Celeste Ng Short Stories
Nurture and Nature in “Girls, At Play”
People will always revert to what is most comfortable, reliant on their natural state. In Celeste Ng’s coming of age short story, “Girls, At Play”, the debate of nurture versus nature lies in the struggles between four girls. The theme of “Girls, At Play” is that no amount of nurturing can prevent a loss of innocence, found in the point of view, character, and plot.
The point of view of the story gives the perspective of someone trying to preserve purity. Grace seemed pure to the girls in the beginning, and saw her as a beacon of hope. When the girls first see the tiny girl on the playground, they long to protect her. “‘Grace,’ we repeat. ‘Grace.’ We like the sound of it, the round single syllable, like a polished metal bead. A simple name, a sweet name. A name not yet corrupted into a diminutive. We wonder, for a moment, if with Grace we can be Angela, Caroline, Amanda” (4). From the beginning, the three girls view Grace as ethereal, untouched by the world, and have hopes that she may revert them back to that state. Later, their perspective warps to see her at their own level. After teaching her all their dirty tricks, Grace surprises them by acting as they do. “Sometimes we look at her, at this new creature with darkened eyes and sleek clothing, who keeps her head up in the hallways, who sees people look at her and bats her eyes and smiles. At first she looks like a stranger” (9). By acting like them, Grace is now ‘other’, changed from someone to protect into a total stranger. Despite all their attempts to prevent her from defilement, she still follows them. From the girls’ point of view, Grace should not throw away her childhood of toys; she is lucky to live without having to please boys.
The characters and their development show that this is who Grace would grow to be all along. The girls attempt to latch onto what remains of Grace’s childhood. Shortly after becoming friends, the girls go to Grace’s house to begin teaching her everything they know. “We’re busy, with Grace, because she hardly knows anything at all. We teach her important things, like how to find the best seats in the movie theater. Asking for butter in the middle of your popcorn, not just on top. How to snap your gum” (5). Through her lack of experience, the girls revert back to their own childhoods. Consequently, Grace opposes the girls and longs to be taken seriously. While the three girls are acting like children, Grace takes a big step towards her true self, trying on their clothing in secret. “We put on crowns and wigs and bunny ears and mug in the mirror, and it’s then that we see Grace behind us. She’s not wearing a costume. She’s put on our clothes—Angie’s little lace top and Carrie’s denim skirt and Mandy’s platforms— and she’s looking not in the mirror but down at herself” (7). Grace has grown from the little girl they first met into a mimic of the actions they are so ashamed of. The true values and wants of Grace come to light through her development as a girl and a character.
The events within the story show both the suppression and the growth of Grace’s sexual knowledge. This transition from pure to as ‘dirty’ as them reminds the girls that Grace refused to heed their warnings. While they still view her as a little girl who needs protection, the girls brush off any mention of The Game. “‘I like your bracelets,’ she says. We push them under our coat sleeves. ‘They’re nothing,’ we say. ‘Just old junk. Come sit with us. Tell us about you.’” (4). The girls continue to lie about their bracelets and The Game throughout the story; they are ashamed and feel the need to lie to perfect little Grace. However, when she does learn what the Game is about, Grace is excited to take part. Finally breaking her eight day silence towards the girls, Grace is eager to know what the game is that another girl in her class told her about. “The girl in front of us doesn’t even look like our Grace anymore. […] We want to slap her, to tell her she’s ungrateful. Instead we look at look at her, hard. ‘What do you want,’ we say. ‘Do you want to play the game?’ ‘Yes,’ she says at last. ‘Yes. I want to play the game.’” (11). They are disgusted by Grace’s ignorance to their suffering, and resent how she idolizes this life they live. Though they tried to protect her from it all, she “betrays” them by still vying to play the game. Grace’s imitation of the girls’ actions only serve to prove that this was who she was meant to be, despite their warnings.
The perspective, character development, and events of “Girls, At Play” illustrate that nurturing cannot change true nature. The limited perspective of the three girls shows the confusion and pain they feel when they ultimately cannot alter Grace’s true nature. Her growth as a character eventually shows Grace’s true colors. Even with all the lies the girls feed Grace to keep her oblivious, she grows into a mimic of their own actions. In “Girls, At Play”, Celeste Ng shows that there is no amount of intervention that will stop someone from growing into their true selves. The three girls try their best to keep Grace in the dark about their lifestyle and the Game, and yet she grows into a player of the Game herself. People will always grow into who they are meant to be, in spite of any outside intervention.