Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers: An Existentialist, Ecocritical Western

sisters brothersPatrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has been praised as a witty and engaging picaresque novel that turns the traditional western on its head and interjects it with a wry, satirical humour that makes the sometimes tired genre seem fresh.  However, the novel is far more than a clever and quirky take on the western: it is an exciting explanation of existentialist and ecocritical principles.  DeWitt takes existentialist theory, which can be dry (just try reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness), and puts it into action on America’s western frontier during the gold rush, given existentialist theory a thrilling narrative that encapsulates its key principles.  This is done by examining the transformations of the title characters, Eli and Charlie Sisters, and peripheral characters like Morris.   Through character development and several plot points, deWitt also employs the genre to highlight ecocritical concerns, with particular attention to how Eli, the novel’s narrator, changes his view on Nature.  Having the two genres working together is important because in order to correct the ecocritical issues, humanity must first reject the traditions that have been handed down to is an create a new identity, just as the prototypical existentialist protagonist typically does.  While the novel functions in a multiplicity of ways, its existentialist and ecocritical readings are perhaps the most engaging and relevant.




Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt

In existentialist theory, one is defined not by what they have done, but rather by what they do, which is a central theme in deWitt’s novel, particularly with Charlie.  When Charlie and Eli banter back and forth about what has held back their journey, Charlie finally concedes that they “had some bad luck, and set a poor example for [them]selves”, concluding that “What’s passed is passed” (75).  In this way, Charlie acknowledges the pattern of behaviour both men have engaged in, but also notes that this pattern need not define how they will act, framing them as existentialist figures.  Likewise, when Eli and Charlie engage in a debate, and Eli brings up past arguments laid out by Charlie, he shoots down Eli’s claim: “You are always harkening back in arguments, but another time is another time and thus irrelevant” (87).  Though this seems a convenient way to dismiss a past position that no longer suits him, it also speaks to Charlie’s existential tendencies as he again refuses to let his past actions define him in the present.  In both instances Charlie seeks to be defined, not by who he was, but rather by who he is.


John C. Reilly, who may play Eli Sister in a film adaptation of deWitt's novel.

John C. Reilly, who may play Eli Sister in a film adaptation of deWitt’s novel.

This existentialist framing of identity is also outlined through Eli’s observations of Morris, a man who was employed by Charlie’s and Eli’s boos: the Commodore.  In one instance, Eli recounts a conversation with Morris, who said that he looked “upon [his] past with disgrace.  [He] was herded and instructed”, but, he notes, he would “be herded and instructed no more” as he was “born anew, and [his] life [would] become [his] own again” (195).  Morris, like Charlie, refuses to allow himself to be defined by his past actions, going so far as to describe himself as being born anew.  He rejects his former self, and chooses to create a new identity that is not tied to the past, thus rejecting the deterministic shackles that weighed him down.  When Morris dies shortly after his rebirth, Eli notes that he “felt badly that Morris had died so soon after making the decision to correct his life” (289), but in the process of this, recognizes the new identity that Morris has established.  In this way, Eli defined Morris by his most recent actions, and not through his past.



sisters brothers1

Mark Rosenthal’s depiction of the Sisters Brothers (borrowed from here).

Eli’s conversations with Hermann Warm and the accountant of a man named Mayfield express similar sentiments regarding identity.  When Eli and Hermann, the man Eli and Charlie are paid to kill, are getting to know each other, Eli notes that “To pass the time, [Hermann] encouraged” him to speak of his “life, to recount for him [Eli’s] many dangerous adventures”.  The problem was that Eli “had no wish to do this, and in fact wanted to forget about [him]self for a moment” (284).  In this passage, Hermann is interested in the person that Eli was, but having rejected this way of living, Eli does not indulge Hermann’s curiosity.  Instead, he wishes to define himself through his present actions.  Likewise, after cashing in the bounty on a pelt with a man named Mayfield, Eli speaks to Mayfield’s accountant, a woman who expresses and interest in Eli. When speaking of Mayfield, she defines him not by his past actions but by his present ones: “He was a good man, before he hit his strike” (137).  Through this dialogue, she suggests that Mayfield, though once a good person, is no longer.  Eli suggests that Mayfield “looks to be spending [his money] quickly enough” and will perhaps “change back to the first man once it’s all gone.”  However, the accountant suggests that “He will become a third man”, and that “the third will be even less pleasant than the second” (137).  In this manner, the accountant does not define the present or future through the past, but rather allows each to define itself within its own context.  Eli’s conversations with Hermann and the accountant support the notion that one’s identity is not determined by one’s past, but rather by the choices they make in the present.


Jean-Paul Sartre. whose existentialist philosophies are prevelent throughout deWitt's work.

Jean-Paul Sartre. whose existentialist philosophies are prevelent throughout deWitt’s work.

Facticity is also a central motif in the novel, and while deWitt notes how it can usurp one’s authority, he also notes how it is used to rationalize one’s choices.  For example, when Eli’s face swells up, he and Charlie have to postpone their travels.  When asked what should be done, Eli responds by observing his lack of options: “I don’t suppose I have a choice.”  His brother agrees: “As with so many things in a life, brother, I don’t suppose you do” (21).  In this sense, the two central figures concede that though one might have plans for themselves, the world around them will assert its authority in some instances, and that individuals cannot define every moment in their lives.  The problem with this is that one’s facticity can be used as a means of rationalizing one’s behaviour and transferring responsibilities for one’s choices.  Charlie, for example, blames the killing of several prospectors on a spider bite. However, this was a consequence of a series of events that started when Charlie and Eli took shelter with a woman.  When they awoke, they found the woman had hung an amulet on a door. Charlie refused to walk under the amulet, assuming it would curse him, exiting instead out a window. However, the portly Eli could not fit through the window; thus, Charlie needed to borrow an axe from some prospectors to break the wall around the window.  When they refused to loan him the tools, he kills them all, eventually blaming the fact that they had to room with the strange woman Eli’s response to a spider bite.  Rather than taking ownership of his unreasoned belief in superstition or his violent nature, which are a personal choice, Charlie opts to transfer blame onto a spider, taking a deterministic view over an existentialist one.  The peripheral characters often act in the same way.  For example when several trappers attempt to ambush the Sisters Bothers (SPOILER ALERT), they end up dead, and with his dying breath, one of the subordinate trappers offers his summation of the lead trapper who organized the ambush: “He thinks because he’s big, he’s got to do big things” (154).  In this way, the trapper let the facticity of his size dictate his behaviour, using it as an excuse for what he did rather than taking authority over his choices.  Ultimately, though, deWitt asserts that one can overcome such factors through Eli, who notes that while he and his brother have the same blood, they “use it differently” (163), thus asserting that the biology or fact of a situation need not define an individual.


sisters brothers2The novel also demonstrates how social pressure and social constructions can also influence identity. Eli is one of the characters who is shaped by social pressure, and so he cannot understand why Morris, one of their associates, doesn’t simply kill Hermann, whom Morrison has been following to gather information. Eli wonder this aloud to Charlie, who has a simple response: “How about the fact that Morris is not a killer” (10).  The reason Eli can’t understand this is that he does not see himself as a killer, and yet he kills people for a living.  This is done through social pressure as Charlie uses Eli’s own temper to manipulate him. Eli states that “Charlie and the Commodore” put Eli “to work that would see [him] in hell” and that “It had happened and would happen again, just as long as [Eli] allowed it” (216).  This is akin to the behaviour of the trapper who spoke to Eli as death came upon him, taking time to twice that that he did not want to ambush Eli and Charlie, but that the lead trapper had compelled him to do it (154). This dying trapper, like Eli, allowed others to convince him to do their own bidding.  This highlights how social pressure can influence identity.


If you don't have multiple kinds of toothpaste to choose from, how can you be an existentialist?

If you don’t have multiple kinds of toothpaste to choose from, how can you be an existentialist?

Eli’s existentialist journey eventually sees him take ownership over his choices and assert his authentic self.  This first occurs when after the dentist introduces Eli to tooth brushing.  He tries the practices, and finds that he likes it, and so makes a choice to continue the practice. Though Charlie makes fun of Eli for this at first, Eli stands firm and does not cave to social pressure. When a seller of goods insists that Eli try different brands of tooth powder, he is reluctant, but tries them, ultimately making a choice that is his own.  Having a choice is central to an existentialist narrative, because without choice, one cannot assert an identity.  The leads Eli to admire Hermann, who maintains his authentic self throughout the novel.  Even when “breathing his last”, Hermann did not “turn religious… and plead for a speedy entry” because he was too “firm in his nonbeliefs for any last-minute cowardice” (298).  In this way, Hermann did not let social constructions and the fear of death change who he was.  Eli has a deep admiration for this, which gives him the strength required to maintain his own authentic self and eventually abandon the life of an assassin.




Like America (the band, not the oligarchy), Charlie and Eli like horses with no names.

Like America (the band, not the oligarchy), Charlie and Eli like horses with no names.

The novel’s ecocritical elements are equally compelling, and are closely linked with the existentialism woven throughout the work.  When Charlie and Eli are given two horses in payment for a job, they note that they wanted “horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be called by” (5).  In short, they wanted horses with no names.  This suggests that they wanted horses free of a past and therefore an identity.  Rather than being tied to the past, the two men prefer horses whose identity is not yet set in stone.  This parallels the way in which Eli does not want to be tied to his past and offers a template as to how he would begin to engage with Nature.  When Eli “moved to stroke” his horse, his “hand touched the horse’s face he startled the horse.  Eli “experienced shame at this time” because the horse “was so unused to a gentle touch” (74).  This is representative of the way in which not others had treated the horse, but also how Eli treated animals.  This sense of shame compelled Eli “to try to show [the horse] a better time, and ma[k]e a private promise to this effect” (74).  In this way, Eli demonstrates that he is not tied to his past behaviour.  When the horse takes ill, Eli considers selling it to a person who will use the horse for meat, but as Eli “approached [the horse] and placed a hand on his muzzle”, he felt the horse recognized him and looked at him “honestly, and without fear or malice.”  In this moment, Eli decides “not to sell him” (85).  It is at this moment that Eli rejects the view that the animal is property, and instead empathizes with the horse, breaking the pattern of behaviour that preceded him and embracing a new relationship between himself and the natural realm. This is a particularly potent part of the plot as it provides parallels that can be applied the humanity in a broad sense, and promotes progress away from humanity’s past relationship with Nature toward a new symbiotic relationship rooted in empathy.



The prevalence of beavers in the final act betrays deWitt's Canadian heritage.

The prevalence of beavers in the final act betrays deWitt’s Canadian heritage.

The more problematic elements of humanity’s relationship with Nature are represented as well.  Charlie and Eli’s practice of not naming horses (5), for instance, demonstrates how humans do not see elements of Nature as having an identity, but rather s objects to be owned and used.  This leads to an apathetic relationship between the two realms that manifests itself during the novel’s climax.  Though a formula developed by Hermann is known to cause damage to flesh, the group of prospectors formed by Hermann, Eli, Charlie and Morris dump it into the river, caring not what damage it might cause to the environment (255).  Eventually, the beavers living in the waters “climbed out… and died on the shore just shy of [the] camp” (288).  This illustrates the havoc human technology has on Nature, but it also highlights how interrelated the human and natural realms are.  Both Hermann and Morris (SPOILER ALERT) become inflicted with intense burning and pain, as does Charlie: Hermann and Morris eventually die, and Charlie has a hand amputated.  This illustrates how the fate of the human and natural realm are intertwined.  What is especially frustrating is that this come even after Eli recognizes that life for man’s animals is “a trial of pain and endurance and senselessness” (241). Though he sees the pain humanity causes, it does not stop him from engaging in a project that he knows will likely harm the ecosystem, much as humanity continues to overtax the planet despite being away of the effects of global warming.




Humanity’s anthropocentric view is challenged throughout the novel.  In one passage, Eli concedes to the hypocrisy of humanity’s self-aggrandizing in the face of Nature.  He states that he has “always had a feeling that an animal’s insides are unclean, more so than a man’s”, but goes onto state that he knows this “does not make sense when you consider what poisons [humans] put into [their] bodies” (117).  In this way, Eli notes how pure Nature is in comparison to humanity’s toxic lifestyle.  Eli also notes the nurturing elements of Nature, stating that while some “thought that something as scenic as this running water might offer you not only aesthetic solace”, it “also [offered] golden riches”, lending one to think “that the earth itself was taking care of you, was in favour of you” (115).  The river not only offers beauty, and life sustaining water, but also precious metals such as gold.  The fact that Eli suggests the river, and extension of Nature, is taking care of humanity further demonstrates its importance to humanity.  The novel further highlights the importance of Nature by anthropomorphizes elements of Nature, namely a group of beavers.  Eli states that “There was something human about [beavers], something odd and wise.  They were cautious, thoughtful animals” (247).  Just as he empathizes with his horse, Eli also seems to project human sentiment onto the beavers.  This is an extension of empathy he offered the horse because, where he only saw the horse as an entity capable of feeling pain, he sees that beavers as ‘thoughtful’ and ‘cautious’, implying a cognitive capability that would pass Descartes cogito ergo sum(I think therefore I am) standard and place beavers in the realm of those who possess a soul. Each of these passages frame Nature as something that is on no less than parity terms with humanity, and as something that humanity is dependent on for its own survival.




Patrick deWitt: hipster, author, or both?

Patrick deWitt: hipster, author, or both?

Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers possesses any number of qualities, not the least of which is deWitt’s dark and wry humour and knack for satire.  He transforms the conventional western into a fresh narrative, and accomplishes this by inoculating a seemingly antiquated genre with a dose of existentialism and ecocriticism.  His framing of the transformations of the title characters and peripheral characters give the novel’s its existentialist flavour.  It is these transformations, especially that of the novel’s narrator, Eli, that promote the ecocritical elements as well.  As Eli begins to uncover his authentic self and embrace his new true identity, he comes to recognize the false barriers that exist between himself and the natural realm, first by empathizing with his horse, then by recognizing the nurturing elements of Nature, and finally by distinguishing the cognitive capabilities of those animals in the natural realm.  It is easy to love this book for its stylish and quirky dialogue, its macabrely marvelous characters, and charming story, but the existentialist and ecocritical elements are not to be ignored and make the books far more than a delightful read.


Works Cited.


DeWitt, Patrick. The Sisters Brothers. New York: Harper Collins. 2011. Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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