Holes are a recurring image in the story with symbolic value. There are several different kinds of holes and digging in the aptly-named Holes: for example, the campers dig a hole every day, Stanley digs a hole to reach fresh water, and the boys find treasure at the bottom of a hole.
Holes are often a negative symbol in the book, as they represent hardship, adversity and grueling physical labor. This can be seen through the mocking tone in the quote: "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy." Holes also suggest mundanity, repetition, and hopelessness, as Stanley spends a large proportion of the book digging holes, seemingly without reason and without continuity (he must start again every morning in a new hole). The opposite of a hole is a mountain - a protrusion from the ground rather than an indentation in it - and mountains are linked with safety, success, and survival (God's Thumb shelters and feeds the boys when they run away from Camp Green Lake, and the mountain and river in Lithuania have magic powers).
The symbolism is not uniformly negative, however, because the boys do find treasure in a hole, and without Camp Green Lake and their mind-numbing labor, Stanley and Zero would never have met and the Yelnats curse would never have been broken.
The titles of two of the novel's three parts have to do with holes. Part Two is literally named "The Last Hole," referring to the hole that Stanley and Zero dig that will change their family's futures. The final part of the novel is titled "Filling in the Holes," which is symbolic of closure: the closure of Camp Green Lake and the end of that episode in the boys' lives, as well as the end of the family curse. There is a blank slate, a level ground on which the family can start building their future, without worrying about what happened in the past. In this final part of the novel, there is another meaning of the "holes" in the title: the reader is told to "fill in the holes" in the story and imagine for themselves what happens to Zero and Stanley beyond what is explicitly stated in Chapter 50.
Nature and the Land
The novel contains many references to the landscape and natural features. These features of the setting take on a symbolic significance greater than just providing background to the action. The ironically named Green Lake is described in great detail: it is "a dry, flat wasteland" and "a big dry lake." Here, the land is described as barren and desolate to create a strong sense of despair, which mirrors and symbolizes the despair of the boys and the Warden. The Warden tries to master the lake and take control of the land she technically owns by digging lots of holes in hopes of unearthing treasure, but the landscape is indifferent and vast and will not give her what she wants. There is a constant sense of danger not only from rattlesnakes and yellow-spotted lizards, but also from running out of water or dying of heat stroke. Whatever happens in Camp Green Lake or in the surrounding desert, it is a struggle for survival - nothing is easy, and everything is uncertain.
God's thumb is the opposite of the Green Lake desert, and therefore holds an entirely different significance for the characters in both the past and the present narratives. The mountain is described through evocative imagery that styles it as a "refuge." This creates a sense of solace, presenting the mountain as a beautiful escape. Indeed, it is an escape for Stanley and Zero, who only manage to survive the desert because of the water and the onions that they find on top of God's Thumb. There are religious connotations, of course: it might be seen as a miracle or a gift from God. In addition. God's Thumb is associated only with the good characters in the novel, since Sam's onion field was there, and Stanley and Zero spend some time recovering there as well.
Onions are a definitely positive symbol in the novel. They represent happiness, as Sam the onion picker - with whom onions are continually linked in the novel through flashbacks - is always cheerful, friendly, and optimistic. He is very secretive and protective of his onion field, but very generous when it comes to bringing onions and onion products to the folks of Green Lake.
Onions also symbolize health and healing. Sam sells onions to cure a myriad of physical ills: they are "good for the digestion, the liver, the stomach, the lungs, the heart, and the brain." Sam's character is one of a fixer, since he fixes up the schoolhouse and has the motto: "I can fix that." In this way, he is a healer, and the onions are one means by which he does his healing. In the present-day narrative, Zero and Stanley owe their lives to the onions on top of God's Thumb. Without them, they would have starved to death and been unable to survive their escape from Camp Green Lake. The onions save the boys a second time, too. The only reason they are not bitten by the yellow-spotted lizards in the hole where they are digging for treasure is because there is onion coursing through their bloodstreams.
In Holes, lizards are an ominous symbol. They represent danger and the ever-present threat of death in the harsh landscape surrounding Camp Green Lake. This danger is made explicit in the first chapter, and the reader is warned by the narrator about the lizards before any action occurs, even before meeting the novel's protagonist. "You don't want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard," Sachar writes, "That's the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death" (4). Although the Warden can control the boys and even uses rattlesnake venom to her advantage by making it into nail polish, she cannot control the lizards, and she is just as frightened as the others. The only protection from the yellow-spotted lizards is onions, as we find out late in the novel, but the characters never realize that onion-tinged blood allows Stanley and Zero survive in the lizard-infested hole. It seems like a miracle to them.
The lizards strike fear into all the characters in the novel, from the boys to the camp counselors. Lizards cause the death of just one character though, and this character does not fear them: the infamous outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow. In her case, she is released from the torture inflicted on her by Trout and Linda Walker, and she welcomes the bite because she has nothing left to live for. When she is bitten, she "smile[s]," and she "die[s] laughing," knowing that her enemies will never find the treasure she has buried (123). The lizards don't hold any power over those who are beyond the law and don't care about the world anymore, because they instill fear, and someone who doesn't care about life does not fear death.
Water is a symbol of hope and reward, as well as a literal, physical necessity. Green Lake used to be a lake, of course, until it dried up after Sam's brutal murder. A supernatural explanation is hinted at in the text, which asks us the question, "Whom did God punish?" The answer seems to be that God punished the inhabitants of Green Lake for allowing Sam to die, and punished in particular Trout Walker, who was responsible for Sam's death, owned most of the lake, and had the most to lose. At the end of the novel, some level of redemption has been achieved because it begins to rain at Camp Green Lake again for the first time in over a hundred years. Whatever curse was placed on the area after Sam's death has been lifted, just as the curse on the Yelnats family is lifted as well.
In the present day, water is "scarce" at the camp, however this means that the campers appreciate it all the more when they do get it, just as Stanley begins to appreciate other little things in life when deprived of them. Stanley describes his short shower as "four minutes of heaven." The boys are grateful when the water truck approaches, which represents a moment of freedom compared to the barren heat. Water is a huge focus in the latter half of the novel as well, especially when Zero and Stanley take off and have to survive without water. Overall, water is a positive symbol which contrasts with negative images of the dry land.
Holes Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Holes is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.