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”The Whipping Boy” by Richard Gibney

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”The Whipping Boy,” written by Richard Gibney in 2011, is a story about a never ending war. In the story we meet three recently freed slaves, who don’t know how to cope with their newly given freedom. Officially, they are free to leave, but different reasons force them to stay for a little while longer. This essay will examine the main characters’ relationship with their owners, their way of handling their new freedom, and the significance of Gibney’s use of foreshadowing in the story. Furthermore, it will examine Gibney’s use of words associated with religion and childhood. To sum up, the essay will analyse and discuss how Gibney’s use of certain words warns the observant reader of how the story will end.

The story is, as before mentioned, about three young, black people who are informed that they are officially free from slavery. The names of the characters are Tommy, Mikey and Martha. When they are told about their newly given freedom, Martha has a hard time believing it “”You’re free,” he insisted. “Free to do as you like. Understand?” She stared at him incredulously…” (P1, ll. 33-34). This can be interpreted as Martha’s lacking ability to understand the consequences of what she hears, but it can also be argued that this is a way for Gibney to warn the reader about something that happens later in the text. Since Martha throughout the story could be characterized as the more sympathetic one of the three, the reader will often identify with her due to the readers common knowledge of what is right and wrong, and if the reader identifies with her, they might also think that whatever she thinks is true. Therefore, since Martha doesn’t quite believe that their struggles are over, the reader probably agrees with her, and is thereby warned by the writer that the end of the story won’t be happy.

Tommy and Mikey, on the other hand, have a different reason for staying. They are not willing to flee from their prison of many years without getting back at the man who caused them so much pain – Sterling Gage. The title of the story is “The Whipping Boy.” It is essential to notice, that the word “boy” is in the title, since it has a lot more significance to the story than the reader would first think. The way the two young, newly freed men handle their freedom is not man-like. Though Mikey and Sterling are described as men “Mikey emerged from the house, calling after his former master. Gage turned and saw the whip and his eyes filled with surprise. The two men stood opposite each other,” (P.3 ll.79-80) when in combat, it is clear that Mikey only possesses the power of a man, but not the mind or maturity of one. The description of Tommy “Tommy started to cry with euphoria, rocking in his chair like a child” (P.1 ll.25-26) makes the reader think of Tommy as a boy instead of a man. It could be argued, that the many years of slavery had affected Tommy to become a childish and irrational human being who lost touch with the world. Mikey going to claim his revenge by force could also be interpreted as child-like, though not the more harmless and empathy-worthy version of a child Tommy could be seen as, but more like the bloodthirsty animal-like child who doesn’t know when or how to stop.

Taking the writer wants to portray Mikey and Tommy as child like, another interesting aspect goes to the observant reader’s mind – the innocence of a child is often used in coherence with religion. It is curious, that the only mature person in the story, being Martha who doesn’t hurt anyone or misuses her freedom, is not seen as the usual “innocent child,” but instead the innocent adult. In this story, the children are not the innocent ones of God that we so often hear of. There is reason to believe that Martha is religious – after Mikey proposes to smother Mrs. Gage so he and Martha could run away together, Gibney writes, “Martha baulked at the suggestion and raised her eyes to Heaven. She looked at him in disbelief.” (P.2 l.45) This sentence could be interpreted in two ways – either Martha is just a bit shocked at what Mikey says due to the before mentioned difference between Martha and Mikeys personalities. Another view of the quote could be, that Martha raises her eyes to Heaven (which is capitalized, therefore it must be a reference to the “religious heaven”) and looks at him in disbelief – “him” meaning God and not Mikey.

If that is the case, it could be argued that Martha cannot believe how Mikey could say such thing, but in a reference to God and how sad she is that what Mikey just said could even be an option – in Martha’s point of view the smothering and fleeing could never happen. That tells us about Martha’s lack of brutality that the two other boys posses. There is one more time where religion is included in the language where it doesn’t really need to, unless there was a hidden meaning; “The sun glinted off the blood and sweat on his face. He sparkled like an angel, his chest rising…” (P.3 l.114) This example of religious use could be Sterling trying to act innocent – the context is him trying to convince Martha by logic to make Mikey stop hurting him. Sterling is well aware that he deserves the punishment, but he acts innocent – again, like a child. Mikey and Sterling are in fact very much alike – they are both children in men’s bodies, who won’t acknowledge the consequences to their actions.

Sterling won’t accept the punishment that Mikey gives him, and Mikey won’t understand that he can’t get away with it – he keeps beating Sterling, even though he knows nothing good will come out of it; they are stubborn children. The funny thing is, that children usually have the blessing of God, but in this case they behave like animals. Martha, on the other hand, seems to do. She at least has a connection with God – and on that note, the foreshadowing in the text is relevant again. In most of the largest religions, the god knows everything – he has decided or at least is aware of what will happen. Since Martha believes in God and seems to also know what will happen later in the story, one could argue that Martha in some way represents God in this story. Mikey and Sterling could be seen as the leaders of the world who keeps fighting, creating wars and hurting each other in spite of knowing that nothing good will come out of it. Tommy could in that case be seen as the helpless population of the world who cannot change or do not have the physical and psychical strength to stop the brutality.

In conclusion, Gibney’s use of words related to religion and childishness makes the observant reader know something about the outcome of the story – that the boys represent the never ending battle of humanity, and that Martha, the better knowing character, knows what will happen but does not or cannot change it. Gibney makes the reader identify with Martha, and by that and other wordplays he makes it clear that the story won’t end well.

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