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Holes | Themes

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Louis Sachar claims Holes, like much modern fiction, isn't meant to teach morals. When he accepted his 1999 Newbery Medal, he said, "If there's any lesson at all, it is that reading is fun." But he also said books can give kids "the capacity to empathize with other people, to care about the characters and their feelings." Readers should therefore approach thematic analysis of this book in an open-ended way, without speculating about the author's intended point. Rather, readers must consider their own feelings about the ideas and characters, working from there to draw their own conclusions.

Fate, Luck, and Choice

The events in Holes are driven by a generations-old curse. Long before Stanley Yelnats IV's story begins, his great-great-grandfather, Elya Yelnats, promises to carry his friend Madame Zeroni to the top of a magical mountain, where he will let her drink from a magical stream and sing her a magical lullaby. After Elya Yelnats forgets this promise, his descendants—including Stanley Yelnats IV, the main character of Holes—are plagued by bad luck. Stanley has spectacularly bad luck. The story's plot is put into motion after he is wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes that fell out of the sky and landed on his head. At the end of the novel, Stanley carries Zero, the great-great-great-grandson of Madame Zeroni, to the top of another magical mountain, helps him drink from a magical water source, and sings him a version of the magical song. This frees him from the curse, and at the end of the novel Stanley and his family are happy and successful.

When Stanley frees himself from the curse, he has no idea he is doing so. He is just trying to survive and help a friend—not knowing that friend is Madam Zeroni's descendent. But after the curse ends, Stanley's history of bad luck starts to look like good luck. For example, his wrongful conviction puts him in a position to undo the curse. It also makes him stronger, allows him to recover a fortune that was once lost to one of his ancestors, and helps him make his first true friend. But Stanley has no more intentional control over his luck than he did over the curse. All he can do is make choices that seem right to him in any given moment. Ultimately his choices free him.

Elsewhere in the story, people who invoke religious and supernatural forces have no ability to control them. In a historic plot set in the old town of Green Lake, the townspeople predict God will punish Miss Katherine Barlow, a white woman, for kissing Sam, an African American man. But after the townspeople murder Sam, no rain falls on Green Lake for 110 years. The omniscient narrator of Holes later suggests God has punished the people who committed racially motivated violence, not the people who fell in love across racial lines.

Only two characters seem to have any conscious control over magic. One of them, Madame Zeroni, works the curse that sets the story in motion. The other, Sam, grows and sells magical onions, using them to cure any illness or condition. Both characters are outsiders, separated from their society by racial and cultural differences. And even they have limited power. Madame Zeroni probably doesn't want to inflict generations of misery on her friend's ancestors. She just wants to visit the top of the magical mountain before she dies, but she never gets to do so. And Sam's many cures can't end racial injustice or help him be with the woman he loves. He too dies without getting the chance to live as he wishes.

Like people in the real world, these characters can control only their choices. And their choices ultimately guide their futures in ways they can't predict. Elya Yelnats doesn't think he will be cursed when he leaves Latvia without fulfilling his promise to Madame Zeroni, but his thoughtless choice inflicts generations of bad luck on his descendants. Stanley Yelnats IV doesn't intend to undo the same curse when he helps his friend Zero, but his kind choice ends up making life better for himself, his friend, family, and many other people as well. Throughout the story bad choices lead to bad outcomes, and good choices lead to good ones.

Power and Status

Throughout the novel the characters' power and social status dictates what they can accomplish and how they can treat others. For example, Stanley is convicted of a crime and sent to Camp Green Lake not because he is guilty, but because his parents are too poor to hire a lawyer. They lack power because of their low social and economic status. Powerful people—like the judge who sentences Stanley, or Clyde Livingston, the celebrity whose shoes Stanley supposedly stole—control what happens to Stanley and how society views him.

Throughout the novel, characters who have power in one situation often lack it in another. The boys have their own power structures; within Stanley's tent, X-Ray is the top-ranked character. In Chapter 13, after Stanley helps X-Ray, X-Ray changes the place where Stanley stands in line for water, effectively ranking Stanley higher than Zero. X-Ray is also a peacemaker who defuses fights and stops characters from bullying each other. But X-Ray has no power against adult characters like the Warden.

The adults at Camp Green Lake also have a clear power structure. Mr. Pendanski and Mr. Sir, who work at the camp, can say and do almost anything to the campers. For example, Mr. Pendanski openly treats Zero as stupid and worthless. But their boss, the Warden, bullies the adults beneath her. In Chapter 20 she even physically attacks Mr. Sir for annoying her. Through most of the story, the Warden seems like the most powerful person possible—until the end, when legal officials from the outside world come to visit Camp Green Lake. With the law behind them, they have the power to shut down the camp. In their presence the Warden can't harm anyone. In an ironic twist, possibly resulting from the breaking of the curse, the justice system begins to work for Stanley and Hector rather than against them.

Many forces dictate power and status within Holes, including age, wealth and property, physical size and strength, race, education level, and family connections. Zero has no access to any of these power sources. He is the smallest boy in Stanley's tent, an African American street kid with no money or property, no history of schooling, and no family members who know where he is. This last fact makes life especially hard for Zero. In Chapter 31, when it is becoming clear Zero is going to hide in the desert until he dies, the adults decide to erase his files and pretend he never existed. Zero is the weakest character because nobody cares about him.

But nobody's social status is static in the story. In the end Zero gains power partly because he has been written off as worthless. In Chapter 48, when Camp Green Lake officials can't produce a file for Zero—under his real name, Hector Zeroni—Ms. Morengo demands he be freed. Nobody can stop her from taking Zero away from Camp Green Lake because nobody can explain why he is there in the first place. This moment is a testament to basic human rights in a free society: people can't be imprisoned without cause. It also points to the power of friendship, because Ms. Morengo takes an interest in Zero at his friend Stanley's prompting.

Friendship and Human Value

At the beginning of Holes, Stanley has no friends. At Camp Green Lake, he's surprised when the other boys accept him. But the other boys are criminals; they join forces for protection, not because they genuinely feel a sense of connection with one another. Stanley soon falls into this way of thinking. In Chapter 11, when X-Ray tells Stanley to hand over any interesting objects he finds, Stanley decides this is a reasonable compromise because X-Ray is the leader and can protect Stanley. In Chapter 18, when Zero first asks for help learning to read, Stanley says no because Zero has such low social status; he can't help Stanley in any way. Only later does Stanley begin to see Zero as a real person. By the end of the story, Stanley values Zero for himself rather than his usefulness.

Most of the characters at Camp Green Lake treat Zero as worthless because he is poor, uneducated, and alone in the world. But as his character develops, he shows loyalty, intelligence, a deep sense of fairness, and many other good qualities. In Chapter 21, after Stanley gets in trouble for stealing sunflower seeds, only Zero tries to help Stanley. Later, as Zero learns to read, he demonstrates excellent memory, reasoning, and mathematical skills. But Zero is far from perfect. In Chapter 30, after Mr. Pendanski tells Zero he will never do anything with his life but dig holes, Zero hits him with his shovel and runs away. Zero's complicated qualities combine to make him seem like a real, whole person. And when he and Stanley start working together, it becomes clear he's anything but worthless. If there is a message here, it's that everyone deserves to be seen and treated with respect, and no human being lacks value.

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