Paul Zindel Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Zindel American Literature Analysis

To understand the themes that preoccupy Zindel, one must have a working knowledge of his personal life, because it infused most of what he wrote. His plays, for example, reflect his “virtually desperate” search for meaning in life. His young adult novels, on the other hand, reflect an attempt to resolve, through the creative process, problems left unresolved by an adolescence interrupted by a number of events.

The relationship between Zindel’s personal life and his writing may also be seen in the way he worked when writing. He usually began by creating what he calls an “inspirational homunculus.” This is a basic idea for a character, which was always based on a “life model” or “living image” (a real person Zindel had known). As his characters developed, Zindel identified closely with them as he placed them in situations in which they must resolve one or more of his own unresolved conflicts. Every situation is based on Zindel’s own experience. His young adult novels are usually constructed around what he considered four fundamental themes of adolescence: the search for identity and meaning, the youthful questioning of traditional values, the loneliness of an individual in a crowd, and the difficulty of communication.

With minor variations, Zindel’s stories follow an established formula. There is a principal protagonist, usually a dominant, wise-cracking male teenager, who is joined by a second teenager, always of the opposite sex. The second character may also bear part of the responsibility for telling the story, as he or she does in The Pigman and A Begonia for Miss Applebaum. The couple are usually drawn together as a result of the isolation of each.

They are basically two people who are lonely because they are unable to communicate with their parents, their teachers, and, sometimes, with their peers. In some instances, their isolation is a result of their instinctive, superior, youthful wisdom which makes them oddities at home, at school, and in the community. Thus thrown together, the two proceed to wrestle with the problems associated with growing up. In the process, they learn valuable lessons and gain new insights.

Zindel’s novels are written in a style which has been praised by some as “the authentic voice of the modern teenager.” To others, Zindel’s teenagers sound like Holden Caulfield, in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). They acknowledge that the style is entertaining and suitable to the situations Zindel created but question whether anyone actually talks like a Zindel character.

Unlike the novels, Zindel’s plays are written for adult audiences and feature few nonadult characters (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is an exception). They are mostly about troubled women who do not seem to have Zindel’s teenagers’ knack for resolving their problems. The plays tend to exaggerate and embellish the themes of the novels. Many of the plays’ female characters resemble the parental authority figures in the novels, but in the plays the women are more likely to be perversely crazy or mindlessly destructive to those around them. They often repeat the strange behavior of the adults in the novels; in the plays there is something bizarre about the way they act.

For example, both Lorraine Jensen (The Pigman) and Tillie Frank (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) are kept out of school to do housework, but when the demand is made by Tillie’s mother it is tinged with an element of lunacy. Mrs. Jensen’s excuse is simply that she needs Lorraine’s help. She “can’t go out and earn a living” and keep house, too. Betty Frank, however, manages to encapsulate into her demands frustrations and hatreds dating back to her own high school days.

Like the novels, Zindel’s plays are related to his personal life. Each play is, in a sense, a result of his search for “some sign, for any bit of hope, or reason, to make being a human sensible.”

During an interview, Zindel once said that remembering that he was composed of matter which came from the sun a long time ago was a thrilling experience. “The idea of being linked to the universe by these atoms,” he said, gave him a “feeling of meaning.” This discovery of a form of cosmic resolution, arrived at through a knowledge of science, is frequently echoed in Zindel’s plays and novels. Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball!, for example, ends with the words, “At last there were the stars set in place.” This sentiment is repeated in Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, which concludes: “I began to look past the moon, past all the great satellites of Jupiter, and dream upon the stars.”

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

First produced: 1965 (first published, 1971)

Type of work: Play

An alcoholic single parent, a teenage daughter subject to seizures, and another daughter interested in science attempt to find meaning in life.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971, was inspired by Zindel’s memories of his mother’s “charmingly frantic” get-rich-quick schemes. In its focus on the crazy world of a severely troubled woman, and in its resolution in one of the characters’ discovery of self-importance through science, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds anticipates both the plays and young-adult novels that Zindel would later write.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, like most of Zindel’s plays, intensifies the themes and characters that appear in his young-adult novels. Two teenagers, Ruth and Tillie, live in a world dominated by a single parent whose life has been a tragic disappointment. Like Zindel’s mother, Beatrice, Betty Frank has been left with two children to support. She does this by providing nursing care in her home for elderly clients such as the ancient “Nanny,” who is a resident at the time the play takes place.

Betty Frank, who was known as “Betty the Loon” during her high school career, is an unsympathetic exaggeration of some of the parents in Zindel’s novels. Selfishly preoccupied, slightly alcoholic, and frequently lost in a dream world of preposterous schemes to make money and fantasies about what she might have been if she had not made the mistake of marrying and getting saddled with two kids, Betty Frank is capable of mindlessly destroying both her own and her daughters’ worlds. With Ruth, who is subject to convulsions, Betty Frank is at times carelessly indulgent, at times a skillful nurse capable of talking Ruth out of an attack, and at times the most diabolically destructive force in Ruth’s life. Her chloroforming of the girls’ rabbit appears to be a calculated attack on Ruth’s sanity.

With Tillie, on the other hand, Betty Frank exhibits none of the careless indulgences afforded Ruth. Tillie’s passion is learning, and her mother, like some of the mothers in Zindel’s novels, places a very low value on education. Because Ruth’s ability to learn is limited, Betty Frank is content to allow her to attend school regularly, but Tillie’s interest seems to challenge her mother to find ways of placing stumbling blocks in the way of her daughter’s education. Cleaning up rabbit droppings, to Betty Frank’s thinking, is far more important than anything Tillie might discover at school. The final expression of her disapproval of education comes at the end of the play, when she refuses to attend an awards night event after Tillie wins the science competition for her experimentation with seeds exposed to radiation.

Underlying the action of the play is Zindel’s “virtually desperate” search for something to “hang onto,” something “to make being a human sensible.” Unfolding against the backdrop of a senseless world like the Franks’, Zindel attempts to find the “grain of truth” which will make it sensible. In The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, it is science that provides the “grain of truth” for Tillie.

Zindel often uses science as a metaphor for or a source of meaning and harmony, but it should be noted that his respect for science and for scientific experimentation is a qualified one. He disapproves of the use of animals for scientific research, and this disapproval is reflected in Ruth’s indignation over Janice Vickery’s boiling a live cat to study its anatomy. Zindel expanded on this theme later in Let Me Hear You Whisper, a play about a dolphin who refuses to talk when he learns the purpose of the experiment in which he is involved.

It is in the conclusion of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, however, that Zindel makes his strongest statement about the value of science as a solution to the meaninglessness of being human. In a speech that shows...

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