The Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin
Tools of Characterization
Everything in The Westing Game can be seen as a clue, and names are no exception. Consider this: parts of at least six of the characters' names can be found in the clues distributed at the will reading. While some seem like kind of a stretch, like "ed purple-fruit" and "for + d," others seem almost too obvious, like "amber," "grace," and "otis." Of course, the name that seems to be the answer is the one that's absent. In this book, a name can identify someone as a murderer. Because of how the solution to the will is set up, the characters think that if someone's name is the answer to the puzzle, that means he or she then has the characteristics of a killer.
So what else is going on with character names in this book? First, it's notable how so many characters change their names at least once. Often, these name changes are also supposed to indicate changes in status. Mr. Hoo adds the "Shin" to his name so he'll sound more Chinese, while both Grace and Sam Westing abandon their original last name of "Windkloppel." Crow abandons her married name, too. Then there's Turtle, whose real name is "Tabitha-Ruth" – but, hey, if we had that name we might ditch it too. She gets called "Turtle" because she looks a little bit like one, and her long braid seems to resemble a turtle's tail. We understand why she starts going by "T.R." when she turns eighteen, but it's still kind of a mystery to us why she asks Flora to call her "Alice."
Turns out we have a lot to say about the topic of names. Remember that finding similarities between names is, ultimately, an important part of solving the mystery. Names can also point to qualities characters don't have, or should have. Grace isn't very graceful – her name makes sense for someone who wants to be an heiress, but doesn't match the ways she treats her daughters. Angela, in contrast, seems to match the angelic qualities of her name, but that ends up being truer on the surface than, she feels, on the inside.
For many of these characters, how you look determines who you are on the inside. For Chris, this means people assume his mind is as broken as his body. For Angela, this means people think that because she's pretty, she either isn't or doesn't need to be smart. Both of them, it seems, would like to separate these external qualities from the people they are inside. In contrast, Sydelle wants her body to appear damaged so people feel sorry for her and pay attention to her. What this really shows, though, is that she's acting out her hurt feelings and internal problems by pretending to appear in pain.
And then there's Sam Westing, who becomes Sandy, with his totally mashed-up face; Barney, with his mustache; and Julian Eastman, with his capped teeth. It's important to note that he becomes a new character by altering how he appears to others. One question for us to think about is whether he's actually becoming different people as he becomes different characters, even though they're all the same person. (As you'll note in our section "Characters," we've kept them as individuals for our analysis, because that's how we know each of them for most of the book.)
It's significant, too, that Dr. Deere is studying plastic surgery, a career in which one of his ultimate goals will be altering people's appearances (whether that's out of vanity or medical necessity) – and yet the biggest medical breakthrough we see from him is when he helps Chris find medicine, not an operation. He helps Chris calm his body down and learn to control it from the inside out.
Occupation is a huge part of how the people in this book are characterized to us readers, to themselves, and in relation to the other characters. In order to participate in the will-readings and become players in the Westing game, the will makes each person define his or her position in the world – not just once, but twice. The way the characters describe their positions reveals both who they're presenting themselves to the world as and how they feel about it. Some people lie, some describe who they want to be, and others just make jokes.
For example, the first go-round Jake puts that is position is "standing or sitting when not lying down." Instead of writing that he's a podiatrist, he makes a silly joke. This shows both that he doesn't take the game seriously at first and also hints that he's unhappy with his job. Could it be that, as Grace later says accusingly to him, he doesn't think of himself as a "real doctor" (22.12)?
Or what should we think of Angela, who can't come up with anything the first time around, and just writes "none"? The fact that she feels like nothing, that she has no position, is pretty sad. In retrospect, that should've been a big warning sign to her parents that she was unhappy, even depressed.