The Elder Sister
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When people are the youngest child, they may hold disdain for their eldest siblings because they experience life first and are noticed more for what occurs in their life. Because the eldest child goes head-first into life, they are the ones who receive the most reactions and effects. Sharon Olds communicates this theme in the poem “The Elder Sister.” The speaker of the poem is the younger sibling sharing her feelings and thoughts toward her elder sister. She feels jealousy toward her, but also views her as the protector.
Figure of speech, rhyme, and irony is used to show how the elder sister is the first to bloom and receive a greater reaction than her younger sister. The figure of speech, simile, is used when the speaker is comparing the growth of hers and her sister’s body. The speaker says, “I look at her / body and think how her breasts were the first to / rise, slowly, like swans on a pond” (11-13). The simile in this quote is the elder sister’s breast being compared to swans. The speaker is explaining her sister’s transformation from childhood to womanhood as beautiful, because swans are symbolic for beauty and transformation. However, she continues to say, “By the time mine came along, they were just / two more birds on the flock,” (14-15) revealing that the growth of her own breasts is not as special to, most likely, her parents, since they already witnessed her elder sister’s growth first and know what to expect.
The poem’s rhyme scheme helps demonstrate this theme. In line 14, the speaker mentions entering puberty and uses the words “time” and “mine” as near rhymes, which suggest that her breasts forming isn’t exactly astonishing, but the exact rhyme words “mound” and “ground” in lines 16-17 are perfect, matching sounds, which represents the elder sister’s exciting transformation. Line 13 includes some internal rhymes, such as the alliteration of the “s” in “slowly” and “swans,” and the consonance of the letter “n” inside them, both emphasizing the whole line and creating a euphony that makes the slow growth of the sister’s breasts seem pleasant and interesting.
It is likely that the parents are slowly adjusting to their first daughter’s growth, which may cause fear, for they don’t know what to do, but at the same time it is a wonderful learning experience, so by the time the youngest daughter enters puberty, they will know how to handle it. When communicating the theme, irony is also used. There is situational irony when the speaker expects to receive the same response her parents had toward her elder sister, but is disappointed that not much notice is taken toward her entrance into womanhood—thus, revealing that an elder child receives a greater reaction when they experience life first.
Figure of speech, irony, and rhyme scheme also conveys the theme of how the effects of being the older sibling is greater. The speaker speaks of her sister as her protector. “I look at her wrinkles, her clenched / jaws, her frown-lines—I see they are / the dents on my shield,” (23-25) which serves as a metaphor for the physical toll placed on her sister for being the protector, for she is the role model and is given a greater responsibility. To add to this, the word “blows” mentioned in the quote, “the blows that did not reach me,” (25) symbolizes the consequences that the speaker did not go through, because she learned from her sister’s actions.
Although the speaker refers to her sister as the protector, she doesn’t literally mean in it in the sense that she is being shielded purposely. In fact, the quote “she protected me” (26) shows verbal irony, because the speaker knows that her sister is not intentionally protecting her; she is merely used as a “shield” or “hostage” by the speaker to escape the same effects placed on her sister. Rhyme scheme further reveals the effects of being the eldest. Canal and channel creates a cacophony to express the sister’s struggle to get out of her mother’s womb. Since she is the first child, the mother’s opening is tighter and more difficult exit from, creating that discomfort. In lines 9-10, the eye rhyme of the words “someone” and “prison,” the consonance in the “n,” and the assonance of the “o” stresses the two lines, because she cannot always escape from the consequences of experiencing things first-hand, for she is her own example.
In conclusion, Olds reveals that though younger children may feel jealousy toward their older siblings, being older doesn’t necessarily mean they receive the best treatment. The use of figurative language, irony, and rhyme scheme helps convey the theme that being older comes with a greater reaction from others, but it also comes with a heavier price. The use of dramatic irony is not present in the poem, because the speaker knows more about her sister than the audience does. The absence of end rhyming shows that there is no consistent pattern in the poem, like in the elder sister’s life, since there is no continuous benefits to being the older sibling–there is a disadvantage as well.
Olds, Sharon. “The Elder Sister.” Reading and Writing from Literature, 3rd ed. Ed. John Schwiebert. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 381.