Study Guide

Holes Man and the Natural World

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Man and the Natural World

There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

There used to be a town of Green Lake as well. The town shriveled and dried up along with the lake, and the people who lived there. (1.1-2)

Nature and humanity seem pretty connected in this book. From the very first line of the story, we see that when one changes, the other follows.

The digging got easier after a while. The ground was hardest at the surface, where the sun had baked a crust about eight inches deep. Beneath that, the earth was looser. (7.19)

Sure, this is just a simple description of the land. But let's dig deeper. (Yeah, we like that pun.) We can also read this as a hint of the "layered" quality of the natural world: what appears on the surface isn't always what's really underneath. Can you think of other instances of these kinds of "layers" in the world of the novel?

There was a change in the weather.

For the worse.

The air became unbearably humid. Stanley was drenched in sweat. Beads of moisture ran down the handle of his shovel. It was almost as if the temperature had gotten so hot that the air itself was sweating. (29.1-3)

This passage opens the second section of the book. Can you think of another approaching storm that's about to break out in the book's plot at this point?

The storm moved off farther west, along with any hope of rain. But the image of the fist and thumb remained in Stanley's head. Although, instead of lightning flashing behind the thumb, in Stanley's mind, the lightning was coming out of the thumb, as if it were the thumb of God. (29.24)

This is a pretty deep moment. For Stanley, the land itself is like the source of God's judgment. Do we see this attitude reflected anywhere else in the book?

After a while he thought he could make out the shape of the mountains through the haze. At first he wasn't sure if this was another kind of mirage, but the farther he walked, the clearer they came into view. Almost straight ahead of him, he could see what looked like a fist, with its thumb sticking up.

He didn't know how far away it was. Five miles? Fifty miles? One thing was certain. It was more than halfway.

He kept walking toward it, although he didn't know why. He knew he'd have to turn around before he got there. But every time he looked at it, it seemed to encourage him, giving him the thumbs-up sign. (34.7-9)

It looks like we forgot a character in our "Character Analyses" section: the landscape. Nature encourages Stanley when he most needs it; or at least, that's how Stanley interprets it.

As they climbed higher, the patches of weeds grew thicker, and they had to be careful not to get their feet tangled in thorny vines. Stanley suddenly realized something. There hadn't been any weeds on the lake.

"Weeds and bugs," he said. "There's got to be water around somewhere. We must be getting close." (37.20-21)

As Stanley and Zero get farther up the mountain, the land becomes more fertile and full of life. Weeds and bugs are generally regarded as unpleasant, but, like the stinky onions, they are the messy expressions of lots of things going on underneath the surface. Compare this to the dry, shriveled landscape directly around Camp Green Lake, where everything generally remains the same. Pretty stark contrast, right?

Stanley couldn't see his feet, which made it difficult to walk through the tangled patches of weeds and vines. He concentrated on one step at a time, carefully raising and setting down each foot. He thought only about each step, and not the impossible task that lay before him.

Higher and higher he climbed. His strength came from somewhere deep inside himself and also seemed to come from the outside as well. After focusing on Big Thumb for so long, it was as if the rock had absorbed his energy and now acted like a kind of giant magnet pulling him toward it. (38.3-4)

Almost like some kind of spiritual guide, Big Thumb and the land around it help Stanley do what he has to do and make it up the mountain. Thanks, Big Thumb. We owe you one.

Stanley bit into an onion. It didn't burn his eyes or nose, and, in fact, he no longer noticed a particularly strong taste.

He remembered when he had first carried Zero up the hill, how the air had smelled bitter. It was the smell of thousands of onions, growing and rotting and sprouting.

Now he didn't smell a thing. (42.10-12)

When he first encountered the onion field, all Stanley noticed was the bad smell and the strong taste. Living on the onions, though, has allowed him to see beyond the surface to the life-giving properties, the "growing and rotting and sprouting" that's going on all the time in nature. We're not planning on moving into an onion field anytime soon, but it does make us appreciate what's around us.

His brain took him back to a time when he was very little, all bundled up in a snowsuit. He and his mother were walking, hand in hand, mitten in mitten, when they both slipped on some ice and fell and rolled down a snow-covered hillside. They ended up at the bottom of the hill. He remembered he almost cried, but instead he laughed. His mother laughed, too.

He could feel the same light-headed feeling he felt then, dizzy from rolling down the hill. He felt the sharp coldness of the snow against his ear. He could see flecks of snow on his mother's bright and cheery face. (46.21-22)

When he's at his ultimate low and thinks he's going to die, Stanley turns to memories of his mother. But check it out: the memory he chooses is one in which the natural world plays a strong part. So much of the intensity of the memory actually comes from the physical sensations of the natural world.

A short while later both boys fell asleep. Behind them the sky had turned dark, and for the first time in over a hundred years, a drop of rain fell into the empty lake. (49.33)

This is quite a moment. After we take a second to appreciate it, let's ask this question: if the lack of rain was the result of the moral crimes of the people of Green Lake, why does the rain fall again now? Does Stanley's friendship with Zero somehow redeem the town's crimes?

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