When four-year-old James’s parents die, his life turns upside down. Within days, James is forced to leave his parents’ house by the seaside and move in with his cruel Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, who live inland, high on a hill. At his aunts’ house, James is confined to their backyard, though he longs to explore the woods surrounding the property—and, eventually, to return to the sea. Through James’s desire to move beyond the confines of the garden and later, as he embarks on his transatlantic journey in a giant magical peach, the novel positions the natural world as a place of wonder and delight. The story equates nature as the realm of children, while manmade structures and cities represent the world of adults. In this sense, as James and his friends journey through the natural world to New York City, James symbolically comes of age and enters the world of adulthood.
Throughout the story, James’s longing to observe and enjoy the natural world is linked to his youth. In James’s estimation, the natural world is a playground that contains endless opportunities. It’s not only somewhere where he can play with other children away from the watchful eyes of adults—it’s also compelling, beautiful, and exciting in its own right. James’s Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, on the other hand, see the natural world as something to dominate and profit from. This reflects their existence in a stuffy, manmade adult world. It’s unthinkable to them to enjoy all that nature has to offer simply for the joy of doing so, which is why they threaten to punish James when he asks for a trip to the seaside. James and his aunts, in this sense, exist in entirely different worlds with different rules. This difference is best expressed in the different reactions to finding the giant peach growing on the otherwise barren peach tree. Up until the magic peach grows on Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge’s tree, their tree has never produced a single peach—a reflection of the aunts’ disinterest in nature. And when the peach does grow, their first thought is to selfishly keep it for their own consumption. Their second idea—which they follow through on—is to charge admission for others to come see it. In this sense, James’s aunts corrupt the innocence and fun of the natural world to support their boring adult lifestyles, a vision of adulthood that James sees as stifling. James, meanwhile, sees the peach as something to explore and appreciate in its own right. The peach’s economic value doesn’t matter to him, as he’s a young child who just wants to enjoy it for its own merit. Instead, his curiosity toward the peach represents his hope for a better future in which he can explore and grow up on his own terms, unhindered by his aunts’ selfishness.
James and the Giant Peach also shows how, if children are allowed to engage with nature on their own terms, nature gives them the opportunity to enjoy independence, solve problems, and encounter new ideas. These things, the novel suggests, aren’t possible to achieve in the built world of adults. Over the course of James’s transatlantic journey aboard the peach, the oversize bugs he meets in the peach treat him as their leader. This means that James has more responsibility than most seven-year-olds ever get, and he uses this opportunity to develop his confidence and hone his problem-solving skills. After the journey, when the peach lands in New York City, James is a fundamentally different person—his experiences on the peach prepared him to step into a more adult role. Having been allowed to grow up on his own terms on the peach, James is prepared to help the firefighters and police officers who rescue them from the top of the Empire State Building understand that the bugs aren’t anything to be afraid of—in other words, he takes on the more adult role of a cultural interpreter. However, this doesn’t mean that James is fully grown up. Indeed, he takes up residence in Central Park in the home made from the giant peach’s pit, a far more natural setting than, say, an apartment in New York. James is mature enough to exist in a big, bustling city—but he’s not yet adult enough to live in a world of concrete and steel. Most importantly, James demonstrates his maturity by writing down his story—James and the Giant Peach itself—to share his fantastical journey with other children. This represents James stepping into a more adult role by introducing other children to the wonders of nature.
In a broader sense, the novel also makes the case that if someone is willing to embrace a more childlike way of seeing the world, nature has something to teach everyone. For instance, James and his bug friends (who are all adults) are able to see Cloud-Men making hailstones, rain, and rainbows as they silently float through the sky on the peach, something they wouldn’t be able to see had they been on an airplane (which the novel links to adulthood and the manmade world). Taking things slower and more quietly, this suggests, creates opportunities to see things a person wouldn’t be able to see if they rely on manmade things—like airplanes, which frighten the Cloud-Men with their noise—to navigate the world. And conversely, the novel suggests that relying on the built world of adults exclusively can have disastrous consequences, as when the peach runs over Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge because they tried to monetize nature instead of just enjoy it. With this, James and the Giant Peach makes it clear that growing up doesn’t have to mean giving up on the natural world altogether, and nor should it. Rather, life is richer and more fun if people make an effort to appreciate and learn from the natural world, long after they grow up.
Nature and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Nature and Growing Up Quotes in James and the Giant Peach
And as time went on, he became sadder and sadder, and more and more lonely, and he used to spend hours every day standing at the bottom of the garden, gazing wistfully at the lovely but forbidden world of woods and fields and ocean that was spread out below him like a magic carpet.
“It’s ripe!” she cried. “It’s just perfect! Now see here, Spiker. Why don’t we go and get us a shovel right away and dig out a great big hunk of it for you and me to eat?”
“No,” Aunt Spiker said. “Not yet.”
“Because I say so.”
“But I can’t wait to eat some!” Aunt Sponge cried out. She was watering at the mouth now and thin trickle of spit was running down one side of her chin.
“My dear Sponge,” Aunt Spiker said slowly, winking at her sister and smiling a sly, thin-lipped smile. “There’s a pile of money to be made out of this if only we can handle it right. You wait and see.”
James decided that he rather liked the Centipede. He was obviously a rascal, but what a change it was to hear somebody laughing once in a while. He had never heard Aunt Sponge or Aunt Spiker laughing aloud in all the time he had been with them.
They panicked. They both got in each other’s way. They began pushing and jostling, and each of them was thinking only about saving herself. Aunt Sponge, the fat one, tripped over a box that she’d brought along to keep the money in, and fell flat on her face. Aunt Spiker immediately tripped over Aunt Sponge and came down on top of her. They both lay on the ground, fighting and clawing and yelling and struggling frantically to get up again, but before they could do this, the mighty peach was upon them.
“None of us three girls can swim a single stroke.”
“But you won’t have to swim,” said James calmly. “We are floating beautifully. And sooner or later a ship is bound to come along and pick us up.”
They all stared at him in amazement.
“Are you quite sure that we are not sinking?” the Ladybug asked.
“Of course I’m sure,” answered James.
“You must be crazy! You can’t eat the ship! It’s the only thing that is keeping us up!”
“We shall starve to death if we don’t!” said the Centipede.
“And we shall drown if we do!” cried the Earthworm.
“You can eat all you want,” James answered. It would take us weeks and weeks to make any sort of a dent in this enormous peach. Surely you can see that?”
“Good heavens, he’s right again!” cried the Old-Green-Grasshopper, clapping his hands.
“For dinner on my birthday I shall tell you what I choose:
Hot noodles made from poodles on a slice of garden hose—
And a rather smelly jelly
Made of armadillo’s toes.
(The jelly is delicious, but you have to hold your nose.)”
“Why, it’s absolutely brilliant!” cried the Old-Green-Grasshopper when James had explained his plan.
“The boy’s a genius!” the Centipede announced. “Now I can keep my boots on after all.”
“Oh, I shall be pecked to death!” wailed the poor Earthworm.
“Of course you won’t.”
“I will, I know I will! And I won’t even be able to see them coming at me because I have no eyes!”
James went over and put an arm gently around the Earthworm’s shoulders. “I won’t let them touch you,” he said. “I promise I won’t.”
“Action stations!” James shouted. “Jump to it! There’s not a moment to lose!” He was the captain now, and everyone knew it. They would do whatever he told them.
“You’re joking,” James said. “Nobody could possibly have his ears on his legs.”
“Because...because it’s ridiculous, that’s why.”
“You know what I think is ridiculous?” the Centipede said, grinning away as usual. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I think it is ridiculous to have ears on the sides of one’s head. It certainly looks ridiculous. You ought to take a peek in the mirror some day and see for yourself.”
“But what’s the point?”
“What do you mean, what’s the point?”
“Why do you do it?”
“We do it for the farmers. It makes the soil nice and light and crumbly so that things will grow well in it. If you really want to know, the farmers couldn’t do without us. We are essential. We are vital. So it is only natural that the farmer should love us.”
There was not a sound anywhere. Traveling upon the peach was not in the least like traveling in an airplane. The airplane comes clattering and roaring through the sky, and whatever might be lurking secretly up there in the great cloud-mountains goes running for cover at its approach. That is why people who travel in airplanes never see anything.
But the peach...ah, yes...the peach was a soft, stealthy traveler, making no noise as it floated along. And several times during that long silent night ride high up over the middle of the ocean in the moonlight, James and his friends saw things that no one had ever seen before.
“Those are skyscrapers! So this must be America! And that, my friends, means that we have crossed the Atlantic Ocean overnight!”
“You don’t mean it!” they cried.
“It’s not possible!”
“It’s incredible! It’s unbelievable!”
“Oh, I’ve always dreamed of going to America!” cried the Centipede. “I had a friend once who—“
“Be quiet!” said the Earthworm. Who cares about your friend? The thing we’ve got to think about now is how on earth are we going to get down to earth?”
“Ask James,” said the Ladybug.
“Don’t be frightened of us, please!” James called out. “We are so glad to be here!”
“What about those others beside you?” shouted the Chief of Police. “Are any of them dangerous?”
“Of course they’re not dangerous!” James answered. “They’re the nicest creatures in the world! Allow me to introduce them to you one by one and then I’m sure you will believe me.”
And because so many of them were always begging him to tell and tell again the story of his adventures on the peach, he thought it would be nice if one day he sat down and wrote a book.
So he did.
And that is what you have just finished reading.