Summary & Themes of “Sticks” by George Saunders: Meaning & Analysis

The George Saunders short story “Sticks” is just under 400 words, but is a surprisingly complete reading experience. It can be read in the preview of Tenth of December: Stories(13% in)

I don’t know if there’s any point summarizing a story this short, but here it is. I just hope I don’t embarrass myself by making it longer than the real thing.

Summary of “Sticks”

A man has a crucifix he built from a metal pole that he stands in his yard, near the road. He dresses it according to the season—in a Santa suit starting Thanksgiving night, in football gear during Super Bowl week, as Uncle Sam on the Fourth of July, a soldier on Veteran’s Day and a ghost on Halloween. The man gets enjoyment from dressing the pole but is otherwise joyless. He’s meager toward his children. Outsiders find the pole unusual.

When the narrator and his siblings grow up and have families of their own they notice meanness developing in themselves. The dad’s style of dressing the pole becomes more complex and confusing. He dresses it to commemorate Groundhog Day, an earthquake in Chile and his wife’s death, complete with her baby pictures. He also puts personal keepsakes at the base. He paints it in autumn and covers it with cotton in the winter. He hammers in six more sticks around the yard, connecting them to the pole with string. To the string he tapes letters written on index cards. He hangs signs from the pole that say “LOVE” and “FORGIVE?”. He dies in the hall. The house is sold to a young couple who remove all the poles and put them out for garbage pickup.

Themes in “Sticks”

Due to the story’s brevity, there aren’t a lot of supporting details for interpretations of theme. By the same token, the details included in a story this short are very important, so we’ll touch on a few possible themes.

Theme: Joylessness

The man’s general joylessness is acknowledged as a main character trait by the narrator when he says, “The pole was Dad’s only concession to glee.” We see evidence of this in a few ways.

The man is stingy with his family, which severely limits their enjoyment:

  • he only allows a single crayon out of the box at a time,
  • he shrieked at his daughter for wasting an apple slice,
  • he doesn’t want them using much ketchup, and
  • they only had cupcakes at birthdays; nothing else.

The shrieking aside, these acts would be more understandable if the family was extremely poor, but there’s no indication that they were. The man’s tendency to suck the joy out of his surroundings comes purely from his own mind. It’s a personality trait that doesn’t seem to be brought on by circumstances.

We see another example when the dad puts a fur on the pole for Groundhog Day and points a floodlight at it “to ensure a shadow”, which would mean six more weeks of winter. Most people would welcome an early spring, associated with rebirth and renewal, but the dad prefers the figurative “death” of winter.

Theme: Mental Deterioration

The man’s mental state doesn’t start out good, but it still gets progressively worse. His eccentricity of dressing up the pole isn’t evidence of a mental problem in itself, but his obsession with it seems to push it into that territory.

One of the boys, Rod, has to “clear it with dad if he wanted to take the helmet off.” This tells us the dad would be upset if he looked at the pole and saw the helmet missing without any warning.

Later, the dad believes he has the power to extend winter by pointing a floodlight at his makeshift groundhog. He also dresses it as Death and hangs baby pictures of his wife from it after she dies. This isn’t a socially acceptable way to acknowledge a death.

A notable escalation occurs one winter when he covers it with cotton, as if to keep it warm. He hammers down six other crossed sticks to give it children. Whereas before the pole could be any number of things, now the man is identifying with it personally.

Theme: Forgiveness & Redemption

The possibility of forgiveness and redemption is prominently placed as it’s the last thing we’re told was on the man’s mind before he died. He hung signs on the pole that said “LOVE” and “FORGIVE?”, which was attached to his pole “children”, with letter of apology on the string, as a plea to his family. He knows his relationships are bad and that the fault is his.

The shape of the stick as a crucifix and thus, a symbol of redemption, is impossible to ignore. Viewing it as a symbol gives the story an unhappy ending, as the new owners tear it down and put it out for the garbage truck, along with the other sticks. This implies the children have rejected his plea for forgiveness, and that the family is being thrown away. There’s no healing implied for the grown children.

Theme: Communication

There’s no indication the man ever communicated normally with his family. When the children grow up, we aren’t told of any conversation. True to form, the man stayed focused on his pole, using it to communicate his feelings. First, by dressing it up and later, when it became a representation of his family, using it to try and reach them.

Theme: Obsession

The man is obsessed with his self-made crucifix. It’s on his mind all year round as he dresses it depending on the season. His fixation intensifies to the point where he symbolically uses it and other sticks to represent himself and replace his family.

The Man’s Effect on His Family

A through line in all the above themes is the negative effect they have on his family. First, they were exposed to their dad’s odd behavior as children, not realizing how strange it was. We see this when the narrator is speechless after his date asks what’s up with his dad and the pole. It seems he never thought of it as unusual. I think many people can relate to finding out as kids that something normal in their household isn’t normal everywhere.

After growing up, the narrator says all the siblings, “. . . found the seeds of meanness blooming also within [them]”. Whether this was inherited genetically or by example can’t be said for certain, but being exposed to their dad’s eccentricities wouldn’t have helped.

I can’t state definitively that the man died alone, but that’s the impression I get when the narrator says he “died in the hall with the radio on.” Dying in the hall suggests he wasn’t being cared for in bed. Having the radio on, as if to keep him company, suggests there was no one else there at the time.

The grown siblings aren’t close to their aged dad, and I don’t think they forgave him. (see end of “Forgiveness & Redemption“, above)