The most evident theme in The Westing Game is the theme of lies and deception, and the power of lies and deception. From the opening chapter of the novel, Ellen Raskin, the author, utilizes deception to mislead and trick the readers as she introduces a character named Barney Northup, who according to Raskin is not a real person. However, this is only the beginning of the lies that frequent the novel. As the novel progresses, many of the characters in the novel - such as Sandy McSouthers, James Shin Hoo, Sydelle Pulaski, and Turtle Wexler - use deception to obtain their true desires or hide their identity. For instance, Sydelle Pulaski fakes a debilitating leg injury in the opening chapters of the novel, and she hobbles around on crutches for the remainder of the book. In this aspect, she uses deception to receive attention as well as make people feel pity for her. Alternatively, Sandy McSouthers, one of the four identities of Samuel Westing, constantly deceives the other Westing heirs with incredibly sly lies and deception, distracting characters such as J.J. Ford and preventing them from discovering his true identity. Moreover, many of the characters such as James Shin Hoo and Jake Wexler often lie about their professions, as they do not want their counterparts to discover their past (and current) job histories.
Another prominent theme in The Westing Game is the theme of greed. In Chapter 7, the 16 Westing heirs are informed that they are participating in "The Westing Game," which is a game crafted Samuel Westing. The heirs are broken into pairs, and they are then told that in order to win the game, they must discover who killed Sam Westing. According to Westing's will, whichever pair discovers who killed Sam Westing will win 200 million dollars. After the pairs discover that there is a prize for winning the Westing Game, nearly all of the characters become extremely greedy and suspicious of everyone around them. Not only do many of the characters refuse to share their clues, but throughout the novel, many of the characters attempt to undercut other Westing heirs by lying to them, stealing their clues, and distracting them. Although it makes logical sense why the heirs would become greedy and selfish, the actions of some of these characters threaten the lives and reputations of other characters as they attempt to win the prize.
The Pitfalls of Arranged Marriages
In The Westing Game, one of the underlying, but rarely discussed themes, is the commentary on arranged marriages. Early in the novel, it is revealed that Samuel Westing's daughter, Violet Westing, drowned on the eve of her wedding. It becomes clear that Violet actually committed suicide due to the fact that she did not want to get married. In Chapter 15, J.J. Ford discovers that Violet loved George Theodorakis, the father of Chris and Theo, two of the Westing heirs. However, Violet's mother was forcing Violet to marry a man she did not love, a senator who served a jail term for bribery. Rather than marry someone she did not love, Violet decided to commit suicide to avoid the arranged marriage.
Later in the novel, it becomes apparent that Angela Wexler is involved in a relationship that almost feels like an arranged marriage. Angela's fiancé, Denton Deere, is a successful intern, who seems destined to have a stellar career as a doctor. While Angela's mother, Grace, eagerly encourages Angela to marry Denton for his future wealth and social status, it is clear to the reader that Angela does not desire to marry Denton. Angela often leaves when Denton enters the room, and it is common for her to barely say more than two to three sentences to her future husband. Angela obviously feels societal pressure from her mother (and other members of the Westing Game) to marry Denton, but one can assume that Angela does not want to marry Denton whatsoever. Even though Angela's engagement is not arranged by her parents, it certainly feels like an arranged marriage; Angela seems to have no choice in finding her significant other, as society has decided that a pretty, young woman such as herself must marry a man like Denton Deere, who will certainly climb social ladders in the future.
Both of the aforementioned relationships act as arranged marriages, and they showcase how Raskin may perceive arranged marriages from her perspective. There are no positives to be gained from either of these two relationships displayed in the novel.
One theme present in The Westing Game is the theme of revenge. However, this theme only truly applies to two characters in the novel: Samuel Westing and his ex-wife, Bertha Erica Crow. Halfway through the novel, it is revealed that Violet Westing, Sam's daughter, committed suicide after she learned that she could not marry her sweetheart, George Theodorakis, but instead had to marry a crooked politician. After Violet's death, Sam Westing's wife became an alcoholic, and she later divorced Sam before seemingly disappearing. Later in the novel, though, the reader discovers that Samuel Westing had no issue with Violet marrying George, but his wife was the one who attempted to force Violet to marry the crooked senator.
At the beginning of the novel, Sam Westing states that the point of the Westing Game is to find the person who murdered him. Although the characters take it as a literal murder, Sam is actually referring to the person that murdered him emotionally: his ex-wife. Near the end of the novel, Turtle Wexler and J.J. Ford begin to realize that Samuel Westing is making the characters participate in the Westing Game, so he can bring emotional distress to his ex-wife, who is actually Bertha Erica Crow in disguise. Moreover, at the end of the game, Bertha Erica Crow is revealed to be the "winner" of the Westing Game, as she is the one who truly killed Samuel Westing with her decision to force Violet into marriage. In fact, the whole point of the Westing Game is to make Bertha Erica Crow feel the shame, pain, and embarrassment that Samuel Westing felt when his daughter committed suicide. Even though it seems minuscule in comparison to his daughter's suicide, Sam obtains his revenge with Bertha Erica Crow's suffering throughout the Westing Game.
The theme of identity also plays a large role in The Westing Game. Throughout the novel, many of the characters go to great lengths to obscure their true identities. For instance, Windy Windkloppel, the actual name of Samuel Westing, uses four different identities - Barney Northup, Sandy McSouthers, Julian Eastman, and Samuel Westing - to hide his true motives and intentions. Moreover, Otis Amber, the delivery boy in the novel and one of the Westing heirs, frequently conceals his identity in the novel by acting as if he is unintelligent and foolish throughout the novel. However, it is later revealed that Otis Amber only acted as if he was ignorant to shroud his true identity as a private investigator.
While some of the characters hide their identities in The Westing Game to avoid suspicion, other characters actually struggle to decipher their real identities as a human being. Angela Wexler, the daughter of Grace and Jake Wexler, does not have an identity for most of the novel as she is simply known as the beautiful girl marrying the intelligent intern, Denton Deere. It is only later in the novel when Angela leaves Denton and pursues a career in the medical field that she begins to find her own identity. Additionally, James Shin Hoo struggles with his own cultural identity. In Chapter 17, J.J. Ford discovers that James Hoo only added Shin to his name when he went into the restaurant business because he wanted to sound more Chinese. Hoo does not feel secure in his own identity as a Chinese man, and it is apparent that he feels the need to lie about his identity to ensure success in the restaurant business.
The entire scheme of the Westing game revolves around one man's regrets from his past and his desire to rectify past mistakes. Sam Westing's personal wrongs with his wife are ultimately the driving factor for why he brings all of the participants together. In his old age, he wants to help her move on after his regret over his role over Violet's death as a type of penance for past sins. The ability to help out all the others who are connected to his daughter gives him a sense of penance that the former Mrs. Westing seeks.
Crow's work at the soup kitchen mirrors a similar form of regret and penance. For her perceived role in her daughter's death, Crow serves soup to the poor and clings to her Christian faith to cope. Ultimately the penance of the Westing game allows for her to take the money she would have never taken from her husband and put it towards the soup kitchen.
In a book where so much of the plot revolves around money, the characters are often defined by who can and who cannot afford things. The obstacle for multiple characters between achieving and not achieving their goals depends on the money from the Westing game. Characters like Angela and Theo both want to pursue their education but cannot (Angela can't because of her parents' financial issues, and Theo can't because of his brother's disease). The constraints of their class keep them from following their dreams, but the game provides an opportunity to overcome that.
J.J. Ford overcomes her class as the daughter of one of Sam Westing's staff mostly on her own, but it is revealed that Sam Westing gave her a loan in order to go to school. This generosity enables her to go on and rise up to become a judge and rise to a new class. To Sam Westing, money should be a motivator to empower the players of the game to better their lives themselves, rather than something to live off of.
The Westing Game Questions and Answers
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