In what ways does Elwood self-sacrifice in The Nickel Boys?

Elwood Curtis sacrifices his innocence, his future, his freedom, and ultimately his life in The Nickel Boys. When Jake takes Elwood’s name, even though his purpose is to honor his deceased friend, in a sense Elwood sacrifices his identity. The subsequent actions of Jake renamed as Elwood finally help make his sacrifices meaningful.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Nickel Boys, Elwood Curtis ultimately pays the total sacrifice of his life. Leading up to Elwood’s murder, author Colson Whitehead establishes a sequence of losses that increasingly have a negative impact on the growing boy. Once he is forced to sacrifice his freedom by institutionalization in Nickel, Elwood feels so trapped that he willingly takes risks to try to regain his precious liberty. Tragically, his attempt fails when Harper murders him. For much of the novel, Whitehead disguises this terrible sacrifice. The reader is led to believe that Elwood still lives. His friend Jake Turner did escape and, in an act of homage, took Elwood’s name. While his intention was honorable, his actions temporarily erase the original Elwood, so it may be said that Elwood sacrificed his identity.

Whitehead reveals numerous significant incidents in Elwood’s life when he was not able to reach his goal or realize his potential. Each subsequent hurdle that Elwood cannot clear represents another sacrifice. Growing up poor, he must begin working at an early age, which contributes to his loss of innocence. Elwood retains his innate optimism, however, and is encouraged to continue his education. Through his inadvertent involvement with the car thief, Elwood loses his freedom. The longer he stays at Nickel, the further the loss of innocence progresses. Although it is Harper who kills him, by taking a tremendous risk in attempting escape, the loss of his life can be seen as Elwood’s sacrifice.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team