Penrod is an archetypal boy, resembling the earlier Tom Sawyer and the later Charlie Brown and Dennis the Menace, with his long-suffering dog, parents, friends, enemies, and an inability to avoid getting into trouble no matter what he attempts. Booth Tarkington writes ironically, but not without nostalgia and a certain amount of sentiment, about the unwritten code of conduct that sets boys at odds with all attempts to acculturate them into polite society.
Tarkington’s technique of tongue-in-cheek understatement adds to the humor of Penrod’s adventures, which are written to appeal to adults as well as children. While many of the situations and much of the dialogue (including the use of racial epithets) are dated, the central theme is timeless: boys yearning for excitement and accomplishment among their peers, while dodging their parents’ and teachers’ efforts to tame them. Penrod evokes small-town Americana in an age before electronic media and organized sports, when children spent most of their free time outdoors, using their imaginations to create their own entertainment. The children’s blunt honesty frequently exposes the self-serving hypocrisy of the adults around them, as does their unwitting parody of adult behavior. Penrod is frequently punished for doing the same things, for the same reasons, that adults do, only with less subterfuge and finesse. Thus, the novel comments on the human tendency to think the best of oneself and one’s actions,...
(The entire section is 606 words.)