Study Guide

Holes Themes

  • Fate and Free Will

    The place of fate and free will in our lives is an ongoing question in Holes. Sachar has fun playing with the idea of destiny, but he never directly tells the reader what to think. Is the curse real? Does it actually determine what happens to Stanley and his family? Or is it just a funny idea that doesn't have much to do with Stanley's story? Different members of the Yelnats family seem to have different ideas about the curse and about how free they are to direct their own lives. Regardless of what they believe, though, the legacy of the past seems to hold sway over many of the book's characters. Sometimes for the better – but usually for the worse.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. The narrator tells us more than once that Stanley and his father don't actually believe in the curse, thank you very much. But does the idea of the curse affect Stanley's actions in the book? Even if he doesn't believe in it, does it at all change the choices he makes?
    2. In <em>Holes,</em> we hear about a bunch of coincidences that don't directly have anything to do with the curse (think Clyde Livingston and Trout Walker having the same incurable foot fungus, Zero and Stanley surviving by finding Sam's overturned boat, etc.). Do all these coincidences make the reader more likely to believe in the curse?
    3. Is the story more or less compelling if you believe in the curse? Does it make a difference to you as a reader if you think the ending of a book is somehow "predetermined" and the events are destined to unfold the way they do?
    4. Stanley's mother consistently downplays the importance of the curse and tries to point out ways in which the Yelnatses have been lucky in their lives, rather than unlucky. Why does she work so hard to try to convince Stanley and his father that the curse isn't real? Can looking at your "destiny" in a certain way change how you might approach your future?
    5. After five generations of the Yelnats family suffering under the curse, why is the curse undone now? Is there anything special about Stanley that makes him worthy of fulfilling this destiny?

    Chew on This

    The curse is a cool literary device that makes the reader feel like things have worked out neatly at the end of the book. But beyond that, it really doesn't have much to do with the plot; the characters make their own decisions just as they would if there were no curse.

    Through the course of the book, Stanley figures out that he isn't just a slave to his fate. By overcoming his sense of being controlled by the curse, he overcomes the curse itself.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Stanley Yelnats, our main squeeze in <em>Holes</em>, is convicted of a crime that he didn't commit. And he doesn't get off easy, either. How's that for lack of justice? But the theme of justice and judgment in this book goes beyond the issue of the modern criminal justice system. We also see human beings passing judgment on their fellow citizens. Plus, we get a sense that the world has its own system of justice that can end up messing with some pretty innocent people. Over and over in the book, people invoke ideas of justice to justify (nifty how that works out, huh?) their own needs, prejudices, and desires. Making sense of all these different ideas can be difficult, but doing so is one way to help us understand the characters and their motivations.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. There are a lot of competing ideas about justice in <em>Holes</em>. Does the narrator value any of these ideas over the others? How does he suggest to the reader which ones might be more valuable?
    2. Since we know that Stanley didn't steal the shoes, and that he told the truth at his trial, why do you think he ended up being convicted?
    3. Kate Barlow says at one point that "[w]e're all equal under the eyes of God" (26.29). Does that have something to do with why she takes on the life of a criminal? Or has she simply been driven crazy by the horror of Sam's murder?
    4. At the end of the book, the Warden – having lost her long-held hope of getting Kate Barlow's buried treasure – loses her job, becomes penniless, and is forced to sell her family's land. Is this a "just" end for this character, considering all the bad things she's done throughout the novel? Is it too easy or too hard? Should she go to jail? Should she get a second chance? Whose notion of justice does her unhappy ending fulfill?

    Chew on This

    All the unjust things that happen in the book suggest that no system of justice administered by human beings – who are always flawed and self-interested – really works.

    The book's ending, where Stanley is cleared and allowed to go home, suggests that the justice system, although not perfect, eventually gets things right.

  • Choices

    Check out our discussion of "Fate and Free Will" for some thoughts about whether or not the choices of the characters in <em>Holes</em> even matter. Whether or not they matter, though, they're definitely made. Whom to marry, how to act, what to believe – most of our characters do some pretty decisive choice-making. Oh, except for our protagonist, Stanley: for most of the book, he's pretty content to let other people – more powerful people – make choices for him, while he just follows along and makes the best of things. He usually reacts to conflict passively, trying not to make waves or assert himself too much. Is Stanley's choice <em>not</em> to make choices a worthwhile one for him?

    Questions About Choices

    1. Zero and Stanley are both pretty passive in the face of attacks or insults from other people. Are they both passive in the same way and for the same reasons, or are there differences in how they respond (or don't respond) to challenges?
    2. What makes Stanley choose to leave Camp Green Lake (and the only water for a hundred miles) and go out into the desert after Zero?
    3. Does Miss Katherine choose to become Kissin' Kate? Is she responsible for her choice? If not, who is?
    4. Do you think the Warden has any options in her life other than the ones she's chosen? Does she choose to be evil, or is it just the way she is?

    Chew on This

    <em>Holes</em> is about Stanley learning to make choices for himself and not just letting other people – or circumstances – make those choices for him.

    Stanley has no trouble making choices, it's just that his choices are limited by his situation; he doesn't have a lot to choose from.

  • Power

    Power definitely doesn't get a good rap in <em>Holes</em>. Most of the powerful people – the Warden and Mr. Pendanski, especially – abuse their power to no end. Even the boys at camp have their own little abusive power structure going on. And to top it all off, it all seems kind of random: why do <em>these </em>people have the power? And how do you survive in a world where power is so absolute? These are questions that Stanley grapples with. And now we'll ask you: do we ever get the answers?

    Questions About Power

    1. Stanley figures out early on that if he's going to survive at Camp Green Lake, he'd better stay on X-Ray's good side. What are we to make of X-Ray's position as leader of D Tent? We know that he's not physically the strongest boy. Why do the other boys follow him?
    2. Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski express that power in very different ways, don't you think? Which of them do you think is more oppressive or abusive? Why?
    3. Is power necessarily a bad thing? Does every powerful person in the book somehow abuse his or her power?
    4. What are the sources of power in <em>Holes</em>? That is, what is it that makes people powerful?

    Chew on This

    X-Ray holds the boys together and keeps them going through all the tough times at Camp Green Lake. In exchange, he asks for a few understandable perks of leadership.

    X-Ray is a bully who just happens to be the biggest bully in D Tent. He uses his power to exploit and control the other boys; he's really no better than the Warden.

  • Transformation

    Ch ch ch ch changes. It's pretty much inevitable that in a book about teenagers we'll see some major changes. We all know the growing-up drill, right? Well, in <em>Holes</em>, Stanley and the other boys are put in a pretty extreme environment that causes them to change even more quickly and drastically. And don't forget that transformations can take all forms in literature: emotional, physical, behavioral… the list goes on. All of these kinds of changes pop up in <em>Holes, </em>so keep your eye out as you read, and let us know what you find.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Is transformation always a good thing in <em>Holes</em>? Give some examples to back up your answer.
    2. What's the relationship between external (physical) transformation and internal (emotional or moral) transformation in the book? Do they always go together? Can you have one without the other?
    3. Our boy Stanley definitely goes through some major transformations. Bu what is the first indication we see that Stanley's sense of himself may be changing?
    4. The character of Kate Barlow travels a long way in her transformation from Miss Katherine, the sweet, caring schoolteacher, to Kissin' Kate, the murderous outlaw. Do you find the transformation believable? If not, how does it affect your attitude toward the story? Do characters always have to be believable?

    Chew on This

    Dramatic transformations in the book are always caused by external forces, but gradual transformations always come from within. Deep, we know.

    In Holes, the characters who change are the ones who survive; characters that can't adapt to changing circumstances are doomed to failure.

  • Family

    The kids in <em>Holes </em>are totally removed from their families, and for the most part, we don't really see them in the context of their lives at home. The environment at camp sure doesn't make for a feeling of family either. But the fact that family is <em>lacking </em>is a really important aspect to the story: sometimes what's missing is just as important as what's there. The boys, having been separated from their families at camp, are vulnerable to the power-hungry adults (and kids) around them. Zero, who hasn't had a family for quite a while, shows us how this vulnerability can happen anywhere – not just at Camp Green Lake. Bottom line: without family, life just isn't as cozy.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why do you think Stanley feels the need to lie to his parents in his letters home?
    2. Why do they call Mr. Pendanski "Mom"? And why does Mr. P single out Zero for so much of his abuse? Are the two things related at all?
    3. Once he gets to know Stanley, Zero talks a lot about how much he misses his mom. Do Stanley and Zero become kind of a family – like brothers – over the course of the book?

    Chew on This

    Stanley's relationship with his family is ultimately the best thing in his life. It's what keeps him going despite all the bad luck he has to endure because of the curse.

    Friendship – particularly Stanley's friendship with Zero – is way more important than family in this book.

  • Man and the Natural World

    From the harsh, unforgiving landscape of Camp Green Lake, to the beautiful backdrop of Miss Katherine's town, to the stinky, life-saving meadow at the top of the mountain, the physical world of nature plays a big part in the story's events. Over and over in <em>Holes</em>, nature both reflects and comments on the moral and emotional state of the characters. Deep, right? But be careful: what people see in the natural world is just the surface; it's important, the book tells us, to look beyond surfaces. Life, as reflected in the natural world, is often messy and smelly, and what you see isn't always what you get.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Traditionally, nature and civilization are often seen as opposing forces. Is this the case in <em>Holes</em>?
    2. If the onions in <em>Holes </em>represent the wholesome, holistic healing of nature, what do you think the peaches represent?
    3. Shmoop thinks that, in <em>Holes</em>, nature often reflects what's going on in the world of humans. Can you find some examples of this? And also – since we're not <em>always </em>right – do you agree?

    Chew on This

    In the world of <em>Holes</em>, nature is always deceiving on its surface: you can never trust appearances.
    Sam and his onions are closely associated with the natural world. So when the townspeople murder Sam, this is kind of a rejection of the natural world. This is why nature abandons the town – i.e. it stops raining – in the aftermath of the murder.