The Bumblebee Flies Anyway takes place in an experimental hospital for the dying, an unusual setting for a novel about teenagers. The hospital's teenage patients are all there voluntarily, hoping, as Billy the Kid says, that "what they learned in the tests might help somebody, sometime." Most of the action occurs in Section 12, an isolated children's ward within the six-story red brick building. The neglected hospital grounds border a junkyard, "a wasteland of cars and trucks and vans and buses, a metal graveyard." From this "graveyard" Barney Snow resurrects a mock MG automobile and decides he can keep his promise to give Mazzo the one last car ride he yearns for.
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The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is a gripping story that holds the reader's interest from beginning to end. The novel contains a richness of meaning partially realized through its use of symbols. One such symbol is the lilac bush. The "lilac bush heavy with clusters and fragrance" suggests Walt Whitman's famous poem on the death of Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865). Contrasted to a stark and lifeless tree nearby, the lilac bush here celebrates "the continuity of life," "the never-ending process of life," a sense of nature, a hint of God, man's hope for immortality. Just as the lilac bush, when it loses its blooms, does not die, so, too, Barney reflects, may be human life: "death only a sleep from which they eventually awakened."
The central symbol in the novel is its title, an allusion to the bumblebee, which is not supposed to fly because "its body is too heavy and it's the wrong shape." Yet the bumblebee, defying the laws of aerodynamics, flies anyway. In addition to flying, it also "manages to make a little honey every day." Like the little MG Barney finds in the junkyard, "it wasn't built to be driven," yet Barney and Mazzo drive it anyway. Ultimately, the bumblebee and the MG symbolize the lives of the boys, diseased bodies at death's door that are not supposed to think about living; yet the boys do. They even manage to find and share a little happiness among themselves.
In addition to the Whitman poem, the novel...
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Some parents and teachers may object to Cormier's presentation of death and dying in a novel written for and about teenagers. A fatalistic tone hovers over the action of the novel because all the boys in the hospital are doomed to die. No specific illnesses are mentioned, but two characters—Ronson and Mazzo— actually die during the course of the novel, and all of the other patients, including Barney, will soon follow.
Despite the depressing setting and action, Cormier presents very optimistic underlying themes. Barney's quest to find meaning in life is a life-affirming theme, especially since he does discover that meaning. Barney's need to create his own identity presents a worthwhile model for younger and older readers alike. These powerful themes, subtly woven into the novel, should be pointed out to the younger reader, who might have difficulty separating these underlying themes from the novel's generally gloomy and depressing atmosphere.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Using the text, describe the supporting cast of characters living in the Complex, including Ronson, Billy the Kidney, Mazzo, and Allie Roon.
2. Discuss the role of the medical personnel in the novel, including Nurse Bascam, Dr. Lakendorp, and Dr. Croft.
3. Discuss Cassandra Mazzofono's role in the novel and show how she is a major character in the subplot of the story.
4. Cormier has often been praised for his writing style. Using examples from the text, describe several features of that style.
5. Crisis may be defined as a turning point of a story, usually based on the protagonist's decisions. Identify several such decisions made by Barney and show how they bring about turning points in the plot.
6. Trace the physical movement of the Bumblebee from the point Barney first discovers it to when it is rolled off the roof of the Complex. In what ways is this movement central to the novel?
7. Some critics claim that although Cassie's role as a "love idol" is convincing, her role as her twin brother's "empathetic alter ego" is not. Cite evidence from the text to support your agreement or disagreement.
8. The role of religion is obviously important to Cassie. Describe that importance as it is literally and symbolically presented in the novel.
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Discuss the use of "doublespeak" in the novel. Is it effective? What is its overall significance and role in the novel?
2. Doctors are portrayed as cold and impersonal in the novel. Are they just being scientific or are they really evil?
3. Describe the setting. Compare and contrast it with T. S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland."
4. There are several important symbols in the novel, such as the lilac bush, the stigmata, and the bumblebee. Trace one of them in detail as it appears in the novel and discuss its suggested meanings.
5. The plot has elements of both pessimism and optimism. Which element, in your view, is dominant? Support your choice.
6. Choose a central conflict in the novel, such as optimism versus pessimism or altruism versus selfishness, and classify and describe several of the characters in terms of that choice.
7. One critic calls the issue of experimental medicine a "red herring" in the novel. Do you agree?
8. Discuss at length the phenomenon of twin experience in the novel. Connect its use with real-life examples gleaned from research.
9. The novel makes many allusions to works of literature. Read a work to which it alludes and report on the work itself and on Cormier's use of it in the novel.
10. One critic claims that Cormier is a Christian writer. Use the text to prove or disprove this theory.
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The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is the fourth of six novels for young adults written by Robert Cormier. The latest novel, entitled Fade, explores the absence of an uncle from a family portrait. Dealing with three generations of a single family, the novel reflects Cormier's abiding interest in family life.
All five novels before Fade occur in or around institutions: Trinity High School in The Chocolate War and its sequel Beyond the Chocolate War, a mental institution in I Am the Cheese, a military complex in After the First Death, and an experimental hospital for the terminally ill in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.
In addition to the institutional settings, these five novels all involve a teenage protagonist trying to make sense out of life in an environment that is either negative or downright hostile. Each novel also explores variations on the theme of betrayal. Although some of these betrayals are self-betrayals, they more often involve betrayals by others, particularly adults. In these betrayals, Cormier suggests a moral lesson: beware of the other guy, and especially beware of institutions and adults; they all may be out to get you.
One common theme running through Cormier's novels for young adults is the adolescent's need to transcend the mean circumstances of life. Jerry Renault in The Chocolate War, for instance, forswears an allegiance to the Vigils and follows his own inner...
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For Further Reference
Bagnall, Norma. "Realism: How Realistic Is It? A Look at The Chocolate War." Top of the News 36 (Winter 1980): 283-285. In this book review, Bagnall criticizes Cormier's first young adult novel for its lack of realism.
Campbell, Patricia. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne, 1985. In this popular yet critical treatment, Campbell provides the only booklength criticism of Cormier's fiction.
Carter, Betty, and Karen Harris. "Realism in Adolescent Fiction: In Defense of The Chocolate War." Top of the News 36 (Spring 1980): 283-285. This article furnishes a rebuttal to Norma Bagnall's earlier review.
Ellis, W. Geiger. "Cormier and the Pessimistic View." Alan Review 12 (Winter 1985): 10-12, 52-53. This discussion of Cormier's seeming pessimism appears in an entire issue focusing on Robert Cormier and his writings.
Janeczko, Paul. "An Interview with Robert Cormier." English Journal 66 (September 1977): 10-11. Discusses Cormier's career as a journalist and as a writer of fiction.
Schwartz, Tony. "Teen-Agers' Laureate." Newsweek 54 (July 1979): 90-91. This significant book review compares Cormier's work to that of William Styron and Saul Bellow.
Silvey, Anita. "An Interview with Robert Cormier." Horn Book 61 (March-April 1985): 145-155; and (May-June 1985): 289-296. This two-part interview focuses on Cormier's Beyond the Chocolate...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Coats, Karen. “Abjection and Adolescent Fiction.” JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society 5 (Fall, 2000): 290-300.
Gallo, Donald R. “Reality and Responsibility: The Continuing Controversy over Robert Cormier’s Books for Young Adults.” In The VOYA Reader. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1990.
Hyde, Margaret O. Robert Cormier. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.
Ishandert, Sylvia Patterson. “Readers, Realism, and Robert Cormier.” Children’s Literature 15 (1987): 7-18.
Karolides, Nicholas J., ed. Censored Books, II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2002.
Keeley, Jennifer. Understanding “I Am the Cheese.” San Diego: Lucent, 2001.
Myers, Mitzi. “’No Safe Place to Run To’: An Interview with Robert Cormier.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 24 (September, 2000): 445-464.
Tarr, C. Anita. “The Absence of Moral Agency in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War.” Children’s Literature 30 (2002): 96-124.
Veglahn, Nancy. “The Bland Face of...
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