This book follows two young boys in wartime Britain. The narrator, Stephen Wheatley, is flashing back to his childhood relationship with his neighbour Keith. Keith is the other main character in the book and plays a very significant role in many ways. Keith and his family are in a social class above Stephen and he is always painfully aware of how lucky he is to be able to interact with them. Because of this it is usually Keith that leads their playtime activities. Keith is always the instigator and inventor of their games and adventures.
Stephen is content just to be the loyal sidekick. One adventure in particular, however, starts them down the path of no return. When Keith says “My mum is a German spy” Stephen valiantly follows with his servile attitude, here too, wherever Keith leads. Stephen says: “I have been granted a modest foothold of my own in the story, as the loyal squire and sword bearer that a hero requires” Stephen is passive and lets Keith walk all over him. Keith is always the leader and the dictator of what they do and is referred to as a commander.
His essence of dominance is perhaps enhanced when on page 55 of the book he insights Stephen to make and oath with him. At the end of this oath he says “Allowed by me, Keith Hayward” Which emphasizes him as the leader, it was allowed by him and not Stephen. The relationship between Keith and Stephen is a leader and follower one but if looked at more closely, Keith is essentially Stephen’s bully. Keith in many instances puts Stephen down. Stephen is constantly subservient to Keith, but there is an underlying dependence from Keith for “Someone to be braver than him”
Keith makes stephen feel inferior, when they are on their adventures and in general, “He puts a restraining arm on my shoulder” This sentence Stephen suggests Keith always holding him back, perhaps to stop Stephen’s developing independence because without him Keith will be alone. Keith is clever and quick thinking and he knows things that Stephen is still trying to work out so he has an advantage over him, for now. He has an air of superiority over Stephen, “Registers an almost imperceptible moment of superiority. I remember now often I’ve been humiliated by him like this in the past”
Keith has great influence over Stephen who will imitate Keith and try to prove himself to him. However when Stephen begins to become more independent he can get rid of Keith, he is no longer in need of someone to be his leader or a guide he has matured and grown more confident. He makes a new friend and almost has a girlfriend which basically leaves Keith behind because he is an outcast and has been ostracized for the entirety of the book. Keith has an under developed character and is anti-social, he also has very adult like qualities which make him seem almost peculiar.
His maturity allows him an advantage over Stephen to begin with but when Stephen begins to develop his own independence and maturity like a normal child Keith loses this. Keith was, however, important to Stephen’s development and to him becoming more independent. Keith was important to Stephen’s growing up and at first Stephen does not want to let go of him. There is a loss of innocence in Stephen, but it is a gradual loss, a slipping away as his and Keith’s relationship also changes A large aspect of Stephen and Keith relationship seems to be based on class issues.
There is the feeling throughout the first five chapters that Stephen feels subordinate to Keith because of his families’ status in The Close. Evidence that Stephen’s family are ‘below’ Keith’s in the way of classes is that Stephen’s family live in a semi-detached house, showing that they cannot afford a detached house. Stephen says “The ways of the Haywood family were no more open to question or comprehension than those of the Holy family” , this shows that he thinks very highly of Keith’s family, looking up to them and almost idolising them.
This is also shown in which schools Keith and Stephen go to, “We’re socially colour coded for ease of reference. Yellow and black are the colours of the right local preparatory school… green and black are the colours of the wrong school. ” This is quite a strong way of stating just how much difference there is between the classes and its significance and helps to portray just why Stephen may feel privileged or honoured to be playing with someone that by rights of class he should not be.
Stephen looks up to Keith, in part, simply because he is middle-class. Keith is obviously not modest about this and is seemingly stuck up. Page 17 is evidence of Keith’s class by the description of his belongings such as his bike and his playroom and the condition they are kept in. Also it is said “He may have some chore imposed by his father, which Stephen will be allowed to help with” Implying that doing a chore in somewhere like Keith’s house is a treat of some kind because he would be allowed to do it.
Keith’s upbringing in the middle class has lead him to be ignorant and nasty, as well as prejudice and racist. He treats other children with distain. Keith’s domineering and bullying personality is effectively the result of his upbringing and the influences of his father. His ways of thinking have been influenced by his father obviously. In particular his attitude towards women which has taken a misogynistic turn evident in the way he is happy to accuse his own mother of being a German spy.
This is no doubt taken from his Father’s treatment of his mother, he is abusive towards her and Keith perceives this as ok or he becomes used to it as the norm because he knows no different. His actions and his behavior are also heavily influenced by his father. His violent behavior like when he threatens Stephen with a knife and his violent attitude on several other occasions are influenced by his father and his father taking part in the war, the influence of wartime
“He won a medal for killings” Keith sees something as violent as killing being rewarded will clearly have a negative affect on his behavior and what he sees is right and wrong in terms of physical and perhaps mental violence. Keith idolises his father and mimics his violence in which frayn is underlining and highlighting the fact that parents are role models for their children and their behavior must reflect how their children should grow up to act, therefore warning parents against violence.