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.