The Nature of Aging
At the beginning of the story, Rachel, who has just turned eleven, offers her perspective on aging. She says that she thinks that everybody always has all of their ages still inside of them, like "little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other." In other words, she, having just turned eleven, still has within her her ten-year-old self, her nine-year-old self, her eight-year-old self, and so on.
Later in the story, readers find out how Rachel arrived at this conclusion. Earlier that day, on her eleventh birthday, Rachel had to endure an embarrassing episode at school. She was made by her teacher, Mrs. Price, to put on "an ugly sweater" that looked like it was "maybe a thousand years old" and was "all itchy and full of germs." Rachel protested that the sweater wasn't hers, but she was too upset to protest forcefully enough. She was unable to stand up for herself as she thought an eleven-year-old girl should have been able to do. She felt "sick inside," as if her three-year-old self, or "the part of [her] that's three," was trying to cry. In this moment, Rachel felt as if her three-year-old self was preventing her eleven-year-old self from really being eleven, and thus preventing her eleven-year-old self from standing up for herself.
When Rachel did protest and told Mrs. Price that the sweater was not hers, she could only manage to do so in "a little voice that was maybe [her] when [she] was four." In this instance, Rachel's four-year-old self spoke on behalf of, or instead of, her eleven-year-old self.
This perspective on aging, while the perspective of a child, is perceptive. Readers of any age can likely empathize with Rachel's perspective, as we have all experienced moments when we have not been as brave, or as wise, as we might have hoped to be, given our age. We all have experienced moments when, as it were, the child within us takes over, whether that be the ten-year-old child being playful or the fifteen-year-old child sulking.
The Unfairness of the Adult World
Young children often possess an acute sense of fairness, and it is an upsetting lesson for children that the world is not always fair. In this story, Rachel's reaction to being made to wear the red sweater is her reaction to this upsetting lesson. She becomes frustrated because she realizes that it is not fair that she should be made to wear somebody else's old, itchy sweater. She becomes upset because she feels that she is being unfairly embarrassed, and reprimanded, in front of her fellow pupils, even though she knows that she has done nothing wrong. And finally, she becomes angry when her teacher fails to apologize when another pupil, Phyllis, remembers that the sweater actually belongs to her. Rachel's acute awareness of the unfairness of the situation is perhaps best encapsulated when she says of Mrs. Price, "Because she's older . . . she's right and I'm not."
The realization that the world isn't always fair, and specifically that adults aren't always fair, is an upsetting and surprising lesson for children. After all, they have been brought up, by adults, to believe and behave as if the world is fair. A child's worldview depends upon the assumed benevolence and wisdom of the adults in their life, and so when one of those adults proves fallible and unkind, the child's worldview falls in on itself. This is perhaps what is at the root of Rachel's anger and frustration.
Home as a Refuge
Throughout the story, Rachel often thinks about her home, and her family, to help her cope with the upsetting incident with the red sweater. When Mrs. Price insists that the red sweater must belong to Rachel, Rachel tries to repress the sickness she feels inside of her by remembering that "Mama is making a cake" for her at home and that "when Papa comes home everybody will sing Happy Birthday" to her. Toward the end of the story, when Rachel is angry with Mrs. Price, she again tries to remember that there is "a cake Mama's making" at home and that they will eat it when Papa comes home from work.
The idea of her home as a refuge is the only thought that sustains Rachel through her difficult day. However, it is still not enough to stop her from "crying in front of everybody" and shaking and making "little animal noises." The implication is that while home always remains a refuge, it becomes less effective as one grows older. Home may be an invulnerable, dependable refuge for the very young child, but for the older child, and later the adult, the home becomes more and more vulnerable to the influences and injustices of the outside world.
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