Gina Berriault’s story The Stone Boy prompts readers to consider how much parental involvement influences a child’s actions and behavior. The story tells of how 9-year-old Arnold accidentally kills his older brother Eugene but decides to pick peas for an hour instead of informing his parents about the incident. His family, relatives, the sheriff, and the callers do not understand why Arnold leaves his dead brother and goes on with his chores.
As such, readers are left to question whether Arnold is a mentally capable individual without empathy like many criminals are or if he is mentally challenged. Through Arnold’s character development throughout the story, the author shows that it is not Arnold’s mental capacity that is questionable, but the failure of the adults in his life to prevent the incident and failing to recognize his anguish and shock after he kills his brother.
Arnold is introduced as a normal and happy child who adores his family. In the beginning, the narrator does not give any reason for the readers to question his character because he takes his responsibilities seriously, respects his parents, and tackles and wrestles his older brother playfully. Like many sibling relationships, Arnold looks up to his older brother although not explicitly stated in the story. The narrator states, “Arnold never tired of watching Eugenie offer silent praise unto himself.
He wondered, as he sat enthralled, if when he got to be Eugenie’s age he would still be undersized and his hair still straight (Berriault). The author also uses other instances that show how much Arnold looks up to his brother and uses diction throughout the text like Arnold being subordinate to his brother and the flattering descriptions about Eugene’s appearance all told from Arnold’s point of view. Arnold’s love for his family, his fondness for his brother, and Eugene’s flattery description show that Arnold looked up to Eugene and did not have any intentions to hurt him.
When Eugene is shot, Arnold does not go to pick peas because he is insensitive. As Eugene lays on the ground, Arnold does not know that he is dead until he sees Eugene’s blood. Berriault writes, “Eugenie seemed to be climbing the earth as if the earth ran up and down, and when he found he couldn’t scale it he lay still” (Berriault). In addition, Arnold seems to be concerned about his brother’s position on the ground because it causes him the same discomfort he experiences earlier as he watches Eugene sleep.
Arnold later discovers that his brother is dead and gets into a state of shock. Even as he picks peas, Arnold is visibly shaken from the incident as the narrator states, “The pods were cold with the night, but his hands were strange to him, and not until some time had passed did he realize that the pods were numbing his fingers” (Berriault). Overall, Arnold’s decision to pick peas instead of alerting his parents about the tragedy is an unconscious reaction to the realization that he just killed his brother and not because the boy is cold-natured as the adults seem to insinuate.
Parents are partly to blame for the tragedy and for the change in Arnold’s attitude after the incident. Firstly, the father entrusts a .22 caliber rifle to a child who is allowed to use it even without supervision. Arnold is allowed to load the gun without supervision and no one cares to check whether the barrel and chamber are clear and unobstructed or if Arnold loads the correct ammunition in the magazine or chamber. Young children are forgetful just as they are curious, hence leaving the boy to handle the gun by himself is negligence on the parent’s part. Moreover, as suggested by Eugene’s concern about Arnold carrying the rifle, the gun was initially intended to shoot ducks. Eugene asks while eyeing the gun, “Don’t you know this ain’t duck season?” (Berriault).
Besides giving the young boy a riffle, the parents fail to set strict rules regarding its use. Reports show that having firearms in homes with children increases the risk of homicide, suicide, and unintentional shootings. Therefore, the most effective way to prevent such an incident would be to keep the gun away from Arnold or allow him to handle it under an adult’s supervision. No matter how many instructions the father may have given Arnold about the safe shooting, the boy was not responsible or capable enough to safely handle a potentially lethal weapon.
Even after Eugene dies, the negligence by adults continues. While in the Sheriff’s office, the sheriff does not hold Mr. Curwing accountable for giving a rifle to his young son. Additionally, everyone only focuses on Arnold’s actions and how ‘unnatural’ he behaves for not informing his parents of the incident.
No one cares to find out whether Arnold is scared or hurting even when he is clearly devastated. The narrator states, “He was afraid that they did not want him to eat supper with them” (Berriault). Although they are mourning the death of one son, they ignore the living one, his family sees the worst of him and forgets that being responsible for his brother’s death is a colossal event to Arnold that needs immediate attention to address the adverse impact on his wellbeing.
Arnold continues to feel like an outcast and a misfit, especially when his uncle gestures the judgmental callers to his attention such that he cannot get himself to bid them goodnight with the rest of the family as they leave. However, his mother’s cold dismissal and rejection when he desperately needs her worsens the humiliation. Eventually, Arnold is completely isolated from his family and community because in the end, he rejects his mother when she tries to make amends the following morning. At this point, Arnold must be convinced that he is unpardonable, which indeed turns him into the stone boy.
Conclusively, parents have legal and moral responsibilities towards their children. Although accidents can happen anywhere and at any time, Arnold’s death is partially attributable to the parent’s negligence especially for giving a rifle to a 9-year-old and failing to set rules. Instead of helping their son through the emotions he struggles with for killing his brother, his family makes him think he is terrible, and he feels that they hate him. Uncle Andy and the judgmental visitors make him feel isolated and his mother’s rejection completely isolates Arnold, who continues to be emotionally withdrawn. Therefore, while it is understandable to question Arnold picking peas after shooting Eugene, it is equally important to question the parents’ actions before and after the incident.
Berriault, Gina. The stone boy. OUR, 1973.