Study Guide

The Mysterious Benedict Society Principles

By Trenton Lee Stewart

Principles

All he had to do was turn it over and look at the answers. […] Reynie stared a long moment
at the paper, sorely tempted.

Then he reached out and flicked it from his desk and onto the floor.

What good would those opportunities do him if he wasn't qualified to be given them? And where was the pleasure in cheating? If he couldn't pass fairly, he didn't want to pass. (1.146-48)

Good call, Reynie. As Mr. Benedict says later, "There are tests […] and then there are tests" (4.75). And this test? It was definitely a test-test, if you get what we mean. Sure Mr. B wanted to see if they could figure out that all the answers to the questions were hidden within the test itself, but even more importantly, he wanted to make sure that the kids he recruited for his team had integrity. Because without integrity, what would stop them from simply giving up and joining Ledroptha Curtain if they were promised plum roles in his new world order?

"It's all part of the test, you know. Being hungry and irritable. It's important to see how you behave when other children are getting doughnuts and you're getting nothing, and how well your mind works despite being tired and thirsty." (4.2)

It's pretty easy to act principled and behave well when everything is easy—the true test of character is how you function when the chips are down. When the cookie crumbles. When life hands you lemons. When your Shmoop guide keeps giving you food analogies for things going wrong.

"[…] although most people care about the truth, they can nonetheless—under certain circumstances, and given proper persuasion—be diverted from it. Some, however, possess an unusually powerful love of the truth, and you children are among the few." (5.151)

With all the messages that we receive daily—from various media outlets, social networking sites, and even the people around us—it's pretty easy to be diverted from the truth. Whether we're talking about the healthfulness of eating at McDonald's, the importance of recycling, or whether or not one country is justified in attacking another, it can be easy to find yourself swayed by propaganda—unless you have a powerful love of the truth, like the MBSers, of course (though even they have trouble finding their way to the truth when the messages, faulty though they may be, are so soothing).

"It only makes sense," Reynie quickly explained, when he saw his friends' horrified expressions. "None of us accepted Rhonda's offer to cheat, remember? That was part of the test. Mr. Benedict is saying we must become what we are not—cheaters—so we can all become Messengers more quickly!" (17.42)

What's interesting here is that on Nomansan Island, the principles are flipped. The qualities Mr. Curtain values in other people—mainly obedience without question—can really only exist in unprincipled, or oppositely principled, people. Therefore, in order to be valued and rewarded (and welcomed into Mr. C's inner circle), the kids have to adopt principles that are the reverse of the principles they really hold.

"You're not going to flub anything."

"How can you know?"

"I can see it in you," Reynie said with perfect conviction. "You'd hold fast tomorrow even if I didn't have a plan—which I do. When your friends really need you, they can count on you. I just know it." (23.21-23)

Yup—sometimes we don't really know what matters to us most or how strong our principles are until they're challenged. That seems to be the case with Sticky—and Reynie too, come to think of it. Neither one of them is sure he has the strength to do what needs to be done, but when their principles are challenged, they find ultimately that they do. And part of the reason they do is because they've formed strong connections with others, and those connections offer them support.

Reynie had begun to feel rather ill. It was starting to seem everything he did got someone hurt. […] For all his caution and wits, he was turning out to be a dangerous person to be close to. (24.67)

To some extent Reynie's had to compromise his principles in order to achieve the MBS's mission—he let someone else take the fall for him, and he encouraged Sticky to lie and say Martina was the one he'd been helping to cheat. One of those is a lie of omission (not coming clean and admitting he was the one SQ saw spying), and the other (claiming Martina is a cheat) is a straight out lie—and both originated from a boy who values honesty and has a powerful love of the truth.

So obviously, Reynie's feeling conflicted here. But what do you think? Has he compromised his principles? Or are his actions in line with his principles?

It didn't matter how cruel she was. No one deserved the Waiting Room, not even Martina. (24.71)

Really? Not even Martina? What about Mr. Curtain? Or Jackson or Jillson? Is there anyone in this book that you think deserves a punishment like the Waiting Room? Is there anyone anywhere? Think it over, and then explain why you feel the way you feel. To yourself. To a friend. To anyone who will listen. Or just to a piece of paper or a computer screen. They can be good listeners, too.

"Mr. Benedict had a feeling you would choose to stay. 'That is exactly the kind of children they are,' he said." (29.101)

When Milligan appeared in Chapter 29, did you think the kids would leave the island with him? Or did you, like Mr. B, have a feeling they would choose to stay and finish their mission? It seems like the tests they all passed in the beginning were pretty accurate—these are kids who are pretty intent on doing what they think is right. Right? We're curious, though: do you think Sticky and Constance would have chosen to stay if Kate and Reynie hadn't spoken up first? Why or why not?

What has happened to you? he thought. He'd never expected doing the right thing to be so hard. But it was. (30.30)

And it is. But remember back in the discussion of courage earlier in this section where we brought up that whole Eleanor Roosevelt thing about doing the thing you think you can't do? Yeah, well that holds true for principles too. Why? Because holding to your principles when it would be way easier to just compromise them and go with the flow requires courage. Courage and principles kind of go hand in hand.

"Shouldn't we be asking people's permission? I mean, if we're putting things in their heads, shouldn't we ask them first?" (31.75)

Remember when S.Q. asks Mr. C this question? It's one of the moments when we realize that S.Q. is actually a pretty sweet guy, and at some point, before he had three thousand sessions in the Whisperer, he was probably pretty principled, too. In fact, he still is—he's just incapable of seeing through Mr. Curtain's half-truths and misinformation, and he's easily misled.

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