Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484
The meaning of The Hundred Dresses is simple and timeless: All people have human obligations to one another, and sidestepping these obligations is both unethical and immoral. Such inaction may have serious consequences. In the psychologically sophisticated narrative of The Hundred Dresses, Estes also acknowledges the difficulty inherent in making oneself conspicuous by acting to stop an injustice. No person wants to risk becoming the object of ridicule by standing up for another person. Like Madeline, one can find excuses for why a victimized person deserves that ill-treatment and is hence unworthy of rescue. Yet, as Madeline realizes, those excuses are just that—excuses. They are not reasons; indeed, there can be no reasons for complacency when others are being harmed. Excuses do not absolve one of complicity in the misery of another person or group. While it can be difficult or painful to stand up for the outcast, it is necessary to do so.
Estes’ message of human obligation and interconnectedness should be clear to most readers. By making the consequences of Peggy’s and Madeline’s behavior evident early in the novel and then showing the evolution of Wanda’s estrangement through flashbacks, Estes avoids the charge of preaching. Readers will, like Peggy and Madeline, wonder why Wanda has stopped attending school. The narrative takes the reader through Madeline’s reconstruction of past events to speculate about why Wanda is missing and to wonder why, despite the fact that Wanda is a quiet and compliant student, her teacher has consigned her to the back of the room with the “bad” kids.
Indeed, one of the subthemes of Estes’ exploration is the consequence of “writing off” certain children. Wanda sits at the margins of her classroom, and her teacher makes no effort to bring those at the margins into the world of the class. The rest of the children, for their part, accept that it must be right and proper that Wanda exist on the fringes of their lives. Wanda lives in Boggins Heights and thus sits in the back of the classroom. No one attempts to help the girl, with her broken English and her reading problems, to become a part of her town or school community. No one asks her to explain what she means when she says that she has a hundred dresses; they simply assume that she is lying. Wanda does not matter to anyone until she has stopped attending class; the children have taken their cues from their teacher, who has accepted the premise that well-scrubbed, protected, and outgoing children are her primary concern as a teacher. Because Wanda seems to show little academic promise, seems generally confused, and speaks haltingly, and because she has no protector, she is given no nurturance within the classroom or school community. Sensitive and perceptive readers may begin to look around their own classrooms to see if any Wanda Petronskis are there.
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