Category: Literary Criticism
The rite of passage, when a human journeys from childhood to the adult world is a theme nearly universal in today’s young adult literature. “The basic pattern, one that has been often noted for YA fiction in general, is the rite of passage from childhood to maturity with the change of status that accompanies initiation into adulthood” (Brown 353). Joseph Campbell places this idea into its larger context when he writes, “By absorbing the myths of his social group and participating in its rites, the youngster is structured to accord with his social as well as natural environment, and turned from an amorphous nature product, prematurely born, into a defined and competent member of some specific efficiently functioning social order” (45). The rite of passage, therefore, and the functioning of social order inform each other. “The first function of rites of [passage]. . . must be to establish in the individual a system of sentiments that will be appropriate to the society in which he is to live, and on which that society itself must depend for its existence” (Campbell 46). Intact societies, therefore, enact rituals that serve as the components for the adolescent’s rite of passage. More than simply an educational tool, rituals “imitate those actions of myth supposedly performed by the gods, for ‘through each imitation, man is projected into the mythical epoch in which archetypes were first revealed’ (Eternal Return 35)” (Smedman 93). Rituals occupy what K.A.Nuzum calls “mythic time” (207). Quoting Mircea Eliade in his book The Sacred and the Profane, Nuzum defines mythic time as “a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (209). In addition to mythic time, Nuzum indentifies two other types of time that humans experience: “ . . . linear time, or beginning to end historic time, where the majority of human life is passed. . . and liminal time, which human beings may journey into through separation from their community” (207).
For the most part taking place over only a few days, The Member of the Wedding primarily concerns itself with liminal time and mythic time. When the novel begins, Frankie, the protagonist, is twelve years old, and is occupying liminal time. “She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid” (McCullers 3). Being unjoined, she longs to connect to a sense of belonging. And being twelve, the belonging she is searching for is the archetypal rite of passage to adulthood.
Normally, when a child is answering the urge to adulthood, she has guides, such as friends, parents, teachers, and the corset of society. Frankie however, is truly alone in her journey. Her father is effectively absent, and her mother is dead. Her only friends are John Henry, her six year old cousin, and Berenice, the African american cook who has raised her since her mother died. Often, in coming of age stories, a character like Berenice would stand in for the adult mentor, but Berenice is portrayed as only obliquely interested in Frankie’s development. Berenice has been married four times “each one worse than the one before” (McCullers 23), and seems to be in a perpetual state of searching for rituals herself.
Frankie’s society is unavailable also. Frankie is coming of age during World War II, in the deep South. The war has begun to break down the longstanding structure of hierarchy and segregation that gave some semblance of tradition and ritual to a way of life destroyed by the Civil War and Reconstruction. Women, both black and white, are working outside the home, and some regiments of the army are desegregated. The Tuskegee airmen, a unit comprised solely of African Americans is the first to serve in a combat capacity. The war is changing things; a wisp of the Civil Rights Movement hints and the South is spinning, because its center does not hold. It is, itself, operating in liminal time.
This leaves Frankie with only her own resources to consult as she searches for the rituals that will propel her out of liminal time and into the mythic time that will support her through her rite of passage into membership into the community of adulthood.
With no external guides, only internal urge, she clings, limpet-like to the only ritual she sees in her current world—her brother’s wedding. The wedding represents to her a passage, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively in that the enactment of ritual is something her pre-pubescent self is demanding, and literally, because Frankie knows her brother and his fiancée are going away after the wedding and she expects and longs to go with them. With the idea of the wedding firmly planted in her mind, Frankie begins to create for herself the rituals she feels must accompany this passage.
Frankie begins by observing that her brother and his fiancée have the same “JA” at the beginning of their names—Jarvis and Janice. She begins to call herself F. Jasmine, so that she, too, has a JA. By naming herself, an act that ostensibly declares independence, F. Jasmine is responding to the urge to establish an identity of her own. However, because her impetus for the name change is to copy, rather than individuate, this ritual is hollow, not holding the power of mythic time.
- Jasmine’s next attempt at ritual is the ritual of courtship. She dresses in her best Sunday dress and buys some lipstick and goes into town, ending up at the bar, when she meets a soldier. He asks her to come back later, and she does, and he brings her to his room. Being naïve, Frankie does not at first know his intentions. But when he begins to force himself on her, she fights back, leaving him unconscious. Although brutal, the soldier has been her first real guide since she began her self-schooled rituals. By fighting back, and winning, she has claimed the beginnings of the power of the individual who says what they will and will not tolerate. Still in utero, this conception goes unrecognized by F. Jasmine, however, and she is not ready to let her illusory rituals go. When her brother’s wedding does take place, she acts appallingly and has to removed, like a child having a tantrum, from the event. This treatment of her as child destroys her illusions once and for all and exposes them for the hollow imitations they are. Ironically, it is the destruction of hope in her misguided rituals that propels Frankie out of liminal time and into mythic time, where true ritual resides, and where true hope can grow. “True hope is. . . rooted in the hard facts of the past and the present, but it desires to transform—not to replace nor merely rearrange, but to transform. . .” (Smedman 93). The destruction of her hollow rituals, anima like, creates the space for something new to grow. In other words, it is the birth of the adult Frances.
Throughout the story, young John Henry acts as a counterpoint to Frankie’s emerging adulthood and her uncertainty about her journey is highlighted by her relationship with John Henry. At first she lingers with him, feeling lonely for the childhood she is no longer a part of saying to Berenice: “’I just now invited John Henry to eat supper and spend the night with me.’” Berenice replies, “’I thought you were sick and tired of him.’ ‘I am sick and tired of him, ‘said Frankie. ‘But it seemed to me he looked scared.’ ‘Scared of what?’ [asks Berenice]. Frankie shook her head. ‘Maybe I mean lonesome,’ she said finally.”(McCullers 8) But later she rails, “He is a child! It is hopeless! Hopeless! Hopeless!(14). Frankie’s words speaking of her own confusion and despair.
As the symbol of the child has left behind in the journey to adulthood, John Henry must die. His death is a hard, painful one, occurring at the end of the book, underscoring Frankie’s hard painful journey. To die is itself the ultimate rite of passage, and John Henry’s death, when transposed into mythic time represents an affirmation of Frankie’s emergence into adulthood. Indeed, at the end of the book, Frankie, then F. Jasmine has now become Frances, her given name, bestowed on her at birth by her parents. By claiming it, she accepts her adult identity and her place in adult society.
And in the end, as it turns out, Frances does indeed become a member of the wedding. Discussing the ritual marriage at the end of the fairy tale, Leeming says “the prince and princess live happily ever after; they reunite the male and female principles—the Yin and the Yang. . . The ritual marriage. . . represents the mystic’s idea, the reunion of formerly deluded man with the universal and eternal reality” (237). Frances successfully navigates a marriage of herself to herself, adolescent to adult, adult to society, uniting her former deluded view with her rightful place.
Mary Norton’s children’s novel, The Borrowers, made into a movie not too long ago, was the subject of my final paper in Critical Theory. Here, I use the critical theory lenses of post-colonialism, feminism, archetype and historicism to present a very different reading of the book, one that may change the way you look at The Borrowers forever.
The Borrowers, by Mary Norton was first published in England in 1952, winning the Carnegie Medal. As the “outstanding new book for children or young adults” (CILIP), The Borrowers, set in England in the 1880’s, reflects aspects of both the time in which it was published, and the times the story portrays. By “explicating [the] particulars [of] the history or culture that helps…inform and construct the literature” (Vallone 102), we can begin to understand its appeal in England beyond its fantasy story.
In 1952 Britain’s monarch, King George VI, died suddenly and his 25-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne. Neither George nor Elizabeth was supposed to be monarchs. Sixteen years earlier, in a constitutional crisis, Edward, George’s older brother and heir to the throne, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American. Upon his brother’s abdication, the crown went to a reluctant George. This monarchial crisis, in 1936, deeply shook what was considered to be the unshakable foundation of British Monarchy. The abdication, two World Wars, the independence of many of its former colonies, and King George VI’s sudden death in 1952, left Britain weakened and with a sense of its own vulnerability. By setting The Borrowers in the 1880’s when England still exerted its rule throughout the world, Norton is reviving the glory days of the British Empire, providing a nostalgic salve for battered national pride.
The book opens by explaining how the boy who discovers the Borrowers is in a position and place to do so. We learn that he was sent off to live in the old country house of a great aunt to recuperate from rheumatic fever, contracted while living in India. The information about living in India is relayed matter-of-factly; in the 1880’s, India had been a British colony under the rule of the Crown for 30 years, and under the control of the British East India Company for nearly 100 years before that (Wood). However, since India had achieved a difficult independence from England in 1947, a mere 5 years before The Borrowers was written, the amnesia The Borrowers exhibits over the oppressive and often violent British rule in India reinforces Donnarae MacCann’s assertion that “…many children’s books still function as instruments of a colonial mentality” (185).
That the colonialist mentality infuses the story at a basic level begins with the description of the lifestyle of the small Borrower family who live under the kitchen floor in the country house. Just as the British Empire took what it desired from its colonies, the Borrowers, Pod, Homily and their daughter Arrietty “borrow” (steal) everything they need from the big “human beans” that live in the house. In fact, the Borrowers believe that the big humans live only to provide for them. Arrietty says to the boy, “Human beans are for Borrowers—like bread’s for butter!” (Norton 84), reflecting a British colonialist attitude of innate right and superiority.
However, the boy ‘human bean’ has his own absorption of colonialist British values to display. When he and Arrietty first meet, he threatens her, because she is different from him: “Don’t move!…Or I shall hit you with my ash stick” (Norton 71). When Arrietty asks him why, he says, “in case…you scrabbled at me with your nasty little hands…things do, I’ve seen them. In India” (73-74). To a British boy born and brought up in colonial India, the idea that it is appropriate to use force to subdue reveals “the violence that coexists within every form of colonial order” (Plotz 111), and interrogates the transmission of the “complex process by which a group of potentially noncolonial infants becomes a nation of active colonizers” (Hall 51).
In good colonial style, the boy proceeds to interfere with and dominate the Borrowers life, “[e]very night the floor was opened and treasures would appear…” (Norton 130). Showering them with gifts that are literally out of the Borrowers reach, and which they have not asked for and do not need, he is exhibiting what Clare Bradford, quoting Edward Said, calls “the ways in which the West has rationalized colonial processes with claims that colonized people were ‘provided with order and a kind of stability that they haven’t been able … to provide for themselves’” (199). Ultimately, the boy’s interference brings about the discovery and ruin of the Borrowers’ home, reflecting on a micro scale the destruction of local culture that colonialism inflicts.
Because both the boy and the Borrowers display attitudes of the British Imperialist mindset, The Borrowers can be read as a story of an endorsement of power—colonialist power. But there is another power at work here, more powerful even than 19th century Britain, and that power belongs to Arrietty.
Arrietty has an agenda. On the surface, it would appear that she is following a proper female Victorian role, that of providing “moral and emotional support at home”(Helson 67). However, she longs to leave the dark home under the kitchen, “no one to talk to, no one to play with…no light but candlelight and what comes through the cracks” (Norton 49), and secretly wishes to emigrate to her cousins in a “badger’s set two fields away beyond the spinney” (87). She pesters her parents until they allow her out on a chaperoned trip with her father where she promptly goes off into the lawn and it is there she meets the boy; a meeting that eventually brings about the downfall of the family.
Writing about another female who allegedly brought about a downfall, Elizabeth Gillhouse states in Eve was Framed, “the expulsion from the garden is not simply a punishment; it is also a gift to future generations. The complexities and hardships of life are not ignored, but the humanist celebration of free will and equality is the dominant theme” (271). Expanding upon this, Pamela Norris writes, “Perhaps what is most important is Eve’s recognition of the need to challenge boundaries, to make the imaginative leap, however difficult, unpredictable and even dangerous, into a new phase of existence” (403–04).
By meeting, then befriending the boy, Arrietty harnesses his compulsions of domination to her own ends. In this way, she is, like Eve, embracing the anima role in her family’s life journey. Jung describes anima as “the chaotic urge to life” (30). “[E]verything the anima touches becomes numinous—unconditional, dangerous, taboo, magical” (28). The anima is the cause of change; it is the power of destruction that clears the space for new life. Just as Eve created a new life for the human race outside of the Garden of Eden, Arrietty creates a new life for herself and her entrenched and tradition-bound family in a new home in a meadow full of green grass and sunshine. In the end, the destruction of the home under the kitchen floor is a triumph for Arrietty.
“Fantasy” Ravenna Helson tells us, “lends itself to the depiction of unconscious forces” (66). On one level, The Borrowers can be read as an engaging fantasy story about little people; a closer reading reveals the undercurrent of an affirmation of British Imperialist power. A deeper interpretation of power, however, is revealed when the ancient archetypes are brought to bear. With Arrietty as anima, we see a primordial agency of power: that of the willingness to destroy in order to bring forth life.
Bradford, Clare. “The End of Empire? Colonial and Postcolonial Journeys in Children’s Books.” Children’s Literature Volume 29. (2001): 196-218. Print.
CILIP Carnegie Medal. carnegiegreenaway.org.uk. 14 May 2012. Web.
Gillhouse, Elizabeth. “Eve was Framed”: Ideostory and (Mis)Representation in Judeo-Christian Creation Stories.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.3 (2011): 259-275. Print.
Hall, Donald E. “We and the World: Juliana Horatia Ewing and Victorian Colonialism for Children.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 16.2 (1991): 51-55. Print.
Helson, Ravenna. “The Psychological Origins of Fantasy for Children in Mid-Victorian England.” Children’s Literature 3.1 (1974): 66-76. Print.
Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 2nd Ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. Print.
MacCann, Donnarae. “The Sturdy Fabric of Cultural Imperialism: Tracing Its Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Novels.” Children’s Literature 33.1 (2005): 185-208. Print.
Norris, Pamela. Eve: A Biography. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Print.
Plotz, Judith. “Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity (review).” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26.2 (2001): 110-111. Print.
Vallone, Lynne. “Introduction: Children’s Literature and New Historicism.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 21.3 (1996): 102-104. Print.
Wood, Michael. The Story of India. Public Broadcasting Service, January 5, 2009. Web. 12 May 2012
There is something in a story known as “the voice.” In times past, the voice of a story meant its narrative tone—its cadence, inflections, and rhythm. A story’s voice was a subtle permeating thing, created wholly by authenticity.
Today, however, the voice often becomes The Voice. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with heightened voice. The Catcher in the Rye had voice in spades, but it also had more. Holden Caulfield’s sardonic and lonely narration worked in service to the story; it did not, like an understudy hogging the spotlight, take over.
Jason Epstein, in “Book Business,” outlines how publishing houses went from privately owned companies with backlists that supported editor/ author relationships and their shared passions for good writing, to being owned by conglomerates whose stockholders expected a profit. With today’s publishing industry’s disconnect from the creativity of books and their dependence instead on books as commodities, is it any wonder that a successful trend, that of the heightened voice, would not be exploited to its full extent for maximum profitability?
This collision of creativity and commodification is nothing new; as a matter of fact, commodification is pretty much the end product of any (commercially) successful creative endeavor. But what’s different, or rather, what should make a difference, is that this creation is for children.
Writing for children is a responsibility. The vast majority of children’s book authors are adults and adults are the stewards of children. In an article published in The Horn Book, John Green wrote, “I think books must do something more than just divert attention in order to be successful. And this brings us to morality…[w]hat we need, and what good stories provide, are better Encouragements.” (The Horn Book Magazine November/December 2014)
Writing books read by children is to inform a potential. Books influence children. Like making cuneiform marks on a soft clay tablet, a story impresses onto them. We all remember paths taken and inspirations initiated by what we read as children. Adults who write for children need to approach their task with the respect due the audience. Katherine Paterson wrote “we fail our children if all we give them are the platitudes, the clichés, the slogans of our society, which we throw out whole, to keep from having to think or feel deeply.” (A Sense of Wonder)
Responsible parents don’t feed their children dessert all the time just because the kids like it better than protein and veggies. They make them eat properly, because it’s good for their physical heath, and instills in them eating habits that will create healthy adults. So why would we undercut our children’s emotional and intellectual health by feeding them books that deliver entertainment only? Pushing these under the guise of “giving them what they want (dessert) because at least they’re reading” is lazy thinking and it sidesteps an inconvenient truth. Which is that adults make money from books for children. There’s a very fine line here between providing a service and exploitation.
Books for children should lead, inspire, challenge, and teach as well as entertain. “Moral” and “didactic” have become anathema in today’s world of children’s books. It was not always so. Nineteenth century children’s schoolbooks like Sheldon’s Modern Reader are filled with stories whose purpose was to deliver the mores and morals of the society into which the children were being educated. They taught patience, kindness, diligence and truthfulness. Their stories gave the children boundaries within which to live—a more illuminated meaning of “didactic.” Joseph Campbell has said that societies, to be viable, need to pass along their myths, which is another way of saying they need to teach the limitations that create freedom. Katherine Paterson explains this concept with her usual clarity and succinctness, “[f]reedom is quite different from the lack of limitations.” She says that it was the demands of her family that “were the very boundaries that gave form to my life.” (A Sense of Wonder)
Books for children and young adults ought to deliver a sense of purpose, of Encouragement (to borrow John Green’s capitalization), of inspiration, and yes, they should teach limits, so the poor child has a leg up on knowing those and can move right along to creating freedoms.
It is not enough to only entertain a child’s developing mind, just as dessert is not enough to sustain a child’s developing body. We know this because we’re the grownups; we’re the stewards.