Monday, June 5, 2017

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman, author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. However, Zindel excels in his exploration of another important trope of the genre, what Havinghurst identifies as “achieving emotional independence from parents and other adults.” In The Pigman, the protagonists Lorraine and John achieve emotional independence from their parents by learning to understand and empathize with them.

More empathetic than John from the beginning of the story, Lorraine is the more emotionally mature of the two; however, while Lorraine is able to empathize with her teachers and the school librarian, she is initially unable to empathize with her mother. John may arguably be the more typical of the two teenage characters, showing little empathy for anyone at the beginning of the story and by inference, less maturity.

After building a relationship with Mr. Pignati and witnessing his fears, such as being alone and dying without anyone to love or anyone who loves him, Lorraine and John realize these fears are universal. As they admit these are fears they face themselves, they come to realize their parents also experience them. This newfound empathy toward their parents is what allows Lorraine and John to gain the objectivity and understanding that leads to healthy emotional independence from them.

Interestingly, Zindel’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds features an awkward girl named Tillie. Throughout the play, Tillie is empathetic toward her domineering mother, Beatrice. Tillie argues with her sister Ruth, defending their mother against Ruth’s verbal attacks. Eventually, that empathy is what causes Tillie to become completely passive and allow her mother to dominate her. Both characters created by Zindel, Tillie and Lorraine, are mousy, awkward girls. However, unlike Tillie, Lorraine’s new-found empathy toward her mother is what leads her to understanding that protects her from being dominated. These two opposing takes on the same theme makes it appear “where empathy leads” was something Zindel sometimes contemplated.

In fact, the theme “where empathy leads” or more specifically “empathy=maturity” is repeated enough in young adult literature that perhaps it should be included in the lists of YA literature characteristics. Not only have we seen it in The Pigman, but it was clearly a theme in Anne of Green Gables and The Outsiders. We see it in other YA classics too: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind, as do others.

Pathos, Ethos, and Logos in Hinton's "The Outsiders"

When Aristotle wrote his treatise on the art of persuasion 2400 years ago, he identified its three main elements: audience (pathos), purpose (logos), and tone (ethos). Today, practice still honors Aristotle’s insight as a touchstone for any persuasive document. One reason S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders retains its persuasive appeal to young readers is the way it addresses these three classic elements of persuasion.

Obviously, Hinton considered her audience, whether consciously or not, while writing her novel. Will Rogers High School English teacher Kim Piper noted that “kids here can especially identify with Ponyboy and his group” because they share a similar level of poverty. Will Rogers 9th grader Esteban Rivero said that he relates to the book because “It talks about how youngsters live and how they can get all caught up in their friends and cliques.” Specifically, Hinton establishes the age and socioeconomic classification of the narrator in the first line: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home” (pg. 3). This line establishes the narrator is too young to drive and/or cannot afford a car, or he would not need a ride. He is a thinker and possibly an introvert, or he would not be considering something as abstract as identity. To some extent he is a loner, or he would not be doing these things alone. This opening line creates an emotional connection with much of the book’s audience within its first 30 words.

Hinton wrote her novel with a clear purpose in mind and planned its execution to fulfill that purpose. She said “Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today.” One technique leading to that end is that her major characters were all under the age of 20 and the book’s narrator was only 14. Ralph Macchio, who played Johnny in the book’s film adaptation, said the book reached him as a 12 year old because its narrator was a teenager, not an adult. The narrator’s description of his preferred breakfast food and that of his brothers, and the fact that it is offered without caveat or apology, is one of the many passages that clearly show this narrator is not an adult:
“We all like our eggs done differently. I like them hard, Darry likes them in a bacon-and-tomato sandwich, and Sodapop eats his with grape jelly. All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda and me talk him into it. We really didn't have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. Sodapop always makes sure there's some in the icebox every night and if there isn't he cooks one up real quick. I like Darry's cakes better; Sodapop always puts too much sugar in the icing. I don't see how he stands jelly and eggs and chocolate cake all at once, but he seems to like it. Darry drinks black coffee, and Sodapop and I drink chocolate milk. We could have coffee if we wanted it, but we like chocolate milk. All three of us are crazy about chocolate stuff. Soda says if they ever make a chocolate cigarette I'll have it made.” (pg. 88)
Hinton wrote with a tone that built credibility with the book’s target audience. She acknowledged the book “was overemotional, over the top, melodramatic,” but said “kids feel that way.” Again, many examples from the text would demonstrate this. One segment in particular might not only be labeled somewhat “melodramatic,” but could also be seen as Hinton explaining, through the words of her narrator, her purpose behind writing the book. In fact, it gives the reason the narrator would supposedly go on to tell this story:
“I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn't believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn't be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me.” (pg. 152)
Overall, if S. E. Hinton had not considered her audience, purpose, and the tone she wanted to create, she would not have built the emotional connection, credibility, and framework critical to the success of her breakthrough novel, The Outsiders. Her audience was clearly young outsiders. She said her purpose was to write something teenagers would want to read. She chose to write in a voice to which teenagers could relate. Hinton designed each of her rhetorical choices to address these essential elements of persuasion, and as a result wrote a very persuasive novel.

"Anne of Green Gables" as Young Adult Fiction

Young Adult (YA) literature is a greased pig, hard to catch and even harder to hold onto. Some define it broadly, pretty much including any work of fiction with an adolescent who is 13-19 years old. With a protagonist who is younger than that it's either MG or "Children's." With a slightly older protagonist, it's now popular to call it "New Adult" (a very hot genre, by the way). Some of the narrower definitions touch upon style (straightforward) and themes (coming of age, etc). There are several tropes in YA, which vary depending on the more specific genre classification. In other words, you can put YA in front of any standard genre and it's considered a new genre (YA Romance, YA Horror, YA Fantasy, etc.).

The problem lies in the practice. Although a true genre should have somewhat consistent themes and tropes, current practice is to classify just about anything with an adolescent protagonist as YA. So if it's a fantasy story with a young protagonist, it's YA Fantasy. If it's a romance with a young protagonist, it's YA Romance. The list goes on.

So then authors who did not write their books for young adults become labeled "YA authors." Mark Twain did not consider his Huckleberry Finn a YA novel, but how often is it marketed as such? Harper Lee didn't write To Kill a Mockingbird for children, but it has a young protagonist, so it's marketed YA or even MG. Shouldn't the author's intent have something to do with it? Additionally, both of these novels have found an adult audience, and that audience may even be embarrassed to admit their favorite book is a "Children's Book." Myself, I enjoyed A of GG a lot, but would be embarrassed to admit that in many circles because it's considered a children's book.

With these things in mind, yes, Anne of Green Gables is readily classified YA (or more accurately MG since young readers tend to read protagonists slightly older than themselves), but doing so could leave a large chunk of its potential audience on the table. Yes, the protagonist is an adolescent, and the story line could easily be classified a "coming of age" story, but there is more to it than that. How many YA readers will laugh knowingly at Anne's plights, vocabulary, and attitudes? How many of them will truly understand why Matthew and Marilla (or Aunt Josephine, for that matter) are drawn to Anne? Wouldn't many young readers be frustrated with Anne's decision to turn down the scholarship and stay with Marilla, and idea older readers might find comforting?

A of GG doesn't moralize like many of its predecessors, preaching the "right" way for children to behave, at least not in all aspects of the story. Earlier novels aimed at children might not dare make a heroine who is essentially rewarded for being stubborn and sassing her elders. If it were intended for YA audiences, that aspect of A of GG could be problematic. As Gammel points out, writing this story was a sort of self-help for Montgomery, a cathartic exorcism of her own demons.
All that said, calling this story YA depends on your definition (or practice) in classifying anything YA. By current practice, sure it's a YA predecessor of all those other YA books with young protagonists. But I would argue many of those other stories are misclassified as well.

The Influence of "Huckleberry Finn" on Young Adult Literature

Hemingway once wrote, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since" (28). Of course, there have been those who disagree. In an 1885 New York World review, Joseph Pulitzer called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "cheap and pernicious stuff” with a "wretchedly low, vulgar, sneaking and lying Southern country boy" as the protagonist. At the same time, The San Francisco Evening Bulletin called the story’s influence on children "not altogether desirable, nor is it one that most parents who want a future of promise for their young folks would select without some hesitation." While Hemingway’s praise overlooks the value of other literature through the centuries into modern times, the fact that Huckleberry Finn remains a pillar of Young Adult (YA) literature more than 130 years after its publication at least partially justifies Hemingway’s enthusiasm for the novel. Looking outside the publishing realm, Jonathan Arac points out that there is a “long tradition of using Huckleberry Finn as the basis for statements proclaiming what is truly American” (18). Within publishing, not only has Twain’s exemplary novel been influential in YA literature’s history, where its influence stems from a level of craft found infrequently in the work of Twain’s contemporaries, but that level of craft has done much to advance the genre as a whole.

Several components of Huckleberry Finn are precursors to what have become the mainstays of modern YA Literature. Andrew Levy, Butler University Professor, notes “Huck Finn’s shadow is all over the current vogue in young adult fiction.” He further asserts, “Not just Hunger Games, not just Harry Potter: Everything from Home Alone and Diary of a Wimpy Kid to half the shows on Nickelodeon. Huck is the template” (Ernsberger 28).

First, Huck Finn is narrated in the first-person point of view (POV), which has become the go-to POV for modern YA literature because it increases relatability with the narrator and allows the reader to more readily suspend disbelief in fantastic or melodramatic situations common to the genre. The overwrought teen emotion of Hinton’s The Outsiders, which the author cites as a contributing factor in its success, may have been less acceptable outside the first-hand account of Ponyboy. The science-fiction elements of The Hunger Games Trilogy might not have been as believable if not described by the story’s trustworthy narrator, Katniss Everdeen. First-person POV not only allows the narrator to speak in an authentic, colloquial style, attractive to young readers, but also allows the reader to “hear” the narrator and pick up nuances of character through word choices that reflect attitudes and social class. When we read Huck’s charming yet repetitive opening lines, we learn more about him than we could in pages of exposition:
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly – Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before. (2)
Within this choice of POV, Twain’s novel was revolutionary in its use of dialect. When other writers imitated European literature, Twain wrote as Americans actually spoke. American English was vivid and emotional, and Twain’s decision to utilize it changed how future YA authors, along with authors in other genres, wrote.

As a second area of influence, Huckleberry Finn contains themes to which adolescent readers may relate. Huck embarks on a journey where he meets a variety of characters who give the story the spice of life, an attraction for adolescents who may be bored with their lives or have other reasons to seek escape. Many young readers also relate to Huck’s experiences with absent parents and as a victim of abuse. Other elements of Huckleberry Finn further comprise the go-to themes in modern YA literature: friendship, adventure, rebellion against adult institutions and authority, and the evergreen coming-of-age story. Many of these themes are present in The Hunger Games and The Outsiders, but the list goes on. Would Lorraine and John have met Angelo Pignati in Zindel’s The Pigman if they hadn’t been bored with their lives? Would they have cultivated that relationship if they had not had the autonomy and emotional need caused by absent parents? What modern YA classic does not include some level of rebellion against adult institutions? The list of coming-of-age stories includes many classics from Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery), through To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee), to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Alexie) and beyond. Each of these themes are easily traced back to Twain’s Huck Finn.

Incidentally, Twain’s novel was by no means the first of the Bildungsroman genre. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and the works of Jane Austen (published 1811-15 and posthumously in 1818 and 1871), readily come to mind. However, these earlier novels debuted when publishers were marketing books to instruct and improve the morals of the nation’s youth. Huck Finn appears to mock such well-meaning efforts, and did not represent Twain’s first attempt to do so. Twenty years earlier, Twain wrote his “Advice for Good Little Boys” in Youth’s Companion Magazine: “You ought never to take anything that don’t belong to you – if you can’t carry it off.” According to Levy, the 1880s audience “focused on what Twain was saying about children and to them,” but “Twain was saying that the adult instinct to ‘reform’ children was part of the problem” and was “deeply frustrated with how American children are raised” (Ernsberger 27).

Further contributing to the relatability of Huckleberry Finn, and another practice common to later YA authors, Twain drew from his own experiences growing up. Huck and Jim discuss that “ole King Sollermun” had a million wives. Jim says a million wives would be excessive, and that the king’s judgment in the case of the two quarreling women makes sense because any man “dat’s got ‘bout five million chillen ‘round de house” would just “as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’,” and Huck realizes Jim has “an uncommon head” for an ignorant man. Andrew Levy notes exchanges such as these are derived from the minstrel shows Twain had seen as a young Missouri boy (Ernsberger 28). Twain based his characters on real or real-to-life Americans of the period. In his autobiography, Twain recounts that he drew his protagonist Huck from a real-life childhood friend, Tom Blankenship, who “was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.” Such autobiographical elements are present in later YA works like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Outsiders.

However, one area of influence commonly attributed to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may not have been Twain’s intention in writing the book. The YA problem novel is a term first used in the late 1960s referring to works such as The Outsiders and The Pigman, as well as the earlier Newbery Award Winner It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville. A subgenre that focuses on the negative aspects of the format was later seen in books like Go Ask Alice (by Anonymous, now attributed to the book’s editor, Beatrice Sparks) and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. What many modern readers see as the novel’s greatest moment of “psychological subtlety and moral insight” (Pell 8) went unnoticed by critics and downplayed by Twain himself. It takes place when Huck decides to further deprive Widow Douglas of her property, the slave Jim whom Huck earlier helped escape, and decides, “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” Huck’s decision is bold, and today’s readers cheer him for it, but we are later disappointed when Huck agrees to participate in a needless, convoluted, and outright cruel plot to recapture Jim so the two boys can help him escape more dramatically.

Levy observes, Huck "swore to go to hell for Jim, but can't stand up to Tom Sawyer" (139), but evidence supports the idea that Twain did not see his creation as a problem novel. When Huckleberry Finn appeared on the scene, critics seemed to ignore the story’s attitudes about race; their attentions fell to Twain’s “raw, unsentimental and unsettling view of boyhood” (Pell 8). Andrew Levy writes, "Virtually no surviving review of the book, and there are dozens, talks about the novel as if it were bringing anything new to the story of black and white in America" (154). The few references to the story’s exploration of racial reconciliation thought it funny. The Hartford Courant found "the struggle Huck has with his conscience over slavery" to be "most amusing." Apparently, Twain found Huck's worries comical, too and loved the ending that disappoints so many readers today. During a promotional tour, he called those passages "the biggest card I've got in my whole repertoire." All this is strong evidence, Levy argues, that we have deluded ourselves into considering the novel a heartwarming story of racial harmony--when in fact it is something much more complicated (Pell 8). Be that as it may, D. H. Lawrence warns in Studies in Classic American Literature to, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of the critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it" (2). So, although Twain and his contemporaries may not have seen Huckleberry Finn for this aspect of its social commentary, generations of readers have placed the book alongside its contemporaries that purposefully address racial inequality, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Whatever Twain’s aims may or may not have been, Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most influential American novels, whether considered YA or otherwise. It has left its stamp on countless hearts and minds and left a legacy that YA literature still capitalizes upon today. As much as the novel has its admirers, it is not without detractors who criticize everything from its language to its morals to its ending, but perhaps Twain said it best himself within the text of this immortal story, “That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.” Whatever its strengths or weaknesses may be, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn will remain a cornerstone of American literature and Americana because “There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

Works Cited:

  • Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
  • Anonymous. Go Ask Alice. Beatrice Sparks, Ed.. New York: Prentice Hall, 1971.
  • Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
  • Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1847.
  • Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847.
  • Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games Trilogy. New York: Scholastic, 2008-10.
  • Ernsberger, Richard,Jr. "Andrew Levy: Have we Misread Huckleberry Finn?" American History 04 2015: 26-8.
  • Hemingway, Earnest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1935.
  • Hinton, S. E.. The Outsiders. New York: Viking Press, 1967.
  • Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking, 1923. 2.
  • Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960.
  • Levy, Andrew. Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
  • Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1908.
  • Neville, Emily Cheney. It’s Like This, Cat. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • Pell, Alan C. "REVIEW --- Books: A Masterpiece on its Maiden Voyage." Wall Street Journal Feb 21 2015, Eastern edition ed. C.8.
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Public Doman, 1852.
  • Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Public Domain, 1885.
  • Zindel, Paul. The Pigman. New York: Harper Trophy, 1968.

Emapathy=Maturity in Zindel's "The Pigman"

In The Pigman , author Paul Zindel follows many expected tropes in young adult literature: coming of age, wild exploration, passion, etc. Ho...