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Patrick deWitt’s novel, The Sisters Brothers, tells the tale of two brothers, Eli and Charlie, who make a living together as professional assassins. Right from the start, it is evident to the reader that Eli does not share his brother’s appetite for killing. Despite this, Eli has never known anything else. As the novel progresses, Eli becomes familiar with his sensitive side. He starts watching his weight, searching for love, and brushing his teeth. Finally, Eli solidifies his separation from murder, when he is searching for gold with Herman Kermit Warm.
This is the first time he has been exposed to something created and acquired solely by the genius of the human mind, and not by brute force. Over the course of the novel, Eli transforms from being a cold blooded murderer, into a sensitive man, who appreciates the small, intelligent things in life. However, a sensitive man is not the impression the reader first receives of Eli Sisters.
In fact, Eli and his brother, Charlie, are murderers for a living. As a result, it is logically hard to imagine how a man who makes a living by ruthlessly taking the lives of other men, can be sensitive.
Nevertheless, this is what makes Eli’s personality special, and different. Dewitt makes this clear to the reader by including many hints to Eli’s repressed sensitive personality, right from the start. The first hint to this side of Eli, is on the second page of the novel. In it, Eli empathizes with his horse Tub, who he does not like to whip because his horse may think that he is cruel and that life is sad.
This is not how one would expect a murderer to act. Other hints to Eli’s sensitivity include his dislike for lying, his sympathy towards others who are sad, and the list goes on.
All these small traits eventually climax, when Eli and his brother discover that the man they were sent to kill, is not actually a bad person. His brother, Charlie, has no problem with this, nonetheless Eli does not understand how he can be so indifferent. “I have never minded cutting down the Commodore’s enemies much, brother. It always happens that they are repellent in one way or the other. Lesser villains, men without mercy or grace. But I do not like the idea of killing a man because of his own ingenuity”(Dewitt 72).
Eli never minded killing evil, ruel people, but killing an innocent man because of his intelligence does not sit right with him. This is what separates Eli from the stereotypical hit-man, and this marks the beginning of his journey to leave his life of murder behind, and find who he really is inside. The person Eli is inside needs to be uncovered, and to do this, Eli begins to develop and uncover certain aspects of his life and personality that he never payed attention to before. The first, small, but symbolic step that Eli takes, is to begin taking care of his appearance.
As a hit-man, he never gave much consideration to this. To start, he buys himself a toothbrush and toothpaste, despite Charlie’s incessant mocking of this. It may not seem like much, but in the 1850’s the concept of a person brushing his or her teeth was very new, and it was done only by the most civilized people. Then, Eli goes on a diet. By Eli doing this, it gave him just the slightest separation from his filthy line of work, and it allowed him to continue with his journey. The next step Eli takes towards uncovering his sensitive self, is try to find love.
Having zero experience, Eli finds this very difficult. He makes feeble attempts to connect with whores and shopkeepers, he even gives them money, but he knows that all of that human closeness is pantomime. After one of these failed attempts, Eli remarks: “I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved”(Dewitt 246)? All he wants is to find love, and even though has not found it yet, the fact that he yearns for it it shows tremendous development of his character.
After taking these steps, Eli is now much closer to uncovering the sensitive man he is inside. Although Eli is much closer to becoming his true self after taking these steps, he only solidifies his separation from murder when he is digging for gold with Herman Kermit Warm. Using chemistry, Herman had developed a solution that when mixed into a body of water, illuminates and reveals all the gold that is resting at the bottom of the water. While digging up the gold, Eli feels something amazing that he never felt before. This feeling is known as self-satisfaction.
Describing the feeling, Eli says: “This feeling, speaking personally, was brought on not only by the wealth our ever-growing piles of gold represented, but also from the thought that this experience was born of one man’s unique mind, and though I had never before pondered the notion of humanity, or whether I was happy or unhappy to be human, I now felt a sense of pride at the human mind, its curiosity and perseverance”(Dewitt 359). Until now, Eli was used to achieving things in life by using violence and force. In his mind, the stronger, more powerful person was always the happier and more successful person.
However, this experience he has with Warm proves his previous views wrong, opens his eyes, and gives him a new, positive outlook on life that he wants to apply to his own life. He learns that just like they found gold inside the dirt at the bottom of the water, so too in life something good can come out of anything. With this, Eli completes his journey of separation from murder. Eli Sisters’s separation from murder is one that includes a test of his morals, a search for meaning, and a realization that changed him forever. All his life, killing and blood was all Eli knew.
Nevertheless, that all changed over the course of the novel. Sparking this change, is when Eli and his brother are sent to kill an innocent man, which in turn makes Eli question his values. Following that, Eli makes small changes to his lifestyle that greatly influence him. But what really makes Eli change his lifestyle, is when he sees the greatness the human mind can achieve on its own. The two brothers Eli and Charlie may have started out as similar people, but by the end of the novel, their personalties are not even comparable.
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