Study Guide

The Pigman Themes

By Paul Zindel

  • Guilt and Blame

    Who is responsible for Mr. Pignati's death? Lorraine blames John, and, though John feels guilty, he says that Mr. Pignati would have died anyway. This novel asks us to think about who is ultimately responsible for a bad outcome. Can we be responsible for something we didn't consciously cause? Who is most responsible? The person who started the chain of events? The person who made bad decisions that led to the bad outcome? Can responsibility always be determined? At the heart of John and Lorraine's identities is a whole heap of guilt and equal amounts of blame; we watch them grow up as a result of the guilt they feel and of the blame they cast.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Who is responsible for Mr. Pignati's death?
    2. Is it always possible to assign blame?
    3. Does the fact that John and Lorraine never intended to cause Mr. Pignati's death lessen their responsibility?
    4. What about the parents who so shamefully neglect their children? Do they bear any responsibility for Mr. Pignati's death?

    Chew on This

    Lorraine and John are responsible for the consequences of their actions, even if those consequences are not intended.

    When John says that Mr. Pignati had trespassed and paid with his life (15), he's implying that Mr. Pignati is to blame for his own death.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Every single character in The Pigman lies or deceives others at some point. John is a chronic liar, especially to his teachers and parents; Lorraine regularly lies to her mother; Mr. Pignati lies about his wife being in California; and Norton and Dennis are thieves. What is the point of all this lying? Can lying serve as a form of self-protection or self-preservation? If so, is it always wrong? Why do these characters lie so much? What does this imply about the possibility of honest communication?

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Lorraine, in particular, points out several times that her mother and John's parents are dishonest. She implies that John's chronic lying occurs, at least in part, because of the poor role models his parents provide (4). Do you agree with her?
    2. Does John deceive himself, as well as others?
    3. Lorraine reflects: "Perhaps John had been right when he said we should've forgotten the whole thing—never mentioned it. Maybe there are some lies you should never admit to" (10). Is she correct?

    Chew on This

    Considering their role models, John's and Lorraine's habitual lying is not surprising.

    Deception, for John, functions as a coping mechanism, a buffer between himself and the harsh realities of the world.

  • Mortality

    Death is everywhere in The Pigman. Mr. Pignati dies; his wife is dead; Bobo dies; Lorraine's mother tends dying patients; John fears that his father will die soon; John and Lorraine drink above a tomb in the cemetery, where John thinks about the bodies underneath them. Mr. Pignati is so distraught at his wife's death that he cannot even admit that she is dead, but the thought of his own death doesn't seem to bother him. Lorraine doesn't tell us much about how she feels about death, but John has a morbid imagination and tells us several times how the thought of death disturbs him. When Mr. Pignati dies, John and Lorraine's grief forces them to grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do John and Lorraine learn anything from Mr. Pignati's death? If so, what?
    2. Why is Lorraine's mother so callous about the suffering and deaths of her patients?
    3. Does Bobo's death function symbolically? How?
    4. Twice, John says that he fears his father's death. How does this complicate John's feelings towards his father?

    Chew on This

    The harsh reality of Mr. Pignati's death forces John and Lorraine to mature and take responsibility for their actions.

  • Family

    In The Pigman we see two badly dysfunctional families and the temporary happy "family" of Lorraine, John, and Mr. Pignati. What is a family? How do family relationships break down? Why are parents sometimes cruel to their children? Can children break free of the destructive influences of bad parents? What does it mean to be a good or bad parent, anyway? Mr. Pignati doesn't have children, so he lavishes John and Lorraine with presents and attention. Lorraine and John have never had a kind, generous father-figure, so they easily slip into the role of Mr. Pignati's children. In fact, they claim to be his children at the hospital and when talking to the police, when he has his first heart attack.

    Questions About Family

    1. Lorraine says of John's family: "The analysts would call his family the source problem or say he drinks and smokes to assert his independence" (2). Lorraine raises an interesting question: is John's family actually responsible for his behavior?
    2. In many ways, Mr. Pignati treats Bobo like a son, feeding him, worrying about him, talking sweetly to him. What, if anything, does this imply about his relationships with humans?
    3. Have Lorraine and John been damaged by their parents' neglectful and/or abusive behavior? If so, how?
    4. John and Lorraine find a father-figure in Mr. Pignati and form a group resembling a family. What are some of the reasons this "family" doesn't last?

    Chew on This

    John's and Lorraine's neglect and abuse have damaged them in several ways.

  • Home

    In The Pigman, the theme of "Home" is closely related to "Family." What is a home? John and Lorraine clearly don't feel "at home" in their actual homes, or – before they meet Mr. Pignati – anyplace else, for that matter. They feel most welcome and comfortable in Mr. Pignati's house, but this is a temporary kind of home, and ironically, their "making themselves at home" here results in Mr. Pignati's death. This novel doesn't depict any happy homes at all. In fact, it is the lack of a comforting home that forces John and Lorraine to seek one with Mr. Pignati.

    Questions About Home

    1. How are John's and Lorraine's homes similar? How are they different?
    2. How important is having a home in which you feel comfortable?
    3. How is Mr. Pignati's home important in the novel?

    Chew on This

    In Mr. Pignati's home, Lorraine and John find a refuge from the discomfort of their own homes.

    The home Lorraine and John found with Mr. Pignati was illusory and temporary because it was not based on real ties of kinship and responsibility.

  • Old Age

    Poor Mr. Pignati. He loves to enjoy life, drink wine, tell jokes, and eat gourmet food. And yet he is very lonely. How can this happen? John reflects on how wrong it is that older people (Mr. Pignati is in his fifties) can be so isolated, especially if they're a little eccentric. Ironically, John and Lorraine form a friendship with the oldest character in the novel and are profoundly alienated from adults younger than Mr. Pignati, such as their parents and teachers. Mr. Pignati has an infectious love of life, which he shares with and teaches to John and Lorraine. Ironically, they learn to appreciate life from someone who is about to die.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. At least one critic of the novel writes that John and Lorraine take advantage of an old man. Is there any truth to this?
    2. John wonders, rhetorically, if Lorraine thinks "that I didn't know if we hadn't come along the Pigman would've just lived like a vegetable until he died alone in that dump of a house?" (15). Is John's statement that Mr. Pignati would have died anyway true? Or a rationalization?
    3. How do you think aging will change John and Lorraine?

    Chew on This

    Although they try to convince themselves otherwise, in many ways John and Lorraine are, in fact, taking advantage of a lonely old man.

    John and Lorraine brought joy into Mr. Pignati's life, joy that he would not have had without them.

  • Youth

    The Pigman's two main characters are fifteen years old. At times, they seem older and at times they seem like typical teenagers trying out roles and identities. We get a tantalizing glimpse into Lorraine's mother's past when Lorraine describes the photograph showing her parents young, attractive, and in love.

    Questions About Youth

    1. How much of John's irresponsible behavior can be excused by his youth and inexperience?
    2. Is it possible for John and his father to improve their relationship and communication?
    3. By the novel's end, have John and Lorraine grown up at all?

    Chew on This

    John and Lorraine mature as the novel progresses.

    Although, at the end of the novel, John says that he and Lorraine have learned to take responsibility for their actions, there is no real evidence that this is true.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Alcohol and cigarettes feature prominently in The Pigman. Drinking alcohol is an escape for John – an escape from school, from responsibility – but it is not a way of defying his parents. His father actually encouraged John to drink alcohol when John was about ten years old. John also smokes a lot and Lorraine has been unsuccessful in her efforts to get him to stop.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Lorraine says that John's father "set a bad example at an age when John was impressionable. I think his father made it seem as though drinking alcoholic beverages was a sign of maturity" (2). Is she correct that this is one reason John drinks so much? Or are there other reasons, too?
    2. What role does alcohol play in the novel, in general? For instance, how would the party in Chapter 13 have been different without alcohol?
    3. Mr. Pignati gives John and Lorraine wine every time they come to his house. Is this an example of him respecting them, treating them like adults? Or is it irresponsible?

    Chew on This

    John drinks to escape the realities of his life.

    The adults in the novel who give alcohol to minors [John's father; Mr. Pignati; Tony, who sells kids beer (6)] are partially responsible for the minors' alcohol abuse.

  • Versions of Reality

    The two narrators in The Pigman provide different perspectives on the events they relate. Each one says the other distorts reality, and doesn't tell the story right. Is one version more "true"? Or do both versions give us a more balanced perspective?

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How does the double narrative affect our perception of the story? What are some of the differences between the two narratives?
    2. John says: "I don't happen to buy all of Lorraine's stuff about omens. She talks about me distorting, but look at her. I mean, she thinks she can get away with her subliminal twists by calling them omens, but she doesn't fool me. The only difference between her fibs and mine are that hers are eerie—she's got a gift for saying things that make you anxious" (7). Do you agree with this statement?
    3. How would the story be different with the addition of more narrators, such as Mr. Pignati or Lorraine's mother?

    Chew on This

    The double narrative greatly enhances our understanding of the story.

    Lorraine actually distorts just as much as John, but she doesn't realize it.