Narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, The Hundred Dresses opens on a Monday morning in a small-town elementary school. A girl named Wanda Petronski is not in her usual seat in Room 13, and nobody in the classroom has noticed Wanda’s absence—not even Peggy and Madeline, a pair of popular girls who like to bully Wanda.
Wanda’s usual desk is the back corner of Room 13. Loud and rambunctious boys who achieve low grades sit in the same corner, and there is always mud and dirt on the floor. But Wanda doesn’t sit there because she is crude and noisy; she is quiet and rarely speaks at all. She has never been heard to laugh out loud, though occasionally she twists her mouth into a crooked smile.
The narrator comments that nobody knows why Wanda sits in the corner, but it is possible she sits there because she lives in the faraway Boggins Heights, meaning that her shoes become caked with dry mud from walking down country roads on her way to school. The narrator speculates that the teacher may want to keep the kids with the muddiest shoes in one corner of the room.
No one in the classroom ever thinks about Wanda when she is in class. Instead, they think about her in the mornings and after school, when groups of two or three students gossip about Wanda and laugh together as they walk to or from the schoolyard. Sometimes they wait for Wanda so they can “have fun with her.”
Wanda is still not in class on Tuesday. The only people to notice her absence are the teacher and big Bill Byron, a tall boy who sits behind Wanda. Without her there, Bill entertains the kids around him by stretching his long legs out and around Wanda’s empty desk.
On Wednesday, Peggy and Madeline finally notice Wanda’s absence. The narrator explains that Peggy and Madeline (also known as Maddie) sit in the front row with the other children who receive good grades. Peggy is the most popular girl in school. She has curly auburn hair and many pretty outfits. Maddie is her closest friend.
The narrator reveals that Peggy and Maddie have noticed Wanda’s absence because they made themselves late to school by waiting for Wanda outside the schoolyard so that they could “have some fun with her.” While waiting, Jack Beggles ran past them, and they knew they would have to go in soon because Jack was always the last one in his seat.
Having waited a few more minutes, the girls gave up waiting for Wanda and ran to class. They arrive while the class is reciting the Gettysburg Address, which their teacher, Miss Mason, always begins the day with. Peggy and Maddie slip into their seats as the class is speaking the final lines.
The Hundred Dresses begins by establishing the book’s central conflict: Wanda Petronski is inexplicably absent from school, likely because other girls are bullying her. That no one notices her absence on Monday suggests that there is a lack of consideration for Wanda in Room 13. Even the teacher, Miss Mason, doesn’t realize Wanda isn’t in her seat; Wanda is so quiet and unremarkable that she fades into the background.
The themes of social isolation and class difference arise as the narrator explains how Wanda lives in Boggins Heights, an undesirable area on the outskirts of town where poor people live.
The theme of bullying is introduced into the story when the narrator relates how Peggy, Maddie, and other girls wait for Wanda outside the school in order to “have fun with her.” This statement sounds innocuous on the surface, but the wording conceals its underlying harm; the taunting game is only “fun” for the girls who are unkind to Wanda.
Peggy and Maddie notice Wanda’s absence on Wednesday, but only because they wait outside to tease her. In a moment of situational irony, the girls arrive in their seats as the class is finishing reciting the Gettysburg Address, which is a famous speech that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln delivered in 1863 on a battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
One of the speech’s purposes was to invoke the principles of human equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The situation is ironic because the girls miss the speech because they were busy trying to treat Wanda as a person of lower status. Thus, the theme of equality is subtly introduced into the narrative.