Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1661

Thai spiritualism is the major theme of The Spirit House , with most of the novel illustrating Thailand's cultural perspectives by contrasting them with typical American views. The contrast begins with the American family's expectations for the young man coming from Thailand to live with them while attending a local...

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Thai spiritualism is the major theme of The Spirit House, with most of the novel illustrating Thailand's cultural perspectives by contrasting them with typical American views. The contrast begins with the American family's expectations for the young man coming from Thailand to live with them while attending a local high school. The novel's narrator and main character, Julie Kamen, fears that Thamrongsak Tanngarmtrong will be a nerd who will embarrass her at school. She expects a young man who will be a very studious and very unpopular bookworm. Her parents seem to hope for a young man who will be overwhelmingly grateful to them and amazed by the wonderful prosperity of America. The young man they meet at the airport defies their preconceptions: He is handsome, relaxed, and at ease with his surroundings. He smokes cigarettes heavily and seems worldly. When he sees his new home for the first time the guest appears indifferent to its size and amenities. The bedroom he is given evokes no response from him save indifference. This seems strange to the Kamen family since the room, though small by their standards, must surely be large to a Thai student. Thus begins an American family's education about Thais. As their guest shows, Thais are not bookish, unworldly people inexperienced in the wonders of the modern world. Indeed, the Kamens' guest seems more experienced than they are.

There are aspects of American life that their guest, who asks to be called Bia, covets. He wants the opportunities an education and good knowledge of English will open for him in his homeland. A major driving force behind the action in the novel is Bia's almost desperate desire to pursue an education that would be denied him back home: He hopes that his studies in America will give him a chance to better his life. This is a worthwhile lesson for Julie to learn, who at first is all wrapped up in herself and her personal popularity. Bia is living evidence of what the education she takes for granted means to people who must leave school early in order to earn livings and help support their families. Julie has the good sense and the good heart to recognize the importance to Bia of a high school education, and her understanding of Bia's urgent desire to learn influences the plot by making her hesitate to point out that he is not the Thamrongsak Tan-ngarmtrong her family had corresponded with but rather an imposter.

Julie's eleven-year-old brother Dominic spurs the plot when he builds a spirit house, in spite of Bia's hints that doing so would be bad, and sets it up in the family's yard. Then Julie's life falls apart almost immediately. One of her best friends meets Julie's boyfriend at the airport when he returns from summer vacation, and they become a couple, dropping Julie from their social lives. Her hair becomes greasy and unruly, her face breaks out in pimples, her grades drop, and she is more than usually clumsy in gym class. She notes despondently, "Nothing was going right anymore. And just a few days ago I had been fine!" A high school sophomore devoted to being popular, she now becomes utterly unpopular. She becomes suspicious of Bia as her life worsens, wondering, "Had he substituted himself for the other boy?" She thinks, "It was obvious that Bia had been taking advantage of m e . . . . " Her suspicions and her misery make her vulnerable to the spirit house's appeal. Bia had feared that a spirit from Thailand might come to live in a Thai spirit house, even if it was in America, and one seems to take up residence in Julie's yard intent on making her life miserable.

"I didn't like The Spirit House; I didn't want to get near it. But I felt powerfully compelled to do something," Julie says, introducing a significant secondary theme of wishing for easy—in this case supernatural— solutions to problems. Julie is about to learn that quick solutions exact unforeseen prices. She gives the jade Buddha Bia had given her to the spirit in The Spirit House, asking the spirit for help in proving Bia to be a fraud. She says:

The hard part wasn't removing the chain from my neck—the loose clasp fell open at a touch. And although giving it away, now that I was really doing it, was painful enough to bring tears to my eyes, it was something I could do unflinchingly, because it made a kind of sense, and I knew that my intentions were good.

What do good intentions have to do with it? She has just asked a temperamental and unpredictable spiritual being to intervene in her life and to do harm to someone else— Bia. "And I didn't think I was using Dominic or putting him in danger," she adds. Bia is a sharp-minded fellow; figuring out what Julie has been doing, he declares, "Just remember—I not your friend now, Julie." Julie takes this only one way—that Bia suspects she is on to his fraud and will be out to get her—but Sleator has layered the narrative so that below the level that Julie understands there is a subtext that readers comprehend but Julie does not. When Bia says that he is not her friend, he does so within hearing of The Spirit House. Could he be helping her by making a spirit that is angry with him think that she is his enemy so that the spirit will not hurt her because of him? There are signs that he continues to still trust her, as when he goes to her room for help with his schoolwork, even though he is reserved in his speech when with her.

Julie is a somewhat unreliable narrator who seems to miss clues readers are likely to spot. Her self-centered thoughts continue to focus on the social standing she deems so important: "Maybe I had a chance of being popular again." She is still far from mature in her perceptions and judgments of the quick reversals of fortune she has undergone. She gets her boyfriend Mark back, and he almost becomes her slave. Even her mother lets up on her: "Mom thought it was cheap and demeaning for women to accept expensive presents from men," Julie observes, but her mother gushes over the bracelet Mark has given her. "I couldn't seem to do anything wrong these days. And Bia couldn't do anything right." A narrative by a self-absorbed, immature narrator could quickly become tiresome, but Julie turns out to be an intelligent person who does mature considerably through the painful process of applying her mind to understand the events of her life.

She first applies her reason to the mystery of Bia, drawing a correct conclusion that seems to have escaped the rest of the family: "And now that I knew him better, it was clear to me that this was not a photo of Bia." This close observation and solid reasoning shows her to be bright, and the changes she makes as the story progresses prove her to be capable of significant personal growth. Personal growth is one of the hallmarks of good fictional characterization, and Julie is an excellent example of how an author can show a character growing in maturity and complexity from what she was at the beginning of the story. After exercising her mind to uncover evidence that Bia is a fraud, Julie then takes the crucial step of first wondering what happened to the real Thamrongsak Tan-ngarmtrong and then feeling compassion for him. Remember that Julie, early in the novel, was already beginning to dislike Thamrongsak Tan-ngarmtrong even though she had never met him; now midway through her narrative she discovers concern for someone she has never met—a long stride toward maturity.

Julie advances further towards maturity when she feels compassion for Bia. Even after he has unintentionally terrified her with his masquerade, even after he has confirmed that he is not Thamrongsak, she realizes that his stay in America is his greatest chance for achieving a good life. That this growth in Julie's outlook seems to evolve naturally out of events is remarkable because she is changing from someone concerned only with herself to someone who can understand and respond to the outlook of someone who could be her enemy. That Julie overdoes her reaction to the discovery that Bia was trying to shield people from the spirit is more a symptom of her energy and enthusiasm than her evolving outlook on life: "He [Bia] had done a genuinely noble thing, and yet he had tried to hide it from everybody." Perhaps not so noble— he could have told the truth to everybody. Julie continues, "I had never felt such admiration for anybody." Bia took a relative's place, lied about it, and tried to keep the opportunities for himself; thus he is perhaps not wholly admirable.

Bia, though, is not a routine villain—in fact, one of the remarkable aspects of The Spirit House is that villainy is hard to find. Even Bia's taking the place of Thamrongsak Tan-ngarmtrong was partly happenstance. He also grows throughout the story to become more balanced and insightful. If his outlook was selfish at first, he matures enough to care about the Kamens and his friends at school. He tells Julie that he and she are enemies to shield her from the spirit's displeasure. He also strives to take full advantage of his opportunity to learn in the United States, struggling with his schoolwork in order to achieve the sound education that could help him build a good life. These traits are admirable, though they are marred by Bia's untruthfulness. Readers can thus respond to a character who is neither better nor worse than most real people. He is fully human because his numerous faults are mixed with fine qualities, thereby making his misdeeds not only understandable but even sympathetic.

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