The meaning of The Hundred Dresses is simple and timeless: All people have human obligations to one another, and sidestepping these obligations is both unethical and immoral. Such inaction may have serious consequences. In the psychologically sophisticated narrative of The Hundred Dresses, Estes also acknowledges the difficulty inherent in making oneself conspicuous by acting to stop an injustice. No person wants to risk becoming the object of ridicule by standing up for another person. Like Madeline, one can find excuses for why a victimized person deserves that ill-treatment and is hence unworthy of rescue. Yet, as Madeline realizes, those excuses are just that—excuses. They are not reasons; indeed, there can be no reasons for complacency when others are being harmed. Excuses do not absolve one of complicity in the misery of another person or group. While it can be difficult or painful to stand up for the outcast, it is necessary to do so.
Estes’ message of human obligation and interconnectedness should be clear to most readers. By making the consequences of Peggy’s and Madeline’s behavior evident early in the novel and then showing the evolution of Wanda’s estrangement through flashbacks, Estes avoids the charge of preaching. Readers will, like Peggy and Madeline, wonder why Wanda has stopped attending school. The narrative takes the reader through Madeline’s reconstruction of past events to speculate about why Wanda is...
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More somber in tone and subject than The Moffats (1941), Ginger Pye (1951), or Rufus M (1943), books for which Eleanor Estes became celebrated, The Hundred Dresses is less a celebration of childhood than an argument against the injustices that even children can perpetuate on one another. This plea against racism and discrimination toward those who are ethnically or financially different was published before the current concern with these issues. A psychologically complex examination of why people do not speak out against injustice, The Hundred Dresses is also a forceful argument for why people must do so. Estes’ narrative places readers in the mind of Madeline, who is not the victim of injustice, nor someone who has simply come across it. Rather, Estes has made the reader explore with her protagonist what it feels like to have done wrong to another person and how a person can atone for having caused harm.