How does each character in I Am The Messenger relate to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs?

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ariel-mcgavock eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a model of personal growth that measures human potential. Abraham Maslow proposed that there were stages that had to be moved through in order to reach true self-actualization—after all, it is all but impossible to allocate effort toward knowing oneself when one is starving. The original five stage model went, as follows:

  1. Physiological and biological needs

  2. Safety needs

  3. Belongingness and love needs

  4. Esteem needs

  5. Self-actualization needs

Later the model was expanded to eight stages:

  1. Physiological and biological needs

  2. Safety needs

  3. Belongingness and love needs

  4. Esteem needs

  5. Cognitive needs

  1. Aesthetic needs

  2. Self-actualization needs

  3. Transcendence needs

When we organize the characters in I Am The Messenger by the stage that they are in, we find that no one in the book lacks physiological necessities. All of the characters have sufficient air, food, water, sleep, and shelter.

Safety needs

Next comes the safety stage. The woman and child living on Edgar Street live in that stage—the husband is a drunk “built like a brick sh*thouse” who rapes his wife. The woman lives in fear, as does her daughter: when Ed wavers at the porch, frozen and unable to help, she tries to crawl into his jacket for protection. When Ed threatens to kill the man, who then leaves town, he removes the threat to their daily lives and allows them to move to the next level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

Belongingness and love needs

The next level is that of belongingness and love. Of all of the stages, this one contains the majority of the characters. Milla Johnson, the old woman on Harrison Avenue, hurts for companionship: her husband died decades before, and she never moved on. Ed provides her with friendship while pretending to be her deceased husband. While she is clearly in need of belongingness and love, she also passes through the level for esteem—she asks Ed if she “did right by [him],” and cries to hear that she was the best wife that Jimmy could have ever had.

Gavin Rose, while a very different person than Milla, also needs belongingness. His brother, Daniel, “beats the absolute Christ out of Gavin,” and so Ed decides to give them a common enemy. He beats Gavin himself and watches as Daniel supports him on the way home.

For the first time, they look like brothers.

At this point, Gavin knows that his brother actually does care for him, fulfilling his need to belong. To cement their newfound bond, they and at least four others go and beat up Ed in turn.

The Tatupus are difficult to place—their family is wonderfully loving, even if their house is old and made of fibro. But, as Lua Tatupu reveals to Ed after he buys them new Christmas lights:

“You know, Ed, we’ve been living here close to a year now, and nobody—absolutely nobody—has ever lifted a finger to help us or make us feel welcome.”

Ed’s gift has made them feel as though they belong in the community and are welcome.

Marv is caught in this stage for most of the story. It revealed that he got his old girlfriend pregnant, whose father moved her far away; he saves up every last penny in an attempt to help. He still loves the girl, Suzanne Boyd, and wants desperately to see his child, who is two and half years old. He feels guilty and tries to pay it off, coming up with forty thousand dollars to help. Eventually he is able to meet his daughter.

Audrey refuses to let herself love anyone. From “one of those beat-the-crap-out-of-each-other situations,” Ed thinks to himself that:

I think she loved them, and all they ever did was hurt her.

That’s why she refuses to love.


When he realizes that he has to deliver a message to Audrey, Ed knows what he needs to give her:

She loves me, and for one moment in time, she needs to allow it. She needs to hold it. Know it completely. Just once.

Esteem needs

Angie Carusso is a single mother of three. While she doesn’t lack for safety or love, she finds herself dissatisfied with her quality of life—although she dearly loves them, she has to slow down for her kids. Ed helps give her back a sense of herself when he buys her an ice cream of her own, just as she buys for her children every week.

Ma also belongs in this category. Having been disappointed and let down by her deceased husband, she cheated on him with another man; she directs her anger at Ed, who reminds her of him. Ma hates herself as well, Ed comes to realize. While Ed cannot change this, he lets her deliver a message to him:

“Believe it or not—it takes a lot of love to hate you like this.”

This might not move her up to the next level, but perhaps this will help Ma to forgive herself.

While Ed thinks that he has done nothing at all with his life, Ritchie has done even less. Purposeless and without direction, he sits at his kitchen table every night and listens to the radio.

His existence consists of these late, lonesome nights, waking up at ten-thirty in the morning, being at the pub by twelve and across at the betting shop by one. Add to that the odd dole check, playing a card game or two, and that’s it.

Ed’s message to him is harsh: “Ritchie—you’re an absolute disgrace to yourself.” And Ritchie admits, later, that his only wish is to want.

Ed also occupies this level for much of the book. Like Ritchie, he is purposeless and sees himself as useless. However, Ed slips into self-actualization at some point and begins to realize his potential.

Cognitive and aesthetic needs

No character in this story meets either of these levels.

Self-actualization needs

Sophie is the only character who truly occupies the level of self-actualization. She is secure in herself, if shy, and belongs to a loving family. Her biggest challenge, as far as the reader knows, is to run in the races like she does at five in the morning. In seeking new challenges, she demonstrates self-actualization.


Father O’Reilly is the only character who has surpassed self-actualization. As the leader of a congregation, he attempts to help others reach self-actualization. He is confident in himself and God’s judgement of him—when Ed asks if it’s wrong for a priest to swear, he responds that “God knows what’s important.”