The Hundred Dresses | Summary
Wanda is not in her usual seat at school on Monday, and nobody notices at all- not even Peggy and Madeline, the girls who usually seek her out to tease her. Wanda usually sits at the corner of the class with the rowdy boys, though she is not rowdy herself. She is quiet and keeps to herself- her shoes are always scuffled with mud, and nobody really cares about her during school hours. They only wait for her after school, to make fun of her. Wanda is absent on Tuesday as well, but it is only on Wednesday that Peggy and Madeline notice. They wait for her before school to mock her- whether it be for her different surname or her old dress- only for her to never come in.
Peggy often played “The Dress Game”, asking Wanda in a faux-courteous manner how many dresses she had at home, to which Wanda would reply ‘a hundred’. When the others pressed her, she would elaborate that they are made of silk and velvet and different colours, lined up in her wardrobe. The minute Wanda was out of sight, the girls would burst out laughing. Peggy herself never thought she was being cruel- she protects children from bullies and gets upset about mistreated animals- but she simply can’t help but feel mocking at Wanda lying about her dress collection, for surely, she could not have a hundred dresses. Why was her surname strange? Peggy thought what she did was harmless, for Wanda never cried.
Peggy’s best friend, Maddie, on the other hand feels uncomfortable with all the teasing. The entire situation bothers her greatly, and she wishes to write Peggy a note asking if they can stop making fun of Wanda. However, she stops in fear of becoming the next target- though Maddie didn’t have a funny name or live in an odd location, she is poor herself. She is not teased because of her status as Peggy’s friend, which gives her nice hand-me-downs and invitations to parties, as Peggy is the most-liked girl in the school.
Thinking about Wanda and her supposed hundred dresses led Maddie to think about the upcoming results for the drawing and colouring contest. The girls were to design their own dresses, and Maddie is sure Peggy will win. However, when they walk into the classroom, they are shocked to see a hundred different sketches hanging all over the room, designed beautifully. The teacher, Miss Mason, explains that while most girls submitted one or two drawings, one girl- Wanda- submitted one hundred, hence winning the prize. Wanda is still absent, but as the class admires her drawings, they realise she is very talented. Maddie and Peggy recognize in the hundred drawings some of the designs Wanda had told them about. She had been referring to her sketches all along.
After this, the teacher calls the class together to read out a letter she received from Wanda’s father, stating that Wanda would no longer be attending their school. She is moving to the city, where she will not be teased. Miss Mason says that she is sure none of her students are cruel, but they may have been thoughtless. The entire first lesson, Maddie could not concentrate- all she could think about was how she stood on the sidelines and did nothing to support Wanda when she was being mocked. She decides to ask Peggy if she wants to accompany her after school to climb the hill and see Wanda to apologize, but to her surprise, Peggy suggests it first, pretending to be casual.
However, when they arrive at Wanda’s house, there is nobody there- they have already left. Peggy attempts to brush it off, saying there’s nothing they can do, but Maddie’s conscience does not let her agree. She decides to do the right thing, even if it means losing Peggy’s friendship. And as a result, she and Peggy together spend Saturday afternoon writing a letter to Wanda, telling her she won the competition. They wanted to apologize, but ended up writing the letter in a friendly manner. For months, there is no response, and Maddie feels guiltier each passing day, wishing she had stopped the teasing at the very beginning.
One day, near Christmas, Miss Mason announces that she has received a letter from Wanda, telling the girls of the class to keep the hundred drawings, for she has a hundred new ones lined up in her closet. She specifies which ones should be taken by Maddie and Peggy. On their way home, Peggy says she must have liked them, after all, and must have received their letter. Maddie still feels sad that she will never see Wanda again, tears blurring her vision when she realises how Wanda was kind to her even when she stood on the sidelines. As Maddie observes the drawing, she realises with a shock that it looks just like her.
She quickly runs over to Peggy’s house, and as she had hoped, Peggy’s drawing is one of her as well. Peggy is quite amazed, reiterating that Wanda must have liked them. Maddie agrees, but she cannot help the tears that spring to her eyes every time she thinks about Wanda- the way she would stand farther from the other girls as they laughed, insisting firmly that she did have a hundred dresses lined up at home.
The Hundred Dresses | Analysis
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes is a short story written in third-person by an unnamed narrator. The main focus revolves around three characters- Wanda Petronski, Peggy and Maddie. This story contains a blend of dialogue and interaction, and an insight to the character’s thoughts- specifically Maddie’s. Description is often used to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind- especially the description of stance, tone and facial expression, which highlight the feelings of the characters even when it is not their perspective being narrated. The themes of The Hundred Dresses are social isolation, bullying, class difference and poverty, guilt and remorse, and reconciliation. As this takes place in the setting of a school, with schoolgirls, it is written in a more innocent tone. Rather than spite or malice, the girls’ teasing comes across as childish ignorance and thoughtlessness, which is a strong reality. The vocabulary used is simple and straightforward to appeal to younger readers as well, however Estes cleverly employs descriptive narratives, symbolism, repetitions and imagery to add a deeper and more emotional aspect to the story.
In the beginning, we see that it takes three days for anyone in the class to notice Wanda’s absence. This in itself is telling of her social ostracization- Wanda’s loneliness, which comes from the other students’ refusal to become friends with her, means that she is hardly paid any attention. This is a form of indirect bullying- one the students may not have realised. Being ignored and unincluded creates a distinct separation between Wanda and the rest of the class. Their reasons for doing so were also quite childish- one was the oddness of Wanda’s surname, which was Polish as compared to their English ones. Another was the strange area her house was located in. The final reason was Wanda’s firm insistence that she had a hundred dresses at home, despite being visibly poor, which all the others mocked. Wanda’s reused, shabby blue dress symbolises her poverty.
Peggy is assumed not to be cruel, despite her teasing, because she is kind to children and animals, and in the end, Wanda never cries. This is a child’s logic, and sheds light on how such instances of bullying are brushed off by the school-children because they do not understand the seriousness of their words. However, at the same time, Maddie’s constant discomfort shows that it is highly dependent on one’s status. Peggy, as the most-liked girl in the school, acted as she pleased. But Maddie was poor herself, and was hesitant to speak up because she did not want to lose her position as Peggy’s best friend. She worried that doing so would make her the next target. Here, we see the impact class and poverty can have on one’s social life. It is Maddie’s own poverty and wish for a reputable social presence in school that stopped her from being able to stand up for what was right.
It is mentioned in the story that Wanda’s brother, Jake, comes to school early to assist the janitor. Details like these- along with her mud-scuffed shoes, her house, and her shabby dresses- indicate her lower social status. Wanda’s position at the back of the class is a direct representation of her social isolation. Her insistence of having a hundred dresses seemed to be the nail on the coffin for her ridicule at school- the girls were not ready to befriend someone whom they thought was a liar. It was unknown to them at the time that Wanda was referring to her dress design sketches. Maddie’s continuous inner conflict and discomfort highlights the theme of guilt in this story. She knows that standing by and watching the situation unfold is wrong, and it stirs her conscience. But her fear of social ostracization prevents her from helping Wanda.
When Wanda wins the dress competition and leaves the school, we see the first ounces of guilt in Peggy- the story focuses on Maddie’s conflict, but through their interaction, the readers can see Peggy’s unsettled feeling at being the possible reason for Wanda’s departure. This shows that Peggy is not, in fact, cruel. Peggy’s ready acceptance of Wanda’s art talent- not even feeling disappointed that she lost- also shows that she is quite a good sport, and is ready to accept things for what they are. She is simply a child who made an ignorant mistake without considering the consequences. However, it was still bullying, which is wrong- this guilt is a result of her actions, something she must experience to understand her wrongdoings. Miss Mason’s disappointment and sadness is important- it is the necessary adult voice that the children need to put their actions into perspective. It is equally necessary for the readers, as a reminder that these children are not cruel, but were definitely thoughtless. Such a voice acts as a steady anchor in the story.
When Maddie and Peggy climb Boggins Hills to reach Wanda’s house and apologize, we see their attempts at reconciliation. And when they cannot find her, we see the guilt turn into remorse. Guilt lasts as long as one knows they made a mistake but have not yet attempted to fix it. Remorse appears when one knows they have made a mistake but are unable to fix it. This combination of remorse and guilt drives them to write Wanda a letter. It is important to note that though Maddie and Peggy want to say they are sorry in the letter, they find themselves writing as though they were Wanda’s friends. This is possibly due to the guilt they feel- they are unable to acknowledge it in words because it makes the situation all the more real and painful. When Maddie thinks to herself that she will never allow another person to get bullied, we see her character growth. She has learnt from her mistake and is firm about improving herself.
In the final part of the story, Wanda sends a letter to Miss Mason, where she singles out Peggy and Maddie, leading them to believe she forgives them. Estes makes an interesting parallel here between the season and Wanda’s drawing for Peggy- it is Christmastime, and the dress is green and red. While Peggy is happy with this, Maddie is unable to shake the guilt. We see themes of reconciliation here in a different light- while Peggy believes that everything has been set straight, Maddie is unsure as she has not been able to meet Wanda and actually apologize.
However, when she realises that Wanda has drawn her specifically, it becomes clear that the drawings were not in response to their letter. Wanda had meant the drawings for Maddie and Peggy from the beginning. This makes Maddie cry as she remembers Wanda in the schoolyard. Maddie thinks Wanda, and this thought hers is captured by the use of a beautiful imagery by Estes :
“Wanda standing alone in that sunny spot in the school yard, looking stolidly over at the group of laughing girls after she had walked off”
The sunny spot in the courtyard may have symbolised Wanda’s hope at being included, and her shining admiration for Peggy and Maddie despite the laughing girls. The fact that she had walked off, and was hence separated from the group, represents her ostracization, while the girls laughing is a symbol of bullying. It is not only because of guilt, but also because of a new understanding. Maddie always thought the teasing didn’t bother Wanda, but now she knows that Wanda simply wanted to be included. For all the times Peggy asked Wanda with fake-politeness about the dresses, Wanda may have ignored the other girls’ laughter and focused solely on the way Peggy was asking the question as Maddie stood beside her. And to Wanda, this may have felt like a sense of inclusion- and it is this that brings tears to Maddie’s eyes.
The Hundred Dresses | About the Author
Eleanor Estes was an American author, born in 1906. Her specialty was children’s books, and she also worked as a children’s librarian. She based much of her work on her personal life and childhood experiences.
The Hundred Dresses was written based on her experience as a silent bystander to bullying in her childhood. Her classmate was bullied and she did not speak up for her. Years later, it was too late to fix anything or apologize, so Estes decided to write a story in dedication to the incident. Estes passed away in 1988.