upper Darby but no Lower Darby. There are all sorts of places defined in terms of something else that doesn't exist" (5.1.115). (There actually is a Little Compton that isn't a figment of Jodi's imagination—just sayin'.) So the name is important, if not so much the city itself. It's a city without its counterpart… just like Anna fears she's going to be (without her sister, not a suburb), and like the person Kate eventually becomes.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.
    – Carl von Clausewitz, Von Kriege


    Brother, I am fire
    Surging under ocean floor.
    I shall never meet you, brother—
    Not for years, anyhow;
    Maybe thousands of years, brother.
    Then I will warm you,
    Hold you close, wrap you in circles,
    Use you and change you—
    Maybe thousands of years, brother.
    Carl Sandburg, "Kin"


    My candle burns at both ends;
    It will not last the night;
    But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
    It gives a lovely light!
    – Edna St. Vincent Millay, "First Fig," A Few Figs from Thistles


    I will read ashes for you, if you ask me.
    I will look in the fire and tell you from the gray lashes
    And out of the red and black tongues and stripes,
    I will tell how fire comes
    And how fire runs as far as the sea.
    – Carl Sandburg, "Fire Pages"


    You, if you were sensible,
    When I tell you the stars flash signals, each one dreadful,
    You would not turn and answer me
    "The night is wonderful."
    D.H. Lawrence, "Under the Oak"


    Doubt thou that the stars are fire;
    Doubt thou that the sun doth move;
    Doubt truth to be a liar;
    But never doubt that I love.
    William Shakespeare, Hamlet

    The Weekend:

    There is no fire without some smoke.
    – John Heywood, Proverbes


    How great a matter a little fire kindleth!
    The New Testament, James 3:5


    A little fire is quickly trodden out;
    Which, being suffered, rivers can not quench.
    – William Shakespeare, King Henry VI

    Yet form those flames
    No light, but rather darkness visible.
    John Milton, Paradise Lost

    One fire burns out another's burning,
    One pain is lessen'd by another's anguish.
    – William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


    When along the pavement,
    Palpitating flames of life,
    People flicker round me,
    I forget my bereavement,
    The gap in the great constellation,
    The place where a star used to be.
    – D.H. Lawrence, "Submergence"

    This book is not epigraphically challenged in the least. Every section begins with some sort of literary quote, usually involving fire or stars, two of the book's main symbols (so be sure to swing by the "Symbols" section). The first one (the epigraphiest of all the epigraphs) is the only one that doesn't have to do with flames or deep space, and it perhaps sums up the book the best. What Anna does from the very beginning starts a war—with her own family.

    However, we don't think Anna does a good job following that quote. She has no idea what she intends to achieve, or how to go about it. After hiring an attorney, she constantly waffles back and forth on whether or not she wants to go through with the lawsuit or not, because she's not sure if she's ready to face the consequences.

    The rest of the epigraphs, as we said, deal with our major symbols, so definitely check out their pages in the "Symbols" section. We do wonder why the epigraphs seem to get shorter and shorter. Is this because the family problems start to get tied up the farther we get into the book, or did Picoult just get tired typing them? We'll let you mull that one over.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Picoult didn't get to the top of the best-seller lists so many times by writing dense narratives like William Faulkner or using purposefully obtuse language like James Joyce. Nope, she got there because her books are pretty freaking digestible.

    All of Picoult's narrators use easy accessible language, and the hardest things to pronounce (besides Picoult's name, which is pronounced pee-koh not puh-colt, okay?) are all the different cancer-related medical terms, but no one can pronounce those anyway. Plus, it's a cinch keeping track of all the different narrators, because each one is labeled and uses a different font.

    Just because it's imminently readable, however, doesn't make this book an easy emotional ride. You'll definitely want to wash your hankies and pack some travel tissues before you get started—you know, just in case. This is a four on the tough-o-meter, but a ten on the "no, I'm not crying; there's something in my eye, I swear"-O-Meter.

  • Space

    The Space Between

    The Fitzgeralds are a family that has had their eye on the sky for a long time. Anna is named after Andromeda, the galaxy (and, kind of, the myth), and both Anna and Brian spend a lot of time stargazing from the roof of the fire station. Spoiler alert: While everyone's worrying about whether Kate will die, the sky—and the connections that get made to Anna—are pretty much foreshadowing that she's actually the one who'll bite in the end. Anna's the one destined for the great beyond, not her sister.

    Space analogies are worked into the story often. Early on, we're treated to a definition of black holes, which are described as "so heavy they absorb everything, even light, right into their center" (1.1.29), which is a way we'd describe the Fitzgerald family—a family so dark and dysfunctional, we'd be afraid to visit because we might not ever be able to leave their screwed-up little universe. And you know whose light they're really sucking up? Anna's. After all, they only created her as an antidote to Kate's troubles—girl's never been seen for her own worth.

    Another notable incident occurs when Brian and Anna bond while watching the Perseids meteor shower. Anna wonders if meteor showers happen every night, and this is just the first one she's seen: "Do all the wonderful things happen when we are not aware of them?" (4.7.83), she asks. What she's talking about here is how the world keeps spinning, even when she's asleep. And it will still go on after Kate is dead, too—or, you know, after Anna's dead, as the case winds up being.

    To explain her life to herself, Anna creates her own mythology. It's a story in which the moon starves itself and pokes holes in the sky, creating the stars. The sun gets jealous of the stars and tries to take them. Some of them go to the sun's side of the planet, but they can't be seen (Anna's invisibility complex is shining through), so the moon carves "blocks of sorrow" (6.2.87) into people—which is another good way to describe the Fitzgerald family: "blocks of sorrow" who are largely invisible because Sara and Kate shine so brightly.

    Space, then, is a symbol for Anna and the bummer that is her life.

  • Fire

    Burning Bright

    In case you missed all the epigraphs throughout the novel, fire plays a huge thematic part of this story. Brian (a.k.a. Papa Fitzgerald) is a firefighter and his son, Jesse, is an arsonist. So they're both talking about fire from two different angles: starting them and putting them out.

    The first part of the novel gives us a few revealing fire-related quotes like, "a fire will burn itself out, unless you open a window and give it fuel" (1.1.51), and "a fire can't burn forever. Eventually, it consumes itself" (1.4.7). By the time we get to Part 7, Jesse might as well be a fire—he's burning out of control, and one arson spree even almost kills a homeless person. So it's up to Brian to put out this fire that is his own son before Jesse consumes himself.

    When Brian discovers that Jesse is the arsonist, he says, "I do what I know will destroy him: I pull Jesse into my arms as he sobs" (7.5.42). In other words, Brian smothers Jesse's fire as though Brian is the blanket squeezing all the oxygen out.

    And it works. After that, Jesse reforms and Brian joins the police academy. Instead of committing crimes, he can now solve them. And importantly, he's on the same side as his dad now, so the tension from earlier in the book—the fire starter/fire fighter dynamic—is resolved.

  • Miracles

    We Believe in Miracles

    A few times throughout the book, Brian and Sara talk about miracles. As a paramedic, Brian once retrieved a man who had been frozen solid outside in the snow, only to completely thaw out and reawaken, prompting Brian to observe that "miracles happen" (4.1.51). Sure sounds like he saw one with his own eyes.

    Later, Kate wins a goldfish at a carnival, which Sara ends up knocking out of the bowl and almost killing. She manages to fish him out (ha) from under the stove and put him back in the water, but he doesn't move. Just as Kate walks in, "At that moment the goldfish shudders sideways, dives, and starts to swim again. 'There,' I say. 'He's fine'" (4.3.88). Phew.

    As if this incident weren't traumatizing enough for the poor fish, though, Sara almost kills it again when she changes its water with tap water. But it lives, again, and Sara looks at Kate and "wonder[s] if I have used up my miracle" (4.3.160). Sara thinks that miracles are finite, and she kind of blames herself for Kate's illness, as though by taking all the good in her life for granted she somehow gave Kate cancer. And Kate's situation is so desperate, it's no wonder that her parents hope for a miracle to step in where science has not.

    But if a miracle is something unexpected that happens that saves a life, could Anna's death be seen as a morbid miracle? It ends up delivering that kidney that keeps Kate going, after all, and so while it's gruesome, it's still kind of miraculous.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First-Person, Seven Different Narrators

    Threads of Fate

    My Sister's Keeper has seven different narrators: Anna, Campbell, Sara, Brian, Jesse, Julia, and in the epilogue, Kate. Setting them apart is the fact that each of their chapters is narrated in its own font.

    The reason Picoult does this is because every story has an infinite number of sides, and while our narrators might not be honest with each other (Campbell's consistent lies to Julie come to mind) we think they're being honest with us, and in hearing from each of them, we get a more complete picture of what happens.

    Picoult likens this narrative style to using a bunch of different threads woven together. Like Julia's purse, for example, which has a really pretty pattern on it. Julia says, "It takes twenty spools of thread to make this pattern." And Anna responds, "Truth's like that." When Anna finally confesses that Kate wants to die, she picks at a thread on her skirt and says, "Just maybe I will unravel the whole thing" (9.5.22). No, she's not planning on flashing the court to get a mistrial, she's unraveling the truth—as much as one person can, anyway.

    So, the truth is like a bunch of different threads, and each of these narrators has one. Only be weaving them all together can we get the whole story. Remove one, and the whole thing falls apart.

      • Allusions

        Literary and Philosophical References

        Historical References

        Pop Culture References

        • Girl Scout Cookies (1.1.83)
        • Gloria Allred (2.2.8)
        • Florence Griffith-Joyner (3.1.40)
        • J. Geils Band (3.1.47)
        • Jackie Onassis (3.2.2)
        • "Amazing Grace" (3.2.3)
        • Bonnie and Clyde (3.3.3)
        • Uncle Tupelo (3.4.5)
        • Guinness Book of World Records (3.7.44; 6.2.72)
        • The Today Show (3.7.48)
        • Cary Grant (4.2.36)
        • Superman (4.2.86, 4.2.136)
        • Wonder Woman (4.2.86)
        • Dawson's Creek (4.2.86)
        • Peanuts/Charlie Brown (4.2.86)
        • Don MacLean, "American Pie" (4.2.116)
        • Ozzie and Harriet (4.2.163)
        • The Osbournes (4.2.163)
        • Oprah (4.3.122, 4.3.125)
        • Jerry Springer (4.3.137)
        • Tony Robbins (4.4.1)
        • Spider-Man (4.4.29)
        • Martha Stewart (4.6.23)
        • Cinderella (5.1.176)
        • Robin Leach, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (5.3.74)
        • Hillary Clinton (5.2.79)
        • Happy Days (6.2.6)
        • The Way We Were (6.6.2)
        • Pretty Woman (6.6.2)
        • Ghost (6.6.2)
        • Dirty Dancing (6.6.2)
        • Barbra Streisand (6.6.4)
        • Peter Jennings (6.6.56)
        • Tom Brokaw (6.6.56)
        • Candid Camera (7.3.129)
        • The Wizard of Oz (9.8.1)
        • Pro Wrestling (9.8.2)
        • The Crocodile Hunter (9.8.2)
        • Celebrity Boxing (9.8.5)
        • The Brady Bunch (9.8.6)
        • Alf (9.8.22)
        • Mr. Ed (9.8.22)
        • Aretha Franklin (10.7.19)
        • I Love Lucy (Epilogue.5)