Susan Hill’s novel I’m the King of the Castle is a meditation on the effects of having property, as seen from the perspective of two eleven-year-old children. Edmund is the son of Joseph Hooper, the owner of Warings, a large English country manor. Charles, on the other hand, is the son of Helena Kingshaw, a working-class maid whom Joseph hires to work at Warings. In spite of their young age, both Edmund and Charles are highly attuned to the differences between their families: Edmund knows he’s richer than Charles, and he never lets Charles forget it. By exploring the relationship between Edmund and Charles, Hill makes a nuanced distinction between property (the literal, material things that Edmund and his family own) and class (the more abstract sense of superiority that Edmund possesses, which gives him great power over Joseph).
As a direct result of his family’s property, Edmund feels an overwhelming sense of power and entitlement. Because he’s richer than Charles, and “owns” Warings (in the sense that he’ll inherit it one day), he feels he has the license to boss Charles around and treat him however he wants. The first time Edmund ever meets Charles, he immediately feels superior to his working-class guest. It’s clear to Edmund that Warings is the source of his family’s power and that Charles is socially inferior to him because he “has nowhere.” Edmund mocks Charles for living in a flat (i.e., apartment) and being unable to afford tuition at boarding school, among other attributes that signal his family’s status as lower class. Edmund’s point is childish but brutally clear: he has more than Charles, and that makes him more powerful than Charles.
Although the root of Edmund’s power over Charles is his family’s property, Edmund doesn’t seem to derive power from his property in any concrete way. For instance, there is never a point in the novel when Edmund threatens to kick Charles out of Warings—Edmund is just a kid, after all, and could never do such a thing. Likewise, Charles continues to feel subservient to Edmund even after he becomes a member of the Hooper family, suggesting that class consists of something more than just the property one owns or one’s family ties.
The significance of property and class in the relationship between Edmund, Charles becomes clearer, perhaps, when Charles asks Edmund why Edmund had locked him in the shed. Edmund sneers and replies, “because I felt like it.” The implication is that Edmund, because of the confidence and sense of superiority that he derives from his class, feels that he can treat Charles however he wants with impunity—and it soon becomes clear that he’s right. By portraying Charles and Edmund’s interactions in this way, the novel suggests that the value of property is not solely monetary. Rather, property is valuable because it allows people to assert their power over others psychologically. Put differently, property gives people a general, intimidating air of superiority and sense of power. In this way, Hill makes a crucial distinction between property—the literal, physical Warings manor—and class—the abstract, psychological advantage that people often enjoy over others as a result of having property.
Even when Charles sneaks into the wood surrounding Warings and Edmund follows him, Edmund succeeds in maintaining his position of power over Charles. However, away from home, Edmund becomes noticeably less confident, having left behind the source of his power—his family’s property. In the woods, Edmund can no longer point to Warings as a constant reminder of his superiority to Charles. Conversely, Charles is stronger and more resourceful than Edmund, meaning that he has more literal, physical power. And yet, Edmund continues to hold the same psychological advantage over Charles. Even when Edmund is frightened, weak, and sickly, he can make Charles obey him because he has already done such an effective job of conditioning Charles to fear and respect him. In this way, even when Edmund and Charles wander away from Warings, the dynamics of class follow them. In other words, Edmund knows how to press his class advantage over Charles even when he has lost his property advantage.
It is perhaps because Charles feels hopeless that he will ever be seen or treated as Edmund’s equal that he eventually commits suicide. Even after he is given all the same advantages as Edmund—the same house, family, education, and clothes—he can still feel the oppressive weight of Edmund’s class-based sense of superiority pressing down on him. Property is material, while class is psychological—and, Charles ultimately concludes, inescapable. Unable to get out from under Edmund’s thumb, he ends his life.
Property and Class ThemeTracker
Property and Class Quotes in I’m the King of the Castle
It was an ordinary house, he thought, an ugly house, nothing to boast of. But the idea that it was his, the idea of a family history, pleased him.
Hooper said nothing. He threw the photograph down into the suitcase and walked back to the window. Kingshaw knew that he had won, but he did not feel the winner; Hooper had conceded him nothing.
Very deliberately, Kingshaw inserted his forefingers under the string, and pulled the satchel off his back. He untied his anorak from it, and spread it out on the ground, and then sat down. Hooper stood above him, his eyes flicking about nervously, his face as pale as his limbs in the dim light.
I am the King, I am the King, there is nothing I can't ask him for, nothing he won't promise me, nothing I can't do to him. Up here, I'm the King.
But he had learned enough, over the past few weeks, to know that any power he acquired would only be temporary. Like the thunderstorm in the wood, and the time when Hooper had fallen into the water and bashed his head, and then when he had had the nightmares. As soon as the situation had changed, everything went back to what Kingshaw had come to think of as normal.
No, I don't know, nothing is really settled, Enid. I have not quite made up my mind about the future.’ For she was anxious that Mr Hooper should hear her, anxious for him to know that she retained her pride. If there were any decisions to be made, then, he should be the one . . .
Now, Mr Hooper sat and thought about Mrs Helena Kingshaw, in this house, in the room upstairs, thought of the pleasure of her company, the pride and satisfaction it gave him to see how relieved she was to be here. And there was the way that she looked at him, he recognized something of his own need, there was something . . . He undressed. He thought with excitement that a physical marriage to Mrs Kingshaw would not be like what he had had with Ellen, for Mrs Kingshaw would answer to him, without the niceties and the restraints, she would bridge the gap between fantasy and life.
For a second, he hesitated, part of his mind starting to come awake. And then he thought of everything, of what else would happen, he thought of the things Hooper had done and what he was going to do, of the new school and the wedding of his mother. He began to splash and stumble forwards, into the middle of the stream, where the water was deepest. When it had reached up to his thighs, he lay down slowly and put his face full into it and breathed in a long, careful breath.
When he saw Kingshaw’s body, upside down in the water, Hooper thought suddenly, it was because of me, I did that, it was because of me, and a spurt of triumph went through him.