The three main themes in Holes are justice, symbolism, and friendship.
- Justice: The theme of justice in the novel is legal, moral, human, and cosmic.
- Symbolism: The most important symbols in the story are the names, the holes, the poisonous creatures, and the sweet concoctions.
- Friendship: In Holes, friendship has the power to heal and even to transform.
The theme of justice in Holes is legal, moral, human, and cosmic, all of which are wound together in the novel’s complex plot. The legal aspects of the theme of justice come in throughout the novel, but especially early and late. Stanley is processed by the court system when he is arrested, and he is naïve or trusting enough to think that if he tells the truth, he will be found innocent. He is not and is given two options: jail or Camp Green Lake. However, running contrary to that is a strong sense of moral justice. Stanley knows that he did not steal the sneakers and has an intuitive understanding that it is wrong to be punished this way. This moral sentiment blends into compassion for the other boys, and especially for Zero. No one should be treated as the boys at the camp are: stripped from their homes and set to hard labor for minor crimes like stealing sneakers, or for no crimes at all. Because Stanley comes from a more nurturing background, he has the perspective to realize just how wrong their treatment is. The other boys mostly accept their lot in life, and that is one of the book’s tragedies. Another is that anyone has to live like Zero did: homeless and without knowing what happened to his mother. What sets all of this right in the end is a grand pattern of cosmic justice. Stanley’s family may think they have suffered over the decades because the first Stanley Yelnats broke a promise to an old gypsy woman, but this Stanley sets things right by rescuing her descendant, carrying Zero to get a drink in the mountains. That brings things full circle. Stanley and Zero find the buried treasure that the Warden was looking for and lift the curse from both families. The strength of the theme of cosmic justice is so strong that it might be called by another name: fate. The good are eventually all rewarded, and the evil are punished, even if it takes 110 years.
The most important symbols in the story are the names, the holes, the poisonous creatures, and the sweet concoctions. Each of the boys at Camp Green Lake has a nickname that is more important to him than the one he received at birth, at least while he is at camp. These names blend a summing up of the boy’s actual inner character with an identity imposed by the other boys at camp. Zero’s name is a good example of both. It is a truncated version of his last name, Zeroni. His name has been cut short, just as his childhood has been by all that he has gone through. It represents how little the other boys think of him and what they think his IQ is. However, without knowing it, they have also given him the name of a highly complex mathematical concept (the zero), and he is innately gifted at math. Zero’s name and Stanley’s also go together. Stanley’s name is Stanley Yelnats, which is a palindrome (the same forward and backward). It has no beginning and no end, just as zero lacks a beginning or end.
A similar paradox is true for a hole. If you measure around a hole, you come back to the place you started. Measure top to bottom, though, and you definitely reach a finite depth (five feet in this book). Most holes are hot and dry—but some are full of lifesaving water. Most holes are pointless punishments—but some reunite families and make them rich.
The poisonous creatures and...
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sweet concoctions should be treated together because they swirl and blend like one of Sam’s onion tonics. Time and again throughoutHoles, readers are shown that things that should be sweet (going away to camp, telling the truth when one is innocent, love, etc.) may not be, and might in fact be deadly (even poisonous, like the nail polish made with rattlesnake venom the Warden wears). On the other hand, things that seem like they should be deadly or even poisonous, like digging another hole in the heat or drinking 110-year-old preserves, save lives. Without preaching, Holes drives home the fact that surfaces and first impressions cannot be trusted, and that what is in your heart and what happens in the end are what really matter.
The first two themes are quite complex, but the third is simple: in Holes, friendship has the power to heal and even to transform. Both the Zeroni family and the Yelnats family have been laboring under kinds of curses (homelessness, and a literal curse). Both Zero and Stanley are outcasts who have been treated poorly by the system, as are the other boys. However, when the two boys stand up for one another, teach one another, and save one another, they change their lives forever. Along the way, they change the lives of their families and all the boys at Camp Green Lake.