Free Study Guide for The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

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Major Themes

The main theme of this novel is information and how people interpret it: not only in the mystery that defines the Westing game, but also in the other conflicts among the Sunset Towers residents. A related theme is identity: how people often employ masquerades to hide their true selves, and how people can change the way they perceive themselves. Related to this theme of identity is the theme of family: the large cast of characters become a kind of extended family for the eccentric millionaire Sam Westing, connected in various ways --blood, work, shared histories - that brings them closer together over the course of the novel.

Minor Themes

While games are an important motif in the novel, they actually are a minor theme: that is, the games in the novel are used primarily to help flesh out the ideas of the major themes described above but the idea of games is itself not developed much as a theme in its own right. The major theme of identities ties into the related subthemes of work and education, both popular means by which identities are molded. Patriotism and the American dream is another minor themes which play out over the course of the book, as well as the unexpected directions of life.


The mood of the novel is often light, not willing to take the events seriously even as it adeptly describes the behavior and motivation of its large cast of characters. This is in keeping with the tradition of the cozy mystery, whose mood often plays upon a sense of jeopardy but does so in such a way as to reassure readers that nothing truly awful will happen to the likeable characters in the book.

Ellen Raskin - BIOGRAPHY

Ellen Raskin was born on March 13, 1928, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A good student, she entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison with the intention of being a journalist but instead discovered an interest in fine art. Raskin married and had a daughter; after moving to New York, she obtained a divorce and began working at a commercial art studio. She then moved on to freelance illustration and design: among other things, she contributed to The Saturday Evening Post and designed book covers, including the original cover for Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. She won various awards for her art and held exhibitions of her work.

In 1960, Raskin married Dennis Flanagan, editor of the well-known periodical Scientific American. Wanting to work with her own ideas on her own terms, Raskin's wrote and illustrated her first children's book, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block, published in 1966.

Though an artist first and foremost, Raskin's skills as a writer were formidable. Her first novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), was published in 1971. Her second novel, 1974's Figgs & Phantoms, was named a Newbery Honor Book. This was followed by The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues the following year. In 1978, Raskin published her fourth and final novel, The Westing Game, which won the Newbery Medal the following year. Raskin long suffered from a painful disease of the connective tissues which finally claimed her life. Ellen Raskin died on August 8, 1984, at the age of fifty-six.


The Westing Game is a young adult novel in the tradition of the cozy mystery. The cozy mystery earns its name by being a safe kind of story: likeable, often quirky, characters are placed into jeopardy but ultimately remain well as the mystery is solved. The stories often focus on the solving of elaborate puzzles by amateur detectives. In stark contrast, the hard boiled or noir mystery is much more sinister, with characters that are often distinctly unlikable who deal with more gruesome cases with unpredictably violent outcomes. Perhaps the best known writer of cozies is Agatha Christie; examples of well-known noir writers are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

As a cozy, The Westing Game follows the general mood - bemused observation of the foibles of a large, quirky cast of suspects - as well as the general plot structure, as new secrets are revealed at regular intervals that overturn and redefine reader expectations. Perhaps most important, the novel never threatens the reader with any traumatic events that aren't quickly remedied. For example, while Turtle is the most saddened and distraught by the death of Sandy McSouthers, she is also the only one to understand it wasn't real and triumphantly wins the game.


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