James has now been living with Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker for three years. One morning, several peculiar things happen. It’s a hot day, so Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge sit in deck chairs, sipping lemonade and supervising James’s chores. James is chopping wood and he’s not allowed to stop and rest. Aunt Sponge is very fat, while Aunt Spiker is tall, bony, and spits when she talks. The “two ghastly hags” watch James, scream at him to chop faster, and talk about how beautiful they are. Aunt Sponge picks up her hand mirror and recites a poem about how good she smells and how dainty her toes are. Aunt Spiker ruins it by pointing out that Aunt Sponge’s tummy is fat. Aunt Spiker insists she’s more beautiful, but Aunt Sponge retorts with another stanza about how much Hollywood would love her curves.
The descriptions of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker’s bodies are intended to be humorous—but it might also be beyond James’s comprehension that people’s bodies can change dramatically when they become adults. He’s still a child in a prepubescent body; developmentally, he’s not there yet. However, it’s still telling that both aunts are self-centered and cruel. The absurd descriptions of their bodies—and their absurd, silly poems—may also illustrate the novel’s assertion that being so self-centered and mean is absurd, in and of itself.
As Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge exchange insults, James chops wood frantically. His ax is too heavy for him, and he’s sweaty and sad. He wonders what other children are doing right now and cries as he thinks of them riding bikes and playing in the ocean. When the tears get to be too much, James stops chopping. Aunt Sponge shrieks at James to get back to work, but James begs for a trip to the seaside. His aunts, however, decide to beat him later, when it’s not so hot. They send James away. James runs to the laurel bushes and sobs.
Saddling James with this chore shows that Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge have no idea how to deal with children in a kind, compassionate way. Because they’re so selfish and caught up in their own adult worlds, it’s unthinkable that they’d ever do something like allow him to go to the beach—or even allow him to spend a few moments not working. For James, this is difficult because he’s still a child. He’s not ready to grow up and join his aunts’ world.