Study Guide

The One and Only Ivan Words and Language

By Katherine Applegate

Words and Language

He's Got a Way With Words, That Ivan

Words are part of the human world that Ivan admires and envies, which is saying something since he's none too keen on humans. Ivan admits that he wishes he could read, and his ability to understand human speech makes him far smarter than any people in his life realizes. When Ivan claims that humans waste their words, it sounds as if he's saying humans don't appreciate the privilege of complex communication, as if the ability to talk is the only thing that really separates us as primates.

Words are precious gems to Ivan. He prides himself on being a man of few words, and cherishes the power they offer. He tells us:

If I could use human words to say what I need to say, this would all be so easy. (not right.901)

And Ivan's right. His plight would be easier to resolve if he could just speak to people. Words, then, represent both freedom and Ivan's struggle to liberate himself and Ruby. When Ivan finally manages to spell out home, then, it is a hard won victory, and appropriately, key to realizing his and Ruby's release from the Big Top Mall.

The Wordsmith

A, um, word about Ivan as a writer. While we want to believe Ivan when he says he can't read, it's pretty difficult to overlook the fact that he's got the voice of a poet. Ivan is seriously skilled with similes and metaphors, but you don't have to take our word for it. Here are a few standouts straight from the gorilla's mouth:

Stella is a mountain. Next to her I am a rock. (stella.121)

[Our home] held her like a vine, stretching across the miles, comforting, strangling. (vine.646)

Pretty poetic, right? And check out his ability to describe a scene:

Moonlight falls on the frozen carousel, on the silent popcorn stand, on the stall of leather belts that smell like long-gone cows. (not sleepy. 278)

If this had fewer syllables, it could be a haiku. But while Ivan's mastery of language makes for a really enjoyable read, symbolically is clues us into the fact that he is a thinking and feeling being. Gorilla's aren't cardboard cut-outs to be tossed around to suit human needs—they are living creatures who merit human regard. And Ivan's impressive verbal skills makes this abundantly clear to readers.

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