Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629
The action of the novel takes place in an extended flashback that covers the summer holidays of two young teenage girls: the unnamed narrator and her friend Harriet. The narrator tells a dispassionate story of how she and her friend destroy the self-effacing Peter Biggs, whom they have named “Tsar.” The choice of this name highlights their childish romanticism and ignorance. The summer for them is no innocent rite of passage into young womanhood but rather the working out of their twisted need to control and destroy those adults who get in their way.
The narrator has returned from her year at boarding school, where she was sent because her behavior was so unruly. Like her friend Harriet, she is wise beyond her years, but she lacks the necessary maliciousness to act on her desires without the prodding of Harriet. When Harriet returns from her holiday in Wales, the two girls take an interest in the life and activities of Peter Biggs and his wife. Capitalizing on Biggs’s friendliness toward her earlier in the summer, Harriet begins—with an almost scientific detachment—to engineer ways for the narrator to be thrown together with him.
Harriet is the real troublemaker. She has already experimented with the power of her sexuality in her flirtations with the Italian prisoners of war interned in Formby as well as with a young man she met while on holiday. She subtly forces the narrator to entrap Biggs by alluding to “something” she did with that young man but that she cannot bring herself to talk about “just yet.” The two girls have kept a diary chronicling their sexual coming-of-age. Harriet dictates; the narrator transcribes. Biggs becomes the focus of their information gathering and the target of their experiment.
Early in the novel, the two girls spy on Biggs and his wife as they make love in their front parlor. The girls are discovered, and their nosiness only adds fuel to Mrs. Biggs’s already growing suspicions that these two children are at least acting improperly toward her husband, if not actually trying to seduce him. The knowledge that Biggs’s wife “knows” about their intentions provides Harriet with a perfect rationale for first disliking her and later feeling no remorse for what eventually occurs.
Goaded by Harriet’s inferred sexual initiation, the narrator follows Biggs on his walks to the seashore and allows him to express his unhealthy attraction to her, first verbally, later through a kiss, and finally sexually. Harriet, in a fit of jealousy, provides the two with the needed opportunity by locking Biggs and her friend in the parish church one night. Then, when they learn that Mrs. Biggs will be away for several days, the girls invite themselves over to Biggs’s house. Harriet cruelly derides his affection for her friend as the sign of a weak man. At this point, the narrator turns away from Harriet but not from Biggs. Believing that the more worldly-wise Harriet has already lost her virginity in Wales, the narrator gives hers to Biggs one night on the beach.
Harriet has, however, misled her friend; she retains her virginity and is shocked that the narrator gave hers away so casually. Later, just before the narrator is due to return to school, the two girls return to Biggs’s house. When he goes out to buy cigarettes, his wife unexpectedly returns. Trapped in the house, Harriet concocts a perfect solution: She makes the narrator knock Mrs. Biggs out—but the force of the blow kills, rather than stuns, her. The story concludes with Harriet telling the narrator that they will return home and tell their parents that they saw Mr. Biggs murder his wife. After all, they are only children, they cannot be held accountable.
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