Early on in their relationship, James draws a picture for Ellen, of Ellen, that includes all of her "interesting qualities." To some, this is just a sweet gesture, but for Ellen it is a symbol of his love for her.
It happens shortly after Ellen asks James and Link whether they're a couple and Link storms out, giving Ellen a chance to at least get James's perspective on the whole is-he-or-isn't-he-gay thing:
"Girls don't interest me compared with Link. But compared with Link, men don't interest me either. All in all, though, girls are… girls have interesting qualities."
I am a girl. And I have my interesting qualities. I can't think of any, of course, but I must have some. (6.40-41)
Even though she can't name her own interesting qualities (maybe we need to talk to Ellen about her self-esteem), this statement opens up a glimmer of hope that James could ever love her back. Then, after a few weeks of them spending a lot of time together, James gives her his drawing:
He gives me the cardboard tube that has been sticking out of his bag all day. I pull a pencil drawing from the tube and smooth it on the table between us. It is of a girl dressed as a storybook princess. She's paused in a huge arched doorway, holding her skirt (as if it were in her way) while surveying the party going on in the ballroom before her. And it's some party: full of dancers, waiters, and people standing in groups. The princess is a dead ringer for me, and not because she's tall and skinny. My nose and mouth aren't exactly that shape, but her expression is one I see in the mirror every day.
"How did you do that?" I ask. "She looks just like me."
"Only a little like you," he says. "I had to cheat to get your qualities in it."
Because of the way she's holding it, there are folds in her skirt, and instead of a line, James has woven a word into each fold. Curious, careful, kind, and intense.
"You think I'm intense?"
"It's your most interesting quality," he says.
"I love this," I tell him. "My very own party."
"This is the only drawing I've ever given away."
I tell him it's going up on my wall.
"It will be the first thing I see in the morning," I say, meaning: I love you. Thank you. You're wonderful. Perhaps he hears what I mean, for his smile looks like it's never hidden anywhere in its life. (8.83-93)
James's drawing is chock-full of symbolism. For example, isn't it interesting that Ellen's "interesting qualities" are woven into her skirt, which she is holding as though it's in her way? Maybe Freymann-Weyr is trying to say that Ellen hides behind her most interesting qualities, or that she is so intense, and curious, and careful that she gets in her own way.
Even Ellen's positioning is thought provoking: She is standing on the edge of the party, looking in as though she were an observer rather than a participant. All the partygoers are gathered in groups, and she's just standing in the doorway, watching. Sounds a bit like her real-life lunchtime habits, doesn't it? James is able to truly capture Ellen on paper because he sees her, and this drawing becomes tangible evidence of his ability to know and love her.
The drawing resurfaces at the end of the book when Ellen insists that James take it with him to Germany:
"I want you to take my picture to Germany," I say.
"Of course," he says. "I must have a—what is it you say?—a bazillion photos of you."
"No, the drawing," I say. "The one you did of me."
"You're giving it back?"
"I'm loaning it to you," I say. "I want you to remember that girls have interesting qualities."
"I'm not likely to forget that," James says.
"I want you to remember mine in particular," I say.
"That's a given," he says. (20.40)
We think there are two ways to interpret this request from Ellen. One is to infer that Ellen wants James to have a daily reminder of what he's giving up by going to school so far away; she wants him to be reminded of her most interesting qualities because she has hopes of reuniting again someday.
On the other hand, it could be a gesture that she understands their relationship has come to a crucial juncture, and she has to let go. She's returning her best features to the person who discovered them, because she no longer needs that tangible evidence that they exist—she knows herself better now.
So, knowing what you do about Ellen and the way that her character develops, which interpretation do you like better?