Nothing but the Truth: A Documentary Novel

by Avi

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Themes and Characters

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Perhaps Nothing but the Truth is to be best understood as a tragedy, with some of the same elements found in Shakespeare's drama Hamlet. Miss Narwin is an idealist, as is Hamlet. She is brought down primarily by her good qualities, as is Hamlet. Her ruin is as unfair as Hamlet's death. The "Miss" in Miss Narwin's name is highlighted by Philip's contemptuous reference to it, as if no man would have her, but Nothing but the Truth deals heavily in dramatic irony, and Philip's cruel remarks actually serve to underline the fact that Miss Narwin is married to her work, dedicated to teaching what she loves. Philip's nasty description is not the only source of information about Miss Narwin, even though it is the primary source for the lies that are published about her. When other students talk about Miss Narwin, it is with respect; they say she is "fair" to students: "She's [Narwin] a fair teacher. All the kids say so," asserts Cynthia Gambria. The reaction of students to Philip's lies also tell something about Miss Narwin: " . . . I think he was doing it to get Miss Narwin in trouble," declares Allison Doresett, the girl Philip is interested in.

Miss Narwin is an authority figure, someone who is to be treated with respect, but the hollowness of her position is revealed by Philip's accusations. As he tells his lies and people react to them, it becomes plain that Miss Narwin (and by implication, other teachers) has been given responsibility without authority. One of the significant ironies of Nothing but the Truth is that many people think that she actually has authority— they say she suspended, or even more incorrectly "expelled," Philip when in fact she cannot do so. Only the school's principal or the vice principal can expel a student. The order in her classroom, and enforcement of rules she did not make, depends on the cooperation of students. Miss Narwin may be held responsible, but if students misbehave, she has no real authority to punish them. It is an untenable position that contributes to her fall from the job she loves and sends her into bitter exile.

Philip is a complex character, which is welcomed in a plot that could easily make him a villain. In Hamlet, King Claudius is a capable administrator, has a gift for words that pleases those around him, and is anguished by his evil crime, all good traits that fill him out as a character, that make a human villain with human qualities. Philip, too, is filled out. Although he goofs off in school most of the time, he does study for math, and he declares that he likes math even though other students may think him crazy for it. This hints of strength of character in Philip, the potential to be a good man. He also is an idealist, envisioning himself qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team if he works hard and makes it to college.

The good qualities in Philip suggest that he could become a fine man. His sense of humor is somewhat cruel, but maturity could eventually make it something to lighten the burden of difficult days for himself and others. His willingness to work at what interests him could develop into a broader understanding of his responsibilities and help him achieve his goal of athletic stardom. Yet, when the track coach explains that he must have passing grades in each course he takes in order to be eligible for after school athletics, and after the coach even suggests how could improve...

(This entire section contains 1750 words.)

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his grade in Miss Narwin's English class, he chooses the baser course of action. Instead of doing the work necessary to achieve his dream, he yields to his weaknesses. He whines in his diary about how teachers are supposed to let him slide by because he is such a nice guy, and he tells people that Miss Narwin is out to get him because she is a nasty spinster and he is a wonderful person. This fateful choice in favor of his worst qualities leads to disappointment for him and catastrophe for Miss Narwin, someone who has wished nothing but the best for Philip.

Avi takes care to lay out exactly what the situation is early in Nothing but the Truth. Philip did not read Jack London's The Call of the Wild (see separate entry) all the way through because it was not to his taste. His essay answer about The Call of the Wild on a test is an insulting, short paragraph asserting that the novel should be about a cat. Philip thinks it is funny, but it does not come close to being an acceptable analysis of London's novel. As what may be a sign of grade inflation or her sympathy for his emotional problems, Miss Narwin gives Philip a C- on his exam. Philip's immature reaction to his grade is a big step toward the degeneration of his personality.

When analyzing fiction and drama, critics often search for growth in the principal characters; growth in their personalities is taken as a sign of good characterization because it shows that they interacted with the events of a story and were affected by them. Hamlet certainly has a fuller understanding of what it takes to be a complete man at the end of his play than he had at the start. From whining about his situation, Hamlet becomes someone who realizes that "readiness is all" when confronting death. In Nothing but the Truth, this sort of growth is absent from the main characters, except in the sense that Miss Narwin learns how badly a student can hurt even a good teacher. By the end of Nothing but the Truth, the idealistic teacher is able to see through the district superintendent's lies. Philip, on the other hand, seems not to have grown at all. His crying and saying that "I don't know the words" are indicative of self-pity, not personal understanding.

Instead of growing more mature, Philip has caught himself in a web of deceit. He degenerates from a happy, self-confident young man into a defensive, unhappy boy. He has had choices to make, choices between hard roads and easy ones, and he has chosen the easy one each time. Instead of working hard to improve his grades, he chooses to blame the teacher. His exam answer shows that he alone is at fault for his low grades. When his parents ask why he does not go out for track, as athletically gifted as he is, he chooses to lie. When moved into Miss Narwin's homeroom, he goes out of his way to be annoying; instead of recognizing his responsibility for his situation, he chooses to take out his anger on his teacher, his classmates, and the national anthem, which he ridicules with loud humming. He is so self-centered and so selfrighteous that he expects his classmates to support him against the supposedly evil authority figure, their teacher. But goofing off that may have seemed funny to his classmates when they were younger is a turn-off now that they are maturing. Philip's faking a good nature may fool grownups, but his peers see right through him.

Philip's classmates are interesting characters. As Philip degenerates into a cowardly liar, they comment on him and the novel's action as though they were a modern version of a chorus in an ancient Greek play. In the plays of Sophocles and others, a chorus was employed to comment to the audience about What is happening in the play. The chorus often points out flaws in the main characters, highlights dramatic irony in the behavior of characters, and sometimes sums up action in a particular scene. In Nothing but the Truth, the high school students emphasize irony; they reveal the gap between Philip's perception of events and reality, and they reveal how little grownups care about truth. They are voices of reason in a story of a lie gone insane; Philip sulks when his peers do not support him, but his peers have seen how hollow he has become. Given a choice to take a step toward full manhood, Philip has stepped aside, and the chorus of the voices of his classmates points out that he has become a lie, a national hero for selfish, lazy behavior. As adults vilify Miss Narwin because of Philip's lies and the subsequent distortion of the truth, and demand that she be fired, the students offer reminders throughout the novel that Miss Narwin deserves respect, that she is "fair" to her students, even "good."

One of the aspects of Nothing but the Truth that makes it appealing to young readers may be its respect for their minds revealed in the presentation of Philip's classmates. Philip's fall from future star athlete to a fraud has in it universal elements that make it understandable. For instance, the urge to evade responsibility for doing something stupid is common; Philip chooses to follow common temptations. His cruelty and selfishness are thus understandable; they are impulses people may feel but which they overcome as they become responsible citizens.

Nothing but the Truth is an emotionally charged book, and it succeeds in exciting emotions by avoiding sensationalism. There are no serial killers, drug dealers, or bullying thugs; instead, the plot builds on everyday issues. One of those issues is conduct at school. The problem, as Superintendent Seymour sees it, is that "People scream if the kids are not educated. Then they scream if you ask for the money to do it." He, like the story's other adults, does not quite get the problem right, but it is symptomatic of how adults let a minor infraction by a student get out of hand. Seymour, Philip's parents, Mr. Griffin, Jennifer Stewart, and others refashion Philip's lies into separate issues that have everything to do with their own self-serving interests and nothing to do with the real issue of Philip's behavior. To Philip's credit, he tries to remind people that he was humming, not singing, and he is very uncomfortable with the fuss that has been made over his conflict with Miss Narwin. However, he needs to assert himself much more powerfully than he does in order to correct what has happened; having chosen the weak, easy way out of taking responsibility for his own actions, he is effortlessly squashed by the adults who want to use him for their own purposes. Miss Narwin, too, is squashed; even Seymour stabs her in the back.