In a novel where there are no real villains or antagonists, almost all of the malevolence—intentional or accidental—comes from failed or false altruism, and the manipulative instincts behind it. Altruism, or concern for and devotion to the welfare of others, is supposedly at the heart of many of the actions that the characters in Little Fires Everywhere carry out. Mrs. Richardson gives her new tenant, Mia Warren, a job as a housekeeper in her home, effectively cancelling out Mia’s cost of rent; Izzy pulls a massive school prank in order to get justice for a classmate who’s being bullied by their teacher; Lexie, overwhelmed by her many glamorous possessions, begins giving them away to Mia’s daughter Pearl as tokens of friendship and goodwill; and Mia alerts her coworker Bebe Chow to the fact that her daughter, whom she abandoned, is being adopted by a local family, the McCulloughs, and urges her to take action to regain custody of the child. The motivations behind all the altruistic action at work throughout the book are not always as pure as they might seem, however. Though some characters do truly believe that they are doing good for those around them, those characters also cause distress or harm through their “altruistic” acts. Meanwhile other characters are purposefully manipulative, hoping that their actions, under the guise of altruism, will serve themselves first and foremost. To Ng, the flip side of altruism is always manipulation, and she uses her characters to argue that there is no such thing as doing a good deed entirely unselfishly.
Lexie Richardson’s actions toward Pearl, whom she sees as shy, sweet, and cute, start off as altruism bolstered by her desire to feel “the fuzzy internal glow of teenage generosity.” When she realizes the depths of Pearl’s fascination with her and her family, however, Lexie becomes a manipulator. Lexie manipulates Pearl into writing her college application essay for her—Lexie has, at this point in the novel, showered her new friend Pearl with attention, affection, and hand-me-downs, and Pearl, when Lexie asks her for the essay, feels both indebted and eager to help Lexie in order to secure more affection, more attention, and more of Lexie’s possessions (though she’s not motivated by greed; Pearl simply wants to immerse herself in the physical things that make up the Richardsons’ world). Lexie later uses Pearl’s name at a women’s clinic in order to hide the fact of her own abortion, with devastating consequences for Pearl and for her own family, too—she manipulates Pearl’s circumstances with no regard for what the outcome might be (and entirely denying Pearl agency and dignity in the matter), finally revealing the selfishness, narcissism, and lack of true empathy and altruism beneath all Lexie’s actions thus far.
Mrs. Richardson, after noting how much time Pearl spends with the Richardson children and how difficult it is for Mia to make ends meet, offers Mia a job in her own home as a cleaner and a cook. Mia accepts the job gratefully, excited for a glimpse into her daughter’s life as it starts to diverge from her own. Though Mia finds fulfillment and happiness in the job to begin with, and is able to observe both her daughter and the Richardsons’ daily lives from a close distance, eventually Mrs. Richardson’s condescension and misguided attempts to better Mia and Pearl’s lives (combined with her voracious need to uncover the secrets of Mia’s past), result in a devastating schism between the two families. Mrs. Richardson describes her desire to have as a tenant “a kind person to whom she could do a kind turn, and who would appreciate her kindness.” This quotation reveals several things: first, Mrs. Richardson’s belief that her actions are kind and altruistic; second, the narrative judgment that her altruism is connected to the desire to manipulate the feelings of others; and third, that Mrs. Richardson’s designs on both altruism and the manipulation behind it are bound up in her need for order, control, and the regulation of the world around her. Though Mrs. Richardson tells herself she is doing a good deed by offering Mia employment, a part of her perhaps knows—and the narrative is certainly aware—that it is not a purely altruistic act in the least.
In attempting to help her coworker, Bebe Chow, Mia unintentionally throws the McCulloughs’ docile family life into disarray by informing Bebe of the fact that they are in the final stages of adopting her child. At the point in the novel at which Mia begins to help and champion Bebe—apparently altruistically, motivated by her belief that “a mother has a right to raise her own child”—the audience is unaware of a crucial bit of information about Mia: the fact that she herself gave birth to Pearl after agreeing to act as a surrogate for a wealthy family, only to find herself unable to surrender the baby and on the run from that family just months before Pearl was due. Once this information is revealed, however, it becomes clear that not even Mia’s deeds are motivated by pure unselfishness—she is, in a way, attempting to use Bebe to confirm her own choices. Mrs. Richardson later accuses Mia of having intervened in the Chow/McCullough affair to help herself “sleep at night,” revealing that Mia’s motivations are more rooted in selfishness and the desire to manipulate a cause to obtain a certain effect than Ng originally led her audience to believe.
In the end, the many manipulations throughout Little Fires Everywhere range from the maliciously cunning to the transparently calculating to attempts at true benevolence. The hitch with altruism, Ng argues, is that no one can know what is truly best for another person—and attempts to manipulate another’s feelings or circumstances under the guise of helpfulness often result in more difficulty for all involved.
Altruism and Manipulation ThemeTracker
Altruism and Manipulation Quotes in Little Fires Everywhere
This was how Moody made a decision he would question for the rest of his life. Until now he had said nothing about Pearl or her mother to his family, guarding their friendship like a dragon guards treasure: silently, greedily. Deep down he had the feeling that somehow it would change everything. If he had kept her to himself, perhaps the future might have been quite different. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in July, “Come over. You can meet my family.”
“You see now,” Moody said. “What they’re like.”
[Mrs. Richardson] turned her attention to the largest print, which had been stuck up alone over the mantelpiece. It was a photograph of a woman, back to the camera, in mid-dance. The film caught her in blurred motion—arms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waist—a tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away.
Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will. She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them. Then she imagined herself safely installed in the Richardsons’ kingdom, half obscured in the background, keeping watch over her daughter. Reasserting her presence in her daughter’s life.
“Well?” said Mia. “What are you going to do about it?”
It was not a question Izzy had been asked before. Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. What was she going to do about it? The very idea that she could do something stunned her.
Mia thought suddenly of those moments at the restaurant, after the dinner rush had ended and things were quiet, when Bebe sometimes rested her elbows on the counter and drifted away. Mia understood exactly where she drifted to. To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.
It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
For [Mrs. Richardson] it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, [Mr. Richardson] reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.
“Is she going to be okay?”
“She’s going to survive, if that’s what you mean.” Mia stroked Izzy’s hair. It was like Pearl’s, like her own had been as a little girl: the more you tried to smooth it, the more she insisted on springing free. “She’s going to get through this because she has to.”
“I don’t know, honestly. But she will. Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way. Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”
The police would find Izzy, she told herself. They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for Izzy herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this.