Outer characterization

Victor is the main character in the short story “The Terrapin” by Patricia Highsmith, which is narrated using his perspective.

Victor’s outer characterization reveals that he is eleven years old and lives with his mother in a one-room apartment in New York. Victor’s parents are separated, and his father is a businessman who lives in France and sustains Victor and his mother financially.

Victor is dressed in a French style by his mother, something the boy resents. He has “long knobby-kneed legs” and wears “heavy scuffed shoes”, “silly short shorts”, “dopey shirts with round collars” and a “gray woolen jacket”.

Victor’s inner characterization is conveyed by following his perspective in relation to other characters, through his thoughts, actions, and attitude.

Victor in relation to his mother and father

Most of Victor’s inner characterization is conveyed in relation to his mother. Victor’s action of hiding a book in the beginning of the story suggests that he fears his mother: “He shoved it under the sofa pillow out of sight and winced as he heard it sleep between the sofa and wall…”.

Later, we find out that Victor was reading “Menninger’s The Human Mind”, a psychology book. We also learn that his “mother did not like him to read psychology books, but Victor loved them…”. This shows that Victor is intelligent but has strange reading tastes for a boy his age. Victor’s intelligence is also suggested through his vocabulary: “… but boredom, frustration – he knew the word frustration, had read all about it…”.

Various aspects of the story suggest that Victor is an unusual 11-year-old. For example, we learn the reason why he likes psychology books: “… Victor loved them, especially the ones with case stories in them. The people in the case stories did what they wanted to do. They were natural. Nobody bossed them.”. This suggests that Victor dreams of escaping from his mother’s control.

The fact that Victor prefers reading and staying inside suggests that he is a lonely boy. Gradually, we find out that Victor is frustrated and ashamed of the way his mother dresses him because it makes him the target of bullying: “He had hoped his mother might remember what he had told her, that the fellow (…) had laughed at his short pants on Monday afternoon.”; “ ‘Do you think I like these pants? You like them, not me, so why are you making fun of them?’ ” . The only thing Victor likes about his outfits are the “heavy scuffed shoes” he wears.

Victor is very frustrated by the fact that his mother treats him like a small child. This is suggested when he snaps at her for making him say the days of the week or when he thinks about the way she treats him: “ ‘I’ve known them for years. Years and years. Kids five years old can say the days of the week.’ ”; “His mother wanted him to stay about six years old, forever, all his life.”.

Victor has no interest in his mother’s drawings, but the fact that he pretends to be interested suggests he still cares about his mother, even if he resents her: “Often Victor said he liked stories that he did not like, or drawing that he was indifferent to, because he felt sorry for his mother and it put her in a better mood….”

Victor is bothered that his mother brags to her friends about him being an inspiration for her drawings and thinks the woman is exaggerating: “Her mother liked to tell people and remind him, too, that he had told her what he wanted to see her draw (…) and that she had been absolutely guided by him.”. Victor is perhaps upset that his mother tells other people that she is inspired by him, suggesting a close relationship, whereas in fact she is controlling and mocks him.

Victor’s attitude towards his mother’s work suggests he considers her a failure and he is aware that their money comes from his father:  “Since then his mother had done only a few illustrations (….) though she took her portfolio around to publishers all the time. Their income came from his father…”.

Victor often feels suffocated by his mother. This is indicated by the fact that he tries to ignore her talking about her drawings but a...

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