We get the shivers just thinking about the Warden. This scary lady is a descendent of Trout and Linda Walker, the original owners of Green Lake, and just like them, she's greedy, selfish, and has a one-track mind.
The Warden, of course, is the villain of the story. She's the one who calls the shots at Camp Green Lake, the one whose cruelty sets the tone for the camp's horrible treatment of the boys. As Mr. Pendanski tells Stanley early on, "The person you've got to worry about is the Warden. There's really only one rule at Camp Green Lake: Don't upset the Warden" (5.6). Gulp.
What's so scary about the Warden? Well, part of it is the slow reveal, the way the narrative doesn't tell us too much about her right off the bat. Despite Mr. Pendanski's warning, it's quite a while before we actually see the Warden for the first time. And then, when we finally meet her, she's not what we expected (we expected something like this, basically):
A tall woman with red hair stepped out of the passenger side. She looked even taller than she was, since Stanley was down in his hole. She wore a black cowboy hat and black cowboy boots which were studded with turquoise stones. The sleeves on her shirt were rolled up, and her arms were covered with freckles, as was her face. (14.19)
At first, although Stanley is bit wary, the Warden seems to be pretty decent: she gives X-Ray his promised day off, she encourages the boys in their digging, and she even makes sure they get extra water to keep them going. But as time passes and nothing more is found in the hole, her true character comes out. She grows increasingly impatient and abusive, even attacking Armpit with a pitchfork when she gets annoyed. This is not cool and very illegal.
And then, of course, we get the frightening and infamous nail polish scene. (We're sweating, here.) When she scratches Mr. Sir, it surprises not only Stanley, but the reader, too. And that right there is the key to her power and to the fear she inspires in others: because she's willing to hurt anyone without a second thought, you can never really know what she's going to do. In fact, her soft "Excuse me?" is more menacing than any direct attack could be, because you never know what's behind it, or where it's going to lead.
Also, if you think about it, we didn't even know she was a woman for the first part of the book. And then – surprise! – there she is. Were you shocked that she was a woman? Why or why not?
The book's portrayal of the Warden isn't entirely fair, of course – that is, she's not exactly a three-dimensional character. After all, this is the lady who makes her own nail polish out of rattlesnake venom; we can't really be expected to like her, right? (Where does she get that venom, anyway?) But her place in the book isn't to provide psychological depth, or make us wonder about her motivations. She's really there to be scary, and to give Stanley a solid, over-the-top antagonist.
Or…maybe not. Is it possible that we maybe – just maybe – can have a shred of sympathy for this woman whose name we don't even know? Let's take a look at the one time we learn about the Warden's life outside of her role as Warden:
"Do you know how long…" Her voice trailed off, then started up again. "When I was little I'd watch my parents dig holes, every weekend and holiday. When I got bigger, I had to dig, too. Even on Christmas." (45.22)
Wow, how awful is that? Doomed by her own kind of family curse, the Warden never really had a chance. It's almost enough to make Shmoop feel a little bit sorry for her. Almost.