In Paton’s short story ‘‘Ha’penny,’’ the author creates a narrator who shares many of his inner thoughts with the reader. In the beginning, the narrator sounds very confident, especially in his relationships with the young boys in his care at the reformatory. Through his comments about how he performs his role as an authority figure, he assures the reader that his main focus is on improving the lives of the incarcerated boys. If one were to read only the first few pages of this story, this initial impression would remain intact. As the story progresses, though, cracks in the character of the narrator begin to appear. What starts out as a proud and confident man slowly turns into a man full of doubts and remorse. Likewise, the characters of Ha’penny and Mrs. Maarman also are transformed. The progression of these characters’ development can be traced. By doing so, readers come to comprehend and to better appreciate the characters’ complexities.
The change that the characters go through is referred to, in literary terms, as a character arc. Many authors give their protagonist (the main character of the story) a character arc to create interest. When a character faces events that challenge his or her beliefs, readers relate more closely to that character. When provided with an arc, the fictional character appears more real to the reader because real people go through similar challenges and changes. In some stories, the changes that the character goes through create tension in the story, making the reader wonder what the character will do next or what will happen to him or her. Without an arc, a character appears flat or lifeless and becomes a stereotype of a real person—a formulaic or oversimplified representation. Many stories provide a character arc only for the protagonist. However, in Paton’s story ‘‘Ha’penny,’’ all three characters are given arcs, and each arc takes a different shape.
The narrator’s character arc appears to rise in the beginning of the story and then drops suddenly near the end, with a hint of recovery before the story closes. As the story opens, the narrator offers a personal glimpse of how he views himself as an authority figure within the reformatory. He is pleased with his powers of observation, as well as with the conclusions he has come to. He feels rather smug about himself as a compassionate man and an authority figure; he would love to take all the younger boys at the reformatory and place them in a special wing so he could put his behavioral hypotheses to work. The narrator truly believes that he understands these troubled boys. He thinks he has cracked some code that has unlocked the secrets inside their minds. He believes he knows how these boys’ minds work and how the boys will react, and he believes he knows how to control the boys. The narrator performs little behavioral experiments, which he shares with the readers, to prove that his theories work. All it takes, he thinks, is an offer of small gestures of affection to these love-starved boys to make them behave. A pat on the head or simple eye contact encourages the boys to do well in their studies, to listen to authority figures, and to work cooperatively. The narrator is proud but not arrogant. He gathers this information and creates his theories not for praise but because he thinks he is helping the boys.
Even this early in the story, though, careful readers might sense the trap that the narrator is heading for. They might find a hint that the narrator is about to trip and fall. The narrator might be walking tall in the first few paragraphs of this story, with his head held high and his thoughts full of self-confidence, but he might also be a little too proud. The narrator seems to believe that he is better than those around him. He insinuates that he knows more about the boys than some of his coworkers do. During times of unrest, ‘‘when there was danger of estrangement between authority and boys,’’ the narrator insinuates that he is the only one who knows how to keep the boys calm. If he believes he can control the boys through his glances, he must also believe he knows more than the boys do about themselves. By practicing these ‘‘secret relations’’ with the boys and watching the boys’ reactions, the narrator states, ‘‘I knew that my authority was thus confirmed and strengthened.’’ In this early portion of the story, the narrator’s character arc is artificially high, inflated by his beliefs and apparent successes with the boys’ behavior. He sounds like a very self-assured man, but to a careful reader, he might also seem like a character who is about to learn a very important lesson.
The narrator slightly lowers his sense of self importance when he takes some of the younger boys for weekend drives. During these times, the narrator lessens the distance between himself and the boys, becoming more personal with them. He encourages conversations about their families. Even though he pretends not to know details about the surrounding countryside in order to promote their discussions, he is not otherwise concerned about controlling them. At this point in the story, he is not extolling his knowledge or expertise. Thus, here, his character arc neither rises nor falls. However, the shape of the arc quickly changes when the narrator takes it upon himself to check the validity of Ha’penny’s claims.
Ha’penny, the twelve-year-old orphan who creates a family from a mix of fact and imagination, tells the narrator stories of his life before he was incarcerated. Being a keen observer, the narrator notices a flaw in Ha’penny’s description of his family. With his curiosity roused, the narrator searches through Ha’penny’s personal records. So begins the descent of the narrator’s character arc. In his hurry to uncover the truth of Ha’penny’s background, the narrator rushes into an investigation. Who is this family that Ha’penny keeps talking about? The narrator must know. He does not go to the boy directly, because Ha’penny has already demonstrated that he has a lively imagination. Instead, the narrator hunts down Mrs. Maarman, the woman Ha’penny has claimed as his mother. Readers might understand this need that the narrator has to uncover the truth, but they might also wonder why the narrator does not think of the consequences of proving that Ha’penny is lying. If the narrator truly does understand the boys in his charge, why does he not think of what harm this might do to the young boy?
Mrs. Maarman reveals the truth: she is not related to Ha’penny in any way. Not only that, she wants nothing to do with the boy. He is a black boy, whereas she is colored. He is a criminal, and her children are not. He is therefore, in her view, a bad influence on her family. Now the narrator knows the truth, and he lets Ha’penny know what he has found. He believes he is doing so obliquely by merely correcting the name of one of Mrs. Maarman’s children, but this does not soften the blow. As Ha’penny falls ill and becomes nonresponsive to care, the narrator’s opinions of himself disintegrate. For someone who believed he knew what was best for the boys, he has failed miserably. Ha’penny shuts the narrator out of his life, and the narrator must face his part in Ha’penny’s death. The narrator’s character arc hits the floor. This is not the end, though. The narrator admits his mistakes, learns his lesson, and resolves to do better in the future. Thus, his character arc rises again.
Ha’penny is also given a character arc. He, like the narrator, has an arc that begins artificially high. Ha’penny appears very happy and pleased with himself in the beginning. He has no problem opening up to the narrator as he shares his stories about his family. He writes home every week to his mother, whom he constantly praises. However, his relationship with a family is a sham. Every detail has been fabricated. Though Mrs. Maarman is real, she is not his mother. When the narrator unveils the truth, Ha’penny emotionally and physically crashes. He hits the ground so hard that he cannot get up. His arc in this story actually progresses from bad to worse. He begins a seemingly happy child, despite his circumstances. By the end, he has no strength left to live. Paton has made Ha’penny a tragic figure who was destined for this downward spiral.
In a sense, Mrs. Maarman is the most positive character. Her character arc begins low and continues to rise throughout the story. At the start, she wants nothing to do with Ha’penny. In some ways, she is justified. She has four children of her own and struggles to keep her family together. She sees Ha’penny as a troublemaker and justifies keeping her distance from him. Just before the conclusion of the story, however, Mrs. Maarman has a change of heart. She is transformed in a positive direction as she goes out of her way to try to save Ha’penny when he falls ill. Although she cannot keep him from dying, she attempts to provide him with the family he longed for. She also feels remorse for not having tried to save him earlier. Thus, her arc rises slowly from beginning to end of the story.
Paton could have created the narrator as a rigid but righteous man who truly understood the psychology of the imprisoned boys. He could have also created Ha’penny with enough strength to overcome his challenges. Mrs. Maarman could have remained the woman who did not have the time or energy to love a troubled boy. However, by providing each of these characters with an arc to depict their transformation, no matter what shape the arc eventually takes, Paton created characters with whom his readers can identify. These characters are not stereotypes; they are people who make mistakes. They are fragile, and thus they feel real.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Alan Paton, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on ‘‘Ha’penny,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010