Applying Psychoanalysis to ‘I’ll Give You the Sun’

By:  Mycah Houser

Academic, 2018  


The dynamics involved in a nuclear family are full of psychoanalytic opportunities; this is especially the case in the contemporary novel I’ll Give You the Sun because the family consists of a closeted gay son, a promiscuous daughter, and a husband and wife whose marriage is failing. Twins Noah and Jude are in the middle of a serious rivalry when their mother unexpectedly dies, sending them into opposite reactionary directions. While Noah witnesses his mother cheating just before her death, Jude is raped and wants nothing more than to tell her mother. The mother’s death acts as a catalyst that sets off a chain of behavioral reactions in the twins. I’ll Give You the Sun explores the fractured relationship between the twins and the drastic behavioral changes that occur after their mother’s death.

Readers who use a psychoanalytic lens will first note how each of the twins’ role in their family feeds into their sibling rivalry. Each twin has a particular set of skills worthy of their parents being proud of, but this in itself forms a competition between the siblings that quickly sours. Where Noah is the eccentric artistic son with long hair and an aversion to sports, Jude is an adrenaline junkie with a flourishing social life. Although each twin has an artistic skill, their mother dotes on Noah for his extra-special ability to masterfully paint and draw. One day when the family goes out for lunch, the twins are showing their mother their respective portfolios so that they can submit them to the prestigious art school CSA: “Jude’s talking to Mom and at the same time sending me secret silent death threats because she thinks my drawings came out better than hers and we’re having a contest. Mom’s the judge” (18). Their mother, being a professional artist herself, has always been the judge. However, this particular scene acts as a major catalyst for the twin’s sibling rivalry to become a negative force in their lives. After reviewing Noah’s 26 portfolio, the mother completely forgets about Jude’s because she is distracted by Noah’s talent. Following their mother’s forgetfulness about Jude’s portfolio, Noah notes: “Jude and I play a lot of games… If we were drowning, who would Dad save first? (Jude.) For thirteen years, Mom’s stumped us. We had absolutely no idea who she’d dredge out of the water first… until now. And without sharing a glance, we both know it” (23). Sibling rivalries are a normal part of a child’s developmental stage; however, they become harmful if the siblings fail to move past the rivalry. This becomes the case with Jude and Noah when Jude’s jealousy of her mother’s affection for Noah exceeds that for her. Jude cannot overcome her jealousy and lets it taint her relationship with Noah. This problem comes to Noah’s attention after that catalyst of a family lunch: “Mom says Jude acts the way she does now on account of hormones, but I know it’s on account of her hating me. She stopped going to museums with us ages ago, which is probably a good thing, because when she did, her shadow kept trying to strangle mine” (57). The subtle shift in their mother’s affection for Noah completely changed the dynamic between the twins.

The twins’ unhealthy sibling rivalry begins to affect Jude’s everyday life, both with her internal attitude and her external appearance. Without her fully realizing it, the root of Jude’s jealousy is causing her to dress promiscuously to get her mother’s attention and then, once she has it, she continues to fight with her mother in order to retain that attention for as long as possible. However, this battle for their mother’s affection further degrades the twin’s relationship when each sibling tries to sabotage the other’s chance of getting into CSA. The twins believe that if only one of them is accepted into the art academy, then that would solidify their mother’s favor toward one of them. For Noah, this form of sabotage manifests as trying to erase every picture of his sister’s sculptures: “I put my finger on the delete button and press hard, press murderously. I call the rest up, each more cool and awesome than the next, and wipe them out, one by one, until 27 every trace of my sister’s talent is gone from the world and only mine is left” (141). Noah is urged to action when he notices their mother taking a strong interest in Jude’s talent with sculpting. Likewise, Jude also carries out acts of sabotage: “Noah’s application to CSA had been sitting on the kitchen counter radiating genius since the week before Mom died. He and Mom sealed the envelope together for good luck… I only mailed mine. I took from my brother the thing he wanted most in the world” (304-305). These acts of sabotage prime each of the twins for the destructive behavior they display after their mother’s death. When only Jude is accepted into CSA, Noah loses all hope. With their mother dead and no foreseeable future for his passion of art, he undergoes a personality change that strips him of all unique creative identity.

The death of the twin’s mother sends Noah into a self-destructive spiral. He is the only one who knows of his mother’s affair and blames himself for making her an emotional wreck as she stepped into her car and drove to her death. This triggers an avoidance defense, both to suppress his sexuality and the reality that his mother cheated on his father. In the novel, Jude notes that, “In addition to joining dangerous gangs and having parties, this Noah also goes out with girls, keeps his hair buzzed and tidy, hangs at The Spot, watches sports with Dad. For all other sixteen-year-old boys: fine. For Noah, it signifies one thing: death of the spirit” (145). This displays Noah’s avoidance of all of the stressful things in his life. He is afraid that his dad will reject him for being gay, so he changes his image and goes out with girls. When he is not accepted into CSA, Noah destroys all traces of his art in order to protect himself from further pain and shield his mind from thinking too hard about what that rejection meant for his artistic talents.

Noah is also dealing with the secret he knows about his mother and therefore throws himself into hobbies and partying so his mind will be occupied with maintaining his new façade. 28 This fearful reaction stems from an important scene where his mother walks on him being sexual with another guy. Noah goes to her room to talk about what she saw, but stops and watches her through the doorway: “Mascara’s smudged all around her eyes like she’s been crying all night. Because of me? My stomach rolls over. Because she doesn’t want a gay son? Because no one does, not even someone as open-minded as her” (282). Noah’s mother is actually supportive of his sexuality and agrees when Noah begs her not to tell his father; however, Noah still doubts that she is truly accepting of his sexuality. Due to this doubt, Noah follows her one day when he believes she is going to tell his father, and that is when he sees her cheating. So, he suppresses his struggle with his sexuality to make the trauma of seeing his mother cheating a priority.

After the mother dies, Noah forms what psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called a death drive. He begins jumping off of a treacherous cliff into the ocean, despite never having been able to swim well. Jude begins to keep an eye on him, and says, “He told me that he hadn’t been trying to kill himself, but I didn’t believe him. That first jump was different than all the other ones that followed. That time he was trying to fling himself off the earth for good. I know he was. He wanted out. He’d chosen to leave. To leave me. And he would have had I not dragged him back” (228). Freud said that death drives are an act of aggression, those of which usually end in destruction. This aggression can be outward or, in Noah’s case, inward. His death drive was an act of his unconscious to perform suicide by jumping off a cliff and drowning. After the instance where Jude believes he truly wanted to die, Noah’s destructive behavior spreads out from his death drive and into his defensive repression. By spreading some of his aggression to the other ways he is self-sabotaging, he is no longer dedicated to committing suicide, but is also not opposed if one time he jumps and actually does drown. These unhealthy behavioral characteristics can all be traced back to the catalyst event of his mother’s cheating and death.

Jude, as well, has her own psychological problems following her mother’s death. Opposite of Noah’s death drive, Jude develops a fear of risk of anything that may endanger her life. Jude herself states, “When my mom died… I don’t know, I got scared. Of pretty much everything” (330). Before her mother’s death, Jude never turned down a dare, loved adrenaline rushes, and dressed and acted confidently. After the mother’s death, Jude completely changed personalities. While Noah went from an introvert to an extrovert, Jude goes on a completely opposite journey. After her mother’s death, Jude’s once beautiful sculptures become ambiguous shapes that mysteriously break on accident. When she is working in class at CSA, Jude says, “I remind myself I’m a bible-thumping Broken Me-Blob with hypochondriachal tendencies whose only friend is possibly a figment of my imagination” (43). Not only is she afraid of taking risks and seeking adrenaline highs, but she obsesses over diseases and all of the ways someone can die.

There is one other aspect, beside’s the mother’s death, that formed this fear of risk, and that is the rape Jude experienced the night her mother died. The promiscuity and rebellion Jude flaunted to get her mother’s attention worked against her when the guy she was flirting with took advantage of her. She wanted nothing more than to seek comfort from her mother, but by then it was too late. This was the beginning of her fear of risk. Not only does her mother’s death create Jude’s hyper-sensitivity to what can kill her, but also an intense internal guilt that makes Jude feel unworthy of happiness. Jude’s desire to seek her mother’s attention caused her to constantly fight with her mother about her clothes and attitude. This conflict was never resolved, something Jude notes with distress: “How can people die when you’re in a fight with them? When you’re smack in the middle of hating them? When absolutely nothing between you has been worked out?” (168). This unresolved conflict is the catalyst for Jude’s guilt. She irrationally believes that 30 her rebellion somehow contributed to her mother’s death. When potential for happiness comes into her life, Jude reminds herself that, “some girls deserve to be alone” (43). This guilt is what drives her to have a ban on boys. The function of one’s superego is to control impulses that society does not promote, such as sex, and Jude’s superego is punishing her for acting promiscuous by causing these feelings of guilt. This, in turn, creates a fear of intimacy that forces Jude to reconsider her clothing choices and forbid herself from pursuing a love interest. Jude views herself as impure, unworthy of love and happiness because of her deep-rooted guilt.

Sigmund Freud noted that a person’s childhood is a major factor that defines how their mind works for the rest of their life. In the case of Jude and Noah, this is true of their sibling rivalry and everything that stems from it. Using a psychoanalytic lens on I’ll Give You the Sun can reveal that even if their mother had not died, some other event would have acted as a catalyst for their destructive behavior. Although each twin eventually works through their self-destructive behaviors and bleach the toxicity from their relationship, the ghosts of their repressive and destructive behaviors will always linger. It is a matter of their subconscious and how they process stress, trauma, and competition.