Study Guide

The Westing Game Themes

  • Appearances

    One big idea of The Westing Game is that people aren't who they appear to be. People are both literally and figuratively in disguise. Significantly, appearances have the power to limit people: Angela's just as metaphorically restricted by her beauty as Chris is literally hampered by his disease.

    Many of the characters make judgments about the others based on how they appear—your outside determines whether other people see you as pretty, ugly, ordinary, disabled, or freaky. But there's also power in letting people think you're something you're not... and the easiest way to do that is by changing what's on the outside.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Do you agree with Angela that it's what's on the inside, not what's on the outside, that counts? Do you think Angela would've ever said that if she hadn't been so pretty to begin with?
    2. Is the idea that "beauty's in the eye of the beholder" true in the case of this book? Why or why not?
    3. What do you think of Sydelle's decision to fake an illness and appear handicapped to get attention, compared to the physical disabilities that some other characters struggle with?

    Chew on This

    Whether they're hampered by beauty, ordinariness, or a disability, many of The Westing Game's characters are trapped by the way their bodies look; it's their struggle to define themselves outside of their appearances that makes them who they really are.

    The contrast between characters' appearances and their actions show that inner worth can't be measured by what other people think of how they look.

  • Wealth

    Money always makes people act funny. That's especially true in The Westing Game, though, where the money in question is $200 million, and both an inheritance and people's lives are hanging in the balance.

    For some of the characters, money represents freedom; for others, education. Some think they won't be anything without money, and some are almost too eager to give it away. The characters are nearly all willing to lie, gamble, or steal to get it. The novel provides cautionary warnings about the damage having or wanting money can do, and it also raises the question of who deserves wealth.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. If you could choose one character to win the Westing game, which one would you pick and why?
    2. What would you do with $200 million?
    3. If you were making a will, what kinds of possessions would you be concerned about, and to whom would you want to leave your things?
    4. What do you think is the best way of deciding who should get to inherit an estate?

    Chew on This

    The Westing Game proves that the old saying "money can't buy happiness" is completely true. While the book's characters figure out the kind of people they want to be and what really matters to them while they're competing to win the inheritance, most of them change for the better because of playing for the money, not because of winning it.

    Attitudes toward and about money define each of the characters in The Westing Game. An individual's decisions and statements about wealth do more to define him or her than any other characteristic does.

  • Family

    There are two kinds of families in The Westing Game: the family you choose and the family you're born into. Westing doesn't just leave his estate to a relative; he creates a game of strategy that will help him find the best heir possible. If his estate ends up with a relative, that's great, but it's not a requirement.

    Similarly, Turtle forges a strong relationship with Flora when she realizes she won't get the kind of maternal care she needs from her own mother. In contrast, though, the sibling relationships we see in the book are really tight. Theo takes great care of Chris, and Turtle looks out for Angela. What we see there is a lot of love and support.

    Questions About Family

    1. How would you compare the sibling relationships in this book (between Angela and Turtle, and Theo and Chris)? How are they similar, and how are they different?
    2. There are several unhappy mothers – Grace, Flora, and Crow – in this text, and each of them deals with her unhappiness differently. Choose two mothers and compare how each of them deals with her feelings about her children.
    3. We learn a lot about many of the characters because of how they interact with their family members, and the choices they make when doing so. What should we think about characters whose families we never see? What does the absence of their families tell us about them?
    4. If you had to be related to one person in this book, who would it be?

    Chew on This

    While family bonds can be a strong support for some characters in The Westing Game, it's through the unlikely friendships they form with their teammates that they create even more supportive kinds of family.

    Family inspires the strongest kind of loyalty in The Westing Game – even when family members are embarrassing or act stupid, their relatives stand up for or take care of them, even if it means harming themselves in the process.

  • Patriotism

    The Westing Game is almost weirdly patriotic. (There's evidence Raskin wrote it after being inspired by the 1976 bicentennial: see this link and this link .) Can you think of another murder mystery that's so proudly American? Many of the characters are recent immigrants or have been altered by the immigrant experience. Westing himself is an immigrant, and that may be one reason why he's so adamantly in favor of America and the great things this country can do. He has first-hand experience with the kinds of opportunities and liberties that the country was established to offer. Let's not forget, the will's clues are chopped-up lyrics from "America the Beautiful" – as the characters puzzle over and worry about their clues, they keep getting pushed to language that praises the country they live in.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. What do you think the connection is between Westing's fascination with compass directions (i.e., West, East) and his obsession with patriotism?
    2. Why do you suppose the body in Westing's coffin was dressed up as Uncle Sam?
    3. Can you think of any other patriotic clues in the text that could've given away the answer to the mystery any sooner?
    4. Which of the other characters do you think is most like Westing, in terms of patriotism?

    Chew on This

    The Westing Game's apparent focus on wealth and identity allows its author to slip in a steady stream of propaganda about how wonderful America is, which is especially significant considering it was published so soon after the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

    While The Westing Game doesn't shy away from the hard issues about American life – it comes down hard on prejudiced viewpoints of race and class – it does a wonderful job of illustrating the opportunities the country provides for immigrants and entrepreneurs to start over and build the kinds of lives they want to live.

  • Identity

    The central mystery of The Westing Game really ends up being about discovering who Sam Westing is. In fact, there's $200 million riding on finding Westing's fourth identity.

    For most of the book's characters—who think they're competing in the Westing game—are really establishing the identities they should have had all along. Through the process of the game, they're all redefining themselves. Maybe the message here is that there's more value in figuring out who people are—and who they want to be—than worrying about imaginary murders and crimes that never took place. The game helps the characters to discover and reveal their true selves.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Of all the assumed identities in the book, which do you think is the most creative?
    2. How do each of the characters' self-identities change over the course of the book?
    3. Are there any characters in the book who don't define themselves based on what other people think of them? If so, how do you think they do that?
    4. What's the difference between identity and "position"?
    5. If you had to pick between being a bookie, a burglar, a bomber, or a mistake, which would you choose and why?

    Chew on This

    The central mystery of The Westing Game isn't who killed Sam Westing—it's the question of who any one of us really is.

    Although The Westing Game turns the murder mystery trope of finding the criminal's true identity upside down, it preserves the traditional idea of positioning a person as the answer to life-altering questions.

  • Language and Communication

    Secretly, The Westing Game is all about close reading. The whole point of solving a mystery with these kinds of clues seems to be going over and over these small pieces of information, analyzing them from all sides, and coming up with a possible "thesis" for whodunit. Whether it's figuring out what "purple waves" means, reading between the lines of the Sam Westing's will itself, or evaluating which person limps and in what manner, everything hinges on figuring out what Westing meant in order to solve the mystery. Ultimately, solving the mystery requires paying attention to the way the language in the will is structured. If only all of our English lit. papers carried such high stakes rewards.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Did you notice anything funky about Westing's will when you read it the first time? If so, what?
    2. If the clues spell out a phrase that's not the correct answer, what's the point of having them in the first place?
    3. Why do you think so many clues seem to point to Otis Amber?
    4. Can you find any moments in the text where the narrator's deliberately keeping information from us? How do these moments shape our eventual understanding of the puzzle's solution?

    Chew on This

    In designing the challenge to find his next heir, Westing's ultimate goal was to find the best analyst, or reader, rather than the best strategist.

    Besides Turtle, who eventually solves the mystery, the character who does the best job of interpreting the will's clues is _________.

  • Lies and Deceit

    In The Westing Game, the theme of "Lies and Deceit" has a lot in common with the theme of "Identity." Here's why: the majority of lies, tricks, and disguises in this text all have to do with who people say they are and who they're pretending to be.

    Either they tell a few occasional lies—like Turtle saying she's the bomber to protect Angela—or they tell lies constantly, like Sam Westing pretending to be Sandy the doorman. There are lies of omission and lies based on deliberate choices; these moments of deceit protect some characters, even as they damage others. Even the person who wins the game has to keep that truth hidden from everyone else.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Who is the best liar in the book, and why? Who's the worst?
    2. What do you think is the most deceitful act anyone in the book commits?
    3. Do you think it's ever really fair to fake your own death?

    Chew on This

    Although The Westing Game is based on a giant lie—Westing's death—that lie doesn't hurt the characters nearly as much as the bomber does, or as their (sometimes) cruel actions against each other do.

    While the mastermind of The Westing Game tries to pass off his lying and deceit as strategy and fair play, that doesn't disguise the fact that his actions hurt people and have real potential for causing harm.

  • Society and Class

    In The Westing Game, class and status pose real problems. Several of Sunset Towers' tenants move in because they're excited about the prospect of living in such a fancy building; they're even more excited about other people knowing they live there. Other characters are more preoccupied with the status they've acquired through education, beauty, or money (or the lack of one of those qualities).

    One thing that's so exciting about winning the Westing game and becoming so very rich is the chance for the winner to move out of his or her socioeconomic class into the elite world of the super-wealthy.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Who do you think is the "classiest" character? Why?
    2. Do you think the class characters come from really matters in this book? Or is what characters do with what they've got more important?
    3. Name two characters that are prejudiced against others because of class. How do their opinions differ? How are they similar?

    Chew on This

    Several of the book's characters make conscious efforts to rise above or move past the social positions they were born into, but it only goes so far—they can't keep their histories secret forever, and their original class standing comes back to haunt them.

    While The Westing Game acknowledges the problems that come with negotiating class standing, the book ultimately works to overcome those differences, calling for a society that places value on talent, intelligence, and hard work.