Alex Roth Per 3 The main protagonist, or main character in a story, changes his/her characters and beliefs throughout the many different trials that they persevere though. In the book, World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow, the protagonist of the story is a young, typically Jewish boy by the name of Edgar.
The book takes place in 1930’s post-depression New York and Edgar’s family is in somewhat tumultuous times. Edgar is very young at the beginning of the book, his brother is a young teen and his parents are both middle aged. The way Edgar explains his early years show how his character deals with things and how he does so is very apparent throughout the entire book. For example, he portrays his parents as elements, warring with each other on a much grandeur scale than two mere mortals could even conceive to argue upon. He treats everything deeper than what they actually are, much like any kid his tender age would do. He is a caring person that is very aware of everything as a child, and was disciplined very harshly by his mother. Rose, Edgar’s mom, “believed pain was a curative. If it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t affective.” She was a typical Jewish mom of that era and reminds me much of my own mother and my Grandmother. He thought many things as a child, he even thought that the weather of the day depended on his mother’s mood. This belief becomes more of a metaphor for Edgar, as he grows up in the pages of the book. Edgar’s character in the first part of the book represents a caring, inquisitive, lonesome, and very conscientious boy.
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An example of his attentive nature can be found at the very beginning pages of the book. In these pages, Edgar constructs a fort under the Kitchen table. He got used to seeing all of his family members by legs and feet alone and started to see that how people walked was related to how they acted. His mother, for example, took very strong steps that showed her strong willed personality and his Grandmother took little tiny steps, just like how she drank her tea in tiny sips. These things that Edgar learns through spying show how detailed he was as a young child. This extreme attention to detail leads me to Edgar’s seemingly worse character trait. Because Edgar was so young compared to his brother he gains a sort of inferiority complex because of the mistreatment of him by his brother’s friends. They treated him like more of a puppy than a baby and this made him feel less powerful than other people. He feels so powerless as a child he goes as far as saying, “I assumed everyone’s will was stronger than mine.” This leads him to study everything closer, to listen harder and eventually to grow up faster than all of his peers. When he was alone he thought of himself not like a child, but rather a completely sentient being that he “always knew himself to be.” He likes magic tricks and says how his dad is a very magical person.
Edgar is awestruck by the trick in which his dad “miraculously” pulls off his thumb, only to place it back on and, voila! The trick was done. Edgar is a very headstrong kid, but is astronomically too involved in his own thought. Much like many other people I know, he reads to deeply into things, which makes his character seem much deeper than it is. All of these traits just listed are very different, and seem almost opposite in nature. This is because as a child, Edgar, although very advanced, was still a child. He felt many things deeper than they should have been not because it was his nature to do so, but rather the nature of a child. All of these traits expressed in the beginning of the book change throughout, because of the many problems that he endures, enjoys and even creates Chapter 6 in World’s Fair had one of the most defining moments in the entire book. Edgar finds chalk scrapings outside his house on the garage doors. He has a feeling about who did these strange markings and believes it to be the “bad” kids. “They wore undershirts for shirts and high-tops without any socks. They carried cigarettes behind their ears and slingshots stuck out of their back pockets.” Edgar talks to his brother, Donald, and alerts him of the markings because of his inquisitive child like nature.
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As Donald looks up from what he’s doing and his complete attention was on the markings as he started to erase them with his sleeve. The swastikas that were on the garage, according to Donald, was very bad news. His mother later added to Edgar’s intelligence and told him if he ever sees one of those bad boys again he should tell her immediately. This occurrence in the book leads to Edgar’s first major character change. After learning of Nazi’s and how real of a threat they were, Edgar starts to open his horizons past Eastburn Avenue and feels less secure about his life for the first time in the book. The child like nature that Edgar possesses at the very beginning of the book is changed starting here because of not only his age but because of the trauma inflicted upon him. He is no longer looking deeper into the stupid or less important things, but rather looking farther into a world with a seemingly endless pit of information and revelation.
Another aspect of the book that leads to the “growing up” of Edgar’s character, is his Grandmother. Edgar’s grandmother on his mom’s side is very old, very senile and worst of all, very ill. She lives with Edgar and his family, but as Edgar progresses through the story she continues to progress in a downward spiral. She becomes very agitated when she goes into her senile spells forcing out malicious comments on her family. “It would be a good thing if cholera were to kill us all” was just one of the many different things spat out in the depressingly backwards talk that Edgar’s Grandmother spoke. Rose, Edgar’s mom, said not to take these comments to heart because Grandma loved them, she was just stuck in the past. As her condition worsens, she takes to running away from the house and these events have much impact on Edgar. He saw her run away for the first time as she pushed and cursed by him and made her way off of the stoop and down their block. This added new worry in to Edgar’s character because he, like the rest of his family, now had to worry about his Grandma taking off at any time. Not only that, but because of the rage pent up inside her as she roamed the streets, she paid no heed to oncoming traffic.
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When a child learns something new, he or she is often times compelled to overdue it an extraneous amount. When Edgar learned that he could achieve parity just by hurting himself, he felt as if that was the way to go about the rest of his life as a young child. This parity, originally found by him because of an unfortunate mishap with the glass porch door, did not work to the great extent he believed it should, but rather had a sort of neutral affect on his family members. He was never scolded for hurting himself like some boys often were, he was just cleaned up with delicate and meticulous attention and told, “not to run through the house like a maniac.” This had little affect on his character changing, but showed a step of natural progression of a very young child into a more cunning, aware and mentally tougher boy. He changed very drastically from the beginning of the book, yet many of the changes are still opposite in nature, which proves to be an important aspect later in the book. The portion of the book that comes next is where, for a short period of time, Edgar changes from the happy-go-lucky child he once was to a much more morbid character that has many questions and hang-ups on Death.
As a kid, the aspects behind what death really was didn’t phase most of us. For example, I didn’t know what death really was until both of my dad’s parents died. The reasons behind death didn’t seem quite as scary when you didn’t know what it was, because as they say, “Ignorance is bliss.” Edgar first starts his experiences with death when his beloved Dog, his only childhood companion, Pinky, has to be put to sleep because he is allergic to it. This event, though at the time not that horrible for Edgar, leaves his brother very angry, both at his parents and at Edgar. In a scene that tugs at the heartstrings, Edgar tells his brother that his parents took the dog to a “Bide-a-wee” home, only to be verbally chewed up and spit out by Donald. The panic and grief started to build up in Edgar, and he feels very alone for the first time since the beginning of the book. He couldn’t trust his parents any more, and his brother, who was the only person that ever told him the truth, wanted nothing to do with him. Edgar was in now in despair, the very essence of his childhood whisked away at the drop of the proverbial hat, and all he could do was sulk and feel sorry for himself. He had learned what death truly was at the very young, tender age of 5 years old and knew that Pinky was never coming back, no matter how long he called his name. The death of his loving, yet sometimes elusive Grandmother is the second major death in the book that ties directly into how Edgar’s character is in a state of morbid, yet constant fluctuation (an oxymoron).
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Edgar is the first to find his Grandmother after she has died, and because of this had a few precious seconds to look upon death for the first time. He felt that in death, a new kind of life, with “more visible torment than I (he) could have imagined possible.” This time around, Edgar becomes quite inquisitive about death and what death really means, not only to the person dying but also to their loved ones and peers alike. These events further Edgar along in the growth of him coming to terms with death. The third deathly event occurs a little further into the book when Edgar is attending school. A woman was hit by a car and fell 2 stories into the playground of Edgar’s school. She was carrying groceries at the time and the blood from her body mixed with the milk in the bags to make a milky pink sort of color. He looks upon this death much better and easier than the 1st and 2nd deaths he had bear witness to.
These 3 events start a time for Edgar that is seemingly very depressing and also very important in the final development of his character. In the book, Edgar’s character is extremely misgiving and at times changes sparatically as the story progresses from one topic to the next. (I hinted towards this idea earlier, and at this point in the book it seems to become more relevant in the story.) Often, the little details found throughout the book, as well as the more important and obvious events such as the 3 listed above, contradict with how Edgar’s character is supposed to act. For example, although death became somewhat of a fixation for Edgar in the recent pages of the book, he still speaks about other things in a less depressed light. This left me feeling that his character is not really permanently growing, but rather changing so rapidly that it has the appearance of growth. He is a very on-again off-again character that seemingly can’t make up his mind on who he wants to be. I then thought that the very essence behind all the change wasn’t really contradictory, but rather another trait in young Edgar’s character. This oscillating nature, however, is one of his most important character developments to take place yet in the book.
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This continues throughout and, although at times is very confusing, brings a deeper level to what seemed like a very unpredictable and insensible character. The eldest and only brother to Edgar, Donald, has been his role model since he was born. In Edgar’s eyes Donald was a young, free willed kid, who, no matter how old he actually became would remain the same carefree status he always had. Unfortunately for Edgar, not all that we as people believe in remain constant, as was the case with Donald. As Donald grew up to semi-adult hood, he started to assimilate into adult culture, which was a harrowing blow for Edgar. This changed Edgar’s whole world, and did much to change his character. He changed his ideals because when his brother turns over into the adult world, he realizes that the only person left in his family that he can trust is himself. He had lost he dog Pinky, his grandma and now “lost” his brother too. This makes his character much stronger as a whole, and leads to more of a grown up person than a child. In an attempt to isolate himself from his untrusting, yet loving parents, we find Edgar becoming more like his brother was as a kid.
Although the topic of loss was covered primarily more in the last entry, it continues both in Donald and in the crashing of the Hindenburg. When the Hindenburg came sailing across the New York sky, Edgar was in complete and utter awe. It was uncanny how such a huge, monolithic mobile could float high above everything so carefree; it was like a message from the heavens. The Hindenburg, in Edgar’s mind, was a constant. A superbly strong, juggernaut of the open skies, and this made Edgar happy, and complete. It wasn’t the actuality of the machine itself, but rather what the machine was. As long as it flew around the world, without opposition, it was untouchable, something that Edgar, as well as all humans still strive to be. When this great behemoth of a blimp came crashing down on the many town houses in the dark New York streets, Edgar lost hope. He wasn’t complete, and more importantly wasn’t protected anymore. This point in the book, it is a good time to look at another underlying, yet delicately intertwined character trait. This trait, the need for some sort of protection, stems from the hardships that his parents caused him while growing up.
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These fights, often nearly violent, were overheard and absorbed by Edgar over the years, which lead to him needing some sort of a security blanket. Pinky was his protection early on in life, when pinky left there was a void that needed to be filled. The character is always in some sort of desperate search for security in a family that is far from it. The title of the book World’s Fair, had to come into the plot eventually, and finally does near the ending of the book. The world’s fair of 1931 in New York was a very new and to some, a quite an indecorous time for discovery and hope. The two architectural marvels, as well as the many projected ideals of the future brought out many new people into the world of sciences and of modernization. The fair represented what was to come, a look into the protection of the future, all the while still in the present day. The fair also represents what Edgar was fighting for, to finally get there. Again, it wasn’t the actuality of the fair itself, but rather the meaning behind it. This final step that Edgar takes is the apex of what the book was leading up to. It was a story about the growth of character, not necessarily the change in it.
The future that the fair represented was what put Edgar’s childhood in the past, and finally let him grow to fulfill his character. Though most of the change and Growth of Edgar has already been covered, the ending pages of the book are really what Edgar accomplished both as a person and as a character. The 2nd trip that Edgar took to the Fair, his family accompanied him. Edgar, having feelings of such wonder and admiration for the fair, felt partly responsible for it and wanted the family to be as amazed as he. He noticed things had changed since his last visit and that it was slowly starting to decay, but his family did not know this, so Edgar felt relieved. After they had all left and the fair was closed, Edgar made a time capsule for himself, much like the one in the “Futurama” display at the fair. He buried it in the park near his house, being careful not to let anyone see. The time capsule that he buried was the closing chapter of his childhood, with books that he had read and papers he had written, and it showed the final progression of a weak willed child into a smart, nostalgic young man. The chapter that was closed for Edgar was one of pain, suffering death and disappointment, but it stood for more good than bad.
Much like the god of death wears an Ankh, a sign of life; these bad things also showed how he lived through the tough times. The capsule was the final “security blanket” for Edgar and with the commencing of its burial, he was protected. Edgar grew an exorbitant amount during the book, changing even his most noticeable quality for the better. The formerly frivolous nature of his character, to change from bad to good, deep to shallow, light to dark decayed away and left a much more resilient person in it’s place. The feuding of Edgar’s parents also seems to be coming to some sort of a resolution and lead to Edgar to become more complete once again. As the last paragraph of the book unfolds, Edgar is walking in the cold, brisk wind on his way back home. The one item he salvaged from putting in the capsule was a book that his dad got him as a younger child. It was on ventriloquy, and he had never finished reading it. This book stands for the new chapter in Edgar’s life and shows the one character trait that is recurring throughout the book, which is the quest for knowledge. The swastika incident from his early childhood is an example of Edgar’s insatiable thirst for knowledge. When he sees the Hindenburg cruise across the night sky he wonders at how it works, and wants to gain more knowledge. The best example of this is ofcourse, The World’s fair itself. The fair is a veritable pi?ata of knowledge and that is what interests Edgar so much. His father is much like him in the way he uses his brain and you can start to see some of the more common themes of both their personalities throughout the book. The ventriloquist book that Edgar undertakes learning at the end, was in fact a book that his dad had read early on in his life. This passing of the torch type of ending draws all of the story to an end, with a myriad of possibilities to follow.
World Fair-EL Doctorow