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?”
ADOLESCENT LITERATURE IN THE POSTMODERN ERA
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.