The theme of loneliness is a prominent one for the focus character in Paton’s short story ‘‘Ha’penny.’’ The twelve-year-old boy has apparently lived by himself on the streets throughout most of his youth. Though he is being housed with a group of youths in the reformatory, he feels separated from them because he has no family. Ha’penny is an orphan with no real stories to tell that confer a sense of belonging. Therefore, he makes up the stories he needs.
To help conceal his grave sense of loneliness, Ha’penny creates stories about a family. He fabricates details of an imaginary life spent with a mother and four siblings (who are based on a real family). He desperately wants to belong to someone. These stories probably began while he was living on the streets. He must have observed Mrs. Maarman and her children from the streets. His loneliness made him distressed; the only escape was to pretend to be a part of their daily experiences. Then, while in the reformatory, he shares his stories with the narrator. He hopes his stories will convince the narrator, as well as the other boys who overhear the stories, that he is not alone in the world. Also, telling these stories out loud might ingrain them more deeply in Ha’penny’s mind, allowing him to pretend even more fully that they are true. It is Ha’penny’s made-up stories, the narrator concludes at the end of the story, that helped the boy to relieve the pain of his loneliness and thus survive.
The most tragic moment of Paton’s short story is the death of Ha’penny. However, the narrator’s regret for the young boy’s death is also a strikingly poignant development. The narrator, as sympathetic and compassionate as he believed he was in his relationships with the boys in his charge at the reformatory, makes a serious miscalculation with regard to Ha’penny. Although the narrator understands that the young boys in his care need affection and attention almost as much as they need physical nourishment, he neglects to understand the importance of Ha’penny’s need for family, even if that family is imaginary.
The narrator appears unable to stop himself from finding the truth of Ha’penny’s background. He is compelled to discover who Mrs. Maarman is and whether or not Ha’penny is a part of her family. As soon as he does discover the truth, he immediately confronts Ha’penny. The confrontation is subtle and oblique, but the harm it does is still damaging. Without his imaginary family, the young boy is thrown into the abyss of loneliness and falls mortally ill. The psychological damage caused by having to face the truth makes the boy weak.
The narrator takes full blame for the boy’s deterioration. He regrets not knowing better. Although the narrator tells Mrs. Maarman that no matter what she had done, Ha’penny would have gotten sick, he also feels responsible. If he had allowed Ha’penny to continue living in his make-believe world, he might have been stronger and not succumbed to the illness.
Mrs. Maarman also suffers from regret. She devotes herself to the boy in the last days of his life as if she is repentant. She stays at his bedside and tells everyone that she is his mother, hoping this will make Ha’penny feel stronger. She even insists that he be listed as her son on the marker placed on his grave. She regrets she did not help him sooner. She thinks she should have taken in the boy when he was living on the streets. If she had, he would have been stronger and might not have gotten sick. If he still became ill, at least he would have had her love and protection.
In his opening remarks, the narrator discusses the needs of the boys he takes care of in the reformatory. He understands the boys’ need for affection and enjoys his more compassionate exchanges with them. ‘‘Had they been my own children I would no doubt have given a greater expression to it,’’ he says. It is with these words that Paton begins to develop the theme of familial love in this story. The narrator understands that he is limited in what he can give to the boys in the reformatory. The needs of the boys are far greater than he can supply because their most important need is that of family love. This is a special love that imparts a sense of belonging and of unconditional acceptance. No matter what a child does, even a child who gets into trouble serious enough to send him to a reformatory, he will always be a part of his family. Even if the family denounces him, his membership remains indelible. To emphasize the comfort a troubled boy finds in familial love, Paton uses the character Ha’penny. Here is a boy without a family, but the need for familial love is so great that this boy not only creates an imaginary family but dies when his fantasy of that love is destroyed.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Alan Paton, Published by Gale Group, 2001.