Crabbe Summary

William Bell


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Crabbe Summary

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William Bell’s Crabbe (1986) integrates the themes of teen alienation, angst and anger into a redemptive tale of survival in the wilderness. This Bildungsroman – or coming of age story – by one of the seminal authors of Canadian young adult fiction predicates the personal growth of its 18-year-old protagonist, Franklin Crabbe, on a return to nature that pushes him to physical limits and emotional awakening through self-reflection and a sense of responsibility grown out of love. The reflective aspect of Crabbe’s story is established through the use of his journal as a narrative device through which he recounts his escape from ‘civilization’.

A child of privilege and an intelligent high school senior, Crabbe feels lonely and misunderstood by his parents and teachers alike. His life fits into a module of expectation and performance dictated by others, who seem to have no interest in who he is beyond the extent to which he lives up to standards externally imposed on him, as if he were the captive of other people’s lives. His parents seem too caught up in going to their parties to meaningfully engage with him as an individual who has his own thoughts and views.

Crabbe feels he cannot freely express himself because nobody listens or pays attention to him, but by rebelling against this neglect like an arrogant, entitled brat, he only enhances the vicious circle of alienation that is closing around him. The prizes he wins in school are like a placebo that preempts serious exchanges or debate with him on the part of the teachers. Crabbe finds his only refuge from what he perceives as the hypocrisy of authority figures in alcohol, and more specifically in a concoction called Silent Sam, which he calls his “pal”. The day he is caught bringing alcohol to school, he decides “to opt out of the plan” and claim his independence.

Over the next few months, he plans his escape, stockpiling sufficient supplies to last him a while in the bush. One night, after his parents have returned home from yet another party and turned in, Crabbe loads up one of the family cars with bags of provisions and a canoe, and drives off to Ithaca, the camping spot where his father took him on their only trip together. (Bell naming this area Ithaca suggests a reference to the Odyssey, where it is the birthplace of Ulysses. Like the Greek hero, Crabbe has embarked on what will ultimately be a home-bound journey, and revisiting the space of the single positive memory he has of his father is a first stop in his ultimate homecoming to selfhood.)

Far from adept at canoeing, Crabbe paddles to a rocky peninsula and tumbles into a waterfall. He is saved by Mary Pallas, who adopts him into the world of the forest she has been inhabiting for a year upon fleeing society after performing euthanasia on her husband. (He was gravely injured in an anti-nuclear demonstration, so that he would never live other than off machines.) Over the time that the two outcasts bond, it becomes clear that Mary is not planning to ever leave the forest, not only because she is a criminal in the eyes of the law, but because there is nothing or nobody for her to go back to.

Mary also gets to feel lonely (“That’s why I’d like you to stay for a while, if you want,” she tells Crabbe), but she has already lived a full life, and her retreat to the wild can be seen as a limbo that anticipates her passing. The novel is rather schematic in establishing Mary (whose name automatically calls forth the mother of Jesus – the Redeemer) as an idealized maternal female figure, who teaches Crabbe all she knows in terms of wisdom, skill and self-confidence. (“My Mother brought me into this world but Mary got me ready to live in it,” he intones.) He refers to Mary as the only person who made him feel necessary, which is tantamount to the way his love for her is channeled into his own personal growth in terms of humility, gratitude and self-esteem.

When Mary falls to her death on the rocks, her tragic demise symbolizes the end of Crabbe’s childhood. He has grown into a young man by internalizing her indomitable spirit, and is ready to re-enter society. Crabbe needs to apply all the survival skills Mary taught him to make it out of the forest through a snowstorm, but not without incurring severe frostbite on his left hand, so that doctors at St. Bartholomew’s General Hospital have to amputate his two damaged fingers.

The psychiatrist at the hospital with whom Crabbe has animated exchanges is a comic relief staple and one more foil of the protagonist rather than a fully developed character in his own right, which exemplifies an overall lack of depth in the novel. Ultimately, Crabbe is able to adjust to life in ‘civilization’. He finds some level of common ground with his parents, and has learned to find a balance between the assertion of personal self-worth and a respectful commitment to the needs of others.