The Wednesday Wars deals with texts of all sorts, from the classic literature of Shakespeare, to local sports legends and the evening news broadcast. As Holling develops over the course of the school year and engages with these different kinds of texts, he learns to think critically and apply what he learns, primarily from literature, to the rest of his life. By showing how Holling makes these connections and what he does with them, the novel shows how reading and learning help Holling find a greater sense of richness and meaning in his life.
The novel makes literature’s importance evident on a structural level: several characters, including Mrs. Baker's pet rats and her husband, are named after characters from Shakespeare’s works, and Shakespeare is one of the most important through-lines of the novel. By showing these connections outright, the novel encourages the reader to look for these inter-textual connections and derive greater meaning about these characters from what the reader knows about their Shakespearean namesakes. This, for example, suggests that Mrs. Baker's pet rats, Sycorax and Caliban (who are named after the monster figures in The Tempest) are possibly more than terrifying monsters, even though that's what everyone—Mrs. Baker included—thinks of them. During their discussion of the play, Mrs. Baker suggests to Holling that Caliban possibly deserved to "grow beyond what Prospero thought of him," essentially suggesting to Holling that everyone, no matter how monstrous, is deserving of consideration. Indeed, even if the rats are objectively horrifying, they were a gift from Lieutenant Baker—therefore, they represent a token of his love and affection for his wife, and so the rats cannot be seen as entirely monstrous. Further, the fact that many members in Lieutenant Baker's family are named after characters from Romeo and Juliet (his first name is Tybalt, while his brother's name is Mercutio) offers another, more emotional explanation for why Mrs. Baker loves Romeo and Juliet.
As the school year progresses and Holling reads The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and Much Ado About Nothing, he uses the "big ideas" that he and Mrs. Baker extract from the plays to gain a better understanding of his own life and the people around him. This helps Holling on his journey towards becoming more empathetic and aware of other people’s inner lives, particularly that of his dad. Though Holling's dad remains a fairly one-dimensional "bad guy" throughout the novel, Holling compares him to the character Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is cast as the play’s villain because of his greed and desire for money, though Mrs. Baker makes it clear that Shylock was never given any reason to be anything but greedy and selfish. This causes Holling to wonder if his dad actively chose his path or if, like Shylock, his dad became only what was expected of him.
As Holling learns to think more critically through his afternoons with Mrs. Baker, these lessons in critical thinking translate to how he engages with other texts and media he comes into contact with. This is most notable in Holling's interpretation of the nightly newscast and the other news of the war. As Holling watches the news with his dad, he notes that even though the White House insists that the United States war effort is strong, noble, and going well, Holling recognizes that the footage the news shows tells a different story. The images of bloody Marines are, as far as Holling is concerned, pretty clear proof that the war effort isn't going well. This shows Holling beginning to understand that not everything he hears or reads is true—rather, he must be prepared to evaluate what he reads and come to his own conclusions, something Mrs. Baker is insistent he do over the course of their study of Shakespeare. In this way, the novel suggests that through the study of literature, a person can develop the skills to become an engaged and informed citizen.
Ultimately, the novel asserts that literature, especially classic literature like Shakespeare, has the unique power to shed light on life hundreds of years after its original publication. Shakespeare teaches Holling to humanize his parents and peers, and he finds a great deal of satisfaction when his lived experiences mirror the fictional experiences of Shakespeare’s characters. By showing how Holling interacts with literature, the novel encourages readers to emulate Holling and be active, questioning participants in their lives, while also suggesting that the fantastical worlds enclosed in novels and plays can teach valuable lessons about the human experience and life in the real world.
Reading and Learning ThemeTracker
Reading and Learning Quotes in The Wednesday Wars
I was amazed that Mrs. Baker was letting me read this. It's got to be censored all over the place. I figured that she hadn't read it herself, otherwise she would never have let me at it.
"Must all history center around your own personal experience, Hoodhood?" Mr. Petrelli asked.
Everyone—except for Caliban—is happy, and everyone is forgiven, and everyone is fine, and they all sail away on calm seas. Happy endings.
That's how it is in Shakespeare.
But Shakespeare was wrong.
Sometimes there isn't a Prospero to make everything fine again.
And sometimes the quality of mercy is strained.
When gods die, they die hard. It's not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. It hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is, you're not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place. Or if you'd want another god to fill their place. You don't want fire to go out inside you twice.
And that's when something changed. I suddenly wondered if my father was really like Shylock. Not because he loved ducats, but because maybe he had become the person that everyone expected him to become. I wondered if he ever had a choice, or if he had ever felt trapped. Or if he had ever imagined a different life.
You know things are bad when the United States Marine Corps is using stethoscopes and divining rods.
Still, the White House announced that the enemy offensive was running out of steam, that casualties at Khesanh were light, that we would never give up the marine base there.
It also didn't help that Mrs. Baker kept wiping at her eyes during her grading. She'd told us that she had a terrible cold, but she hardly needed to tell us. Her eyes were mostly red all the time, and the way she blew her nose could be pretty impressive. Sometimes while sitting at her desk, she'd just stop doing whatever she was doing and look somewhere far away, like she wasn't even in the classroom anymore.
I could tell that Mrs. Baker was wanting to try it. It was probably getting hot on the open rocks above the falls, with the sun coming straight down now […]
It's got to be hard to be a teacher all the time and not jump into a pool of clear water and come up laughing and snorting with water up your nose.
"You think that's how you become a man, by chanting a few prayers?"
"You think you become a man by getting a job as an architect?"