Prep Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Ms. Moray's Silver Pin (Symbol)

Ms. Moray is Lee's sophomore English teacher. While she is well-meaning and clearly passionate about her job, she is inexperienced and makes a number of mistakes that haunt Lee, in part because Lee recognizes aspects of herself in Ms. Moray's background. Like Lee, she comes from an unassuming Midwestern background, and does not fit in well in the elitist and class-conscious world of Ault. Ms. Moray wears a silver pin in the shape of an open book, and this pin comes to represent her in Lee's memory. The pin is a symbol of Ms. Moray's inexperience and her status as an outsider. Lee, Aspeth, and Dede make fun of it in a note they pass between themselves during one of her classes, mocking her old-womanish sense of style. Lee thinks that pins are more appropriate for women in their thirties or forties, and therefore assumes that Ms. Moray must have received it as a gift from a parent or mentor. It only occurs to her later, when Lee is herself an adult, that Ms. Moray probably bought the pin for herself, to mark the beginning of a strange and intimidating new chapter in her life. Like most other things about Ms. Moray, the pin makes sense to Lee only in retrospect.

Names Written in Gold (Symbol)

The dining hall at Ault is decorated with marble panels, which are engraved with the names of every senior prefect to have passed through Ault. These names, after being engraved, are painted gold. While Lee explains that the names of all Ault students are engraved in wood, the hierarchy that separates prefects from their less-exulted peers is reflected in the materials used to record their names for posterity. Furthermore, the expensive materials used to record prefects' names symbolize not only the wealth in which most Ault prefects are brought up, but the wealth most of them will acquire through prestigious careers after high school. Ault separates "ordinary" students from favored ones in hundreds of small and large ways: by giving them the title of prefect, by giving them roles in the school Christmas play, or by placing them in the care of a certain college adviser. The difference between modest wooden panels and grand gold-and-marble ones reflects this instinct to separate in a visually visceral way.

Names (Motif)

Lee's classmates tend to have unusual names. Some, such as Lee's roommate Martha, have names that reflect a highly traditional northern European heritage. Many minority students, meanwhile, are easily recognizable because their names are so unusual in the context of Ault: Rufina, for instance, or Conchita. A great many characters, though, have names that sound completely new, as if invented by the individual's parents. Names that fit into this category include Aspeth and Horton. These names are often difficult to distinguish from last names, and in fact may nod to an upper-class habit of reusing family names as first names, possibly to emphasize the prestige of a person's ancestry. Two names are particularly rich in symbolic meaning. Cross Sugarman himself points out that he has a Jewish last name, an anglicized version of "Zuckerman." In order to become popular at Ault, he purposely avoids discussing this side of his identity. His distinctly Christian- sounding first name evokes this conflicted identity. Gates Medkowski, the senior to whom Lee briefly becomes attached, represents everything that Lee believes an Ault student should be. As such, her first name points to the way in which Ault seems like both an opportunity for Lee and an exclusive environment forever unavailable to her. Just as a gate can either serve as an opening or as a barrier, Gates Medkowski both invites Lee into Ault's social environment and represents how distant Lee still is from being included in the community. Finally, the mothers of some of Lee's classmates have "names that made it hard to imagine they’d ever held real jobs: Fifi and Tinkle and Yum." As Lee notes, these women's names imply a life outside of professional obligations. Their daughters, though, growing up after the women's movement, have decidedly gender-neutral names, implying hopes that they will succeed in more traditionally masculine realms.

Conchita's Clothes (symbol)

When Lee first meets Conchita Maxwell, she wears colorful, childlike clothes. In fact, her unusual outfits are perfectly chosen to make Conchita stand out and to show how little she buys into her school's ideology of homogeneity. While Lee wants to fit in with her classmates and sometimes fails, Conchita does all she can to prove her distinctiveness among them. Since Conchita is a child of extreme privilege, her clothing may be a way to rebel against her upbringing. At the same time, her wealth provides her with the safety she needs to rebel and experiment. Lee lacks this safety: short of social and academic success at Ault, she will not have opportunities she craves. However, Conchita bears a certain amount of pressure as a result of her father's wealth and status. This may be the reason that she stops wearing colorful clothes over the course of her high school years. By the end of her and Lee's senior year, Conchita delivers a speech defending Ault against charges of racism and classism while wearing professional, demure clothing. This moment shows the way in which her clothing and worldview evolve in tandem. As she conforms more to Ault's ethos and politics, her clothes conform more to her peers' expectations of what is appropriate.

Sin-Jun's squid (Symbol)

During their freshman year, Lee and Dede notice a strange scent in their shared room. They react in different ways—Lee tries her best to ignore the smell, but is unable to do so as it becomes more pronounced, whereas Dede actively seeks out its source and talks about it constantly. The only roommate who does not discuss or seem to notice the smell is Sin-Jun, who turns out to be responsible for it. Sin-Jun keeps a snack of dried squid among her possessions, and her American-born roommates find the squid, and the smell it produces, upsetting. The squid becomes a symbol of the cultural divides between Sin-Jun and her classmates. She responds to the entire incident with a polite but undramatic apology, possibly obscuring deeper feelings of exclusion.

Mr. Fiora's Checks (Symbol)

Lee's tuition checks are an unusual symbol because Lee herself notices and comments upon their symbolic nature—that is to say, they function as a symbol among the characters in the novel, rather than simply for the readers. Lee, while in a conflict with her father, muses that Mr. Fiora tends to overestimate how much Ault values his tuition money. To Ault's administration, the Fioras' small checks, augmented by scholarship funds, are merely symbols of gratitude. This observation contains a keen insight about the nature of economic inequality. Several thousand dollars, for Lee's middle-class family, is a manageable but substantial sum to be used in a strategic fashion. For Ault, though, and for the extremely wealthy people Lee encounters there, this money—and money in general—matters far less for its practical uses than for its symbolism. Having spent several years at Ault, Lee is able to discern this difference in attitudes toward money, and realizes that wealth is materially useful only to a point. While her own family can afford what they need in terms of necessities, many Ault families have much more than they need and therefore view money through an emotional rather than pragmatic lens.