Holes Themes


Ancestry is a heavily emphasized theme in Holes, and it goes hand in hand with the themes of fate and destiny. For each of the major characters, ancestry affects their surroundings, decisions, and even day-to-day life. Stanley ends up at Camp Green Lake, supposedly because of the misdeeds of his great-great-grandfather. The Warden’s life is devoted completely to the search for a treasure that her ancestors have been seeking for years after being cursed by Kissin' Kate Barlow. The conflicts of the past are of such consequence that they have the ability to seemingly transcend time itself by continuing through the generations and steering the destiny of the characters in the present-day narrative.

When Stanley arrives at Camp Green Lake, he is a mostly passive character who does what is asked of him and doesn't disrupt the status quo: for most of Part One, he doesn't stand up to Mr. Sir or to X-Ray's manipulation. Stanley's initial reluctance to interfere with external events may be traced back to the family curse to which he and the other members of the Yelnats family attribute all their misfortunes. Stanley has developed a worldview in which he cannot really change his circumstances, since they are predetermined by the actions of his ancestors. On the bus to Camp Green Lake, he thinks to himself, "It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!" (7). This phrase becomes a motto of his, by which he abdicates responsibility for his actions and tries to maintain a worldview that is dictated by justice rather than randomness.

At the beginning of the novel, Stanley believes in his family's curse, and he also believes in destiny. In Chapter 6 we hear how he felt like he "was holding destiny shoes" when Clyde Livingston's sneakers fell on him because he believes they "would somehow provide the key to his father's invention" (24). These shoes eventually lead to his arrest and wrongful conviction, but beyond that, they join him to Zero (whom, we learn later, threw the shoes) and allow him to recreate the scene of carrying a Zeroni up a mountain while singing a lullaby, thereby breaking the family curse. The shoes also prove useful to Stanley's father later in the novel because when Stanley's name is clear and his father invents a product for foot odor, Clyde "Sweet Feet" Livingston stars in one of the ads, helping the product to become successful. Toward the end of the novel, Stanley remembers feeling that the shoes falling from the sky was destiny, and he believes so again: "It had to be destiny" (187). In this way, Sachar shows us that Stanley is right when he thinks the shoes represent his destiny: although destiny can take a more twisted path than the characters expect.

There is a link drawn in Chapter 8 between the yellow-spotted lizard and a curse (which we can see as a bad destiny, or destiny gone wrong). Sachar writes, "A lot of people don't believe in curses. A lot of people don't believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn't make a difference whether you believe in it or not" (41). The question of whether the curse on the Yelnats family is real or not is one that plagues the reader throughout the whole novel, and Sachar seems to take pleasure in keeping us uncertain. Even after the climax at the end of Part Two, in which several strands of the story are resolved - a drop of rain falls on Green Lake, Stanley's father invents a successful foot odor elimination product, and Zero and Stanley claim the treasure and are released - there is still some uncertainty about the curse. Stanley's mother, a sensible American woman who isn't directly a descendant of Elya Yelnats, represents this doubt because she "insists that there never was a curse" (229). The narrator, however, isn't content to let this point of view conclude the novel, and he continues, disingenuously, that "[t]he reader might find it interesting" that the cure for foot odor was invented the day after Stanley carried Zero up the mountain and sang to him (229).

Therefore destiny is a powerful operator in this novel, whether the characters are aware of it or not. It is perhaps natural that destiny should be real in a novel that contains so many features that deviate from the purely realistic, like the curse placed on Elya Yelnats, and the curse/drought that Green Lake suffers from as well. Although there is an element of uncertainty regarding whether the curse - and thus the characters' destinies - are real, the narrator clearly suggests that they are real and explain some of the fantastic coincidences in the novel. Some of the series of events in the novel are highly improbable, and Stanley is right when he recognizes that they are "more than a coincidence" (187). Destiny interlinks the fates of the characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and it allows for a satisfying conclusion in which all threads of different conflicts are tied up neatly and happily.

Timeless Justice

Holes contains a strong and interesting theme that can be thought of as "timeless justice." Succinctly put: justice will ultimately and inevitably prevail, even if it takes decades. Much of the justice in this novel is not dispensed through the usual channels (courts, lawyers, judges, etc), but rather either operates on a mystical level, like the Yelnats family curse, or through characters. In fact, the justice system is not depicted as a valid dispenser of justice in Holes.

Stanley’s life, just like the lives of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, is clearly hampered by a promise his distant ancestor failed to keep. Though not a legally binding promise, the promise between Elya Yelnats and Madame Zeroni is an important one, and Elya's breaking of the promise has huge effects on future generations of the Yelnats family. By placing a curse on Elya and his descendants, Madame Zeroni ensures that justice is served - a timeless brand of justice that will keep punishing the promise-breaker and his family until somehow the promise is fulfilled (though in her initial curse she actually says "for all eternity" (31), making the possibility for redemption less clear). It is interesting to note that even though Elya Yelnats does not break the promise out of malice - in his disappointment and anger, he simply forgets to carry Madame Zeroni up the hill - he and his descendants must still be punished for this thoughtlessness. In the end, of course, the curse is broken by Stanley and Zero, who unwittingly and somewhat improbably reenact the scene that never took place between Madame Zeroni and Elya Yelnats. At the end of the novel, the Yelnats family fortune is on the up-and-up, and it seems clear that we as readers are supposed to believe that this is due to the breaking of the curse, even though some family members, like Stanley's mother, are skeptical.

Another injustice which is punished in the novel is the murder of Sam, the onion man of Green Lake. Katherine Barlow's black lover is killed because he isn't allowed to kiss a white woman, and also because Trout Walker is jealous (he wanted Kate Barlow as his own wife). The punishment for this crime (the kiss) isn't carried out by the sheriff, crucially. He gets drunk and stays out of the way of the mob that chases Sam out onto the lake and shoots him. Katherine Barlow is appalled by the unjust law that forbids her love with Sam, and by the Sheriff's lack of response when the town decides to bypass law enforcement and mete out a punishment that is much harsher than the law prescribes. As the usual channels of justice are not open to her - the sheriff is clearly corrupt - Kate must take on the alter ego of Kissin' Kate the outlaw, and take matters into her own hands. Her killing rampage begins with the Sheriff, and spreads to general revenge on the people in the area, who did not help Sam when they could have. This brand of non-legal justice is timeless, too: as she dies, Katherine tells Trout Walker that his descendants will dig and dig but never find the treasure she buried. This is a type of a curse, like the one Madame Zeroni placed on the Yelnats family, and it turns out to be true. When the treasure is found, it is confiscated from Trout Walker's great-granddaughter in front of her very eyes.

The Warden comes from a family who repeatedly commits injustice: she is a descendant of Trout Walker, who murdered Sam, and she herself torments the boys and the camp counselors at Camp Green Lake. Despite this, she remains unscathed by the law, living a life of relative luxury in her air-conditioned cabin and awaiting the discovery of the treasure that will make her fortune. However, justice is eventually served: Stanley’s discovery and claim of the family treasure thwarts the Warden's plans. Even so, the Warden is not convicted by the traditional court system - the camp is shut down, but she ultimately loses the land because of a lack of financial resources, not because of a court decision. In any case, by the end of the novel, the antagonists (Trout Walker and the Warden) have been punished for their sins and crimes, and the protagonists are redeemed.


All of our actions have far-reaching consequences, even if those actions are too distant to be recognized as causative - this much is clear from the narrative of Holes. After presenting the facts of Sam's death, the narrator asks the readers, "You make the decision: Whom did God punish?" (115). The correct answer is clear: God punished the townspeople and their descendants, particularly the Walker family. The Warden, as she wastes her life waiting for treasure to emerge from the desert earth, is paying for her great-grandfather's crime, just as Stanley is paying for his great-great-grandfather's broken promise.

But what Holes also shows us is that it is possible to mitigate or counteract the effects of the original actions and thereby change the consequences. In terms of the God-given punishment wrought on Green Lake, Stanley and Zero thwart the Warden's plans to profit from Camp Green Lake, claim Kate Barlow's treasure, and thereby atone for the sins of the residents. They manage to bring down the Warden's tyranny - which through metonymy stands in for the evil reign of her ancestor Trout Walker - and they ensure a better, greener future for Green Lake. Part Two of the novel ends with the following sentence: "Behind them the sky had turned dark, and for the first time in over a hundred years, a drop of rain fell into the empty lake" (225).

Atonement is not a cut-and-dry matter in Holes, however, at least not for the protagonist and associated good characters. The bad characters in the book are somewhat simpler: they never repent and cannot escape the punishment that is brought down on them. Trout Walker loses his fortune and ends his days in destitute desperation. The Warden loses the treasure she has spent years searching for, and must sell the land that has been in her family for generations. Punishment comes swiftly for the Sheriff of Green Lake, who failed to do his duty and protect Sam from Trout's mob: he is executed by Kissin' Kate Barlow just days after the event.

Mr. Pendanski tells Stanley at one point in Part One of the book: "you messed up your life, and it's up to you to fix it" (58). He's only partly right. Stanley is serving time, so to speak, for his ancestor's crime, not his own, but even though he did not mess up his life, it is up to him to fix it - by fixing an injustice committed over a hundred years before. In attempting to fix his life in an immediate way (running away from Camp Green Lake, surviving the desert, and returning to dig up the treasure), Stanley inadvertently breaks the curse that governs his life (and his family's life) in a deeper, more substantial sense, although he does so by accident, unwittingly. He also seems to break the curse on Green Lake - a curse in which he is only tangentially involved, since neither he nor his ancestors had anything to do with Sam's murder. Nonetheless, it is Stanley's actions that bring about the end of the curse and the "drop of rain" at the end of Part Two that signals a better future for Green Lake (225). The characters in Holes are not always fully aware of the web of historical and familial sins in which they are caught, and they thrash around somewhat blindly as they search for answers, atonement, and closure. When Stanley manages to atone for past sins, he does so by accident.

While morality occasionally appears black-and-white in this novel, for example with the punishment God inflicts on Green Lake for Sam's murder, sometimes it is less clear, as in the case of Kate Barlow. Is Kate punished or pardoned for the crimes she commits out of revenge? We might think she would have to repent to be able to atone for this crime, and yet we find her wholly unrepentant when she dies at the end of Part One. Nevertheless, she seems to be redeemed or avenged by the end of the Warden's tyrannical rule over Camp Green Lake, and so some atonement has taken place, although it may be out of Kate's control, and she certainly doesn't live to see Green Lake restored to glory. Kate Barlow is an outlaw who walks the line between good and evil: revenge may not be a beautiful thing, but it may be justified. By not having Kate repent for what she has done - and by allowing her to be redeemed at the end with the rain that falls on Green Lake, erasing 110 years of misery - Sachar refuses to condemn her wholly for what she has done.

By the end of the novel, everything seems to have been set to rights for the "good" characters in Holes. How much of this is due to characters directly and purposefully atoning for their sins - which is the usual method for setting things right - is up for debate. Sachar's depiction of morality, sin, and redemption in Holes is complex, and made even more complicated thanks to its "multidirectional, multispatial and multitemporal" nature, as Laura Nicosia puts it. The novel resolves in a happy ending, but the road to this end is full of twists and turns, and has very few signposts for the characters to follow.


The friendship between Zero and Stanley lies at the core of this novel, which for the most part is interested in other kinds of relationships: the love between Kate and Sam, the family ties between the Yelnats generations, and the authoritarian position of the Warden over the boys at Camp Green Lake. Their lives are interwoven in more than one way. Not only did Zero's ancestor curse Stanley's great-great-grandfather, but Zero also stole the shoes that Stanley was convicted of stealing (therefore Zero is the reason that Stanley is sent to Camp Green Lake, where he suffers and struggles to survive in the wilderness). Stanley's character development can be in large part attributed to his friendship with Zero, and their friendship also has a huge plot purpose, since it leads to the breaking of the Yelnats family curse.

Friendship is something that is lacking from Stanley's life at the beginning of the novel. While he seems to have a close relationship with his parents, Stanley is bullied at school, and generally unhappy among his peers. This seems in part due to factors beyond his control, such as his large and heavy build, but also due to his timid and passive nature. When Stanley arrives at Camp Green Lake, he doesn't make a huge effort to make friends, and keeps mostly to himself. He is more worried about avoiding potential bullies than establishing rapport and trust with the other campers. This results partly from his low self-esteem and the low sense of self-worth that previous bullying experiences instilled in him.

Stanley and Zero aren't immediately friends when Stanley arrives at Camp Green Lake. Zero is even quieter than Stanley and has already been judged and dismissed by the other campers and camp counselors. Stanley initially subscribes to the general opinion because he doesn't see any evidence to suggest that Zero is not stupid or worthless. He willingly moves ahead of Zero in the water line, and ignores him for much of the beginning of the novel, reacting dismissively when Zero asks him to teach him how to read. Stanley must overcome his own prejudices and the effects of groupthink in order to recognize Zero's wonderful qualities: his intelligence and his sense of justice (he digs Stanley's hole when Stanley is sent to the Warden for stealing seeds he did not steal). When Stanley gives Zero a chance and actually tries to get to know him, he ends up making a lifelong friend.

In Part Two of the novel, Stanley becomes altruistic and caring, undergoing huge hardships to keep Zero alive. When Zero refuses to go back to Camp Green Lake, Stanley doesn't abandon him, and at the last leg of the journey to God's Thumb, Stanley physically carries Zero up the mountain, which puts him under danger and physical strain. At the beginning of the novel Stanley wasn't a "bad kid," but he also did not exhibit these extraordinary qualities of resilience and loyalty, which developed largely from his friendship with Zero. His loyalty to Zero persists even when the two return to society. Stanley insists on splitting the treasure fifty-fifty with Zero, even though he technically owns it (it belonged to his great-grandfather), thereby proving the strength of his gratitude and loyalty to his friend.

During the time he spends with Zero in the wilderness, Stanley also develops a strong sense of empathy. The two boys come from very different backgrounds - Stanley's family wasn't rich by any means, but they were united and had enough to survive. Zero, on the hand, was homeless for stretches of time, and became a ward of the state when he was abandoned by his mother. The contrast between Stanley and Zero's childhoods is summed up strikingly in their conversation about Laney Park. Stanley has fond memories of playing on the playground there, while Zero remembers the place as somewhere he waited for his mother "for more than a month," sleeping in the play equipment (194). Stanley has difficulty wrapping his head around Zero as homeless - he can't even find the "right words" when talking to his friend about this hardship (189). Yet as he comes to know Zero better, he is able to put himself in Zero's shoes and imagine how his friend "must have felt" (195). This is a very adult skill, and it shows a lot of compassion on Stanley's part.

The two boys' friendship is of course what ultimately breaks the Yelnats family curse. Stanley makes great sacrifices for his friend, including both intentional ones and unintentional ones (being convicted of Zero's crime), but it is important to note that the friendship is what ultimately keeps him alive and ensures the happiness and freedom of generations of Yelnatses to come. The moral of the story seems to be that kindness, loyalty, and empathy will be richly rewarded - especially when they are done out of genuine friendship, with no thought for reward.

Man vs. Nature

There is an underlying conflict in the novel between man and the elements. This conflict comes to a head several times in Holes as the main characters struggle with the inhospitable desert. The landscape, although it appears immutable and eternally hostile, is actually changeable. The various changes within the history of the Green Lake area underscore the divine judgment and punishment for Sam’s murder, as well as the redemption that Stanley achieves for his family by the end of the book. The environment in Holes takes on a personality, and almost appears like another central antagonist in addition to the Warden and Trout Walker.

The desert landscape is the backdrop for the bulk of the present-day narration, and Sachar's detailed description of the desert is highly effective in transporting the reader to the location of the action. The desert is a focus of the narration from the very first chapter, which is entirely dedicated to laying out the features of the "dry, flat wasteland" (3). There is a brief mention in this first chapter of the "very large lake" that used to cool and refresh the plain, but the author quickly moves on to the harsh present-day reality of Green Lake (3). We learn that the heat is scorching, there is very little shade, and there are at least three types of animals whose bites can be lethal. In this way, Green Lake is immediately established as an inhospitable and unwelcoming place. Its "barren and desolate" landscape only appears more foreboding in light of its highly ironic name (11).

The desert is associated with struggle and oppression: Stanley and the other boys of Green Lake are being punished for their crimes, and the desert is both their prison and instrument of their punishment. They must labor away at a single seemingly pointless task for months on end, and that task is one intimately connected with the landscape around them. By digging holes every day, the boys become well acquainted with the desert, and suffer from the thirst and the sun exposure that the desert wreaks. The authorities at the camp establish their dominance through the differential distribution of resources that counteract the effects of the desert: they are in control of rationing out the shower tokens, for example, and filling the canteens of the thirsty boys. The counselors and the Warden need never experience thirst, hunger, or sunburn, since they have access to all the resources at the camp; this is why the air conditioning in the Warden's cabin is a huge status symbol in the context of Camp Green Lake. Sachar makes a point of noting in the very first chapter that "[t]he Warden owns the shade" (3).

The desert also acts as the campers' prison. One of the first things that Mr. Sir tells Stanley when he arrives at Camp Green Lake is that there are no guard towers or fences at Camp Green Lake. These trappings of imprisonment are not needed, since if a boy tries to run away, the desert will use its weapons of dehydration, starvation, and exposure - not to mention the bites of its various poisonous inhabitants - to make sure the runaway never reaches safety. There is something intensely frustrating about being imprisoned by invisible forces instead of solid, concrete walls. Only the bravest and most reckless boys - Stanley and Zero - face the vast desert when they try to run away, and they almost die in the process.

Stanley's character development is partly attributable to his conflict with the harsh environment around him. Initially, he begins to toughen up mentally and physically as he digs more and more holes; his hands go from soft to calloused and he loses weight. When he follows Zero into the desert and helps his friend navigate the dangers of the wasteland, Stanley's loyalty, resilience, and perseverance are pushed to their very limits, and he becomes a better person and a better friend. After trekking through the desert, Stanley discovers an oasis on top of a mountain - and by carrying Zero up this mountain, he is able to break his age-old family curse. Eventually the environment helps protect him from itself: it gives him onions to eat and water to drink, and by eating the onions on top of God's Thumb, Zero and Stanley accidentally protect themselves from the lethal bite of the yellow-spotted lizards.

Through flashbacks we are introduced to Green Lake in the 1890s, with its "clear cool water" and "pink and rose-colored" peach tree blossoms (101). This Green Lake was hinted at in the first paragraph of the novel, but the protagonist Stanley knows nothing about it: to him, Camp Green Lake is the only harsh reality he can access. The author draws a clear connection between the murder of Sam the onion man and the fact that the town "shriveled and dried up along with the lake" (3). In the chapter when Sam is killed, the narrator lays out "the facts" of Sam's death, and immediately follows the gory details with the following sentence: "Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Greek Lake" (115). He goes on to ask us, "Whom did God punish?" The answer is presumably the people of Green Lake punished for their role as murderers or bystanders (115). Although it sounds improbable, the connection between Sam's death and the sudden drought that hit Green Lake is pushed by the author as an example of causation, not just correlation. We are supposed to believe that the murder caused the drought, and that God punished or cursed Green Lake because of its role in racial injustice and murder. The present-day desert that Stanley and his friends experience thus bears the traces of Green Lake's dark and hate-filled history, although the boys have no access to this history (we are privileged as readers with access to narrated flashbacks which create dramatic irony: we know more than they do).

What is fascinating about this connection between landscape and moral punishment is that sin is able to be redeemed by the end of the novel. Part Two of Holes ends with the evocative sentence, "Behind them the sky had turned dark, and for the first time in over a hundred years, a drop of rain fell into the empty lake" (225). The curse is lifted; life and happiness will return to Green Lake. Therefore, while the desert landscape is a result of hateful sin and initially is used as a punishment and a prison for the campers at Camp Green Lake, eventually the bravery of Zero and Stanley in the face of huge environmental obstacles allows the boys to break not only the Yelnats curse, but also the curse that is stopping rain from falling in Green Lake. The happy ending at the end of Holes is not just a happy ending for the characters; it is a happy ending for their environment as well.

Coming of Age

Annette Wannamaker refers to Holes as a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story in which Stanley Yelnats IV transitions from a boy to a man thanks to his experiences at Camp Green Lake.

At the start of the novel, Stanley is an overweight boy who is constantly bullied and has no friends. He is usually content to let things happen to him without trying to retaliate, even if he is being treated unfairly. Derek, a boy half his size, picks on him without fear of Stanley taking revenge, and Stanley accepts his false conviction for stealing Sweet Feet's shoes with a striking lack of protest. Stanley is soft, both physically and mentally: his initial state is symbolized by his hands, which are soft and unused to hard work.

Stanley's hands eventually become calloused from the daily digging. So too does Stanley's character begin to harden. He becomes tougher and more self-aware. He establishes himself at Camp Green Lake, moving up in the line after receiving X-Ray's approval and digging his holes quicker and with more strength every day. When Stanley first arrives at Camp Green Lake, he is naive: he had thought that there would be swimming and fun, and he is gullible enough to think that Mr. Sir is offering him water when the man asks, "You thirsty?" (15). By the mid-way mark of the novel, at the end of Part One, Stanley is more critical of his surroundings. He understands, for example, that the Warden is having the boys dig for treasure, not to build character, and he knows how to manipulate the system (e.g. by advising X-Ray to find the lipstick case in the morning rather than the evening, to get a whole day off digging). He is also beginning to develop a sense of altruism and friendship as he begins to teach Zero to read.

Stanley's character at the end of Part One is a far cry from the boy who arrived at Camp Green Lake at the beginning of the novel, but the most significant developments occur over the course of Part Two. Stanley's decision to run away from Camp Green Lake can be seen as a rash impulse, but it is at least partly motivated by his newfound confidence, as well as a real fear for his friend Zero. Stanley, when he comes across Zero under the Mary Lou, is determined to survive but refuses to abandon Zero in the desert. As the boys make their way up God's Thumb, Stanley proves his true friendship for Zero by taking care of the younger boy, distracting him with spelling games and eventually physically carrying him up the mountain. This mental and physical hardiness in extreme conditions is impressive, and Stanley is pleased with himself: on top of God's Thumb he reflects on how far he has come and how he "like[s] himself now" (186). His compassion for Zero is touching as he tries to understand his friend's difficult childhood. He has developed the skill of putting himself in Zero's shoes, thinking about his own fears or struggles and "realiz[ing] that that was how Zero must have felt" (195). This empathy is a truly adult trait.

The Stanley we meet at the beginning of the novel may be an unlikely hero - overweight and bullied - but by the end there is no question that he is the underdog hero of Holes, affecting and bettering not only his life, but the lives of Zero, the Yelnats family, and all the boys at Camp Green Lake when the brutal work camp is finally shut down. It is thanks to Stanley's bravery and perseverance above all that Kissin' Kate's treasure is discovered and the Yelnats curse is broken. In the words of Annette Wannamaker, by the end of the book Stanley "finds the buried treasure, teaches Zero to read, loses weight, gains strength and confidence, and removes a curse that has been plaguing his family for four generations." This is an impressive resume for a boy who at the beginning of Holes was a bullied, timid character who rarely stood up for himself. Stanley's personal character development eventually cultivates in him the knowledge of his own worth and place in the world. His transformation includes an increase in "both mental and physical strength," as Annette Wannamaker points out. At the end of the novel, Stanley is a self-confident young man who has learned important lessons and is clearly going places.

Authority and Tyranny

Authority and tyranny are common themes in young adult fiction, as adolescence is the time when teenagers figure out their place in the social structures and hierarchies around them. Young people tend to have less power and control than their elders - therefore parent/child and teacher/student relationships are explored routinely in young adult fiction. In the case of Holes, we have an example of this dynamic taken to the extreme: the Warden is given almost complete control over the boys who are sent to Camp Green Lake. Authority in the present-day is embodied in the camp counselors, but above all in the Warden.

The Warden is the main antagonist of the novel, and although she does not appear in the flesh until halfway through Holes, she looms over the early chapters - in the very first chapter we are told that "[t]he Warden owns the shade" (3). Her power is derived partly from her ownership of the land on which the camp is built, partly from the authority vested in her by the state legal system, and partly from the fact that she controls the resources within the camp. The Warden manipulates the boys into doing what she wants by punishing them with labor and deprivation when they misbehave or fail to achieve her targets, and by rewarding them with precious resources like shower tokens, water, or time off digging when they do something that pleases her. The Warden is well aware of her power, and uses it to her advantage, following her selfish motivations to sometimes abusive extremes.

The Warden's leadership style is definitely a dictatorship. She doesn't care about the boys in the camp, as becomes evident when she has Zero's records destroyed and does not mind whether he lives or dies in the desert. She is far more powerful than both Mr. Pendanski and Mr. Sir, and inflicts sudden corporal punishment by slapping Mr. Sir with her venomous nails when he upsets her. Although the Warden delegates some of her power to Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski, they are very much her underlings and are both laughable or pathetic in some way. When Mr. Pendanski challenges the Warden in front of the boys - by simply saying that he already filled up the boys' canteens and thereby questioning the need to do so again when she orders him to - the Warden becomes furious and humiliates him in front of the boys. There is little that the Warden would not do, it seems, in order to secure her position at the top of the food chain.

This Camp Green Lake dictatorship, while occasionally violent (as in the case of Mr. Sir and the venom nail polish), is rarely loud or blustering. The Warden shows the mark of a truly effective leader in that she never has to yell in order to get her way. This is because she cultivates huge amounts of fear in her followers, and can elicit the desired reactions and emotions in them by merely suggesting punishment rather than loudly threatening violence or retribution. She rarely raises her voice; instead, she exercises her authority with her trademark passive-aggressive "Excuse me?" While this may seem like a polite expression of diffidence or uncertainty, it really leaves no room for negotiation, and those who interact with the Warden quickly learn that she is far from polite or flexible when it comes to her goals and those who stand in the way of what she wants. For the first half of the novel, the Warden is a cool, composed, and seemingly unbeatable figure of authoritarian tyranny.

The Warden's power is challenged at the end of Part Two, of course, when her superior (the Attorney General) appears, with Stanley's belligerent lawyer in tow. Although the Warden seems to have absolute power from the perspective of the boys, in the context of the wider world she must adhere to others' judgements and commands. In Part Three of the novel, we see her stripped of the title that encapsulates her power: she is referred to simply as "Ms. Walker" rather than the Warden (229). By challenging the authority of Camp Green Lake with their daredevil escape and stealthy return, Zero and Stanley contribute to the tearing-down of an oppressive, dictatorial regime and establish themselves as young adults to be reckoned with.