Harriet the Spy Summary

Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy

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Harriet the Spy Summary

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Harriet M. Welsch is an eleven-year-old girl living in New York’s fancy Upper East Side. She dresses like a boy, wants to be a writer someday, and with the encouragement of her nanny, Catherine “Ole Golly,” Harriet keeps a detailed notebook journal in which she writes her observations throughout the day.

Many of Harriet’s observations focus on her world. Harriet’s best friends are Simon “Sport” Rocque—a boy who wants to be a CPA or a ball player—and Janie Gibbs, who sees herself as a future scientist. Also in Harriet’s world are the teacher’s pet and Alpha girl, Marion Hawthorne, and Marion’s best friend, Rachel Hennessy.

Among some of Harriet’s other quirks is her desire and appreciation of structure. Her notebook embodies that structure, as does her refusal to eat any kind of sandwiches other than tomato. This structure is threatened when Ole Golly accepts the marriage proposal offered by her boyfriend, Mr. Waldenstein. Harriet’s parents wonder about their daughter’s ability to cope with the loss of her beloved nanny. Though her parents love Harriet, they struggle to understand her feelings.

Harriet loses her notebook during a game of tag at school. Her classmates find it and read it. The kids are shocked and angered by the brutally honest observations contained in the notebook’s pages. Sport’s feelings, in particular, are hurt, because he viewed Harriet as his best friend.

After reading the notebook, the kids organize what they call a Spycatcher Club, and formulate ways to make Harriet’s life miserable. They steal her lunch, spill ink on her, and pass nasty notes about her in class. When the spilled ink stains Harriet’s hand, she slaps Marion in retaliation. The blue handprint left on Marion’s face gives Harriet away.

Harriet spies on the Spycatchers, and formulates ways to get revenge on them. Though she understands the effect of her words, she still puts into motion some of her plans. Eventually, she tries to rekindle her friendships with Sport and Janie, but they reject her. Harriet then spends so much time writing revenge plots in her notebook that she begins neglecting her schoolwork. Without her friends, her structure, or her nanny, she slips into a depression and struggles getting to school. Harriet’s grades suffer. Her parents take away her notebook, and she becomes even more depressed.

Harriet’s mother begins taking her to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist suggests Harriet’s parents contact Ole Golly, and ask the former nanny to write Harriet a letter. They do, and she does. In her letter to Harriet, Ole Golly makes two suggestions, neither of which, she explains, Harriet will like. In order to keep her friends, Ole Golly writes, Harriet must do one of two things: either apologize, or lie.

At the same time, the kids of the Spycatcher club are fighting. Marion is trying to run everything, and many of the kids, especially Sport and Janie, disagree. Most of the kids decide to leave the club.

Harriet’s parents go to the school and speak with the headmistress, explaining the situation and the background of Harriet’s recent behavior. They devise a solution. Harriet replaces Marion as the editor of the class newspaper. The paper focuses on the students, their parents, and the other people on whom Harriet used to spy. The paper is an instant hit. Harriet publishes a retraction and apology in the paper for her harsh words in her notebook, and the novel ends with Harriet making amends with her friends.

The novel’s primary theme is friendship and what it means to be a friend. The book’s discussion of friendship begins with the nanny. Only Ole Golly seems to completely understand Harriet and what Harriet needs. She approaches Harriet without judgment. Contrast this with how the kids interact. Their friendships are far more fragile, as befitting their age. They are still in the process of figuring out what friendship means and how to be a friend. Harriet had not considered the ability of her words to hurt, and her friends did not consider the intentions behind the writing of the material they found in the notebook. Neither of these actions is very good from a friendship standpoint.

The book also strongly conveys messages about the power of words. Harriet takes great comfort through her writing. Her notebook becomes a security blanket of sorts. Her words have the power to send her friendships into a tailspin. Conversely, through words, Harriet repairs the damage she has done to her friendships, and finds a level of popularity through her work on the newspaper.

Harriet the Spy is a popular young adult novel that spawned two sequels written by Fitzhugh, and two other sequels after Fitzhugh’s death. The book has also been adapted into a feature film, as well as a television series.

The book has remained popular with young readers since its publication in 1964, though it has

been seen by some parents’ groups as having a negative influence on children for the way it promotes spying and back-talk.