Tuck Everlasting introduces 10-year-old Winnie Foster, a wealthy and sheltered girl, as she tries to decide whether or not to run away from home to escape the constant, overbearing supervision of her parents and grandmother. However, after witnessing young Jesse Tuck drinking out of a brook in her family's wood, Winnie is promptly whisked away by the Tuck family, who tell her, puzzlingly, that they can live forever--the four members of the family, Mae, Angus, Miles, and Jesse, as well as their horse, haven't aged at all for the last 87 years. As Winnie grapples with this impossible assertion and listens to each of the Tucks tell her about their experiences being immortal and what they feel the purpose of life is, Winnie too is forced to examine her own reasons for living and the questions raised when a person cannot die. Ultimately, Tuck Everlasting suggests that the true purpose of life is to make a difference through forming connections with other people, and in order for that difference to be meaningful, a person must gradually mature and eventually die.
Even though Winnie believes at the start of the novel that, practically speaking, she's too young to make a real difference in the world, she already recognizes that this is one thing she should endeavor to do with her life. As she ponders whether or not to run away one afternoon, she declares to a toad lounging outside her cottage's fence that she wants to do "something that would make some kind of difference in the world," which, in her understanding, she can't do while she's cooped up in her yard. Winnie's goal is, notably, a concise encapsulation of what the novel suggests the purpose of life should be, though it lacks much nuance or detail. Winnie begins to gain some of this nuance when, at the Tucks' home, she has conversations with all of the Tucks about what they feel the meaning of life is.
Miles Tuck, who is 22 years old, affirms Winnie's suspicion that the purpose of living is to make a difference. He says that it's no good thinking only of oneself; he tells Winnie that "people got to do something useful if they're going to take up space in the world." However, though Miles travels, working as a carpenter and as a blacksmith, he finds that he can't keep a job for too long or else people will get suspicious when he doesn’t age. Because of this forced transience and his lack of education, Miles suggests that he's not able to make as much of a difference in the world as he'd really like to. 17-year-old Jesse, on the other hand, tells Winnie that the purpose of life is to enjoy it and even encourages Winnie to wait until she's his age and drink the water so that the two of them can enjoy life for the rest of time. Notably, the differences between Miles's and Jesse's understandings of what it means to live speak to their age gap and the maturity levels in which they're forever trapped. Miles got married and fathered two children in the years after drinking from the stream; his wife left and took the children after about twenty years of marriage, devastating Miles. His answer reflects his maturity level and suggests that such understanding can only come with age and experience, specifically the experience of having loved and lost people he cared about. In contrast with Miles, Jesse still looks like a teenager and has the mindset of a 17-year-old. Unlike Miles, Jesse has never had to think about the welfare of anyone other than himself. Through this contrast, the novel suggests that it's actually impossible for Jesse to come to a more nuanced understanding of what he can do with his life, as his mindset will forever be that of a selfish and pleasure-seeking teenager. It seems, then, that there is a deep connection between aging and gaining understanding of life’s purpose.
Angus and Mae offer Winnie even broader and more far-reaching explanations of the purpose of living than their sons do. Angus suggests that in addition to making a difference in the world, a person must also die when they've finished making a difference--something that none of the Tucks can do. Similarly, both Angus and Mae make it very clear to Winnie that one of the greatest joys of life is being able to grow, change, and mature, something that none of them--most notably Jesse--will ever be able to do. Mae and Angus ask Winnie to imagine what it would be like if she stopped maturing at age ten, as well as what would happen if everyone stopped maturing. They suggest that as an eternal 10-year-old, Winnie would be stuck, like Jesse, in the early stages of maturity and would never be able to move forward, therefore rendering her incapable of either making a meaningful difference (as there's only so much that even an immortal 10-year-old can do) or developing a more mature idea of what it means to be alive.
The fact that Winnie begins to learn about the purpose of life by connecting with others suggests that, alongside making a difference, making friends is also an important element of being a living person in the world. It's only because Winnie starts to make friends, first with the toad and then with the Tucks, that she's able to make her mark by saving them from their respective fates. When Mae is sentenced to death for killing the man in the yellow suit, Winnie does what she can, given her age and maturity level, by choosing to help the Tucks free Mae from jail. Weeks later, Winnie taps into her sense of empathy again and gives the toad the magic water, thereby saving it from death. All of this suggests that in order to make a meaningful mark on the world, it is necessary to connect with others and ultimately act in service of them. Additionally, in the epilogue, Angus learns that Winnie went on to marry and have children before her death, which suggests that Winnie continued to connect with and support others throughout her life. By illustrating the many different ways that one person could make a difference in the world, and especially by including Winnie's death in this category, Tuck Everlasting suggests that the true purpose of life is to connect with others, make a difference wherever possible, and accept death when the time comes.
The Purpose of Living ThemeTracker
The Purpose of Living Quotes in Tuck Everlasting
"I want to be by myself for a change." She leaned her forehead against the bars and after a short silence went on in a thoughtful tone. "I'm not exactly sure what I'd do, you know, but something interesting--something that's all mine. Something that would make some kind of difference in the world."
"Just think of all the things we've seen in the world! All the things we're going to see!"
"That kind of talk'll make her want to rush back and drink a gallon of the stuff," warned Miles. "There's a whole lot more to it than Jesse Tuck's good times, you know."
"Oh, stuff," said Jesse with a shrug. "We might as well enjoy it, long as we can't change it. You don't have to be such a parson all the time."
"I'm not being a parson," said Miles. "I just think you ought to take it more serious."
It sounded rather sad to Winnie, never to belong anywhere. "That's too bad," she said, glancing shyly at Mae. "Always moving around and never having any friends or anything."
"Life's got to be lived, no matter how long or short," she said calmly. "You got to take what comes. We just go along, like everybody else, one day at a time."
Winnie blinked, and all at once her mind was drowned with understanding of what he was saying. For she--yes, even she--would go out of the world willy-nilly someday. Just go out, like the flame of a candle, and no use protesting. It was a certainty. She would try very hard not to think of it, but sometimes, as now, it would be forced upon her. She raged against it, helpless and insulted, and blurted at last, "I don't want to die."
"If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I'd do it in a minute. You can't have living without dying. So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road."
"It'd be nice," she said, "if nothing ever had to die."
"Well now, I don't know," said Miles. "If you think on it, you come to see there'd be so many creatures, including people, we'd all be squeezed in right up next to each other before long."
"I mean, what'll they say to you after, when they find out?"
"I don't know," said Winnie, "but it doesn't matter. Tell your father I want to help. I have to help. If it wasn't for me, there wouldn't have been any trouble in the first place."