What is the significance of the porcupine theme in Jerry Spinelli's novel Stargirl? Why specifically a porcupine rather than some other type of tie? What does the porcupine signify?
In his young adult novel of conformity and tolerance, Stargirl, author Jerry Spinelli’s protagonist and narrator, Leo Borlock, is infatuated with porcupines. More accurately, he is infatuated with porcupine neckties. As Leo explains in the novel’s opening passages, “When I was little, my uncle Pete had a necktie with a porcupine painted on it. I thought that necktie was just about the neatest thing in the world.” As Leo grows, and his family moves from Pennsylvania to Arizona, the young boy’s love of porcupine neckties remains a part of his life. In fact, so in love with porcupine neckties has Leo become that he starts a collection of them – a hobby or passion that assumes greater significance as the present-day narrator reflects on his relationship with Stargirl Caraway, a highly unconventional addition to his conservative Arizona high school’s student body who attracts considerably attention among her fellow students for her more liberal choices in clothing and interests.
Spinelli never provides an explanation for the use of the porcupine, so the reader is forced, if one so chooses, to interpret the author’s meaning in selecting this one particular animal. Stargirl is about the effects of individuality on a larger group the members of which tend to identify with one-another. She is ostracized to a certain degree among her fellow high school students solely on the basis of her unwillingness to conform to society’s expectations. The novel’s tragedy, of course, lies in its protagonist’s failure to muster the personal courage and integrity needed to support this eminently likeable young woman whose only crime is to follow her own path in life irrespective of whether it meets with the approval of the other students. That it is Stargirl, however, who acknowledges Leo’s passion for porcupine neckties and who, it is revealed, surreptiously presents him with the gift of such a necktie, one she had made by her mother, illuminates the superficial and often hostile attitude among the larger social group towards those who don’t quite fit in. And it is within this theme that the significance of the porcupine can, possibly, be ascertained.
Porcupines as a symbol can represent several possible meanings. One is the perception among some, like Native Americans, that this particular animal represents tranquility and, in the words of one source a link to which is provided below, “the knowledge of living in harmony with the land and other animals.” Porcupines are also solitary animals, going about their business armed with a formidable system of defense against predators, namely, their quills. Stargirl is a solitary figure, homeschooled up until the tenth grade, by which time socialization has taken control of most high school students’ lives. She is also, more than her contemporaries, attuned to the world around her, especially the natural world, symbolized early-on by her “large canvas bag with a life-size sunflower painted on,” and by the ukele she has strapped to her back when Leo first sees her early in the story.
Another interpretation of the symbolic importance of the porcupine in Stargirl is its confidence and the feeling of emotional security it provides when walking alongside those who, in the words of the other discussion linked below, are feeling apprehensive or vulnerable—the very characteristic of some socially-awkward adolescents. In short, the symbolic importance of the porcupine in Spinelli’s novel lies in its metaphorical value to the story’s free-spirited, home-schooled, aptly named “Stargirl.”