Compare and contrast the personalities of Kathy and Ruth. What character traits do they share? What character traits differentiate them?
Ruth’s fiery personality contrasts with Kathy’s more reserved demeanor. This difference shows in their reactions to Tommy’s tantrum on the football field. While Ruth loudly proclaims her opinion that Tommy has brought his misfortunes upon himself, Kathy quietly watches him from the window. Eager to stand out among her peers at Hailsham, Ruth also often pretends that she has special knowledge and privileges. For instance, her leadership of the secret guard shows her desire to control information as well as her desire for a privileged relationship with Miss Geraldine. Kathy just as often doubts the truth of Ruth’s claims to knowledge and privilege, which results in quarreling between the two. Kathy’s natural suspicion contrasts with Ruth’s penchant for pretending and make-believe. Tommy articulates this distinction at the end of the novel, when he states that Ruth always wished “to believe in things” while he and Kathy always wished “to find things out.”
Yet Ruth and Kathy also share an inclination towards subtlety and indirection. In their quarrels, both tend to prefer hints and indirect insults to direct confrontation. At the Cottages, Ruth counters Kathy’s subtle dig about copying the veterans’ arm slapping with her own indirect comment about Kathy’s one-nighters. Ruth and Kathy’s arguments often end with one or the other walking silently away from the scene. Likewise, they make up for their quarrels just as indirectly. Instead of apologizing to Ruth about the pencil case incident, Kathy hints pointedly to other students that Miss Geraldine favors Ruth. Instead of apologizing for the way she treats Kathy and Tommy in Norfolk, Ruth pointedly includes them in conversation on the drive home. Although Ruth has a louder personality than Kathy, their quarrels highlight the many similarities between them.
What is the significance of the two years that Kathy spends at the Cottages? How does this period compare with her childhood at Hailsham?
Kathy’s two years at the Cottages are a bridge between her childhood at Hailsham and her adulthood as a carer. Her memories of the Cottages accordingly occupy the book’s middle section of the book, between the sections focused on Hailsham and on her work as a carer. The Cottages are a transitional space, where the self-sufficient students wait out the time until they begin their adult lives. For Kathy and her friends, life at the Cottages begins to push the memory of Hailsham further and further into the past. At the Cottages, they are living for the first time among non-Hailsham students. The presence of these “veteran” students places a new strain on Kathy’s relationship with Ruth. While Kathy holds tightly to the memory of Hailsham, she is frustrated with Ruth’s readiness to let it go in her attempts to befriend the veterans.
In other ways, life at the Cottages actually recalls life at Hailsham. The students continue their academic pursuits, although they do so less formally than they did at Hailsham. The Cottages remain somewhat isolated from the outside world, and donations remain a somewhat taboo topic among the veterans who live there. And as the rumor about deferrals shows, speculation and rumor circulate at the Cottages much in the way they did at Hailsham. The search for Ruth’s possible in Norfolk shows how both the Hailsham students and veterans at the Cottages build their hopes on the basis of rumors. The failure of that search shows them moving closer to adulthood, where a childlike belief in possibility has become much more difficult to sustain.
Is Kathy an unreliable narrator? What details from the novel reflect her reliability or unreliability?
Kathy is an unreliable narrator. On one level, her memory is unreliable. Kathy’s point of view is retrospective—she reflects on the past years of her life, recalling memories from as far back as early childhood. Kathy repeatedly admits that she may be misremembering certain details, and often says that Tommy or Ruth remembered a particular episode differently. While her memories are roughly chronological, Kathy also tends to skip around in time. For instance, her memory of Tommy’s tantrum on the football field takes her back several years to the memory of Tommy’s elephant watercolor in art class. These quirks in Kathy’s narration highlight the subjective nature of memory itself. Kathy’s many asides about not remembering details show that she recognizes the unreliability of her memory and wishes to communicate that uncertainty to the reader.
However, Kathy is also unreliable because she masks information from the reader. Kathy is a restrained and subtle narrator, especially when it comes to her emotions. She never directly tells the reader that she loves Tommy, showing how much she cares by indirect means instead. While Kathy’s love for Tommy is an underlying source of her tension with Ruth, Kathy tends to redirect this tension to other issues. Noticeably, Kathy remains calm when Ruth confronts her about Tommy at the bus shelter near the Cottages. But Kathy snaps at Ruth when their conversation turns to Hailsham, expressing her annoyance that Ruth pretends to forget details about their childhood. Kathy’s narration continues to mute her feelings for Tommy through the end of the novel, when she describes her controlled emotional state after his death. Kathy guards her emotions through her restrained narration, requiring the reader to interpret her words and actions for signs of her true feelings.
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