The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

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James Smith's Life in Poverty

James Smith grew up in Canada Real with his grandma, a poor woman who worked as a cleaner. James well knew what it meant to be poor, as he wore ripped clothing and went without food on many occasions. With James' grandmother's low salary, he was forced to drop out of school and being in school made his grandmother's life more difficult because she had to lose a large portion of her money to fund James' schooling. James dreamt of becoming a doctor so that he could treat his ailing poor neighbors and move with his grandmother from Cañada Real, a town surrounded by poverty and crime, to the city of Madrid, where they could live in affluence. However, his hopes of going back to school dwindled every day, as his grandmother became poorer and caught a disease that took away almost all of her income during treatment.

Turning to a Life of Crime

At the age of ten, James met Will, a known naughty boy, who also lived in Cañada Real, and they became bosom friends. James and Will began thinking of what they could do to get out of this disturbing poverty. Will suggested that they should become pickpockets, and James agreed. They were successful in their pursuit, and their lives transformed so that they could afford decent meals, and James could take some money to his grandmother to buy her medication. James’ grandmother became curious and asked James where he had got so much money, to which he lied that he had helped people with their luggage and had charged them for the service. James and Will managed to carry out their “job” without getting caught until James was 15 years old, when an angry mob caught them and nearly beat them to death.

A Change in Strategy

Following the event, James and Will decided to change their strategy. They started invading villages at night and stealing any valuables from unsuspicious residents. They acquired two guns from Jack, a known thief and illegal firearm dealer in the town, who promised to give them weapons if they gave him 40% of each invasion profit. James and Will agreed. Their plan had worked well for nearly two years, whereby they managed to invade villages around Cañada Real and gained a significant amount of wealth. One day, they got word about a village managed by Catholic priests and nuns, where they accommodated old and mentally challenged individuals and held a considerable amount of money, which they used to feed the residents. James and Will also learnt that priests and nuns kept gold in the church for decorative purposes, and they planned to attack the village the following night.

The Fatal Encounter

In the afternoon the next day, James and Will left for the village, which was about 30 kilometers from Cañada Real, and waited until midnight before entering the village. As they entered the village, they felt the calmness of sleeping residents and the quietness of the village which was dimly lit by stars, the crescent moon, and little light came from some of the houses. They quickly identified the church, which stood distinctly with a tall tower, and headed straight inside the church, which to their surprise was not locked. They quickly gathered the gold ornaments and put them in the large bag that they used to carry their stolen valuables. Priests and nuns resided next to the church, and one could easily identify their houses since they were bigger and better maintained compared to the other residents’ houses.

James and Will started by breaking the nuns' house, where they demanded money from the terrified nuns, who easily gave them the money. They quickly left the house and headed towards the priests' house. Little did they know that the priests had seen them breaking into the compound and called security officers, who quickly responded by coming to the village. They were caught by the security officers as they tried to break the priests' house. However, James and Will tried to escape as they were being escorted to the officers' vehicle, which had been left at the village's entrance near a tall cypress tree. In their effort to escape, Will shot one of the security officers on the arm, and the other officers were forced to shoot the two criminals to death for fear that the criminals would kill them first. James and Will's death brought to an end the fear that surrounded villages close to Cañada Real, whereby villagers had sleepless nights as they feared that unknown criminals would attack them.


Van Gogh, V. (1889). The starry night [Oil on canvas]. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art.

November 17, 2022



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