This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.
Sara’s reaction to the news of her father’s death feels like one of the most emotionally real passages in the story. (And this isn’t meant to disparage the rest of the story!) Her shock, her desperate self-control in public, and then her retreat to privacy and nearly incoherent attempts to reconcile herself to the news feel both utterly in character and entirely realistic. For all Sara’s popularity, she is an intensely private and self-contained person. And, as Becky later notes, sometimes it’s best that people in trouble should be left alone. (It might not be true of all people, but it’s certainly true of Sara. And once again, Becky is spot-on in her emotional reactions.)
When Sara emerges again to face Miss Minchin, she is subdued, but self-controlled and determined. This reaction might almost be designed to set Miss Minchin off. Miss Minchin wants to be the one in control, the one who causes others to react. For the rest of the story, she will view Sara’s self-possession as a personal affront—as a challenge to her authority. The more self-control Sara shows, the more out of control Miss Minchin becomes.
Miss Minchin verbally strips Sara of every scrap and vestige of her previous luxury and privilege, failing only when Sara refuses to give up the doll, Emily, who represents her emotional bond with her father. And when Miss Minchin thinks she’s putting the last nail in the coffin of Sara’s pride, by telling her she will need to work for a living, Sara subverts the situation by seizing on this as a positive. She will earn her living and prove her worth. And she will keep her self-possession and dignity, symbolized by her refusal to thank Miss Minchin for her “kindness”.
But it isn’t until she is shown to her new room up in the attic that she lets down her guard once more and feels the full weight of the transition in her life. And it is only there—when Becky comes in to comfort her—that Sara comes close to crying. When she first met Becky, she observed that they were alike—both two little girls. And now she repeats that observation: that there is no difference between them now. Becky, however is wiser. “Whatever happens to you—whatsoever—you’d be a princess all the same. And nothing couldn’t make you nothing different.” She recognizes the deepest truth to the story, that Sara’s “princess nature” is an inherent characteristic and not something that can be taken away.
But it will be a while before Sara rediscovers how to use that “princess nature” in her new situation, and first she needs to renegotiate her relationship to the world around her.