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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

Why is Ellen's grandmother so cruel to her? How does this make Ellen question herself? What prompts her to accuse Ellen of killing her mother?

Ellen's grandmother is especially cruel to her because she sees Ellen as a means to get revenge on her father, who, in Ellen's grandmother's eyes, ruined her daughter's life. She seeks vengeance by telling Ellen that she is just like her father, the man Ellen despises more than anyone in the world. Ellen is sickened by her grandmother's incessant comparison of her to her father and eventually fears that she may gradually be turning into his likeness. She examines herself in the mirror to be sure she is not and swears that if she has changed, she will kill herself. Ellen's grandmother accuses her of killing her mother because she sees Ellen as an accomplice to her suicide. As far as she is concerned, neither Ellen nor her father attempted to stop her daughter from taking her own life, although Ellen had desperately tried to save her mother and was forbidden to by her father.

2.

How does Ellen's friendship with Starletta change over the course of the two years the novel takes place. Why does this transformation occur? How does it manifest itself?

By the end of the novel, Ellen and Starletta have begun to drift apart, as both are maturing rapidly and are starting to immerse themselves in different interests. Ellen, in particular, notices Starletta's metamorphosis and says she wants to place her hands on Starletta to stop her from growing. Ellen does not want to lose Starletta's friendship and decides she will invite her to stay at her new house for the weekend, determined to give Starletta an unforgettably fun time. It is during Starletta's stay that the transformation in their relationship is evident. Their relationship is altered most distinctly in the way Ellen has broadened her social awareness. She confesses to Starletta that she is very ashamed for ever harboring racist prejudice, but Ellen assures Starletta that she has now realized that skin color makes no difference in the quality of a person. Ellen, in fact, laments that she may truly be a black person trapped inside of a white person's body, for she may have been made black, then bleached and stuck in a group of the wrong people. This speaks to Ellen's frequent feelings of aloneness, as the two people she has had the most genuine, honest relation to are Mavis and Starletta, both of whom are black.

3.

How is Ellen affected by her relationship with her grandmother? How does her stay there change Ellen, and what does it reveal about her character?

Ellen is permanently scarred by her grandmother's scathing remarks and, even by the end of the book, has not been able to let go of the trauma she suffered at her hands. Ellen does not want to cry when her grandmother gives her the news of her father's death, but she cannot help it and lets a single tear slip down her cheek. Her grandmother first dares her to cry and then forbids her to shed another tear ever again, which she does not—and literally cannot— for the duration of the novel. Ellen's level of self-consciousness is also heightened to dangerous levels by her grandmother's incessant comparison of her to her father, whom Ellen justifiably loathes. Despite her grandmother's cruelty, Ellen cares for her with the utmost tenderness when she falls ill and outwardly shows her nothing but kindness and respect. When her grandmother dies, Ellen prays that God will accept her into heaven and frames her body with fake flowers so that she will look like a kind, genuine person when she goes to be judged before God. Ellen's interaction with her grandmother speaks to her impressionability and sensitivity but, more importantly, reveals her inherent sense of caring and kindness, which is especially remarkable considering they are two qualities that have been absent from her family life.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does Ellen's time spent working on her grandmother's field with the black workers alter her views on racism? Why does she say she could pass for a "colored person?"

2. Why does Ellen admire Mavis's and Starletta's families?

3. How does Ellen reveal her precocity? How does she mature throughout the course of the novel?

4. Why is Ellen so glad that she does not believe in Santa Claus? How does this act as an indicator of her maturity? How is it sad?

5. Why does Ellen blame herself for her mother's death? What reason does she give for not wanting her grandmother to die?

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