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Ellen Foster

Kaye Gibbons


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Determination Despite Adversity

Ellen must continually overcome terrible hardship—sexual abuse, alcoholism, neglect, poverty, cruelty. Throughout it all, however, she is determined to endure and knows that she deserves better than the horrific circumstances under which she is suffering. This determination strengthens Ellen’s will to endure and undoubtedly pulls her through her grief and misery, as she knows only she alone can help herself; though others may have tried, no one has succeeded. Ellen eventually realizes that it has not been she, but Starletta, who has had the “hardest row to hoe,” as she is a black girl who is growing up in a highly racist community. Ellen gradually becomes conscious of this, especially when she recognizes that Starletta will not be able to date the white boy on whom she has a crush, solely because of her skin color.

The Intensity of Self-Consciousness and Self-Criticism

As Ellen ages, she grows acutely self-conscious and self-critical. Her self-awareness is especially evident when she must endure her grandmother’s accusations that she is a replication of her father. Ellen is so shaken by this comparison that she must sometimes check in the mirror to assure herself that she is not slowly becoming someone she cannot recognize, especially her father, whom she reasonably hates more than anyone else in the world. Mavis, however, tells Ellen that she resembles her mother, which makes Ellen very curious about her mother’s past. At one point, Ellen criticizes herself for having a misshapen head and a disproportionate body, which she hopes will be remedied when she develops hips and breasts. After she has finally found her new mama, Ellen examines herself in the mirror one day after her bath and wonders if she is the same girl she was two years ago, which she undoubtedly is not.

Transcending Ignorance Through Social Awareness

When the novel begins, Ellen believes in the ridiculous racist biases that have been taught to her by her community and her family. Although she is best friends with Starletta, who is black, she will not eat a meal with her family or stay at her house overnight for fear that Starletta’s skin color is somehow contagious. Ellen pities Starletta for being black and feels lucky that she herself is white. However, as time goes on, Ellen’s awareness is heightened, as she learns from Starletta and Mavis that it is not skin color that is important but, rather, one’s content and character. By the final chapters of the novel, Ellen is deeply ashamed for ever harboring racist prejudices and invites Starletta to stay over her house. She says that now, she will even lick Starletta’s cup if that is what it takes to prove her love for her.



Food appears consistently throughout the novel, most often to denote the absence or presence of love, comfort, and stability. Ellen feels deep shame at having refused to take a meal with Starletta and her parents merely because they are black. This absence of meal sharing indicates an absence of intimacy based on skin color differences, which, Ellen later learns, are unimportant and an ignorant reason for refusing a meal. Interestingly, the remedy for this foolishness, after Ellen realizes her folly, is an offer to lick the lip of Starletta’s cup if that is what it takes to prove that she loves her. Eating, even in its simplest forms, runs alongside the Ellen’s development from a precocious innocent to an understanding young woman.

When Ellen is living with her father, she must buy her own food and, as she can afford very little, must subsist only on frozen dinners, which she eats alone. Ellen must also take her meals alone or in silence while she is at her grandmother’s house and later at Nadine and Dora’s house, as well. While living with Julia and, eventually, her new mama, Ellen is grateful for the abundance of food—and love—that she receives. At both homes, the only happy ones Ellen ever knows, food becomes a social event. At Julia’s, they work in the organic garden together, and, at her new mama’s, all of the children gather in the kitchen to cook enormous, delicious feasts.


Beginning with her mother’s suicide, Ellen is surrounded by death and the thought of it throughout the novel. Soon after her mother’s untimely death, Ellen’s father dies of an alcohol-induced aneurysm. While he was alive, Ellen often had thoughts of murdering him and had fantasized about how and when she would kill him. Her grandmother, however, accuses Ellen of killing her mother and tells her that she is just like her father, which, for Ellen, serves as the ultimate insult. On the day that her grandmother picks her up to take her to her house for the first time, Ellen notes that her car is exactly like the undertaker’s car, except it is a different color. This observation foreshadows Ellen’s nightmarish stay with her grandmother, as it feels very much like a death sentence. Eventually, Ellen’s grandmother falls very ill and dies. Ellen feels terribly guilty for her mother’s death, as she feels she is somehow at fault, and Ellen does not want to take on yet more blame for the death of her grandmother. Ellen is clearly afraid of death and cannot bear to look at her mother’s dead body during the funeral service and burial. The abundance of death-related thoughts and events in Ellen Foster serves to accentuate Ellen’s grief and misery in her nightmarish situation and also underlines her feelings of solitude, as she is continually neglected by those who are meant to love her.

God and the Afterlife

Ellen is continually praying to her “Lord” for support and advice and makes many references to God and the afterlife throughout the course of the novel. When God created her father, Ellen thinks, he must have made an enormous mistake. Ellen cannot understand how God could put a man like her father onto the earth. After her grandmother’s death, Ellen surrounds her grandmother’s body with fake flowers so that she might “trick” God into welcoming her into heaven. She has a distinct vision of the afterlife and is disturbed when she thinks that her grandmother and father will be in the same heaven as her mother and sweet, newborn babies.


Storms and Rain

Just before her mother’s death, Ellen senses that there is a terrible storm coming, foreshadowing the suffering to come. This image of a storm and of rain appears throughout the book, namely during her mother’s burial, when there is a severe rainstorm. Ellen later wishes that her father will be struck by lightning. These images of storm and rain are symbolic of pain and suffering, as they always appear in conjunction with grief.

The Ocean

The ocean represents an almighty power and control, as is evident when Ellen wonders if her grandmother has ever seen the ocean. Immediately, she knows she has not, as such a self-righteous, controlling woman would be humbled to have witnessed the ocean’s powerful and awful force. Ellen finds the ocean particularly intriguing, as it is so mysterious in its immense depth, and she finds similarity in herself and such a brooding force—she feels as though she is churning inside, as the mighty ocean does.

The Cat Painting

Unlike her paintings of the brooding ocean, Ellen’s cat painting is symbolic of shallowness and vanity on the part of Dora and Nadine. The painting is not to Ellen’s taste, and, though she knows Dora and Nadine will think the cats are cute, she personally would much rather paint something with significance. The painting of the cats carries no meaning and no emotion, both of which are very important to Ellen, and, thus, it symbolizes the shallowness and importance of pleasant appearances that underlie many of her opponents.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



What theme of Ellen’s narrative does she gradually come to recognize in Starletta’s story too?
Determination despite adversity
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

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