Books of My Childhood
Harriet the Spy
Posted 19 Jul 2019
“Life is a great mystery.” - Harriet
In her book Inventing Human Rights, author Lynn Hunt argues that the creation of the novel was instrumental in the widespread development of empathy as we understand it today. Novels, in her estimation, “made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings.” The ideal novel opens our eyes to the experience of being another person, exposes to the reader the inner thoughts and feelings of a fellow human in a way that few other media can. Fiction, at its best, breaches the shell of profound isolation that separates us from each other, giving us a glimpse, however fleeting, of how it feels to be someone else.
Few books manage to do this effectively, of course. Most works of fiction, even very enjoyable ones, never transcend their innate nature as bits of make-believe. It is an extraordinarily difficult task for the writer to create the sensation of a living, breathing person from a pile of ink and paper, and it’s a wonder that anyone succeeds at all. But such successes are out there, and may at times be found in surprising places. Such is the case with Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.
Weighing in at just shy of 300 pages, Harriet the Spy was an impressive and intimidating tome to me at the age I first picked it up, the kind of book that made reading feel like an accomplishment. Harriet’s world was an exciting and alien one to me. I grew up in a relatively rural environment and Harriet’s affluent urban life couldn’t have been more unlike my own. I was baffled by the presence of her family’s live-in cook, and her bustling, vibrant neighborhood was as fantastic as anything Bruce Coville wrote. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that the reason Harriet’s adventures so captivated me had very little to do with their substance, and more to do with Harriet herself.
Harriet M. Welsch ranks among the most deftly developed, eminently human characters in literature. She is a strong-minded, independent spirit, but she inhabits a world in which she has little control over her life. Harriet’s great drive is to understand how the world works, and everything she does is directed toward that end. Her primary pastimes are writing, spying, and playing a game she calls “Town,” in which she improvises the lives of a large cast of imaginary characters. In practice, the things she learns tend to lead to questions more often than answers, but her intentions are clear, and her persistence is admirable.
Where Harriet’s problems come to a head is the point at which her world is upended in a devastating one-two punch. First she loses her childhood nanny, Ole Golly, who was her most trusted adult confidante. Harriet had depended on Ole Golly’s wisdom and guidance for her entire childhood, and is effectively distanced from her well-meaning but rather oblivious parents. Ole Golly’s departure leaves Harriet at the mercy of her strange and confusing world, and her grief and disorientation are palpable. Her situation is exacerbated further when her friends and classmates find her notebook, and upon reading Harriet’s unflattering comments about them, actively ostracize and humiliate her. At this point, Harriet is truly alone, and Fitzhugh does not shy away from a visceral depiction of her resulting depression. “When I wake up in the morning I wish I were dead,” she writes at one point, a startling admission to appear in the pages of a children’s book. Harriet, with her usual never-say-die attitude, does attempt to rectify her situation, but when her best efforts fail she eventually becomes despondent. For much of the final act of the book she becomes a listless, near-unrecognizable version of herself. It’s brutal, unsparing, and nearly unprecedented in children’s literature.
Harriet’s great character flaw is that she lacks empathy. Though she is fascinated by other people and the lives they live, she tends to treat them as a show put on for her own amusement, and doesn’t imagine that their inner lives might be as sophisticated as her own. To Harriet, the real world is just a larger, more unpredictable game of Town. She often imagines herself into the circumstances of someone else, but never tries to understand how it might feel to be someone else. And it is this flaw that ultimately leads to her downfall. Without empathy, her notebook is a repository for hateful, vicious comments about everyone she sees, from her friends to complete strangers. “I would like to write a story about [her] getting run over by a truck,” Harriet writes, “except she’s so fat I wonder what would happen to the truck.” Harriet’s notebook comments are often so spiteful that they’re downright unpleasant to read, and yet when her mother directly asks her to imagine why her friends were upset by them, she can only reply “I don’t know.”
The only way for Harriet to escape her predicament, in fact, is to learn empathy. One surprising catalyst toward this end is the school play, in which Harriet is cast as an onion. She loathes the assignment, but nevertheless she does throw her heart into it, and in so doing she begins to grasp the concept of truly inhabiting another perspective, rather than just observing it. Relating to an inanimate object apparently opens the door for her, as she relates in the book’s final chapter: “I have tried to be a bench in the park, an old sweater, a cat, and my mug in the bathroom. I think I did the mug best because when I was looking at it I felt it looking back at me and I felt like we were two mugs looking at each other.” Harriet also receives some last-minute wisdom from Ole Golly, who advises her in a letter that to rectify her situation she’ll have to apologize and tell some white lies, both of which, Ole Golly admits, run contrary to Harriet’s instincts. But Harriet takes her advice, and as the book closes, she finally manages to connect as she watches her friends approach: “She made herself walk in Sport’s shoes, feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles. […] She felt what it would feel like to have freckles and yellow hair like Janie, then funny ears and skinny shoulders like Sport.” And Janie and Sport seem to sense the change in Harriet. The book ends as they wordlessly welcome her back into the fold and walk off together.
Harriet’s strong character also obscures a surprising fact about the book: that very little of it is actually concerned with spying. While the “hook” of the story is the idea of this kid going around peeking through windows, I’d estimate that it makes up less than 10% of the story. Harriet’s spy route makes for a great cover blurb, but in the end it’s the depth of her character that does essentially all of the work of carrying the story.
Harriet is not, of course, the only substantial character in the novel. The book’s scope is expansive, and Harriet’s acquaintances, even the most ancillary of them, are robust and memorable. Harriet’s friends Janie and Sport are particularly interesting. Janie is a disaffected, angry girl who channels her emotions into an ambitious plan to become a scientist and ultimately blow up the world. In the meantime, she purposefully terrorizes her family members by creating dramatic effects with her bedroom chemistry set. Harriet is understandably awed and intimidated by her. Sport, on the other hand, has essentially been forced to play the adult of his household, managing the finances and responsibilities on behalf of his negligent novelist father. Yet in many instances it’s clear that he really is still a kid, one who would much rather spend an afternoon throwing a ball against a wall than balancing a checkbook. His situation is tragic, and his ability to cope with it is admirable. Their personalities are beautifully conveyed and contrasted over a game of Monopoly: “Janie and Sport loved it. Janie had all sorts of systems worked out for winning, and Sport was so passionate about money that they were kept continuously interested[.]” With the possible exception of the Welshes’ cook (who never even gets a name), there’s not a character in the book who isn’t developed to a degree of believability that few authors can attain.
And what is the ultimate effect of all this character-building? Harriet’s spy route, her notebooks, her games of Town–these are, in fact, novels in microcosm. As Harriet observes the people around her, the reader observes Harriet. In this way, the book becomes something unexpected: a comment on the nature of fiction, and of the novel in particular. When reading this story, and indeed when reading any story, the reader becomes Harriet M. Welsh, looking into another life, grasping for a human connection.
Harriet the Spy is a remarkable book. Few novels for adults can match its sophistication and depth, let alone those for children. I’m grateful to have encountered it at such a young age, where its lessons and ingenuity surely had a profound effect on my own development. It deserves to be remembered not just as a wonderful book for children (which, to be sure, it is), but as a work of great literature. It is a book about humanity, its potential for both beauty and ugliness, and that is surely the highest goal to which a work of fiction can aspire.