Pay It Forward Summary

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Pay It Forward

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Pay It Forward Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Pay It Forward is a fictional narrative that reaches into the real world with its overwhelmingly simple approach to enacting goodwill. Its premise of altruism for altruism’s sake hits home with its honest intentions, so much so that that novel became an instant success upon publication, and was also responsible for a resurgence in altruism on a national scale. The movement inspired by the book also became so popular that Hyde’s novel was made into a film starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. All in all, Hyde’s narrative takes the concept of “love thy neighbor” and shows what can happen in the world if one adheres to this simple concept of goodwill.

The narrative follows twelve-year-old Trevor McKinney, who is seen as somewhat of a loner in school. His father has left the family, and his mother, Arlene, is a recovering alcoholic who makes poor choices concerning men while attempting to raise Trevor on her own. His social studies teacher, Rueben St. Clair, is a Vietnam War vet with a disfiguring injury. Though the teacher is seen as emotionally and physically scarred, it is in his classroom that he truly comes alive.

One day, Reuben gives his social studies class an extra credit assignment. The assignment is focused on doing something that will change the world. Though seemingly a daunting task, Trevor accepts the herculean challenge. He comes up with a plan of his own to enact his teachers’ assignment. To truly change the world, Trevor will do a good deed for three people. In turn, he will ask these three people to “pay it forward” by doing something for three other people. Trevor’s idea is that people will continue to help others, even after being helped, thereby enacting what amounts to an altruistic approach to life in general. This altruism will spread from his small California town of Atascadero to the entire world.

Trevor sets out to change the lives of three people, though he meets with setbacks from all three initially. He tries to help an elderly woman, Mrs. Greenberg, by tending to her garden, but the woman dies unexpectedly. He also tries to help a bum named Jerry. Trevor gives Jerry some of his allowance money, but eventually falls back into his old life of disillusionment and finds himself back in jail. With these failures, Trevor eventually abandons his plan, thinking it a failure.

In addition to Jerry and Mrs. Greenberg, Trevor wants to help his mother. Trevor views his mother as hardworking and honest. His mother is attractive as well, and manages to raise him despite her hardships. Because of this, Trevor wants to see her happy, and so thinks to set her up with his teacher, Reuben. Reuben, however, is untrusting, and only ever appears happy while in the classroom.

Though each of the three people Trevor does a good deed for seem to meet with trials and tribulations, a noticeable difference soon begins to take shape, and people take note. As it turns out, the crime rate begins to drop—across the nation, actually. No one knows why at first, but when an inquisitive journalist, Chris Chandler, begins to investigate the event, the end result points to a phenomenon of random acts of kindness that have been filtering around the nation, and it all leads back to Trevor.

As it turns out, Jerry actually talks a woman down from an attempted suicide on a bridge. Mrs. Greenberg leaves large sums of money to people in her will. One of these people, Matt, helps an injured gangster, who in turn helps others. Trevor’s mother and Reuben also end up together, despite their seeming differences. From these successes, many more the nation over begin to take shape, thus showing the true power of “paying it forward.”

Hyde’s narrative is crafted from different forms of writing, including letters, diary entries and different points-of-view. Many critics have noted how timely the work is. Though page-turning and hopeful, the narrative is not farfetched in its view of a world where altruism exists despite pain, loss and tragedy. Characters like Jerry Busconi and Reuben St. Clair show that, despite character flaws or personal traumas, people can still seek to effect change in others and themselves. Perhaps more startling, Trevor’s untimely death by “paying it forward” to save someone else shows how life cannot always be lived without pain and sacrifice. Trevor jumps in front of an attacker and is stabbed, and dies from his wound soon after. Though Trevor’s death is indeed traumatic, especially after the hope he has brought into the world, the novel shows that Trevor’s desire for change not only keeps his legacy alive, it continues to grow despite his death.

The powerful theme of altruism is also highlighted by the way it is presented. Trevor’s project allows people to see how enacting a good deed without expectation of any return on the deed is a healthy approach to life in general. Helping others with no other end goal in mind brings people together for good, and by doing so, fosters a community of like-minded individuals who are set on making the world better, one person at a time.