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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Chapter 14

Chapter 13

Chapter 15

Summary

Ellen keeps to herself while she is staying at Dora and Nadine's house, and she enjoys the time she has alone. In addition to reading, Ellen takes this time to examine the slides she has of bacteria in her microscope, which she uses in secret.

When Nadine asks Ellen what she would like for Christmas, Ellen first tells her that the clothes she has paid for are enough, but later, when probed, she asks for a pack of white paper on which to paint. Nadine is rather appalled by Ellen's request, and Ellen hopes that she will maybe feel sorry for her and buy her other surprise gifts. Maybe, Ellen thinks, Nadine is actually growing to like her, though she catches herself and warns that she must be careful about dreaming, as not to disappoint herself.

For Christmas, Ellen decides to paint Nadine and Dora a picture of two fuzzy kittens, something she would not have picked for herself but knows that the two will enjoy. Instead, she herself would have liked to paint the ocean. When Ellen asks Dora how she and her mother typically celebrate Christmas, she scoffs at Ellen and refuses to answer. It is only when Ellen mentions her Christmas gift that Dora launches into a long-winded description of many Christmases past. Ellen feels wise listening to Dora describe the many gifts for which she has asked, confident she will receive them, as Ellen knows that Santa Claus does not exist. She is tempted to divulge this to Dora but resists.

As time passes, Ellen grows more expectant and hopes that Nadine has softened and picked out many gifts for her. She also grows ever hopeful that Nadine and Dora will genuinely like the painting she has made for them. Ellen gives them the painting on Christmas morning, and Nadine is complimentary, saying how "cute" Ellen is to have painted it for them. Dora asks if Ellen has traced the cats, which of course enrages Ellen, though she is overly kind in return. Nadine says that they will have to wait until the next day to hang the painting, as she needs a frame. Ellen produces a variety of frames she has made from colored paper and tells Nadine to pick the one she most likes. Dora mocks Ellen and asks her mother if she plans to hang her tacky paper frame on their wall. Nadine scolds Dora for being rude, but later, in private, Ellen overhears her tell Dora that even though her painting is "silly and cheap-looking," they must pretend to be appreciative. They can hang it while Ellen is staying with them, and then take it down as soon as she leaves. Upon hearing this, Ellen boils with rage and terrible shame, which is only exacerbated by all of the gifts Dora has received for Christmas. Nadine, as it turns out, has bought Ellen only what she had asked for: a package of paper. Naturally, Ellen is sorely disappointed and marches to her room after receiving the one gift. When Nadine tells Ellen that she has been rude to reject the gift, Ellen vows to seek revenge. She knows that the one thing Dora cannot have but wants is a boyfriend, so she shows Dora her microscope and claims that her boyfriend has given it to her. Dora accuses Ellen of lying and says that she cannot see the pictures of cells on the slides under the microscope. This is the last straw for Ellen, who is ordered out of the house on that Christmas day by Nadine. When Nadine approaches to beat her, Ellen tells her sternly that if she tries to touch her, she will kill her. Ellen packs up her few belongings, taking care to look nice in her new, beautiful dress, and asks Dora if she knows anything about "the Foster lady." Dora tells Ellen where the foster lady lives, and Ellen goes to her, sure she will impress with her new dress.

Analysis

Ellen is careful to contain her hopes for Christmas, as she has learned from her many past disappointments and does not want to suffer yet more. However restrained Ellen is in her hopes, she cannot help feeling them, for it is not the package of paper or any other tangible gift she wants for Christmas, but the approval and affection of Dora and Nadine. It is this one gift that Ellen cannot have; Dora and Nadine are too in love with themselves to care for, never mind love, Ellen, and they feign mild interest in her just as they feign their own success and happiness. Nadine is appalled by Ellen's request for only one gift because she and Dora measure their worth by their material possessions and are satisfied by them. Ellen, however, possesses virtually nothing, and her longing can only be satisfied by the immaterial and unconditional love and acceptance, with which Nadine and Dora cannot understand nor provide.

Thus, Ellen feels wiser and more worldly than Dora for knowing that Santa Claus is merely an imaginary figure, as Dora, so unlike Ellen, places all of her faith in a illusory, intangible figment of childhood fantasy. Ellen, however, has the sense and the experience to know better than to rely on dreams and fantasies. Ellen almost seems to pity Dora for her radical ignorance and naïveté, as she knows the sting of disenchantment and knows that soon, Dora will too. She does not tell Dora the truth about Santa Claus because she does not want to be the one to deliver that sadness and does not want to be the one to blame for her harsh awakening, just as she did not want to be the one to take the blame for her grandmother's death. She takes comfort in knowing that, someday, Dora's blind faith will be broken by reality, though Ellen will not be the one to shatter it.

Just as Dora and Nadine cannot see value in the immaterial, they cannot understand Ellen's thoughtfulness in creating a painting tailored for their taste. Ellen decides to paint them a picture of cute, fuzzy kittens because she knows, in their shallowness, they will never fathom the brilliance of the ocean and how it "looks strong and beautiful and sad at the same time." Again in Chapter 14 the ocean is represented as an immense source of power and depth, like Ellen, herself. Ellen is fascinated by the grandiosity of the ocean, as she is fascinated by the slides of cells she examines through her microscope. The ocean and the cells possess a depth and mystery that Ellen, even at eleven, knows Dora and Nadine will see only as "evil." Of the cat painting, Ellen says that "once you look at it one time you have seen and felt everything you will ever see and feel about those cats." Essentially, the cats are meaningless and simple and will suit the vain, hollow desires of Dora and Nadine.

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