Adolescent Identity Represented in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

All humans experience adolescence, so it provides a focus for much literature. All genres, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama may be used to focus on the changes between childhood and adulthood. In this stage, individuals develop a strong concern for self, seeking affirmation through peers. Psychological theories, such as those of Abraham Maslow, contend that adolescence is part of the normal progression in the search for the basic human needs of belongingness, love, and esteem. These needs must be met before one becomes a productive adult. Adolescent literature deals with the meeting of such needs.

The German word Bildungsroman refers to a novel in which a youth breaks away from family to seek independence. The word is associated with the adolescent experience in literature. Another word used to refer to such literature is “coming-of-age.” The experience an adolescent undergoes in literature generally leads to an epiphany, or life-changing realization. Through such a change, the character becomes rounded. Realizations signal the maturity of the adolescent, who gains a new outlook on some aspect of life. This allows the character to develop a personal identity, causing a movement toward adulthood. In literature the search for identity grows out of the tradition of the quest, such as that embarked upon in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) by Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. In traditional stories, males journey abroad and females travel about within the domestic sphere (from one residence or school to another), searching for identity. In modern stories, both genders move about freely in their environments. Usually these stories reflect aspects of the character’s social, economic, and social surroundings. Thus, while all main characters search for identities, their means of discovery may differ widely. All adolescent characters face some type of conflict, either within themselves, with another person, or with their environment. The meeting and overcoming of this conflict leads to the discovery of an aspect of identity.

The Twentieth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Some classic novels dealing with adolescence include Marjorie Rawlings’ The Yearling (1938), in which a boy must sacrifice his pet deer to save his family’s crops; J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), focusing upon a young boy’s sexual maturing; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), which tells of the behavior of a group of boys when stranded on an island together; and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a story of young people’s experience with racial prejudice in the Depression-era South.

Langston Hughes, a famous black poet, began writing seriously when he was in high school. Much of his poetry emits a spirit of pride in his race and protest against discrimination. His “Mother to Son” features one generation seeking to inspire another. Joyce Carol Oates captured adolescence in “Insight,” a poem about love and recklessness, while John Updike examines life after high school basketball in “Ex-Basketball Player.” Themes of multiculturalism surface in “Indian Children Speak,” a poem by Pima Indian poet Juanita Bell. As multiculturalism became more acceptable, literature focusing upon the experiences of adolescent minorities appeared in greater quantity.

A change of public attitude in the twentieth century allowed the acceptance of subjects for adolescents which were previously considered taboo. Previous to about 1960, authors could not publish writing for young people that dealt with such realistic subjects as divorce, alcoholism, physical abuse, teen pregnancy, mental illness, or drug abuse among teenage characters. Today, these subjects often provide focus for popular novels, even for younger teens.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Adolescent fiction may be classified by genre. Social realism features teens who feel out of step with society. They discover, through experience, ways by which they may come to terms with conflict. Such books may lack a happy ending, and they may contain profanity and scenes that may shock readers. In Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), when a youth at an all-boys’ school goes against a school tradition, his actions result in his being attacked by other boys and by an abusive instructor. The tone of this novel remains pessimistic, as the main character finds no solution for his problem. Paula Danziger’s books, such as The Cat Ate My Gymsuit (1974) and There’s a Bat in Bunk Five (1980), use humor and an optimistic tone to follow the experiences of an overweight teen who finds her niche as a camper and later as a camp counselor. Adolescent characters may also find themselves caught up in problems of worldwide import. In Summer of My German Soldier (1973), Bette Greene writes of a mistreated Jewish girl who befriends an escaped prisoner in Arkansas in the 1940’s, discovering her own identity by helping a person who should, according to society, be her enemy. Prolific writers of popular social realism novels depicting adolescents include Richard Peck, Cynthia Voigt, and Lynn Hall. Hall’s book, The Solitary (1986), tells of a teenager who must cope with the fact that her mother killed her abusive father. Judy Blume, a popular writer, has produced books dealing with sexual maturing, religion, and...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Beetz, Kirk H., ed. Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Washington, D.C.: Beacham, 1994. Eight volumes of analyses of popular works and their authors; includes project suggestions.

Kardux, Joke. “The Politics of Genre, Gender, and Canon-Formation: The Early American Bildungsroman and Its Subversions.” In Rewriting the Dream: Reflections on the Changing American Literary Canon, edited by W. M. Verhoeven. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1992. Discusses Franklin’s autobiography as the first American Bildungsroman.

Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature. 4th ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1990. Discusses narrative elements of literature and its many genres suitable for young readers. Contains lists of award winners.

Nakamura, Joyce, ed. High-Interest Books for Teens: A Guide to Book Reviews and Biographical Sources. 2d ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. Serves as guide to 2,000 authors and 3,500 titles of fiction and nonfiction for junior and high school readers. Especially helpful for teens with learning disabilities or underdeveloped reading skills.

Reed, Arthea J. S. Reaching Adolescents: The Young Adult Book and the School. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985. Scholarly but readable information about literature for young adults. Examines approaches to teaching literature and supplies ample bibliographic materials.

Sutherland, Zena, and May Hill Arbuthnot. Children and Books. 8th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Discusses the development of reading materials for the young; supplies abundant bibliographical listings.