Holes explores the complexity of justice, both in terms of formal justice systems like courts of law, and more personal justice systems, such as the banditry and vigilante justice of the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow in the late 1800s. By exploring the ways in which the formal justice system falls short and doesn't actually promote justice, both in the present and in the past, Holes questions the usefulness of formal systems of justice in the first place. At the same time, it also questions the role of both vigilante justice and justice that appears to come from fate, destiny, or possibly God. Ultimately, the novel suggests that it takes all three methods to properly uphold justice, while also suggesting that everyone will eventually receive the justice they deserve—though it may come through mysterious means.
From the beginning, the reader is led to believe that the formal justice system is ineffective at best. The narrator explains up-front that Stanley didn't steal the famous baseball player Clive Livingston's shoes from the homeless shelter, where they were supposed to be auctioned to raise money. Regardless, Stanley is convicted and sent to Camp Green Lake, which is sold to him as an option superior to going to prison. Stanley then arrives at Camp Green Lake and becomes aware of just how dysfunctional and cruel the camp truly is. While Camp Green Lake is technically part of the formal Texas justice system, in reality, it exists in a separate realm altogether from the justice system. This is reinforced and magnified by the fact that it soon becomes clear that the teenage inmates aren't actually there just to "build character" by digging holes; Stanley realizes after a few weeks that the Warden is looking for something buried in the lake and is using the inmates as cheap labor to help her find it. This shows clearly just how corrupt and ineffective the formal justice system is, as it doesn't seem like the state particularly cares about the injustices that go on at Camp Green Lake.
When the novel goes back in time to tell the history of Green Lake, it quickly becomes clear that Camp Green Lake is barren and horrific in the present as punishment for an instance in which justice was not served in the 1880s. When Miss Katherine, the beloved schoolteacher, first rejected the advances of the wealthy Trout Walker and then fell in love with the black onion seller Sam, the idyllic town dissolved into race-driven violence. The town of Green Lake had outlawed interracial relationships, and thus Katherine and Sam's kiss sparked a riot that resulted in Trout Walker shooting Sam in the middle of the lake as he tried to escape with Katherine, and then rescuing Katherine "against her will." Prior to her attempt to escape with Sam, Katherine approached the sheriff for help when the mob began to torch the schoolhouse. The sheriff not only refused to put a stop to the violence, but presumably went on to condone Trout Walker's actions. He also suggested that God would punish Kate for kissing Sam, given that her participation in the kiss wasn't illegal, it was just considered morally wrong in the racist world of the 1880s. This illustrates how the formal justice system in Green Lake has been corrupt for more than a century—as the sheriff's cruelty continues to be perpetuated by the Warden in the present. Then, after describing what happened to Sam, the narrator notes that "not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake" since Sam was murdered, 110 years ago. The narrator even asks the reader to decide whom God punished. In this way, the novel encourages the reader to see the horror of Camp Green Lake as divine punishment for the morally repugnant actions of the sheriff and Trout Walker, whose descendent is none other than the Warden.
When Katherine kills the sheriff, she also seeks to do her part to atone for Sam's death. The fact that she dies laughing twenty years later at the hands of Trout Walker and his wife when they come for her treasure suggests that she very literally got the last laugh—the Walker family continues to pay for their racism and greed for generations, even after the novel ends (the Warden is forced to sell Camp Green Lake after the Texas attorney general shuts it down). With this, the novel makes it clear that everyone will eventually receive justice, even if justice comes on its own timeline and from outside the formal justice system.
Justice Quotes in Holes
Stanley was not a bad kid. He was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. He'd just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!
He smiled. It was a family joke. Whenever anything went wrong, they always blamed Stanley's no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.
All of them had something else in common. Despite their awful luck, they always remained hopeful. As Stanley's father liked to say, "I learn from failure."
But perhaps that was part of the curse as well. If Stanley and his father weren't always hopeful, then it wouldn't hurt so much every time their hopes were crushed.
"I see you're looking at my gun. Don't worry. I'm not going to shoot you. "He tapped his holster. "This is for yellow-spotted lizards. I wouldn't waste a bullet on you."
He wasn't afraid of the curse. He thought that was a lot of nonsense. He felt bad because he knew Madame Zeroni had wanted to drink from the stream before she died.
Stanley waited for him to drive away, then took another look at his hole. He knew it was nothing to be proud of, but he felt proud nonetheless.
He sucked up his last bit of saliva and spat.
"That's your dirt," Zigzag said. "You have to dig it up. It's covering up my dirt."
Stanley felt a little dizzy. He could see a small pile of dirt. It took him a moment to realize that it was the dirt which had been on his shovel when he was hit.
He scooped it up, then Zigzag dug his shovel into the ground underneath where "Stanley's dirt" had been.
Miss Katherine jerked her hand free. As she hurried to the door, she heard the sheriff say, "The law will punish Sam. And God will punish you."
These are the facts:
The Walker boat smashed into Sam's boat. Sam was shot and killed in the water. Katherine Barlow was rescued against her wishes. When they returned to the shore, she saw Mary Lou's body lying on the ground. The donkey had been shot in the head.
That all happened one hundred and ten years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake.
You make the decision: Whom did God punish?
"He's a genius, all right!" said Mr. Pendanski. "He's so stupid, he doesn't even know he's stupid."
Stanley didn't know why Mr. Pendanski seemed to have it in for Zero. If Mr. Pendanski only thought about it, he'd realize it was very logical for Zero to think that the letter "h" made the "ch" sound.
He knew he never should have let Zero dig part of his hole for him. He still could've taught him to read. If Zero could dig all day and still have the strength to learn, then he should have been able to dig all day and still have the strength to teach.
What he should do, he thought, was go out after Zero.
But he didn't.