Study Guide

The Borrowers Themes

By Mary Norton

  • Prejudice

    Borrowers don't like humans, humans don't like borrowers, and "borrowing" in one world is "stealing" in the other. Ugh. Can't we all just get along? The inability of big and little people to get past differences ruffles a lot of feathers in The Borrowers, and those who struggle to overcome them mature into more developed characters. So hey, at least it's worth the trouble.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. In your opinion, do borrowers borrow or steal? What would Arrietty have to say about your answer? And what would the boy tell you?
    2. How do Arrietty and the boy grow as characters as they become less prejudiced? Which characters stay the same? Why?
    3. The characters in this novel are so obsessed with labeling things (like labeling "borrowing" as "stealing"). Does putting a name to something help the characters understand it any better? Or does it cause them to move farther away from the true meaning?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. Driver's actions (taking handkerchiefs, wine, and other such things) are no different from what the Borrowers do, so she should probably get a life and stop bugging 'em.

    Mrs. Driver's actions are worse than what the Borrowers do; she is actually stealing.

  • Freedom

    Arrietty lives for freedom. She craves it the way Shmoop craves burritos (which is to say, a lot). But the weird thing is, when freedom is mentioned in The Borrowers, it often sounds like a bad thing—a dangerous thing. At least, that's what the adults in the novel would have the youngsters like the boy and Arrietty believe. But the thirst for freedom just can't be quenched, as Arrietty and the boy long for both physical and imaginative varieties.

    Questions About Freedom

    1. Is freedom a good thing or a bad thing here? Arrietty sure thinks it's good, but what about poor Eggletina?
    2. Do you think that it is more important for characters in the novel to have physical independence (be able to go where they want to) than to have imaginative independence (the freedom to read and learn and talk about what they like)?
    3. How do characters like Arrietty, Homily, and the boy change as a result of having more freedom?

    Chew on This

    Pod's so stinkin' selfish. He makes his wife and child live sheltered lives underground, and never allows them to know what it is like upstairs.

    Not so. Pod's totally selfless, because he risks his own neck to bring his wife what she wants, even if it's as useless as a teacup.

  • Society and Class

    We're all familiar with the typical factors that determine class—money, education, background, yadda yadda yadda. But what about whether you live over the mantle, behind the harpsichord, or under a clock? In The Borrowers, where your family lives matters more than just about anything else when it comes to figuring out where you fall on the social hierarchy. But as some of our characters soon realize, your class doesn't really say much of anything at all about who you truly are.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Who do you think is the most class-obsessed character (or family) in the novel? Why do you think so? How does that make you think of them?
    2. Do you think Homily envies Aunt Lupy? Or does she look down upon her? Or both?
    3. How does Homily's thirst for household things compared to Arrietty's thirst for exploration and freedom? Is one more valuable than the other?

    Chew on This

    The class system the borrowers use is yet another example of their prejudice.

    Homily is herself stuck-up, and is "house-proud." So she should probably stop complaining about everyone else being snobby.

  • Youth

    Kids get a bad rap. Adults think they are lazy or stubborn or, worse, naughty, and in a fight between parents and children, the parents almost always win. Totally unfair, right. Right. And The Borrowers doesn't do much to change that dynamic. Throughout most of the novel, youth is cast in a negative light—Mrs. Driver and Homily call kids like Arrietty, the boy, and even the young policeman named Ernie "wicked," "nasty," and "no-good," and most of the time the kids can't answer back. But in the end, the kiddos save the day, so really, who's on top?

    Questions About Youth

    1. Based on the stories of Arrietty, the boy, and Eggletina, do you think boys have more freedom and independence than the young girls in this novel?
    2. Why do you think Mrs. Driver and Homily call the young characters in this novel nasty names? Is this just a case of adults controlling kids, or do their characters have similarities?
    3. How are our young characters' behaviors influenced by the adults around them? Are they more influenced by their own hearts?

    Chew on This

    Adults have more power in this novel. They tell the kids what to do, and even get to tell the story (we're looking at you Mrs. May!).

    Youths have more power in this novel. Although the adults tell them what to do, the kids choose whether or not to obey, and they set everything in motion.

  • Fear

    There's a whole boatload of things to be afraid of in The Borrowers. Giant eyeballs, rat poison, cats, mean people, and, of course, the unknown. But the biggest thing to fear in this novel seems to be fear itself, because fear is what keeps our characters trapped in their own small worlds. The bravest characters are the ones who are able to think outside the box, and dare to dream of something different.

    Questions About Fear

    1. How does Pod's fear after being seen make things worse for the family? Could it be that the fear of being seen is worse than actually being seen?
    2. Almost all of the characters in the novel are afraid of something, but which characters handle their fear in similar ways? What does that say about them?
    3. When do fears appear alongside prejudice in The Borrowers?

    Chew on This

    Having a healthy sense of fear is a good thing in The Borrowers because it prevents characters from making reckless choices and taking dangerous risks.

    Fear is a bad news in The Borrowers because it clouds characters' minds and limits their freedom.

  • Coming of Age

    Growing pains are… well… a pain. But they're a normal part of growing up. And once a character emerges from his or her cocoon to become a butterfly, it all seems worth it. Arrietty seems to do the most growing up in The Borrowers, although characters like the boy, and even her parents, have some maturing to do, too. Along the way, characters learn to make decisions for themselves, thanks to some tough new experiences that shove them along the path to adulthood.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. How do new experiences contribute to the character development of Arrietty and the boy? What would their characters have looked like if they never interacted with each other?
    2. Which characters decide to believe something different from what they've been taught? Do these characters have anything in common?
    3. Are youths the only ones who grow up in this novel? What about Great-Aunt Sophy, Homily, and Pod?

    Chew on This

    Growing up means leaving prejudice behind in The Borrowers.

    Growing up means gaining independence in The Borrowers.

  • Awe and Amazement

    You've probably heard of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. You know, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Temple of Artemis… the list goes on. But for Arrietty and the other borrowers, the leg of a chair is as big as the Colossus of Rhodes, and a little patch of grass is as awe-inspiring as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. As our tiny protagonists are awestruck by everyday objects, we realize that normal is relative; in The Borrowers, there's more than one way of viewing the world.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. How does Arrietty's perspective on the wide world differ from the boy's?
    2. Why do you think the author uses such lofty language to talk about boring old stuff like a front door?
    3. Which characters are most awestruck? Are there any commonalities here, such as age, gender, or type of creature? Or is everyone amazed across the board?

    Chew on This

    Arrietty is the most awestruck of all the characters because she's the most open-minded.

    Kate is the most awestruck because she's so amazed, she won't let Mrs. May stop telling the story.

  • The Supernatural

    Do you believe in magic? More importantly, don't you want to? There's a part of all of us that, despite evidence to the contrary, still want to see magicians pull rabbits out of hats and believe that crazy, impossible things can be true. It's not too hard a job for characters in The Borrowers to believe, what with all the tiny folks running around, but there's magic and mystery right and left in this novel, and some things that defy belief altogether—the tale itself. Do the borrowers really exist?

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. How would the story be different if the borrowers were just hallucinations—either out of a drunken (Great-Aunt Sophy, Mrs. Driver) or fevered (the boy, Mrs. May's brother) mind?
    2. Were you surprised that Arrietty doesn't believe in fairies? Do you believe that the boy doesn't, too? Why do you think these characters have no trouble believing in borrowers, but not fairies?
    3. Great-Aunt Sophy has no trouble believing her hallucinations—why does she not believe Mrs. Driver when she tells her about the borrowers?
    4. Which characters don't believe in magic (or certain kinds of magic)? Are there commonalities among those characters that do believe, and those that don't? Why?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. May's brother made up the entire story of the borrowers because he wanted his sisters to believe the extraordinary.

    Mrs. May made up the story of the borrowers so that Kate would believe the extraordinary.