Friday, 10 May 2013

Article: Nikolajeva - "A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction

Nikolajeva, Maria, '"A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction' The Lion and the Unicorn 26.3 (2002) 305-321

"A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction

Maria Nikolajeva

"If you look for the working classes in fiction . . . ," George Orwell writes in his famous essay on Dickens,"all you find is a hole" (57). There is no sense of work; indeed work is virtually invisible, for " . . . in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle" (57). Orwell calls it "a dream of complete idleness" (94, author's emphasis). Whether Orwell's accusation is just to Dickens or not, it is an accurate description of children's fiction. Such a hole where work should be, such "a dream of complete idleness," is characteristic of most children's fiction from the late nineteenth century until the present.
There may be several ways of explaining why labor is absent from children's literature. The simplest is that children do not work—which is certainly not true from the historical point of view and not quite correct in our day either. Yet we can observe that since child characters cannot, without a very good reason, have a professional occupation, a large number of typical mainstream characters and, consequently, plots and conflicts tied to these characters, are impossible in children's fiction. In fact, most of the several hundred occupations suggested for characters in writers' manuals (e.g. Lauther) are not relevant for children's fiction. Child protagonists can neither be brokers nor ambassadors, physicians nor jet pilots, college professors nor tax collectors. Naturally, there are certain genres that allow a substitute for an occupation. For instance, the child detective is a widely used figure. A journalist of the mainstream novel may become an editor of a school newspaper, a company executive the president of a student board. Further, child characters may be fieldworkers, horse trainers, circus artists, babysitters, and so on. Hobbies and school achievements can provide some insight into professions. However, the actual depiction of labor is significantly limited. [End Page 305] This is, however, a superficial explanation. Of much greater importance is the essence of children's literature itself: literature written by adults for young readers. Consequently the notion of childhood that we meet in children's fiction reflect adults' views, which may or may not correspond to the real status of children and childhood in any given society. The central concept seems to be that childhood is something irretrievably lost for adults, and this lost Arcadia can only be restored in fiction. With this premise, children's fiction is not, as it is commonly defined, literature addressed to children, but a sort of storytelling therapy for frustrated adults, a point made by Jacqueline Rose in her famous study The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Literature (1984). This is a disturbing and provocative statement, which I have explored in my book From Mythic to Linear (2000). Rather than, like Rose (and many other critics), focusing exclusively on the sexual innocence of the fictional child, I find it essential to treat this innocence more broadly, encompassing remarkable freedom from most of the defining attributes of adulthood, including its financial and occupational obligations. It is a commonplace to point out that before Romanticism, children were hardly believed to be different from adults—and certainly not thought to be better than adults. Anglo-Saxon criticism tends to focus on Blake and Wordsworth as sources of the new concept of childhood; however, similar ideas have been developed by Romantic writers in other language areas. The most essential issue is that childhood in the Romantic tradition is equal to idyll, while growing up is equal to loss of Paradise. However, the idea of the child as innocent continues to influence children's fiction long after mainstream literature has abandoned the Romantic views. Traditional children's fiction creates and preserves what may be called a pastoral convention, maintaining a myth of a happy and innocent childhood, apparently based on adult writers' nostalgic memories and bitter insights about the impossibility of returning to the childhood idyll. This myth has little to do with the real status of child and childhood, and indeed a number of contemporary children's novels successfully subvert this myth. However, the vast majority of children's fiction, classic as well as contemporary, shows the same unmistakable features of pastoral: the importance of a particular setting; autonomy of the "felicitous space" from the rest of the world; a special significance of home; absence of death and sexuality; and, as a result, a general sense of innocence. The general utopian nature of children's fiction, which compels authors to portray childhood as a happy and beneficial place, often precludes any elaboration, or sometimes even mention, of the restrictive aspects of human (that is, adult) civilization, [End Page 306] such as government, law, money and labor. Children, real as well as fictional, are supposed to be growing up unaware of and unencumbered by these tokens of adulthood (see Nikolajeva 21ff). Thus, in traditional children's literature, work is not an issue by definition and is therefore promptly de-emphasized. The conspicuous absence of labor in children's literature has its aesthetic reasons as well as the social and historical. If work is depicted at all, it will most likely be downplayed, camouflaged, obscured, and its significance distorted. The examination of the work motif illuminates the general dilemma of children's fiction as an "impossible" endeavor (cf. Rose). As with many other aspects, we encounter here the incompatible desires of adult writers to keep children innocent and ignorant, while at the same time socializing them into the adult hierarchy, which inevitably must include work. Yet we cannot ignore the existing depictions of labor in children's fiction, and I will proceed to discuss a few examples, demonstrating that whenever labor does appear, it is inevitably inscribed into the general pastoral convention. This can be done in several ways: transforming work into play, either with ironic or sentimental undertones; dismissing work as an evil to be avoided as far as possible; or distancing it to the historical past, where it feels less threatening and offensive. Whatever the strategy, the objective is to disarm work, presenting it as something that is essentially irrelevant to the world of childhood.

Work as Play

If [Tom] had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers, or performing on a tread-mill, is work, while rolling nine-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service that would turn it into work, then they would resign. (Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 19-20)
In this perhaps most vivid depiction of work in classic children's fiction, Mark Twain mocks the whole idea of labor by turning it into play. As most readers will remember, Tom tricks his friends into whitewashing the fence, which Aunt Polly has assigned him as punishment, by presenting it as a special privilege and treat. Children's fiction is basically about play. It can be serious and dangerous play, involving killing dragons in faraway mythical worlds, [End Page 307] but the young characters are inevitably brought back to the security of home and the protection of adults. Creative play is an essential way of training for adult life, and it may contain elements of work; but since young characters, as well as young readers, have vague ideas about what labor in fact is, the depiction seldom goes beyond building a treehouse, hunting or cooking. For instance, Wendy in Peter Pan seems to be working hard keeping housein the Neverland, and Barrie tries to persuade the readers that his heroine indeed enjoys this dull and monotonous work, simply because women are made this way:
Wendy's favourite time for sewing and darning was after they had all gone to bed. Then, as she expressed it, she had a breathing time for herself; and she occupied it in making new things for them, and putting double pieces on the knees . . . (84)
However, since everything in the Neverland is pretence and make-believe, Wendy's domestic endeavors are merely part of the game. Notably, in children's editions of Robinson Crusoe, most of the depictions of the protagonist's hard labor on the island are omitted, presumably as being uninteresting—in the first hand, uneventful—for young readers. Robinson's, as well as many other Robinsonnade characters', occupations are exciting only as long as they provide some suspense, based on the tension between the setting of a task and performing it. Work acquires a pleasant flavor of playfulness (children often "play Robinson"). However, a meticulous description of exactly how each task is performed, hour after hour, day after day, would be tedious even for an adult reader, still more for a young one. In some of the prevalent genres of children's fiction, such as fantasy, adventure, or mystery, labor is never mentioned since the characters are too much preoccupied with killing dragons, searching for treasures or hunting bandits—extraordinary actions chosen over the ordinary. In animal and toy stories, labor is naturally not an issue either. Traditional children's literature was written for and about middle-class children, since the middle classes were the strongest, if not the only, consumers of children's books. Therefore, it seems that labor is a still larger gaping hole in children's fiction than in general literature. Fathers in traditional children's novels have respectable middle-class occupations, such as bankers, lawyers, physicians, church ministers, or military officers. Mothers are almost without exception homemakers. Child characters in middle-class children's novels are daily exposed to a huge amount of manual labor, namely the servants' work; however, this is taken for granted and never described in detail. Basically, in children's [End Page 308] fiction, the adults' work is insignificant. The only professional occupation that characters of children's fiction regularly come into contact with is teacher, and most teachers in children's fiction are objects of hatred and mockery. Child characters seem to be surprisingly ill-informed about their parents' professions:
Now, the City was a place where Mr. Banks went every day—except Sundays, of course, and Bank Holidays—and while he was there he sat on a large chair in front of a large desk and made money. All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings and half-crowns and threepenny-bits. And he brought them home with him in his little black bag. Sometimes he would give some to Jane and Michael for their money-boxes. (Travers, Mary Poppins 3-4)
Although this passage is naturally ironic, the parents' occupations are seldom relevant to the plot. In fact, often the profession is chosen in order to get rid of the parent as the plot demands; for instance, if the parent is an explorer, a navy captain or a missionary in Africa, the necessary "absence" is easily provided. While adult work is omitted, child labor will most likely be transformed into something pleasant and enjoyable. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox discovers the joys of simple manual work, digging in the garden to make it come alive after ten years' dormancy. This work is used for symbolic purposes, alongside fresh air, exercise and plain food, which bring about crucial mental and emotional changes in the character. Unlike the hard-working Martha and Dickon, two youngsters from the lower classes who function as catalysts for her improvement, Mary, orphan as she may be, comes from exceedingly wealthy circumstances and will never have to worry about her daily bread. Her gardening is therefore a healthy and useful hobby, not a life necessity:
She went from place to place, and dug and weeded, and enjoyed herself so immensely [ . . . ]. Mistress Mary had worked in her garden until it was time for her to go to her midday dinner. [ . . . ] she could not believe that she had been working for two or three hours. She had been actually happy all the time . . . . (78-79)
Observe that the task of preparing "midday dinner" is taken care of without the protagonist contemplating it, as are all the other duties of the enormous Craven household. By contrast, Mary's attitude toward her occupation is explicit:
She worked and dug and pulled up weeds steadily, only becoming more pleased with her work every hour instead of tiring of it. It seemed to her like a fascinating sort of play. (87) [End Page 309]
The last sentence is revealing: if Mary were forced to dig the garden to earn her keep at her Uncle's, she would not be enjoying it. As it is, she is creating a sanctuary for herself, her cousin and ultimately her Uncle, where they can be forever free from everyday worries and anxieties. Moreover, Mary only has to give the garden a start; the rest takes care of itself, by "magic" that her cousin Colin so strongly believes in. In the Swedish Noisy Village series by Astrid Lindgren, work is also part of play, a nice way for the children to be together and have fun while they are thinning turnips or picking strawberries. The descriptions of these events are joyful and adventurous. Although not particularly rich, the Noisy Village children are not forced to work in order to make their living, and they are too young and carefree to notice the hard work of their parents. Similarly, the endless depictions of the adults' toil in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods are refracted through the young character's mind; she finds them exciting, since she is not yet concerned about earning her bread. Actually, most of the parents' work is closely connected with providing food, which is the focus of the young protagonist's attention: hunting, fishing, salting and smoking meat, churning, baking, cooking maple syrup or cheese-making. The sight of the adults at work signifies for Laura that there will be plenty of good things for her to eat; her contemplation of work does not stretch further than that. In the sequels, Laura will learn the meaning of hard work; yet in this first volume of the series, she is too young and innocent to be introduced to the gravity of life. I find this symptomatic: in addressing young readers, authors seem to wish to keep them in ignorance as long as possible, to lock them in their blissful secret gardens and preserve the paradise from which work is forever banned. This prelapsarian existence is typical of traditional children's literature at large; the work motif merely illuminates it further. Together with sexuality and other aspects of adulthood, work is consistently presented as a "curse" to be avoided as long as possible—within the scope of a children's book, forever.

Resisting Work

". . . I am sure we work hard enough . . ."
"I know I do—teaching those tiresome children nearly all day . . ." "You don't have half such a hard time as I do," said Jo. "How would you like to be shut up for hours with a nervous, fussy old lady . . ." "It's naughty to fret, but I do think washing dishes and keeping things tidy is the worst work in the world . . ." "I don't believe any of you suffer as I do," cried Amy, "for you don't have to go to school . . .". (Alcott, Little Women 3-4) [End Page 310]
Work as a life necessity, a means of earning money, is normally beyond a young child's sphere of interest or concern. Whether or not this is true of real children, with fictional children, authors often emphasize both the ignorance of the working conditions of the lower classes and the resistance toward even the lightest kinds of menial labor.In classical domestic children's novels, such as Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) by Frances Hodgson Burnett or The Railway Children (1906) by Edith Nesbit, "being poor" means that the family has to do with merely one maid and a cook instead of a whole staff as before. From these premises, what the young middle-class protagonists perceive of as "work" would seem worlds away from the reality of the working classes. The characters of Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women (1868) see as the worst result of their poverty that they will not be able to give each other expensive Christmas gifts. The four March sisters' complaints about their toil would certainly sound ridiculous to a real laborer. The alleged poverty never forces young protagonists to earn their living by working in a factory or a mine. Moreover, most of the tasks they perform, including Jo's writing and teaching, or Amy's painting, are of a creative and intellectual nature, connected with joy and satisfaction, while Meg's trials in her own household carry a good deal of irony and humor. Even in the few exceptional cases in which children are seemingly trapped by hard labor, they are freed by the novelistic conventions of children's fiction for a life of leisure—much in the way that Orwell attributes to Dickens. The well-known French classic The Foundling (1878) by Hector Malot, among other things, describes the protagonist working in a coal mine and nearly being killed in an accident. One of the all-time favorites among Swedish elementary school teachers is a novel by the German writer Lisa Tetzner, Die schwarzen Brüder ("The Black Brothers")(1938), dealing with child labor in Italy in the 1840s. In both stories, the characters are eventually liberated from the hell of manual labor: Remi when he turns out to be a child of a rich aristocratic family; the poor chimney-sweeper Giorgio by being adopted into a rich family and getting proper education. A vast number of Victorian stories deal with poor working-class children who are always comfortably killed off by the authors to provide examples of good morals for their middle-class readers (see e.g. Avery and Reynolds). Manual labor is thus presented as the curse of the working classes and juxtaposed to the clean and noble work of the intellectual or the pleasant and comfortable idleness of the gentry. Interestingly enough, this attitude reverberates in Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993), a novel set in an indefinitely remote future, where all [End Page 311] children, even the very young, participate in the so-called volunteer work, in practice forced labor, and are assigned their permanent adult occupations at the age of twelve. The author carefully avoids the depiction of actual manual labor, although presumably somebody is actually collecting the garbage.Instead, we get a glimpse of working conditions in an old people's home, which is rather a pretext to start contemplation in the young protagonist of the hierarchy of the dystopian society in which he lives. Jonas's parents are, typically enough, a lawyer and a medical nurse (in inverted gender roles). The contempt for manual workers is something the society Lowry depicts shares with many adult dystopias, such as Brave New World and 1984: " . . . he didn't envy Laborers at all" (17); " . . . Fish Hatchery Attendant. Jonas was certainly glad that that Assignment was taken, he wouldn't have wanted it" (53, author's emphasis). The protagonist is assigned an intellectual rather than a menial job; none of the painful, traumatic memories he receives from the Giver involves labor, perhaps because, if anything, labor is well known in Jonas's society. However, it is obviously more gratifying for children's authors to create smart and intellectual characters than ones who would be confined to a job such as a fish hatchery attendant. In contemporary fiction, children, especially urban children, are if possible still more detached from labor, just as real children in our society are usually detached and protected from "real life" (there are naturally exceptions, rarely reflected in fiction). A matter-of-fact mention of domestic chores is to be found for instance in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977); they do not occupy any prominent place in the novel. Moreover, Jess's farm chores are primarily used to emphasize the difference between himself and Leslie, the daughter of rich parents, who is never worried about pecuniary matters. Thus, once again manual and intellectual work are promptly juxtaposed (Leslie's parents are both writers). In another novel by Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved (1980), the main character, Louise, contributes to her family's meager budget by crabbing; she feels resentful toward her pretty and talented twin sister, who is never expected to do any manual work:
I would come in from a day of progging for crab, sweating and filthy. Caroline would remark mildly that my fingernails were dirty. How could they be anything than dirty? But instead of simply acknowledging the fact, I would fly into a wounded rage. How dare she call me dirty? How dare she try to make me feel inferior to her own pure, clear beauty? [. . . ] Wasn't it I who brought in the extra money that paid for her [music lessons]? (93-94) [End Page 312]
Work is used symbolically, for contrasting characterization. Partially, it is self-imposed, a "curse" that Louise believes she is carrying, as the unloved, unwanted twin. As in many traditional girls' novels, Louise is eventually liberated from manual labor by getting an education. In all the examples above, work is marginal and the descriptions of work peripheral to the plot; even if work adds to characterization, the depiction of work can be removed from the plot without changing it substantially. Further, resisting work seems to be a natural part of resisting growing up—the eternal "Peter Pan complex" of children's fiction, in which adulthood is presented as undesirable and threatening.

Work Defamiliarized

She worked hard because work was all she knew, all she had. Everything else that had made her know herself as Lyddie Worthen was gone. Nothing but hard work—so hard that her mind became as calloused as her hands—work alone remained. (Paterson, Lyddie 148)
In one subgenre of children's fiction, historical fiction, work is central. Within the whole category of children's literature, the historical genre carries the heaviest burden of narrating labor. The reason must once again be sought in the children's literature conventions. In a contemporary setting, work is ordinary and most often beyond the young readers' experience. By placing the narrative in the past, authors defamiliarize work as a motif, making it strange, exotic and thus extraordinary. Defamiliarization, or estrangement, is a powerful device for bringing attention to the elements of human life that are otherwise perceived as too normal and ordinary to be of interest. In the treatment of labor, a profound difference can be observed between the nineteenth-century novels describing their own time and contemporary novels set in the past. Contemporary authors are not restricted by their class, race or gender, which allows them to break the taboos that nineteenth-century authors had to respect. A nineteenth-century heroine, like Jo March, could dream of a professional career, but was finally forced, by the conventions of her creator, to be married off. The heroine of Katherine Paterson's Lyddie (1991) is a product of her creator's time and can therefore be portrayed through an unmasked feminist lens. The historical setting adds to the excitement of the events and the character, and provides the necessary distance to the narrative. Hired out by her mother as a maid at a tavern, the thirteen-year-old Lyddie dreams of freedom and financial independence:
Once I walk in that gate, I ain't free anymore, she thought. No matter how handsome the house, once I enter I'm a servant girl—no more than a black [End Page 313] slave. She had been queen of the cabin and the straggly fields and sugar bush up there on the hill. But now someone else would call the tune. (18)
As soon as she gets a chance, Lyddie starts working as a weaver at a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her ambition is to earn enough to pay off the debts on her childhood home and return to where she feels she belongs. But the cabin is eventually sold, her mother dies, the younger brother and sister are adopted by another family, and for a while it seems that Lyddie's drudgery has been all in vain. Labor has a double significance in the novel, both as a way to freedom and a way into enslavement. Slavery is an essential issue in this novel, set in Vermont and Massachusetts in the 1840s. Lyddie believes herself to be free compared with the black slaves in the South, but she soon realizes that she is also a slave in the tavern owner's power. She believes that she will be free through working at the factory, failing to see that she is heading into still worse slavery. She does not fully recognize how humiliating factory work is; she gladly allows herself to be more and more exploited and oppressed, accepting the male bosses' conditions and showing no solidarity with her sister workers if it jeopardizes her wages:
So it was that when Concord Corporation once again speeded up the machinery, she, almost alone, did not complain . . . She needed the money. She had to have the money. . . . Lyddie was given another loom and then another, and even at the increased speed of each loom, she could tend all four and felt a satisfying disdain for those who could not do the work. (89)
The novel is unique in its detailed depiction of the factory workers' everyday life, the inhuman working conditions, or the first attempts at protest. This is only possible because of the distance of the historical setting. Together with Lyddie, we get the first horrifying glimpse of the weaving room:
Creation! What a noise! Clatter and clack, great shuddering moans, groans, creaks, and rattles. The shrieks and whistles of huge leather belts on wheels. And when her brain cleared enough, Lyddie saw through the murky air row upon row of machines, eerily like the old hand loom in Quaker Stevens's house, but as unlike as a nightmare, for these creatures had come to life. They seemed to be moved by eyes alone—the eyes of neat, vigilant young women—needing only the occasional, swift intervention of a human hand to keep them clattering. (62)
The depiction continues for another paragraph and is reinforced a few pages later, when Lyddie watches another girl work: [End Page 314]
Everything happened too fast—a bobbin of weft thread lasted hardly five minutes before it had to be replaced—and it was painfully deafening. . . . There were moments when all three looms were running as they ought—all the shuttles bearing full quills, all three temples hung high on the cloth, no warp threads snapping. (65)
The author is using a lot of professional terms, which will most likely be unknown to a contemporary young reader, but which add a strong sense of authenticity to the description. These are the terms and the skills Lyddie has to master, as she begins working herself:
Within five minutes, her head felt like a log being split to splinters. She kept shaking it, as though she could get rid it of the noise, or at least the pain, but both only seemed to grow more intense. If that weren't trial enough, a few hours of standing in her proud new boots and her feet had swollen so that the laces cut into her flesh. She bent down quickly to loosen them, and when she found the right lace was knotted, she nearly burst into tears. Or perhaps the tears were caused by the swirling dust and lint. (75)
By repeating the naturalistic descriptions of Lyddie's working conditions, her pain and exhaustion, sick lungs and recurrent accidents, the author makes us understand that work does not take care of itself. It is a long and strenuous process, going on for thirteen hours every day, day after day, for the two years of the novel's duration. Remember, Lyddie is merely fourteen when she starts at the factory. How far is her world from the idyllic drudgery of the March sisters! Yet, just as writing was Jo's road to freedom, work is undoubtedly a way to liberation for Lyddie; it is used symbolically to show that women could only become emancipated through economic independence. It is also significant that Lyddie eventually realizes that education will give her a still better societal status; in fact, in Jip: His Story (1996), we meet Lyddie as a certified teacher, freed from the burden of hard manual labor. Although I fully understand the author's intention, the underlying message is that manual labor is less respectableand definitely less desirable than intellectual occupations. In a way, the ultimate solution for the character is not unlike that of Remi in The Foundling, who after years of misery and toil unexpectedly inherits a fortune. This is one of the constant dilemmas of children's fiction: as adults, we strive to protect children from the hard facts of life, which sometimes results in ambiguous messages about them. Another example of a narrative set in the past, although not as remote a past as Lyddie and Jip, is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) by [End Page 315] Mildred D. Taylor. This novel is not as focused on labor as Lyddie, since its central theme is racism; however, both texts share the contemporary view of the authors on the social injustices of the past. Children's authors writing in the 1930s, the time when the events of Roll of Thunder take place, could obviously not address the issues raised in this novel; by choice or by force, they wrote about middle-class white children for whom work was not an issue. Giving a voice to her black female protagonist, Taylor cannot possibly circumvent manual labor, which is an essential part of Cassie Logan's existence. Yet, as with Lyddie, the historical distance enables the author to focus on the depiction of labor, since to today's young readers it will feel strange and exotic. The family's cotton land cannot feed them any more, and the father is away working at a railroad construction. The children are thus very much aware both of the economic situation and of the working conditions of their parents. While the father is away earning money to pay taxes and mortgages, the mother runs the farm, besides being a schoolteacher, and "Big Ma, in her sixties, would work like a woman of twenty in the fields" (7). Unlike the middle-class heroines of classic children's novels, Cassie knows all too well where food, clothes and other necessities come from. Writing for young Americans in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Taylor must let her first-person narrator explain some things, which presumably are so self-evident to her that she would never reflect on them:
Because the students were needed in the fields from early spring when the cotton was planted until after most of the cotton had been picked in the fall, the school adjusted its terms accordingly, beginning in October and dismissing in March. But even so, after today a number of the older students would not be seen again for a month or two, not until the last puff of cotton had been gleaned from the fields. (16)
This didactic passage, however, puts the readers in the right frame of mind, reminding them that child labor among the black population was a fact in the not-so-remote past. This short passage is now and then reinforced by the depiction of the family working in the fields or about the house, which almost becomes a backdrop for all other, much more dramatic events. Taylor does not present fieldwork as hard or unpleasant; on the contrary, Cassie seems to prefer it to school (which perhaps says more about school than about work):
I was eager to be in the fields again . . . In the last week of March when Papa and Mr. Morrison began to plow the east field, I volunteered to sacrifice school and help them. (196) [End Page 316]
Even with this attitude, the difference between these depictions and the idyllic thinning of turnips in Noisy Village is profound. For Cassie and her family, child labor is a matter of life and death. If we as readers perceive the Noisy Village children's agricultural endeavors as a natural part of their games and adventures, we certainly feel indignation when confronted with the depictions in Roll of Thunder, viewing them as an essential element of the overall social injustice imposed on the character. It is clearly understood that the children of the white community are never forced to work. An extreme example, a limit case, of the power of historical fiction to contain and defamiliarize labor (though not just labor) is Jane Yolen's Holocaust novel, The Devil's Arithmetic (1988). Here a contemporary child is sent back in time to live the life (though not to die the death) of a Jewish child in Auschwitz, notorious as death camp and work camp both. "Work makes you free" is inscribed on the gates of the concentration camp. The young protagonist Hannah very soon realizes the bitter irony of these words. The depiction of actual work is sparse, conveying its essence with some vivid details:
The work was the mindless sort. Some of it was meant to keep the camp itself running: cleaning the barracks, the guards' houses, the hospital, the kitchen. Building more barracks, more privies. But most of the workers were used in the sorting sheds, stacking the clothing and suitcases and possessions stolen from the prisoners, dividing them into piles to be sent back to Germany.
[ . . . Hannah was] set to work with Rivka in the kitchen hauling water in large buckets from the pump, spooning out the meager meals, washing the giant cauldrons in which the soup cooked, scrubbing the walls and floors. It was hard work, harder than Hannah could ever remember doing. Her hands and knees held no memory of such work. It was endless. And repetitive. (124-125)
I allow myself to quote these two lengthy passages since they comprise the only actual depiction of labor in a labor camp. True, they are narrated in the so-called iterative frequency, expressing recurrent events taking place day after day, which produces a strong effect. Yolen does not emphasize the physical suffering caused by labor. While she cannot omit mentioning that anybody not fit for work is sent to the ovens, the book is more concerned with the relationship between the prisoners and their struggle for survival against all odds; in fact, it amplifies the positive camp experiences, such as hope and mutual support. Ironically, in this novel, work, if not actually setting Hannah free, does save her, for a while, from being sent to the ovens, since by working in the kitchen, she is in a privileged position and more likely to survive. The novel seems to sacrifice the historical truth for the sake of the genre's needs. [End Page 317] Further, the narrative device Yolen employs, time displacement, brings her character safely back from the horrors of the Holocaust. Her experience becomes thus an important part of her identity quest, as she understands her place in the family as well as in the Jewish tradition. But this final escape diminishes the overall impact of the story, making it nothing but an exciting, albeit horrifying, adventure or perhaps a bad dream. By awakening Hannah from the nightmare of history, by whisking her away from the death camp (also the site of her slave labor), the plot de-realizes the past and makes it merely a principle of contrast to a more satisfactory present where the reader and Hannah, the reader's surrogate, are safely based. Back to her own place and time, a wealthy Jewish home in New York in the 1980s, Hannah may remember the drudgery of the camp, but the reader will most likely feel that it was not that bad after all, since she returned safely. Although downplaying work is naturally less odious than downplaying the Holocaust, the general trend is equally unethical. It is the estrangement built into the historical genre that makes juvenile fiction both the vehicle and the inescapable diminisher of labor and tragedy.

Does Work Make You Free?

If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.
That was what some people thought. (Sachar, Holes 5)
Work is also at the center of Louis Sachar's 1998 Newbery Prize-winning Holes. Indeed, in a motif almost unprecedented in contemporary children's literature, a child is thrust into a situation not merely of manual labor but of forced labor; the young protagonist is sent to a labor camp for a crime he has not committed. Stanley comes from an underprivileged family; but not even in this book is there any substantial mention of the parents' work. Stanley's father is an unsuccessful inventor, a further development of the stereotype of the mad scientist. Moreover, Stanley's original problems do not result from poverty; rather, he gives the impression of being a spoilt brat, even though he is bullied in school for being overweight. Manual labor is alien to Stanley, but he immediately becomes aware of its meaning when faced with the task of digging "one hole each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Each hole must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction. Your shovel is your measuring stick" (13). Since digging holes totally fills the life of the young protagonist for the eighteen months of his sentence, the author cannot simply dismiss it by stating that Stanley indeed dug a hole every day. Labor is a shock for [End Page 318] Stanley, and the naturalism of the descriptions adds to the poignancy of the protagonist's emotional life.
The shovel felt heavy in Stanley's soft, fleshy hands. He tried to jam it into the earth, but the blade banged against the ground and bounced off without a dent. The vibrations ran up the shaft of the shovel and into Stanley's wrists, making his bones rattle. (26)
The description of Stanley's first working day at the camp takes many pages: a detailed description of hard, meaningless, and painful toil. ". . . by the time Stanley broke past the crust, a blister had formed in the middle of his right thumb, and it hurt to hold the shovel" (28). The author effectively uses repetition as a narrative device to convey the prolonged time of action. The word "blisters" keeps appearing to remind the reader that while the narrative goes on, shifting into other temporal dimensions, Stanley is still digging his holes in the unbearably hot sun: "He had blisters on every one of his fingers, and one in the center of each palm" (32); and further on again:
Stanley's blisters had ripped open, and new blisters formed. He kept changing his grip on the shovel to try to avoid the pain. Finally, he removed his cap and held it between the shaft of his shovel and his raw hands. This helped, but digging was harder because the cap would slip and slide. The sun beat down on his unprotected head and neck. (33)
This ruthlessly graphic passage sets up the whole atmosphere of the novel and is reinforced a few pages down: "His cap was stained with blood from his hands. He felt like he was digging his own grave" (38). Comparing these descriptions with those of Mary Lennox digging for pleasure in the Secret Garden, we see clearly how far children's fiction has moved in its relationship to reality. Further, the author is not satisfied with letting the readers imagine the rest of Stanley's suffering. His second day and second hole are described just as meticulously:
He stepped on the shovel blade, and pushed on the very back of the shaft with the base of his thumb. This hurt less than trying to hold the shaft with his blistered fingers. . . .
He took one shovelful at a time, and tried not to think of the awesome task that lay ahead of him. After an hour or so, his sore muscles seemed to loosen up a little bit.
He grunted as he tried to stick his shovel into the dirt. His cap slipped out from under his fingers, and the shovel fell free.
He let it lie there. (48-49)
Even though the actual depictions of digging eventually become less prominent, we are constantly reminded of what the character is doing [End Page 319] while his thoughts are occupied elsewhere. The phrase "He dug his shovel into the dirt" is used as a refrain throughout the text to emphasize that the first graphic descriptions of Stanley's misery were only several in a series of endless, identical days of hard labor. The author of Holes is quite ironic about the practice of forced labor. Indeed, he starts the novel by mocking the assumption that you can improve criminals by making them perform meaningless jobs. The idea is not far removed from the Auschwitz slogan. But this irony is itself ironized, for Stanley really benefits from being exposed to hard labor. He becomes better fit physically, and he gets some friends, whom he lacked in his previous life; to use a cliché, Stanley finds his identity through manual work. Eventually he also finds the treasure that ensures him and his family a prosperous and idle life ever after. Here the author has fallen into the common pit of children's literature conventions: a sentimental and implausible happy ending, which completely eradicates the physical and spiritual torture that the protagonist has endured. There seems to be an invisible link from the significant "hole" in traditional children's fiction, omitting or downplaying labor, to the all-too-material holes that Stanley is assigned to dig.


Maria Nikolajeva is a professor of comparative literature at Stockholm University. She is the author and editor of several books on children's literature, among them Children's Literature Comes of Age: Toward the New Aesthetic (1996) and From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children's Literature (2002). The present essay develops some ideas from her most recent book, The Rhetoric of Character in Children's Literature (2002).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa M. Little Women. 1868. London: Penguin, 1994. Avery, Gillian, and Kimberly Reynolds. Representations of Childhood Death. New York: St. Martin's P, 1999. Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. 1911. London: Brockhampton P, 1967. Burnett, Frances Hodgson. Little Lord Fauntleroy. 1886. London: Penguin, 1996. ———. The Secret Garden. 1911. London: Penguin, 1995. Lauther, Howard. Creating Characters. A Writer's Reference to the Personality Traits that Bring Fictional People to Life. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998. Lindgren, Astrid. The Children of the Noisy Village. 1961. London: Penguin, 1988. Lowry, Lois. The Giver. 1993. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994. Malot, Hector. The Foundling. 1878. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1984. Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children. 1906. London: Penguin, 1995. Nikolajeva, Maria. From Mythic to Linear. Time in Children's Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow P, 2000. Orwell, George [Eric Blair]. "Charles Dickens." A Collection of Essays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954. 55-111. Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. 1977. New York: HarperCollins, 1987. ———. Jacob Have I Loved. 1980. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. ———. Jip: His Story. New York: Dutton, 1996. ———. Lyddie. New York: Dutton, 1991. Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984. Sachar, Louis. Holes. 1998. New York: Dell Yearling, 2000. Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 1976. New York: Penguin, 1991. Tetzner, Lisa. Die schwarzen Brüder. 1938. Aarau: Sauerländer, 1995. Travers, Pamela. Mary Poppins. 1934. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962. Twain, Mark [Samuel Clemens]. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. 1876. London: Penguin, 1994. Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. 1932. New York: Harper & Row, 1953. Yolen, Jane. The Devil's Arithmetic. 1988. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Preface & Ch.1 from Trites 'Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature'

From Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

Roberta Seelinger Trites

I remember complaining to a friend in 1975 that I was tired of reading the books in our middle school library because “they’re all about kids with problems.” Maybe with that succinct analysis of the 1970S problem novel, I damned myself to a lifetime of studying adolescent literature. In any event, trying to understand the genre as a whole was certainly part of my motivation for taking a college course on the subject in 1980. The teacher, Dorothy Van Riper, commented at the time on the inadequacy of critical materials in the field. Another professor, Lilian R. Furst, mentioned the same problem in a graduate seminar I had in 1984 (a seminar in which I was regarded as the resident field expert, having only recovered from adolescence the week before the course started). By the time I was safely past adolescence in 1992, a senior colleague of mine—Taimi Ranta—raised the same concern about the dearth of criticism in the field. Since I have been thinking about these issues so long, it seems fair to say that this book has been twenty-five years in the making.
I did not reach any real breakthrough in understanding the genre, however, until I began teaching the course myself in 1994. From my own studies, I had expected to find many rites of passage and initiations, patterns of growth, conflicts, Oedipal crises, confessional first-person narrators, and identity crises. But as I taught the course, I began noticing other recurring patterns in these books, some of which seemed predictable and others that did not. Books for adolescents are subversive—but sometimes  only superficially so. In fact, they are often quite didactic; the denouements of many Young Adult novels contain a direct message about what the narrator has learned. Moreover, books for adolescents have lots of sex. And many dreadful parents. Many photographers. Many schools. Many dead bodies. (In a course that in-
cluded Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Outsiders, The Chocolate War, Toning the Sweep, and The Pigman, one class counted more than fifteen deaths in the first five weeks of the semester.) Books for adolescents have many ideologies. And they spend much time manipulating the adolescent reader.
Eventually I realized that these lists of predictable and unpredictable patterns in adolescent literature share one thing. They can all be linked to issues of power. Although the primary purpose of the adolescent novel may appear to be a depiction of growth, growth in this genre is inevitably represented as being linked to what the adolescent has learned about power. Without experiencing gradations between power and powerlessness, the adolescent cannot grow. Thus, power is even more fundamental to adolescent literature than growth. During adolescence, adolescents must learn their place in the power structure. They must learn to negotiate the many institutions that shape them: school, government, religion, identity politics, family, and so on. They must learn to balance their power with their parents’ power and with the power of the other authority figures in their lives. And they must learn what portion of power they wield because of and despite such biological imperatives as sex and death. Foucault tells us it is in the very nature of power to be both enabling and repressive because it is omnipresent: “power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything but because it comes from everywhere” (History 93). His words can be modified to fit books about adolescence: in adolescent literature, power is everywhere.
Yet somehow, the critical study of adolescent literature has developed as a field without any great reliance on some of the post- structural theories that best help explicate the issues of power in the books that teenagers read. Caroline Hunt offers one explanation why this has happened. She suspects that because many of the critics who teach college courses on adolescent literature are often training teachers, professors tend to focus on topics that are commonly accepted as pertinent to pre-service teachers, such as issues of censorship or identifying the literary elements of a novel (11). But if we engage the poststructural theories that help us to understand the transactions between text, reader, and culture, we can become more astute readers, teachers, and critics.
Theories that invite us to be sensitive to language and how it constructs the individual, theories that raise our awareness about race and class and gender and adolescence itself as social constructs, theories that demonstrate the relationship between narrative structures and ideologies, and theories that help us to position the reader can work together to help us discern how the elements adolescent literature establish intricate patterns that reinforce the contradictory positions of adolescents within our culture.
Indeed, adolescents occupy an uncomfortable liminal space in America. Adolescents are both powerful (in the youthful looks and physical prowess that are glorified by Hollywood and Madison Avenue; in the increased economic power of middle-class American teenagers as consumers; in the typical scenario of teenagers succeeding in their rebellions against authority figures) and disempowered (in the increased objectification of the teenage body that leads many adolescents to perpetrate acts of violence against the Self or Other; in the decreased economic usefulness of the teenager as a producer of goods in postindustrial America; in the typical scenario of teenagers rebelling against authority figures to escape oppression). It is no wonder that the body of literature linked to this population pursues the exploration of power relentlessly.
The opening chapter of this study, then, includes a study of some of the pivotal issues that have historically informed adolescent literature, the first of which is the nature of power. I next investigate definitions of “adolescent literature,” including a focus / on the Young Adult novel (that is, the novel specifically marketed to an adolescent audience) as a subset of the broader genre about adolescents, adolescent literature. Finally, I trace the historical study of the Bildungsroman as a way to contextualize the development of the YA novel as a postmodern phenomenon. My goal in this chapter is to provide the reader with a sense of the literary patterns and the history of ideas that have led to the existence of Young Adult literature.
In the second chapter, I explore only four of the many institutions that demonstrate how central power is to the adolescent experience in novels: politics, school, religion, and identity politics (including race, class, and gender). In books—as in life—institu
tions both empower and repress adolescents in the ways that they create new opportunities for teenagers while they simultaneously establish rules within which the teenager must operate. For example, government politics and the politics of identity are forces that shape adolescents in YA novels. As teenagers learn more about themselves politically, they can often understand themselves better—and paradoxically, they express themselves less freely. Schools and organized religion are also institutions that work actively to mold the adolescent into appropriate degrees of power within a culture. Virtually every YA novel depicts the adolescent in conflict with at least one of these types of institutions. Innumerable institutions that regulate power exist in adolescent literature, but because they are infinite in number, I leave it to the reader to further identify them.
Chapter 3 traces how power struggles that exist between individuals and institutions give rise to multiple conflicts between adolescents and authority, another arena of the literature with infinite possibilities. Two types of authority are especially pertinent to YA novels: authority within the text and the authority of the author over the reader. Within the text, authority is often depicted as a struggle with a parent or a parent substitute, so I rely on psychoanalytic theory to trace the inevitability of this particular conflict in adolescent literature. This conflict with authority that is embedded in most texts for adolescents in turn provides the author with opportunities for using ideology to manipulate the adolescent reader. In that sense, authors themselves become authority figures in adolescent literature. The mechanisms by which they manipulate the reader to assume subject positions that are carefully constructed to perpetuate the status quo bear investigation. And because of this, YA novels themselves serve as yet another institution created for the purpose of simultaneously empowering and repressing adolescents.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore how sex and death, as biological imperatives, both empower and repress in adolescent literature. Such social constructions as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and lesbianism give rise to depictions of sexuality that explore its ideological and discursive nature. Similarly, death has a great discursive presence in adolescent literature. Death serves as a particularly
intricate example of how power is deployed in YA novels because it has a thematic function and a narrative function for the adolescent reader; that is, the adolescent’s increased understanding of life as limited by death is a predominant theme in the literature, but this theme also affects the narrative line of many novels for teenagers. Thus, death affects the form as well as the function of many novels marketed to teenagers.
My conclusion is an appeal for the inclusion of poststructural methodologies in classrooms that employ adolescent literature. Because YA literature has been so influenced by postmodernism, the genre lends itself well to poststructural methodologies, although many teachers have been thus far reluctant to employ these reading strategies in the classroom. Relying on what has worked in my own teaching, I provide an overview of how scholars of adolescent literature have successfully employed reader response theory, historicism, multiculturalism, feminism, psychoanalytic theory, Marxism, and narrative theory. Far from being a complete survey of the field, this chapter intended to demonstrate how these theories can be used in the classroom rather than serving as an exhaustive review of the literature.
The novels I have included in this study are also very much influenced by those I have taught in my own classroom. I rely on several books that I think work well to demonstrate the patterns in adolescent literature: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Chocolate War, Is That You, Miss Blue?, Breaktime, Lyddie, Toning the Sweep, and Weetzie Bat. James Bennett, Francesca Lia Block, Judy Blume, Bruce Brooks, Aidan Chambers, Robert Cormier, Chris Crutcher, Peter Dickinson, Lois Duncan, Nancy Garden, Virginia Hamilton, S. E. Hinton, M. E. Kerr, Norma Klein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle, Margaret Mahy, Robin McKinley, Walter Dean Myers, Richard Peck, Daniel Pinkwater, William Sleator, Beatrice Sparks, Mildred Taylor, Cynthia Voigt, Barbara Wersha, Jacqueline Woodson, Laurence Yep, and Paul Zindel are among the many authors writing in English who have created texts that are in one way or another pivotal in the Anglo-American YA canon. Some of these authors are either
unrepresented or underrepresented in this text because of space considerations. Nevertheless, all of them depict adolescents disturbing and being disturbed by the institutions that construct their universe.

“Do I dare disturb the universe?”
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair — (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin — hey will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
(excerpt from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T S. Eliot)
T. S. Eliot was in his early twenties and undoubtedly still feeling the diverse effects of adolescence when he published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” his poem about a Hamlet-like middle-aged man who is immobilized by indecision. At its core, the poem asks a question as germanc to adolescents as it is to the middle-aged: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Given that many teenagers wonder if they should or even can affect the world in which they live, Eliot has captured the essence of adolescence when he has his narrator pose the question.1 In the context of adolescence, Prufrock’s question reflects the desire that many teenagers have to test the degree of power they hold. Because at its heart this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power, it serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves.
Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (I974). Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously” (97). The Chocolate War
explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe — of what will happen to him if he dares to assert his personal power. Jerry is a student at Trinity High School, a Catholic boys’ school that is involved in a fund-raising candy sale. The acting principal, Brother Leon, invites the school’s unrecognized but powerful vigilante fraternity, The Vigils, to participate in the sale, which they agree to do in an effort to increase their power over other students. The Vigils have a tradition of meting out “assignments” to haze students: Jerry Renault’s first assignment is to resist Brother Leon’s efforts to make him sell the chocolates for ten days. Jerry accepts the assignment but then disturbs the universe of Trinity High School when he continues refusing to sell the chocolates past the ten days of his assignment, even after The Vigils have ordered him to begin selling the candies again. He is the first student ever to resist The Vigils. In a final showdown, Archie, the leader of The Vigils, and his sidekick Obie manipulate a boxing match in which Jerry is ritualistically slaughtered.
Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do... They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. . . . Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say... Otherwise, they murder you” (187). Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.
This intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War— “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature from children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read, such as Peter Rabbit, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie- the-Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, Zeely, or Sarah, Plain and Tall, much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the
confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home.2 Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power.
But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. One critic of adolescent literature, Perry Nodelman, dismissively describes characters in adolescent fiction as people who “live ordinary lives, but see them in terms of melodrama” (“Robert Cormier” 102). Nodelman is undoubtedly reacting to the profound seriousness that many of these characters express in their first confusion about social institutions. In The Chocolate War for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.
Young Adult novels are about power. But they have not developed this tendency from within a vacuum. Thus, in this chapter I will explore four topics: power as it is defined in ways germane to adolescence; definitions of adolescent literature and the YA novel in the context of their historical evolutions, an investigation into the genres that have influenced the development of the YA novel, notably the novel of development and the corning-of-age novel; and the influence of such literary movements as romanticism and postmodernism on the depiction of adolescence in Young Adult novels. It is my contention that we can better understand the dynamic relationship in literature between characters and the institutions that define them if we also understand the history of ideas that affected the unique development of the Young Adult novel.
Before I go any further, I want to explore the concept of “power,” both as I am using it and as others have used it, in ways that are pertinent to the study of adolescent literature. Max Weber
defines power as “the possibility of imposing one’s will upon the behavior of other persons [which] can emerge in the most diverse forms” (323). Weber focuses on economic power as the institutional power that dominates most people (323—324). Althusser broadens the definition of economic power, demonstrating how as Ideological State Apparatuses, institutions have a self- perpetuating interest in instilling their ideologies into the masses in order to retain their hegemony (155—157). Michel Foucault defines power as “that which represses” (Power 90), and he identifies power as ubiquitous: “Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (History 93).3 Foucault contrasts two political definitions of institutional power. One he calls the “contract-oppression schema” (Power 92). It is based on the belief that all individuals hold a certain amount of power that they voluntarily relinquish to exist under the rule of a governing body (88). The other he calls the “domination-repression” model, in which the individual exists in “a perpetual relationship of force” (92). The latter of these views, and the one Foucault considers a more plausible explanation of social dynamics, defines power as a political force that is a function of the economy — of the forces of production — and so is in perpetual motion. Individuals do not possess power so much as they apply it in the process of trading market goods (98), so power “only exists in action” (89). Power is more a process than a commodity, according to him.4 As a result, market forces repress the individual’s power rather than individuals’ power being oppressed by a sovereign.
If we believed the contract-oppression definition of power that Foucault rejects, we might say that in The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so must be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, de
pending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ nonparticipation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.” Foucault even supplies the term “war-repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination-repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means” (Power 90). I think Foucault would enjoy Cormier’s bellicose choice for a title, The Chocolate War.
Problems exist, however, with both Foucault’s model of power and the one he rejects, in that neither allows for the individual’s potentially positive power. Whether we think of people as oppressed by the state or by dynamic economic forces, we are focusing on power as something that conspires against them. An alternate way of thinking of power is in terms of subjectivity, in terms of the individual’s occupation of the linguistic subject position. In The Psychic Life of Power Judith Butler promulgates such a definition of power in acknowledging that the individual “is at once formed and subordinated” (6) by power because “power not only acts on a subject but, in a transitive sense, enacts the subject into being” (13). As such, power is the force that allows for subjectivity and consequently, agency.5 Moreover, power exists both externally and as the very source that constitutes the subject (15). Butler thus concurs with Foucault’s analysis that power is a process, but her definition allows for an internally motivated subject who can act proactively rather than solely in terms of taking action to prevent oppression or repression. Butler might focus on the decision Jerry Renault makes when he utters the word “no,” refusing to sell the chocolates (Cormier, Chocolate War 89). His action is a linguistic utterance and a conscious choice and the textual commentary on his action is telling “Cities fell Earth opened Planets tilted Stars plummeted And the awful silence (89) Language here is a marker of power, especially because Jerry’s loss of language represents a dramatic shift in the power structure at his school.
Lacan supplies another pertinent definition of power. Focusing like Butler on the interior formation of the subject and like Foucault on the exterior forces that repress the subject, Lacan describes individual power in terms of assomption: the individual’s active assumption of responsibility for the role into which society
casts her or him (Fink 46— 48). As Lacan puts it, “one is always responsible for one’s position as subject” (“Science and Truth” 7; quoted in Fink 47). Such a definition of power acknowledges both the external and internal forces that compete to empower and repress individual power, but it also allows for the individual’s acknowledgment of one’s power as a necessary function of subjectivity. When adolescents grapple with such questions as, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” they must reckon with both their sense of individual power and their recognition of the social forces that require them to modify their behaviors.
Lacan’s thinking about power influences Karen Coats when she interprets The Chocolate War. She does so in terms of assomption, pointing out that Jerry Renault is an example of a person who assumes the position of Other into which he has been forced.6 He starts out forced into a position that is painful, but then finds the pleasure in the situation by willfully accepting the enforced position. He has taken responsibility for the pain but also for the pleasure that he gets from the pain in being subjugated. Even as he is being annihilated by those who oppose him, he is victorious because he has done what he set out to do. He has assumed responsibility for the role of rebel into which the society of Trinity High School has cast him.
Feminist theorists such as Marilyn French also talk about power in terms of being enabled. French prefers a model in which people have “power to” do good rather than having “power over” other people to dominate them. She writes, “There is power-to, which refers to ability, capacity, and connotes a kind of freedom, and there is power-over, which refers to domination” (505). To a certain extent, I am interested in how adolescents are empowered (and disempowered) in terms that French uses: when are teenagers in Young Adult literature allowed to assume responsibility for their own actions and when do dominating adults refuse to acknowledge their capabilities? But the larger question for me is an investigation of the fluid ways that the individual negotiates with her or his society, with the ways adolescents’ power is simultaneously acknowledged and denied, engaged and disengaged. As John Knowles writes in A Separate Peace (1959), “When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you” (31). What, then, do adolescents do with that intimidating power?
The various definitions of power I have described work together to form a definition of power in adolescent literature. Adolescent characters exist in a “perpetual relationship of force” (Foucault, Power 92) created by the institutions that constitute the social fabric constructing them. Because they are defined within perpetual forces of power, power “enacts [them] into being” (Butler, Psychic 13). That is, the social power that constructs them bestows upon them a power from which they generate their own sense of subjectivity. As acting subjects, they assume responsibility for their position in society (Lacan, “Science and Truth” 7), whether they engage their power to enable themselves or to repress others (French 505). Power is a force that operates within the subject and upon the subject in adolescent literature; teenagers are repressed as well as liberated by their own power and by the power of the social forces that surround them in these books. Much of the genre is thus dedicated to depicting how potentially out-of-control adolescents can learn to exist within institutional structures.

Defining and Historicizing the Genre
In trying to define adolescent literature, Sheila Schwartz notes that the American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories: “Books Written Specifically for Adolescents,” “Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Heroes and Heroines,” and “General Books of Interest to Young Adults” (3). Elsewhere, I have referred to the first of these three categories as Young Adult novels, whereas I consider the three lists combined to constitute the whole of adolescent literature (“Theories” 2—3). Maria Nikolajeva observes that in many European countries, Young Adult novels are referred to as “jeans prose” because of their emphasis on such artifacts of material culture as “clothes, food, music, language” (6 2). YA novels are certainly a marketplace phenomenon of the twentieth century.7 Adults create these books as a cultural site in which adolescents can be depicted engaging with the fluid, market-driven forces that characterize the power relationships that define adolescence. After all, publishers rather than teenagers bestow the designation
“YA” on these books. Even when authors have not intentionally written for adolescents, they invariably portray adolescents engaged in a domination-repression model, so authors, too, are complicitous in the process. Cormier, for example, maintains that he did not write The Chocolate War for an adolescent audience (Cormier quoted in DeLuca and Natov 110—111). But a trend has emerged in the way YA novels rely on adolescent protagonists who strive to understand their own power by struggling with the various institutions in their lives. This trend seems to be one of the defining factors of the YA novel.
One reason that YA novels originated in the twentieth century involves the history of adolescence. The word “adolescent” was only beginning to come into common usage in postbellum America when such writers as Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott were writing (Kett 127), even if that is the age group they would have wanted to identify as the primary audience for their most famous novels. Products of the romantic movement’s interest in youth, Twain, Alcott, and scores of other authors available to American readers (including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Yonge, James Fennimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Martha Finley, Susan Warner, Horatio Alger, and Susan Coolidge) wrote novels about youth that appealed to teenaged readers. Youth readers in the first half of the twentieth century found books by L. M. Montgomery, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Cornelia Meigs, Rudyard Kipling, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Zane Grey, Frank Merriwell, and Mabel Robinson. But adolescence as a social concept did not gain the widespread attention of the American public until G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence (1905) inspired four actions that Joseph Kett identifies. Following Hall’s advice, adults sponsored organized social activities (for example, Scouting) for middle-class teenagers, and the concept of adolescence influenced school administrators to grapple with the large numbers of teenagers who were entering high school because industrialization had decreased their economic value on farms. Well-meaning theorists wrote a variety of self-help books for parents seeking to understand their teenagers, and they guided the vocational guidance movement that was designed to help teenagers negotiate the movement from school to work (Kett 221). Adolescence as such did not become institutionalized in America until the twentieth century, so it stands to
reason that books marketed specifically to this demographic arose as a product of the twentieth century. The American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English also increased attention to the need for better reading material for school-age children, thereby influencing the caliber of books marketed to adolescents. Moreover, teenagers’ increased economic resources and social autonomy in the robust economic years following World War II further increased their market power, making book publishing for older youths an even more attractive industry than it had ever before been.
Literature specifically written for and marketed to adolescents came into its own in America when World War II changed the country’s economy nearly forty years after Hall’s work called attention to adolescence as a psychological phenomenon. Literary historians frequently cite one of three dates as turning points for YA literature: 1942, when Seventeenth Summer appeared; 1951, when The Catcher in the Rye was published; and 1967, when The Outsiders was published.8 Whichever of these texts a critic prefers to cite as the wellspring of YA literature, the fact remains that the genre defined itself in English-speaking countries in the two decades following World War II and was understood to be a distinct literary genre by the end of the 1960s. Brown and Stephens note that the earliest manifestations of the YA novel may have evolved from the social unrest of the 1960s. They suggest that the lack of positive adult role models in such books as The Outsiders may well be what first defined the genre, but that as the genre has evolved, the depiction of adults and characterization in general, issues of diversity, the use of point of view, and thematic development have all become more complex (14—17). Nevertheless, few literary genres have had as compact an evolution.10
Young Adult literature shares many characteristics with books marketed to adults about adolescents. The major intersections between these two sets involve various types of novels about the maturation process, including the Entwicklungsroman, which is a broad category of novels in which an adolescent character grows, and the Bildungsroman, which is a related type of novel in which the adolescent matures to adulthood. Entwicklungsromane can be thought of as novels of growth or development, whereas Bildungsromane are coming-of-age novels that are sometimes referred to as
“apprenticeship novels” 11 Understanding the history of literature about adolescence can help us to understand not only how Young Adult literature came to exist but also what its ideological and aesthetic functions are.
The Bildungsroman and the Entwicklungsroman
Because YA novels evolved historically from the Bildungsroman, we need to understand the distinction between that term and the term Entwicklungsroman. The distinction proves useful in helping to position the YA novel within postmodernism, particularly because scholars of children’s and adolescent literature have tended to overemploy the term Bildungsroman in recent years. For example, in Children’s Literature and Critical Theory, Jill P. May questions whether the picture book The Snowy Day has a “bildungsroman pattern” because it has a “home—away—home” pattern (41). Although May decides the picture book is not a Bildungsroman, throughout her text she implies that all children’s books about growth are Bildungsroman. But thought of that way, the definition of the Bildungsroman ceases to have meaning, because what children’s book isn’t about growth? Peter Rabbit grows. Max, King of the Wild Things, grows. Ramona grows. M. C. Higgins grows. Anne of Green Gables grows. Cassie Logan grows. Harriet the Spy grows. Christopher Robin grows. Granted, Nancy Drew and her compatriots in series fiction — paraliterature, as Maria Nikolajeva calls the genre (58) — do not necessarily grow. And some novels like Avi’s Nothing but the Truth (1991) and Cormier’s The Chocolate War problematize the issue of growth by leaving the reader wondering who, if anyone, has grown. But the idea of growth — the investigation of which characters have developed and which have not — is one of the most common principles in the study of children’s and adolescent literature. Since novels of development are Entwicklungsroman, virtually all children’s and adolescent novels participate in the genre. For purposes of clarification, I tend to refer to Bildungsroman as novels in which the protagonist comes of age as an adult. If I refer to a novel as an Entwicklungsroman, that is because the protagonist has not reached adulthood by the end of the narrative.
G. B. Tennyson traces the coinage of the term Bildungsroman to a German scholar named Wilhelm Dilthey (in 1870 in a biography of Friedrich Schleiermacher) (135).12 Hans Heinrich Borcherdt built on Dilthey’s definition when he formally defined the Bildungsroman: “first, there is a cultural goal, which is the complete unfolding of all natural qualities; then there is a clear path toward that goal...  in sum, the movement in the Bildungsroman is a reasonably direct line from error to truth, from confusion to clarity, from uncertainty to certainty, from, as the Germans have it, nature to spirit” (Tennyson 137). Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795 —1796) is widely regarded as the first Bildungsroman. The concept of the Bildungsroman emerged in an atmosphere nurtured by the romantic belief in the individual. Only with the establishment of a widespread cultural interest in individuals growth was the concept of adolescence defined psychologically or explored literarily. Jerome Buckley offers a standard and fairly intricate definition of the Bildungsroman in Season of Youth. He writes that in the typical Bildungsroman, a sensitive child grows up in a rural setting feeling confined by his entire family, but especially by his father, who cannot understand the boy’s imaginative life. School also proves restrictive for the protagonist, so he leaves home to go to an urban center, where he is likely to have at least two romantic experiences, one of which has the potential to corrupt him and the other of which has the potential to purify him. His initiation is complete when, after much soul-searching, he triumphs over the trials he faces with his parents with financial resources with women, and accepts his own capacity for work and for love (18—23) Buckley then, essentially defines a formula for novels about adolescence intended for adult readers.
In the original German construction of the term, the Bildungsroman is distinct from other genres in that it “presuppose[s] a more or less conscious attempt on the part of the hero to integrate his powers, to cultivate himself by his experience” (Howe 6). In other words, the protagonist’s growth is neither accidental — as say, Peter Rabbit’s is — nor simply a matter of normal developmental growth, as Moon Shadow’s is in Laurence Yep’s Dragonwings (1975); rather, the hero self-consciously sets out on a quest to achieve independence. The Bildungsroman is therefore an inherently Romantic genre, with its optimistic ending that affirms the
protagonist’s entry into adulthood.13 Buckley identifies David Copperfield, Sons and Lovers, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as examples of Anglophone Bildungsromane.
One glaring problem with Buckley’s definition (and Dilthey’s and Borcherdt’s and Tennyson’s) is how androcentric it is. There is no place in these critics’ definitions for a female protagonist, even though Buckley tries to fit Maggie Tulliver from A Mill in the Floss into the pattern. This proves to be something of a procrustean fit for someone trying to demonstrate that the Bildungsroman is about finding the capacity to love and to work (Buckley 22—23), since Maggie commits suicide at the end of Eliot’s novel. Annis Pratt defines why male Bildungsromane patterns do not apply to women:
In the women’s novel of development (exclusive of the science fiction genre) . . . the hero does not choose a life to one side of society after conscious deliberation on the subject; rather, she is radically alienated by gender-role norms from the very outset. Thus, although the authors attempt to accommodate their heroes’ Bildung, or development, to the general pattern of the genre, the disjunctions that we have noted inevitably make the woman’s initiation less a self-determined progression towards maturity than a regression from full participation in adult life. (36)
Because of a lifetime of living as Other, females experience “a division of loyalties between” their sense of authentic selfhood “and the social world of enclosure” (25). Pratt implies that there is basically no such thing as a female Bildungsroman when she says, “It seems more appropriate to use the term Entwicklungsroman, the novel of mere growth, mere physical passage from one age to the other without psychological development, to describe most” novels of female development; “it seems clear that the authors conceive of growing up female as a choice between auxiliary or secondary personhood, sacrificial victimization, madness, and death” (Pratt 36). Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Lang- land cite “inner concentration” (8) and intimacy with others (11) as the chief goals of female novels of development, which they divide into two patterns: the novel of apprenticeship, such as Mildred Taylor’s Logan family chronicles or Voigt’s Tillerman saga,
and the novel of awakening, which is by definition a novel of an adult’s rather than an adolescent’s awakening. Catherine Marshall’s Christy (1967) is certainly not a YA novel, but it is often read by adolescents, so it serves as one example. Abel, Hirsch, and Lang- land eschew the use of the term Bildungsroman, identifying it — as Annis Pratt does — as a suspect construct.
I support their assertion that we should take more care in using the term Bildungsroman, not merely in an effort to uphold some sort of precious academic hairsplitting, but because in distinguishing coming of age novels (Bildungsromane) from novels of development (Entwicklungsromane), we can pay more attention to the relationship between power and growth that shapes adolescent literature. Adolescents in Bildungsromane such as Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie (1991) mature into adulthood. Lyddie, in fact, seems to follow Buckley’s description of the Bildungsroman almost formulaically: sensitive Lyddie is emotionally orphaned by a father who has abandoned her and by a mentally ill mother who eventually dies. Although Lyddie is embarrassed about being functionally II- literate, she decides to journey from the family farm in Vermont and eventually arrives in the mill town Lowell, Massachusetts, where she is educated in a straightforward literacy narrative by her coworkers Betsy and Diana.14 She has two sexualized encounters with men: the first is quite debasing when her foreman, Mr. Marsden, sexually harasses her; the other is closer to Buckley’s definition of the purifying romance in that Lyddie’s neighbor Luke Stephens wants to marry her because he loves her mind. Upon returning to her home and recognizing how much she has grown, Lyddie decides to defer marrying Luke until she has graduated from Oberlin. Her initial reasons for leaving home have come from a self-conscious recognition that she needs to learn how to earn a place in the world; her final decision is based on the epiphany that the only thing limiting her is her own self-image. She overcomes poverty, ignorance, and personal pettiness. She learns to balance her own materialism with her love of others and her love of learning.
Nevertheless, Paterson’s Bildungsroman also fits Abel, Hirsch, and Langland’s formulation in that Lyddie transfers her affections from intimacy with her family to intimacy with Luke — she is
never emotionally autonomous — and her greatest lesson stems from her introspective recognition that she can define who she is. Her growth also adheres to Pratt’s archetypal patterns: she is at her emotional strongest in the green world of her Vermont farm; there she is most likely to feel self-fulfilled. Moreover, her movement into the society of Lowell represents a curtailment of her freedom, but because this is a novel written for adolescents rather than adults, Lyddie achieves the type of transcendence Lissa Paul points out is far more common to children’s than women’s literature (“Enigma” 189). Most important, by novel’s end, Lyddie is an adult, and she is as fully empowered as it is possible to imagine a woman of her social construction to be.15 She has achieved the capacity to work and to love, defying Annis Pratt’s suspicion that the female Bildungsroman is an impossibility. Barbara White notes that “the Bildungsroman concludes on an affirmative note” (13), a pattern in keeping with the traditions of children’s and adolescent literature. Lyddie is also a romantic novel in a way that is common to many children’s and adolescent novels because Paterson ultimately affirms the importance of the individual.
But Barbara White also points out that “many adolescent protagonists fail even to gain the knowledge or undergo the change of character required in the initiation story with its much looser definition” (13). Such novels are Entwicklungsromane, novels of development, that end before the protagonist reaches adulthood. Many of the YA novels that emerged in the 1970s that have subsequently been referred to as “problem novels” are Entwicklungsromane the character grows as s/he faces and resolves one specific problem. But because the time span of the Entwicklungsroman is more truncated than that of the Bildungsroman, the protagonist of the problem novel is rarely an adult by the end of the narrative. Some adolescent novels even contain a major streak of anti- romanticism in the way that they fail to offer the possibility of achieving maturity as a form of redemption. A few of these Entwicklungsromane (some of Cormier’s novels come immediately to mind) even go so far in denying the individual’s importance within society that they are actually nihilistic. All but the bleakest of YA novels, however, affirm the adolescent’s ability to grow at least a little. Characters in novels of development such as S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders or Walter Dean Myers’s Scorpions (1988) grow, even
if they have not achieved adulthood. In these novels, the protagonist experiences some form of conflict with authority and learns something about institutional accommodation within a family, a school, or a social group.
I think the reason so many people react negatively to a novel like The Chocolate War has something to do with the way they read it as failing to fulfill the obligation of the Entwicklungsroman to meet romantic expectations about growth. Anne Scott MacLeod, for instance, notes that Cormier’s novels “violate the unwritten rule that fiction for the young, however sternly realistic the narrative material, must offer some portion of hope, must end at least with some affirmative message” (74). Anita Tarr has argued that “Cormier is irresponsible as a writer” for writing a novel that argues “all of reality is a sham, and that the entire world is evil and there is no use fighting it” (“Does” 7). MacLeod and Tarr may well imply that The Chocolate War fails as an adolescent novel because of their assumption that the genre requires Bildung of some sort. Romantic that I am, however, I still see redemption at the end of The Chocolate War. The book opens with the line “They murdered him,” and much is made of crucifixion imagery in the second and the last chapters. In the second chapter, Obie recognizes the religious symbolism of the football field’s goal posts: “The shadows of the goal posts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses” (14). After being corrupted by Archie’s insidious evil, Obie loses that recognition: “He looked at the goal posts. They reminded him of something. He couldn’t remember” (590). Presumably, Obie no longer recognizes Christ and has lost the possibility of redemption. If Jerry has been crucified, it has been to expiate someone’s sins. Goober, at least, has seen what has happened; I think Goober knows that Jerry has died for his sins. Whether Goober will gain anything by that recognition is a matter open to debate, but at least one character in this novel has been given the opportunity to grow. The reader has been offered that opportunity, too. In that potential growth lies whatever redemption the novel might offer. Thus, MacLeod and Tarr and I all agree on some implicit level that adolescent literature is at its heart a romantic literature because so many of us — authors, critics, teachers, teenagers — need to believe in the possibility of adolescent growth.
Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism

When we identify a book as an Entwicklungsroman because the protagonist has grown or as a Bildungsroman because the protagonist reaches adulthood by the novel’s end, we open ourselves to investigating the aesthetic philosophy that informs the text. We can identify Lyddie as a novel influenced by romanticism because of the way it affirms the individual or we can identify The Chocolate War as failing to meet the romantic expectations we have of the conventions of adolescent literature. But in both novels, the protagonist’s growth is predicated on her or his ability to engage institutional power. Jerry Renault and Lyddie struggle economically. They struggle to communicate with other people, especially those who have authority over them. Both are anxious about their sexuality. Both must confront death. Both garner power by straining against repression. Foucault points out that power can be simultaneously repressive and enabling because those who are complacent are often less empowered than those who gain power by struggling (History 36—49; Discipline 195 —228). Characters as divergent as Lyddie and Jerry Renault demonstrate empowerment within repression.
Foucault is the poststructural theorist who typifies social repression as having its roots in the discourses formed by social institutions to control people’s powers: he is especially aware of the repression/power dynamic at work in how society regulates sexuality and the government.16 Those two forces are certainly major ones in adolescent literature, so it seems to me that the tension between power and repression in adolescent novels may well be one of romanticism being reformed by postmodernism.17 After all, the Young Adult novel as we know it came into being during the 1960s, well into the postmodern era. In other words, novels of development and of initiation — and for that matter, children’s literature — evolved during a romantic era when many authors explored individual psychology, but the YA novel, with its questioning of social institutions and how they construct individuals, was not possible until the postmodern era influenced authors to explore what it means if we define people as socially constructed subjects rather than as self-contained individuals bound by their identities.
 John McGowan considers romanticism, modernism, and post-modernism to be various stages of modernity, which he defines as the cultural condition in which society recognizes that it must “legitimate itself by its own self-generated principles, without appeal to external verities, authorities or traditions” (McGowan, Postmodernism 3). That is, modernity is the era in which humanity and its social organizations ceased to be consciously organized around principles dictated by religious faith. Modernity emerged in Western thinking around 1800 because of several interrelated factors, including Protestantism’s challenges to Catholicism, increased industrialization, challenges to imperialism that led to a decreased sense of Eurocentrism, capitalism replacing feudalism as the chief principle of socioeconomic organization, and democracy’s challenge to the divine rights of monarchy (McGowan, Postmodernism 3). One result of modernity was an increased interest in the novel of development, the Entwicklungsroman.
Romanticism was an early manifestation of society’s effort in the era of modernity to self-legitimize that focuses on the individual’s autonomy as liberating. Romanticism relies on a mythology that art is the means of legitimizing society. The artist’s role is analogous to priesthood, and the cultural faith in transcendent individual growth represents an instance of society self-legitimizing (McGowan, Postmodernism 5—11). This faith in growth led to the specific development of the Bildungsroman. In the twentieth century, modernism refined modernity by focusing on “the heroic maintenance of the self” as providing an alternative to the depravity of humanity (McGowan, Postmodernism 11). Rather than art serving as a mythical justification for life, modernist art represents an antidote to the meaninglessness of capitalist society, according to McGowan (“Postmodernism” 585). The modernist artist is more monk than priest, a person who operates removed from society in order to achieve its greatest accomplishments.
Postmodernism, however, acknowledges the triumph of economics in determining a cultural self-legitimization. Postmodernism represents a socially self-conscious era of modernity in which the culture recognizes that some form of unity exists through the complete domination of capitalism over every aspect of social life (McGowan, Postmodernism 13). That is to say, if everything in culture is constituted by discourse and all discourse participates
in the modes of production that enact society, then nothing escapes the capitalist institution. We are all subjects constituted by discourse, so we are all immersed irrevocably in capitalism. As Fredric Jameson would have it, postmodernism is “the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism” (Jameson, Postmodernism 46). The role of art in postmodernism then is to serve as a cultural practice that participates unavoidably in perpetuating capitalism (McGowan, “Postmodernism” 86). The postmodern artist contributes art to society as her or his means of production. And in some sense, maturity as transcendence has become impossible since so many of the markers of maturity are immersed in capitalism: driving, voting, buying liquor, obtaining a credit card, and paying income tax serve as typical rites of passage in postmodern culture. The Young Adult novel may well be the specific subgenre of the Entwicklungsroman — the novel of development — that has emerged from postmodern thinking. (This is not to imply that Young Adult novels cannot be Bildungsromane. Lyddie, for example, certainly is.) Young Adult novels are Entwicklungsromane or Bildungsromane that self-consciously explore the individual’s power in relation to the institutions that comprise her or his existence. Thus, YA novels may or may not be Bildungsromane, depending more on the level of maturity the protagonist reaches than anything else.
Entwicklungsromane are projects of modernity in the way they participate in a mythology of cultural legitimization: our task as humans is to grow. In the romantic era, the Bildungsroman emerged from the Entwicklungsroman as a narrative of transcendence: the individual grows into an adulthood of autonomy and self-determination. In modernism, maturity often takes the form of a conscious rejection of society; separation, rather than transcendence, serves as the mark of the mature modernist. But postmodernism, cynical about the transformative power of maturity, makes growth largely in terms of the individual’s increased participation in capitalism. The narrative of growth in postmodernism thus becomes constituted as an acceptance of one’s cultural habitat rather than serving as a narrative about transcendence or separation. The postmodern awareness of the subject’s inevitable construction as a product of language renders the construct of self-determination virtually obsolete. As a result, the popular-
ity of the traditional Bildungsroman with its emphasis on self- determination gives way to the market dominance of the Young Adult novel, which is less concerned with depicting growth reverently than it is with investigating how the individual exists within society. Growth is possible in a postmodern world, especially if growth is defined as an increasing awareness of the institutions constructing the individual. But following World War II, maturity, adulthood, being harder to define, ceased to be privileged as the narrative goal in literature written for youth. The Young Adult novel, then, came into being as a genre precisely because it is a genre predicated on demonstrating characters’ ability to grow into an acceptance of their environment. That is, the YA novel teaches adolescents how to exist within the (capitalistically bound) institutions that necessarily define teenagers’ existence.
The YA novel allows for postmodern questions about authority, power, repression, and the nature of growth in ways that traditional Bildungsromane do not. Note that the Bildungsroman affords the protagonist slightly more social power at the end of the novel than an Entwicklungsroman does. Since most YA novels are Entwicklungsromane that end before the protagonist reaches adulthood, few of them depict their protagonists as fully enfranchised within their culture. In other words, Bildungsromane tend to allow for adolescents to overcome the condition of adolescence by becoming adults. As adults, they have relatively more social power than they had as adolescents. If we make the mistake of collapsing all adolescent literature into the rubric of the Bildungsroman, we miss the power differential between novels of development and coming-of-age novels. We also ignore the strain of romanticism that permeates the genre, but even worse, we elide the power structures at work in adolescent literature, rendering them virtually invisible. If we acknowledge the paradigm shift, however, we can perceive the relationship between the genre of the YA novel and the epistemological issues that engendered its emergence.
Ultimately, paying attention to the generic structures in adolescent narratives can help us classify literary patterns (that is, distinguishing BiIdungsromane and Entwicklungsromane) and help us to identify the history of ideas working itself out in literature (recognizing the influences of romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism at work in a book). But more important, in recogniz
ing how the generic characteristics that define the YA novel are both historically and aesthetically constructed, we can better analyze the entire genre. Much ink has been spilled over definitions of adolescent versus YA literature, but in my mind the real issue resides somewhere in the relationships between our romantic beliefs in growth, our postmodern awareness of the socially constructed limitations of power, and the adolescent’s interactions with Ideological State Apparatuses as social institutions (such as how we construct sexuality, death, school, religion, gender, or family). Children’s books are often about power and repression: Peter Rabbit, Max, and Ramona learn how to control their own personal power; Wilbur gains self-control over his fear of death. But the nature of power and repression that adolescents experience is far more outwardly focused, whether they develop as in an Entwicklungsroman or if they do achieve maturity, as in a Bildungsroman. And indeed, adolescents do not achieve maturity in a YA novel until they have reconciled themselves to the power entailed in the social institutions with which they must interact to survive.
I would submit that Young Adult literature has exploded as an institution in the postmodern era because although it affirms modernity’s belief in the power of the individual implied by the very essence of the Entwicklungsroman, even more, it very self-consciously problematizes the relationship of the individual to the institutions that construct her or his subjectivity. The basic difference between a children’s and an adolescent novel lies not so much in how the protagonist grows — even though the gradations of growth do help us better understand the nature of the genre — but with the very determined way that YA novels tend to interrogate social constructions, foregrounding the relationship between the society and the individual rather than focusing on Self and self-discovery as children’s literature does.