7 of the Most Evil Older Sisters in Fiction
Big sisters hold a special kind of power, and some of them really know how to use it
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A s someone who once told their mint-chip-loving little sister that the packet of green wasabi sauce with her sushi was a buttery paste of her favorite flavor (and guess what she did next), I have a lot of time for evil older sisters.
Particularly when she’s not the protagonist, literature usually tries to fit the older sister into one of two pigeon holes. She’s either the impossibly pure, beautiful, and sage elder (see: Jane Bennett, Constance Blackwood, et al.), or a woman of implacable cunning, skilled at devising the best way to execute real trouble on her target sibling (see: everyone below). What follows is a list of all the evil older sisters whose deeds have been immortalized in fiction, and who will make siblingless children feel thankful for their solitude.
King Lear by William Shakespeare: Goneril
The phonic similarities between Goneril and an STD seem apt (if not intentional, the Elizabethan era had a lot of funky stuff floating around). Goneril, the eldest of King Lear’s daughters, earned her spot on this list simply by being the eldest, but truly all of the sisters are at fault here.
Beloved by Toni Morrison: Beloved
Beloved was killed by her mother, Sethe, who intended to save her from a life of slavery. She returns twice to haunt the home of her mother and sister, first as a ghost and, after being banished, in physical form. As Beloved gradually takes over the house, Denver recognizes that the family’s survival rests upon her shoulders.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett: Lizzie
Evil or sixteen? Always a valid question. Just as you can lie by omission, Lizzie’s evil act is one of desertion, and in a moment when she’s needed most. After her mother drowns by sleepwalking into the river, her sister Elvis (yeah) is in need of emotional support from an older figure. Lizzie, fearing her own tendency to sleepwalk and similarities to her late mother, scarpers. Her evil is not an act of malice, but one of total selfishness.
Junior Miss by Sally Benson: Lois
Lois is Judy’s older sister and she loves to make sure Judy knows who has the power (classic evil sister move). She considers herself the beauty, the most sophisticated and mature, ahead of the game, vastly superior to her rather awkward younger sis, (an awkwardness she never fails to remind Judy of). Whether shopping for clothes (always dangerous territory), or talking about boys, poor Judy rarely gets a break.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: Iris
A heads up that the particular evil-doing of one Iris Chase is a spoiler — but also it’s not because her move was pretty unoriginal: an affair with her sister’s husband. The novel is one that gradually reveals itself and, another spoiler here, the novels within. Ostensibly written by Laura, the younger, betrayed sister, and inspired by her loving marriage, we learn that the story we’re reading was actually written by Iris and inspired by the affair. On top of that…actually, nevermind. Too many spoilers.
Dreadful Young Ladies by Kelly Barnhill: Fran
From the collection’s title story, Fran is kind of a wet blanket as well as being outright evil. When she was fourteen, we learn that her younger sister was kidnapped. She was kidnapped because Fran, assigned babysitting duty, has no interest in watching her. She was happily having a first kiss, a truth she doesn’t care to admit, so she tells the police that her sister “just flew away.” When Fran gets older, she becomes a step mother, and, once again tasked with care, doesn’t perform much better…
Ashputtle, or The Mother’s Ghost by Angela Carter: the Stepsisters
Before she wrote what is considered her masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber, Carter was translating Charles Perrault’s original fairytales, one of which was Cinderella. In her writing, Carter is known for incorporating and reimagining classic fairytales, so it’s not surprising that she took a crack at a new version of the Cinder struggle. The stepsisters are back, evil as ever, but this being a Carter retelling, there’s lots of fun, new twisted details.