Heidi is a book of absolutes, with definite vices and definite virtues. The chief vices are selfishness, hypocrisy, and materialism, as embodied mostly in the minor characters: Heidi's Aunt Dete, the Sesemanns' head housekeeper Fraulein Rottenmeier, and the villagers. The virtues are equally clear and include love for others, faith in God, humility, and respect for nature. The "good" people—Heidi and her grandfather, Peter's blind grandmother, Herr Sesemann, his invalid daughter Clara, and Grandmamma Sesemann—are easily recognized as such. Peter, the goatherd, is the only neutral character. He is basically lazy, somewhat simpleminded, and very jealous, but he is a friend of Heidi's and embodies the essence of pastoral life. He also learns the power of prayer and forgiveness at the end, which makes him the only character to grow; all the other "good" characters are good when the story begins.
The vices in this book are obvious when they appear. Dete reveals her selfishness with her treatment of Heidi, whom she considers little more than a piece of baggage left behind by her dead sister. Dete cares for the girl when it is convenient or when she has something to gain by it but abandons her when she has better things to do. The opening scene, in which she delivers Heidi up to her grandfather, whom everyone fears, makes her selfishness clear. Similarly, when she snatches Heidi away after her grandfather has grown to love her, Dete again acts for her own personal gain.
Another vice, hypocrisy, manifests itself in all the villagers, in most of the servants, and in Aunt Dete. Spyri implies that society as a whole is hypocritical, basing its actions primarily on appearances. Gossip rules, and people always criticize others when in fact they are no better themselves. Heidi's grandfather, the Alm Uncle, has moved to the mountain because of his refusal to tolerate this hypocrisy. He tells Heidi that when the great bird of the mountain croaks and screams he "is mocking at the people because they all go huddling and gossiping together, and encourage one another in evil talking and deeds." Even those who think well of the grandfather have not the courage of their convictions to defend him, waiting until the pastor has publicly shaken his hand before greeting him themselves like "an old friend whom they had long missed."
Hand in hand with gossip goes materialism, another form of slavery to appearances. Fraulein Rottenmeier tries to throw away Heidi's tattered straw hat and red shawl, considering them inappropriate for her new station, but Heidi is sentimentally attached to them and knows she will need them for her homecoming. She remembers her grandfather's parting words to Dete about her "hat and feather" and does not wish to make the same mistake herself. To this end, she sheds her pretty town dress and feathered hat at Brigitta's house, explaining to the puzzled Brigitta, "I would rather go home to grandfather as I am or else perhaps he would not know me." Her instincts prove...
(The entire section is 1232 words.)