Harriet and Realism

Kristin Kopania

A main theme running through Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy exhibits gender-queerness, and then goes on to describe, also, how the characters throughout the novel displays age-queerness. There is much controversy about this text, and it stirs up many questions about the appropriateness of this novel and how relatable it truly is. Surveying many critics: scholarly, professional and reader reviews, I have found that the reception of this novel differs between each type of reader.

Gender-queerness is a main theme throughout this novel, because many critics believe Harriet displays non-feminine qualities that make portray her as gender-queer. Especially, with the way she dresses, also pertaining to all of her spy gear. Eric Bullard states “more recently, queer theory has played a larger role in critical analysis of the novel, in part due to Harriet’s outsider status, her often tomboyish adoption of masculine dress and Fitzhugh’s own acknowledged lesbianism” (1).

“Her spy clothes consisted first of all of an ancient pair of blue jeans, so old that her mother had forbidden her to wear them, but which Harriet loved because she had fixed up the belt with hooks to carry her spy tools. Her tools were a flashlight, in case she were ever out at night, which she never was, a leather pouch for her notebook, another leather case for extra pens, a water canteen, and a boy scout knife which had, among other features a screwdriver and a knife and fork which collapsed. She had never had occasion to eat anywhere, but someday it might come in handy” (Fitzhugh 29).


Harriet’s style; depicting gender-queer themes (Fitzhugh 28)

Much of the criticism from this novel also exhibits Harriet being age-queer, as well as gender-queer. Harriet exhibits characteristics that make her seem older than she truly is. Harriet wants to have a job, and she wants to be a spy and a writer.

“I want to know everything, everything,” screeched Harriet suddenly, lying back and bouncing up and down on the bed. “Everything in the world, everything. I will be a spy and know everything” (Fitzhugh 20).

As readers and critics, many believe children should act a certain way, however I believe Harriet is acting in a realistic way because children are nosy and want to know the answers to everything.

In Wolf’s scholarly article, the novel’s realism was questioned. She also questioned if this novel was truly suitable for children. Wolf describes how Harriet’s parents are not present in her life until she is 11 years old (120). To my reception, I believe that this part of the novel shows realism because this is very common in the real world. Parents are sometimes so busy and caught up in work and their own lives, that many times a nanny is the one to raise the children. This is not applied to every family, because many families may have good reasons for nannies or the parent’s career may be very demanding. But, I further this argument by wondering how does this specifically not show realism. To one person, it may not be realistic, but this could be realistic in many other reader’s lives. Wolf did not argue about gender-queer or age-queer, however argues about the realism of this novel. I wonder what about this book does not exhibit realistic themes?

In Hearne’s scholarly article, she argues that this novel is however suitable for children and it appears to me that Hearne in fact does believe this text exhibits realism. Hearne (2014) states, “if children’s literature was real literature, its characters must reflect real human behavior.” It appears to me that Hearne believes this text is realistic. If the characters are reflecting real human behaviors, she believes that it is considered children’s literature. Children’s literature is any type of text or illustrations meant for a young audience. To my reception, I argue that the characters in this novel are not age-queer, but just displaying realistic human behavior for children their age. What do readers expect children this age to do?  I agree with Hearne, that the characters in Harriet the Spy do exhibit and reflect real human behaviors, especially for the children in the novel. I, also, believe that the behaviors of the adults in this text reflect real human adult behaviors. This contradicts what Wolf was arguing that since Harriet’s parents do not get to really know her until she is older. Wolf questioned whether this novel was suitable for children, however many children are adventurous and this theme of being a “spy” is suitable for mainly children, in my opinion (125).

As a professional review, Bird states “Harriet, like many Americans today, feels the self-assuredness of the frontiersman. If she endeavors to do so, she can achieve any goal with hindrance from others” (153). I believe this discusses the theme of individualism, and Bird values individualism (153). She believes Harriet values individualism and focuses on “being a spy” as her job is part of her being her own individual person and to me that appears to symbolize realism (Bird 153). To me, I think the depiction of this text does show realism and not age-queerness or gender-queerness.

Another professional review, Bullard, says “Harriet the Spy is regarded by many critics as the first popular children’s novel to address themes and employ literary techniques common to the genre of realistic fiction in adult literature” (1). This novel exhibits the genre of realistic fiction but at the same time, addresses themes that are commonly criticized. I believe that Bullard agrees with the realism shown in Harriet the Spy, but also believes that there are underlying themes meant for adult literature. Bullard also agrees that this novel is a milestone in literary realism because of its true depictions of the realism of the adult world (1). Discussing the novel being suitable for children, it appears to me that Bullard believes this novel is meant for a more mature and older audience. The theme that Bullard also discusses is the theme of gender-queer. Bullard quotes Mary Zaborskis, saying she identifies Harriet’s gender-queer characteristics as Harriet’s gendered identity is off (2). Bullard believes that this novel is meant for an older audience because of the underlying theme of gender-queer. However, does a child reader notice these themes? Do we, as critics, believe that a child should automatically realize this gender-queer theme? Although, I believe the idea of gender-queer is not the true theme that Fitzhugh wanted readers to take from this text, I do believe that Fitzhugh does portray realism through this novel.

After surveying reader reviews, I have found that readers found Harriet realistic and others who think this is an unrealistic novel. Although many of the readers are females, which make it polarized, there were some male readers that also agreed on its realism.

Aleks on goodreads.com argues “Harriet the Spy is great because it has strong friendships with realistic, strange kids (what kid isn’t strange?). While she harshly judges those in her class and suffers her comeuppance for it, she still values these weirdo kids”. This reader is arguing that this novel does portray realism because the characters are strange, however aren’t all kids strange around this age?  He believes that all children are strange, and Harriet showing strange characteristics depicts realism. I believe that most children have quirks that separate them from other children and this idea plays on the value of individualism and realism throughout this novel.

Bones Kendall on goodreads.com states, “So many stories today have unrealistic endings, but Louise Fitzhugh found a way to resolve Harriet’s problems that works”. This reader believes Harriet the Spy does portray realism through Fitzhugh’s ending of the novel. Although Fitzhugh might have shown realism through the ending of this novel, I believe the ending is also not teaching children a lesson. In Harriet the Spy, Harriet’s notebook was revealed and instead of learning right from wrong, Harriet lies and continues to spy on people and write down everything she sees.

“Ole Golly is right, sometimes you have to lie. Now that things are back to normal, I can get some real work done” (Fitzhugh 169).

This scene, at the end of the novel, appears to me to also show realism through Harriet’s character because children are innocent, or so we think they should be. Harriet did not realize the extent of which she upset her friends and this could be an act of Harriet’s innocence and not understanding the complete difference of right from wrong, which leads into another reader’s review.

Michael on goodreads.com states that Harriet does not act her age, but in fact acts younger than her age. “She has an innocent naiveté that you might find of a second grader and throws tantrums more believable from a younger child”. This is the first time I have read in a review that the critic (reader) believes Harriet is acting younger than she is. Many critics (readers) believe Harriet portrays age-queerness and actually acts or wants to seem older than she truly is.

Catherine on goodreads.com did not like the book because she believes Harriet is self-absorbed and does not learn her lesson after her classmates and friends reveal her notebook. Catherine did comment on how her favorite character is Sport, because he took care of his dad and showed love as a character. However, Sport’s character was criticized for age-queerness as well.

After reading and discussing Harriet the Spy, as well as all the literary criticism about the novel, I have realized that many critics have different ideas of the novel. Many critics may still discuss the theme of gender-queerness and age-queerness, however I believe this novel portrays more of a realistic theme instead. Realism is shown through the characters and the scenes throughout this novel, and I believe that Fitzhugh wants readers to realize how realistic this text can be for many readers. I, also, believe that Fitzhugh values individualism, which this novel exhibits. Overall, Harriet the Spy has generated much positive criticism and Fitzhugh has been applauded for her work.



Aleks. Rev of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Goodreads.com 08 Nov 2008. Web. 20 May 2014

Beavin, K. “Harriet the Spy.” The Horn Book Magazine 75.6 (1999): 762. Web. 20 May 2014.

Bird, K. “Louise Fitzhugh.” Children’s Literature Review 72 (n.d.): 152-154. Web. 20 May 2014.

Bullard, E. “Harriet the Spy.” Children’s Literature Review 187 (n.d.): 1-2. Web. 20 May 2014.

Catherine. Rev of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Goodreads.com 25 Apr 2013. Web. 20 May 2014

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet, the Spy. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.

Harris, K. “Harriet the Spy.” The Booklist 96.5 (1999): 549. Web. 20 May 2014.

Hearne, B. “Fifty Years of Novel Exploits.” The Horn Book Magazine (2014): n. pag. Web. 20 May 2014.

Kendall, Bones. Rev of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Goodreads.com 11 Apr 2014. Web. 20 May 2014

Michael. Rev of Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Goodreads.com 08 July 2013. Web. 20 May 2014

Wolf, V L. “Harriet the Spy.” Children’s Literature 4.1 (1975): 120-126. Web. 20 May 2014.



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