A Little Princess isn't exactly a story about rainbows and butterflies and little girls who are princesses (despite what the title may imply). In fact, it's about death and loss and the ugliness of human nature. Yup, some pretty heavy stuff. Even though the whole story is kind of down in the dumps though, the tone keeps it from getting too self-pitying and bleak. When things are at their worst, Sara continues to find the silver lining:
"Yes," answered Sara, nodding. "Adversity tries people, and mine has tried you and proved how nice you are." (8.76)
Instead, the tone is hopeful and even playful—it continually looks for things to lift the reader out of the dark situation (just as Sara is lifted out of her dark situation) and into a more magical story.
Sara Crewe is a real kid in some ways—she likes making up her own fairy tales, plays with dolls, and misses her daddy when he drops her off at school. But she manages to be more than just a little kid when she encounters rather unfortunate circumstances. In true orphaned-child fashion, Sara beats the odds and the mean adult in her life (ahem, Miss Minchin) and manages to rise above it all—at the mere age of eleven.
Sound familiar? This process of growing up when everyone is out to get you is pretty much the plot of every young adult novel ever. A Little Princess is in good company there.
No, there are no magical creatures. (Unless you count Emily.) But there is Magic, and even the characters in the book acknowledge that this sounds a lot like a fairy tale. The children of the Large Family think that "she will be so rich when she is found that she will be like a princess in a fairy tale" (17), and the girls at Miss Minchin's agree that the story is "quite as wonderful as any Sara herself had ever invented" (18).
So: a noble little girl abused and wretched, who's eventually whisked away from her misery to a life of fantastical wealth? Sounds a lot like a fairy tale to us. She even has a magical helper in the form of the Lascar's monkey and Melchisedec the rat. (And the first rule of fairy tales is—always be nice to the animals.
Get ready, Shmoopers, because he have a lot to say here. Let's start with the easy:
A Little Princess could mean two different things: it could be an acknowledgment of Sara's good breeding, or it could be a straight-up insult. When Sara has her money and wealth, folks at the school like Miss Minchin use this nickname in order to compliment her behavior. Others, though, like Lavinia use it as a sarcastic jab—as if Sara is sooo very full of herself that she acts like she's royalty when she's not.
And then once she descends into poverty though, the nickname becomes somewhat of a cruel joke. A joke in the "let's laugh at the poor girl and call her a princess because she's so dirt poor!" (Yeah, we think they're jerks too.) Sara definitely has the last laugh though, because in the end she rises above her pauper status and regains her wealth. Who's the princess now, Lavinia?!
Ready to kick things up a notch? Consider this: A Little Princess was a stage play before it was a novel (although after it was a story with a totally different title). And as a play, it was called The Little Princess.
Big deal, Shmoop. "A" instead of "The." So what?
Well, we do think it's a big deal. If the story is called The Little Princess, then it's specifically about Sara. Sara is the little princess, because she has inner nobility that's unique and special to her.
But if the story is called A Little Princess, then Sara is just one of many princesses. She's an example of how every little girl could be. Sure, she's special—but we could all be special, if we followed her example. We could all be little princesses.
See? Pretty big difference.
There's nothing we love more than closing the loop, as far as a story is concerned. The story could have ended with a happy Sara frolicking through the London spring with blossoms falling on her pretty head, Mr. Carrisford laughing indulgently at her side, and Becky gasping with glee (people gasp a lot in this story), but it doesn't.
Instead, it ends at the bakery, which we'll recall is a place where Sara experienced a bit of a low point in her life (you know, the whole starving and freezing to death thing). When she first enters the shop, as a poor scullery maid, it's pretty sad:
She went into the shop. It was warm and smelled deliciously. The woman was just going to put some more hot buns into the window.
"If you please," said Sara, "have you lost fourpence—a silver fourpence? And she held the forlorn little piece of money out to her. (13.35-36)
But at the same time, the bakery is where Sara realizes that she has a choice. Even starving to death, she has the choice to give that cold hungry child some of her food. And this realization sticks with her. Rather than forgetting about her misery, she remembers and returns to the bakery, offering to buy food for all of the hungry children.
When she meets the girl who was the child she gave food to, she recognizes that they aren't that different after all. Look at the way the moment is described:
Sara took her hand out of her muff and held it out across the counter, and Anne took it, and they looked straight into each other's eyes. […]
"I am so glad," Sara said. "And I have just thought of something. Perhaps Mrs. Brown will let you be the one to give the buns and bread to the children. Perhaps you would like to do it because you know what it is to be hungry, too." (19.43-44)
This ending is way more meaningful than just the "I've made money, hooray!" narrative, because it shows that Sara has grown as a person. Now, she truly knows what it's like to be one of the populace.
A Little Princess participates in a grand tradition of British school stories. (Like some other very famous books we could mention.) Like these books, most of it takes place at school. And what a school it is! As Sara and her father pull up to Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Girl, you can just hear her heart sink: "It was a big, dull, brick house, exactly like all the others in its row" (1.17).
Two things here: we know that Sara is (1) not dull, and (2) not like everyone else. So we can tell already that Sara isn't going to fit in here, and she doesn't. Sure, most of the students like her—but they like her in spite of the fact that she's different, and not because of it.
But it's not so bad at first. As a wealthy pupil, she lives happily with the other students and has nice living quarters and a playroom. But once all the money's gone, it's up to the attic with her, where she lives in a cramped room in the same conditions as poor Becky.
The thing to notice here is that, beneath that "big, dull, brick" façade, there is some serious ugly in the house. Burnett is asking an important question: exactly how respectable can this school really be, if Miss Minchin treats her servants so awfully? If she's willing to abuse young girls who are, underneath the dirt, no different from the one she pampers and kisses up to?
Yeah. Not very respectable at all.
We don't see much of London, really, but we get the general sense that it's cold, wet, and unfriendly—especially in contrast to India, where Sara was so happy. When she drives through the streets with her father, she thinks "what a queer thing it was that at one time one was in India in the blazing sun, and then in the middle of the ocean, and then driving in a strange vehicle through strange streets where the day was as dark as the night" (1.5).
By the end, of course, Sara is reintegrated into English life. We bet London doesn't look so bad from a cushy room in your wealthy benefactor's house, right?
Published in its first form in 1887 and then in a revised and extended version in 1905, A Little Princess is set around the turn of the twentieth century. It's hard to get much of a sense of time. Are there cars? Telegraphs? Wars being fought? Who knows.
We get our major sense of time from the social conditions. We know that very young children are working in terrible conditions, and no one seems much to care. We know that there are beggar girls on the street, and it's just considered normal. And, of course, we know that Englishmen are making obscene fortunes by exploiting—yes, exploiting—the land of colonized people. (Those diamond mines!)
We may not get any specific dates, but this is definitely a story of its time.
A Little Princess is told in a perfectly understandable and easy-to-read way, but as with anything that has to do with royalty, it can get a little fancy at times. Little Sara Crewe uses some complicated words and turn-of-phrase at times, and the whole thing is taking place in the early 1900s, which is a completely alien time period for all of us who weren't alive to see it. For the most part, though, the story is clear and a great challenge for readers who are ready to tackle chapter books—and dip their toes into the classics.
With a story for young readers written in nineteenth-century England, would we really expect anything but a writing style that remembers to cross all its T's and dot all its I's? Certainly not, good chum! The writing style is utterly prim and proper no matter what is going on, kind of like how Sara remains honest and pure throughout all her trials. After all, this is how the story starts:
Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father… (1.1)
Nothing unseemly here, folks.
If you're like us, the mere thought of dolls coming to life sends you diving for the covers. But not Sara. To her, dolls are people. "Dolls ought to be intimate friends," she tells her father and Miss Minchin: "[Emily] is going to be my friend when papa is gone. I want her to talk to about him" (1).
Sara's doll Emily has a name before she exists. Well—she exists, but Sara doesn't have her. She and her father drive all over London looking for Emily, before Sara finally finds her. When she does, Sara introduces her to her father just as if she's actually a real little girl.
Sara isn't the only one who treats Emily like a little girl. Our narrator does, too. Check out the way she's described: "she had naturally curling golden-brown hair, which hung like a mantle about her, and her eyes were a deep, clear, gray blue, with soft, thick eyelashes which were real eyelashes and not mere painted lines" (1). If you didn't know this was a doll, you'd think it was one of Miss Minchin's prettier students.
What's the point of all this? Well, it shows us that Sara is creative and imaginative, for one. And it also shows us that Sara can love just about anything.
But Emily also symbolizes the way that Sara has to grow up. She never stops loving Emily, exactly, but she does begin to see that dolls might not be a substitute for real-life family. During one of her really bad nights in the attic, she actually yells at Emily:
"You are nothing but a DOLL!" she cried. "Nothing but a doll—doll—doll! You care for nothing. You are stuffed with sawdust. You never had a heart. Nothing could ever make you feel. You are a DOLL!" (10.34)
Of course Sara immediately realizes that Emily can't help being a doll—but we think that this is pretty important moment for Sara's character, because it shows her growing up. Now, instead of adopting Emily, she thinks more seriously about the poor children all around her.
One thing we noticed is that Emily basically disappears once Mr. Carrisford adopts Sara. Instead of worrying about Emily, Sara learns to care for Becky and Anne, the little beggar girl. It's almost like Emily was practice: just like little girls were supposed to practice being mothers with dolls, Sara learned how to be kind and compassionate with Emily.
But eventually, everyone has to grow up.
Sara knows she has to grow up. When she gets a doll on her eleventh birthday, she ominously call is "The Last Doll." (With a name like that, you know this story isn't going anywhere good.)
The Last Doll symbolizes the end of Sara's childhood for her, and for the book it symbolizes the end of her privileged, pampered life. Sure, by the end of the story she's a little princess again. But she's suffered. She's lost her beloved dad, and she's seen first-hand how cruel people can be. She realizes that dolls have no place in the real world—not just the world of adulthood, but a world in which little girls are starved and beaten.
Kind of a bummer, right? Well, the point is (we think) the Sara learns to rely on herself rather than on a doll. Instead of imagining stories about dolls, she imagines stories about herself. And that gives her a kind of maturity that dolls never could.
Sara wants to be a princess, but not in the whole fancy gowns and marrying Prince William kind of way. No, she wants to be the kind of princess who has fine manners and a compassionate view towards those who are less fortunate (nice dresses are a bonus):
"If I WAS a princess—a real princess," she murmured, "I could scatter largess to the populace..." (5.79)
To Sara, princesses represent steadfastness of character. Remember how she imagines herself as a British soldier when her father leaves at the beginning of the book? Well, gradually, she seems to move from comparing herself to a soldier to imagining herself as a princess. We get the sense that this change is part of growing up, too. Rather than identifying with male models of heroism, she starts imagining what it means to be a heroic woman.
And her answer? Princess. In other words, Sara's mantra seems to be: "What would a princess do?"
She should probably just go ahead and turn it into a bumper sticker already.
Sara may not write her stories down, but she's an author all the same. As our narrator tells us, "the greatest power Sara possessed... was her power of telling stories and of making everything she talked about seem like a story, whether it was one or not" (5.1).
When things are really terrible, she pretends that she's somewhere else to distract herself from the bleak reality of the situation. When she's hungry and stuck in the attic, she pretends she's a prisoner at the Bastille: "If I pretend it's quite different, I can [bear it]," she says, "or if I pretend it is a place in a story." (8.66)
But it's not just Sara's suffering: absolutely every situation can be a story. She says exactly that, insisting that "EVERYTHING'S a story. You are a story—I am a story. Miss Minchin is a story" (9.89). What this means is that Sara understand that people have motivations.
Miss Minchin? Yeah, she's awful. But there's a reason to that. Sara knows that Miss Minchin has a story just like anyone else. She doesn't just see people as caricatures, like the dumb fat girl or the bratty spoiled baby or even the snotty stuck-up mean girl. She sympathizes with people because she knows that they have their own stories.
Know who else sees stories in everything? Writers. You get the sense here that Burnett is patting herself on the back just a teeeeeny bit. Like Sara, Burnett is telling stories that transform the ordinary (a little girl loses her father) into the extraordinary (that father turns out to have left her a fortune in diamond mines). And, since Sara knows that everything's a story, maybe it's not so surprising that her story closes with a fairytale ending.
The story is told by someone who's well outside of the story. Check out the very first line:
Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed… (1.1)
It's told from a detached point of view, and the source knows everything about the characters, from how Miss Minchin feels about Sara to why Lottie is having a tantrum to how hungry Sara and Becky are. That's pretty omniscient.
Although there are characters we never get to see inside of--most notably, Anne, the little beggar girl. Why do you think we never get her feelings or thoughts?
Here's our opening scene: Sara Crewe is a "little princess": rich and doted upon by her father. When her dad drops her off at a boarding school in London, it looks like Sara will continue on her path of privilege and dazzling everyone in sight with her excellent French skills and fanciful tales.
But that wouldn't be much of a story, so we know that we're in for some …
Things start to heat up when, on Sara's eleventh birthday, she gets the news that her rich papa is dead and broke. Sara goes from riches to rags in about thirty seconds, as Miss Minchin banishes her to a small attic room and turns her into a drudge. Her life consists of running errands, doing chores, tutoring the younger kids, and getting yelled at. Meanwhile, we see that nothing can touch Sara's innate goodness: she's still as nice as can be to everyone she meets, including the Indian servant of the mysterious Indian gentleman (as in, British guy from India) who moves in next door.
Welcome to the worst night of Sara's life: she gives away almost all of her food, she's denied dinner for coming home late after running errands, and then Miss Minchin catches her having a sad little party with Ermengarde and Becky. The punishment? No food tomorrow. She goes to bed a sad, hungry little girl.
Surprise! While she's asleep, the Indian servant sneaks in and gussies up her crib with all sorts of nice, warm stuff—including food and a nice, warm fire.
Thanks to her magical visitor, things get better and better until, one day, Sara finds the neighbor's monkey on the roof. She brings it back to the Indian man's house. Surprise again! He's actually her father's business partner, and he's been looking for her this whole time. And guess what! She's super rich, and she never has to go back to the stinky boarding school again.
At the very end, Sara is back to living in comfort with Becky as her pampered servant (or however pampered a servant can be). Tom Carrisford, her father's business partner, recovers from his illness and dotes on Sara just like her daddy. She gets to make up stories and give money to the poor to her heart's content.