Sarah, narrator of five of Little Bee's eleven chapters, is 32 years old when the novel opens in May 2007. She's married (unhappily) to Andrew O'Rourke and they have a four-year-old son, Charlie. Sarah O'Rourke is her legal name. She runs a trendy fashion magazine Nixie but aspires to more serious journalism. She uses her maiden name, Summers, as her professional name.
Sarah is a bundle of contradictions, telling us in one moment what a "cautious woman" (2.24) she is, and in the next, how she chopped off her finger on a Nigerian beach to save a stranger, Little Bee. Sarah's an ambiguous character, open to a bunch of interpretations. She takes risks and crosses social, legal, moral, and geographical boundaries, and has a knack for making readers uncomfortable.
Between 2005 (when she starts her affair with Lawrence Osborn and meets Little Bee) and 2007 (when the novel ends) Sarah experiences massive changes. In 2005, Sarah's a fairly naïve and sheltered working mother who is beginning to question her life and her world. When the novel ends in 2007, she has lost the middle finger of her left hand, her husband, and any semblance of life as she knew it before she met Little Bee. Instead of running a fashion magazine and a nice suburban household, she's risking her life (and possibly her son's) in order to gather stories for a book about the abuses suffered by Nigerian people at the hands of oil companies.
While readers across the board love Little Bee, they are torn on the issue of Sarah. Some view her as heroic and likeable; others see her as selfish, careless, neglectful, and fault her for her affair with Lawrence, her inability to recognize that Andrew was suicidal, and her mothering decisions, among other things. She provokes strong reactions and gives readers plenty to chew on.
Morally Ambiguous Heroism
Sarah is the woman who chops off the middle finger of her left hand, with a machete, to save Little Bee's life – oh, and they've just met. This isn't like when Bert sneezes off his own nose off in Sesame Street only to have it magically reappear in future episodes. Sarah's finger doesn't grow back, as the novel almost obsessively reminds us. Yet, some readers, and even author Chris Cleave, don't find her all that heroic. Cleave says,
It's ironic because Sarah's infidelity is the reason the couple find themselves on the beach in the first place. And yet her premeditated affair goes unpunished by life, while Andrew's momentary failure of courage dooms him forever. Life is savagely unfair. It ignores our deep-seated convictions and places a disproportionate emphasis on the decisions we make in split seconds. (source)
Cleave's comments about his own work are provocative. Far from being the last word, though, his comments raise more questions than they answer. Cleave always leaves lots of room for readers to form their own opinions, which is pretty cool. Like any good arguments, his are debatable. So, let's play the devil's advocate and try on a few different arguments:
Argument 1: If Sarah and Andrew hadn't been on the beach, Little Bee might have died, and Sarah might never have been in a position to help others in Little Bee's position. We could argue that Sarah's basically pure acts of kindness and loyalty toward Little Bee are ultimately more important than her infidelity.
Argument 2: Does Sarah's infidelity really go unpunished? Think about it – she discovers how much she loves Andrew after he's dead. The theme of "Guilt and Blame" comes into play here. Otherwise, Sarah doesn't seem to be punished for her affair because she deals with her guilt (mainly over its impact on Andrew) in positive ways. Through the writings and research her husband leaves behind, she finds ways to honor his memory and continue the work that was important to him.
Argument 3: Sarah doesn't just cut off her finger in a split second moment of heroism. She also shows "deep-seated convictions" when she welcomes Little Bee into her home and basically devotes her life to her, traveling with her back to Nigeria to make sure nobody hurts her. Beyond that, Sarah begins a very dangerous journalistic project – interviewing other Nigerian victims of oil companies.
What do you think?
We should remember that Sarah met Lawrence in the first place because she was interviewing him for a story she wanted to write about the UK Home Office. Before she met Lawrence, she was already feeling like her life and her magazine were too superficial to bear. She was reaching out to try to do more serious work. It's like that timeworn saying, "be careful what you wish for."
When Sarah starts opening herself up to making positive change in her world, her world responds with an opportunity to show she's serious. That opportunity comes in the form of Little Bee. The way we see it, cutting off her awakened Sarah's inner hero – the radioactive spider to her Spiderman. Her interaction with Little Bee on the beach sparks flames that she already had inside her. If Sarah hadn't already been preparing herself for a more heroic life, she might not have cut off her finger, and she might not have embraced Little Bee as if the girl were her own child.
Sarah is mother to Charlie, a four-year-old boy who thinks he's Batman. She clearly loves Charlie, but does that make her a good mom? Lots of readers aren't sure. For example, a reviewer from The Guardian calls her "a semi-neglectful mother" (source). What do you think?
Taking Charlie to Nigeria and exposing him to some serious potential danger could be taken as an act of neglect. On the other hand, there's no indication Charlie is actually harmed while there. In fact, he seems to benefit greatly from the experience. As we discuss in "What's Up With the Ending?" and in his "Characters: Charlie O'Rourke," through his interactions with Little Bee, Charlie (at least temporarily) stops fighting baddies and finally relaxes for the first time since his father's suicide.
Sarah is also modeling what she views as ethical behavior for her son. She wants him to understand that Little Bee is worth fighting for – just as if she were a blood sister to Charlie. Sarah seems to feel it's important to show her son that some things are worth taking great risks.
…Which kind of reminds us of another Sarah – Sarah Connor from those awesome Terminator movies. Like this Sarah, Sarah Connor starts off blind to the life-or-death problems of the world. When she learns the truth, she must train her son to fight the battle she knows he'll soon be up against (or that he's already fought, or that he's fighting right now…time travel can be so confusing, but you know what we mean). Sarah O'Rourke might be, consciously or subconsciously, preparing her son to be politically active, and to live globally.
What do you think of her choices? What are some of the motivations behind those choices? Is Sarah able to successfully balance her responsibilities to Charlie with those she has to Little Bee?