Adventure, mystery, folk tale, fairy tale, realism, adolescent fiction
Setting and Context
1) Modern day: Camp Green Lake, a juvenile correctional facility in Texas. 2) 110 years ago: Green Lake, a town in the location of the modern-day camp. 3) Over 100 years ago: Latvia.
Narrator and Point of View
The novel uses an omniscient, third-person narrator, who spends a lot of time in Stanley's mind but necessarily is omniscient in the sense that he can flip back and forward through time, space, and different characters' consciousnesses.
Laura Nicosia writes that this "third person limited omniscient narrative voice" allows the reader to know "all that the protagonist and focal lens, Stanley, knows" - in other words, we have almost unlimited access to what Stanley feels and experiences. "Beyond that," she writes "the reader gleans through the narrator’s offerings, the history of the Yelnats curse and an awareness of fate’s and coincidence’s roles in Stanley’s life—elements to which even Stanley never becomes fully aware." The reader knows more than Stanley does, thanks to the interjections of the narrator and our exposure to other storylines in the past, of which Stanley is only dimly aware, if at all. Nicosia calls this an "authorial privileging of the reader through the embedded and layered use of fairy and folk tales" which are "counterpoint narratives" in the novel.
Tone and Mood
Parts of this novel display fairly gritty realism. We learn soberly and sadly about Zero's difficult past through his conversations with Stanley on God's Thumb, and we struggle along with Stanley as he experiences exhaustion, blisters, and endless thirst. The flashbacks to Green Lake are light in tone at first, as we are presented an idyllic town where a lovely couple falls in love, but this narrative quickly turns tragic with the death of Sam.
The tone of the novel is, in accordance with its younger audience, frequently humorous and even hilarious. The fairytale elements can be quite whimsical - notably the Elya Yelnats story, which involves a one-legged old wise woman and two fat pigs. The boys are also funny, in both their nicknames and their occasionally light-hearted banter (e.g. their discussion of whether or not the Warden is watching them in the shower). Sachar wants to show that even in the most dire situations, people can and should laugh at themselves and their predicaments.
Protagonist and Antagonist
In the modern narrative of Camp Green Lake, Stanley Yelnats is the protagonist and the Warden is the antagonist. In the past narrative of Green Lake, Sam and Kate are the protagonists and Trout Walker is the antagonist.
The major conflicts in the present-day narrative are Stanley's sentencing to labor at Camp Green Lake, as well as the unresolved family curse of the Yelnats family. There is also the question of Stanley and Zero's survival in the desert, and Stanley claiming the treasure that belonged to his great-grandfather. Stanley isn't aware that he can do anything to change the family curse, and breaks it accidentally; he also does not feel he has any control over the length of his sentence at Camp Green Lake. While these two issues weigh heavy on the mind of the reader and have a huge impact on the end of the novel, the main conflicts in the novel are those between the boys and the desert, and the boys and the Warden.
The climax of the story comes when Stanley and Zero find the Yelnats family fortune and are caught by the Warden. There is much at stake in this scene - the boys' lives are in danger from both the lizards and from the Warden herself, and both Stanley and the Warden are desperate to claim the treasure for themselves. Interestingly, this standoff drags on so long that it loses its dramatic tension, which builds again quickly when Stanley's lawyer and the Attorney General arrive at Camp Green Lake. Now Stanley's freedom is at stake as well as his life, as are the jobs of all the camp counselors.
The flashbacks to the past narratives often act as foreshadowing for the events in the present-day Camp Green Lake timeline. The central foreshadowing has to do with the curse on the Yelnats family. Stanley Yelnats I, who was robbed by Kissin' Kate Barlow, said he took refuge on God's Thumb, which - as soon as we learn that there is a mountain that looks like a thumb near Camp Green Lake - foreshadows Stanley IV's own journey up the mountain. This ascent by Stanley Yelnats IV up God's Thumb with Zero in tow (we already know his last name is Zeroni) is foreshadowed by Elya Yelnat's trip up the mountain in Lithuania. The breaking of the curse is foreshadowed in the casting of the curse. When Elya Yelnats arrived in America, he spent a lot of time looking for Madame Zeroni's son and descendants, which foreshadows when a character called Zeroni is introduced in Stanley IV's storyline. We know that the curse will be broken by Stanley and Hector, standing in for their great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandmother respectively.
Pendanski's warning - "Do not upset the Warden" - can be seen as an understatement. The Warden is far more dangerous and vindictive than Stanley expects, especially when she smacks Mr. Sir across the face with rattlesnake venom, or when she welcomes the death of the boys in the hole.
Another example of understatement occurs in Chapter 1, when the narrator writes, "If you don't bother [rattlesnakes and scorpions], they won't bother you" (4). The word "bother" is an understatement, as we tend to think of it meaning a mild inconvenience or annoyance. However, if a rattlesnake or scorpion bites you, you will experience much more than a mild annoyance: Barfbag, who was in D tent before Stanley arrived, had to be hospitalized for an extended period of time because of his rattlesnake bite.
The mountain which Stanley and Zero climb, "God's Thumb," can be seen as an allusion to certain Biblical events which involve mountains. For example, Moses climbing Mount Sinai to meet with God. Religious references always occur in the context of saving in this novel: the nurse who helped cure Stanley Yelnats I is described as an "angel," and Stanley and Zero take refuge on "God's Thumb." While all of Green Lake used to be a paradise in Sam's time, after Sam's death the area became cursed (punished by God) and heaven became limited to God's Thumb.
Much of the imagery in the novel is related to the setting: the now-barren, but once-beautiful Green Lake. Sachar makes a point to contrast the environmental conditions of Green Lake before and after Sam is shot, drawing a causal connection between that heinous murder and the deterioration of Green Lake. The Green Lake of the present-day narrative is a barren wasteland, devoid of water, plants, or any form of life aside from lizards and scorpions. This is in stark contrast with the Green Lake of the 1890s, which was described as "heaven on earth," a lush valley full of plant life and a cool lake in the center. Sachar illustrates both of these settings vividly for the reader through similes comparing the former lake to an emerald, for example, or describing the "haze of heat and dirt" that floats above the "hard, dry earth" of present-day Green Lake (65).
Pendanski makes a point to let the boys of Green Lake know he respects them and thinks they deserve a second chance in life. However, his open ridicule of Zero reveals a paradox of his nature, undermining his false attempts to connect with the boys. Mr. Pendanski is more of a hypocrite than a counsellor.
A parallel is drawn between "God's Thumb" and the mountain Elya Yelnats climbs, which allows the reader to understand that by Stanley carrying Zero up God's Thumb, he fulfills Elya's promise to carry Madame Zeroni up the mountain. Nicosia has written, "Holes is a complex present day fairy tale that frames a distant past fairy tale and a near past folk legend," and we can see how crucial it is that a parallel is drawn between the events in Lithuania and the events in present-day Texas. Without this parallel, the curse could not be broken.
Metonymy and Synecdoche
For the Yelnats family, the phrase "the family curse" stands in for everything bad that happens in their life; the "curse" itself referring to the misdeed of a distant relative.
In the first chapter, Sachar writes, "The Warden owns the shade" (3). She is in control over all the luxuries and privileges at Camp Green Lake, not just the shade, although the shade is one of the symbols of her status and coveted by those who must suffer under the hot sun. The Warden also becomes representative for the entire authority hierarchy of the camp. When the boys of D tent fear "the Warden" coming down hard on them, they are referring to the threat of punishment from any authority figure. Similarly, the yellow-spotted lizards represent all the danger of the desert, and turn into evil creatures of quasi-mythological proportions.
The personifying name "God's Thumb" turns a stark mountain into a haven of salvation and favor by referring to a mountain as a part of a human body. This draws the important connection between God's Thumb and life - it is the only life-giving place in the area.
Sam also personifies his donkey, Mary Lou, by giving her a clearly human name (as opposed to "Smokey" or another typical animal name). He treats her with respect, as if she were a human, speaking to her and calling her name. The human name confuses Stanley and Zero later in the novel, as they assume the boat they discover must have been named after a woman who "looked great in a bathing suit" (161).
Holes Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Holes is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.