Isabelle Holland

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Corinne Hirsch

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1544

Deeply troubled youths struggle through the pages of Isabelle Holland's young adult novels….

Holland uses [her] material successfully to explore her characters' loneliness and need for love, but she seems to mistrust her adolescent reader's ability to face the disturbing consequences of the situations she creates. To prevent her novels from becoming terribly distressing, she resorts both to shallow psychologizing and plot manipulation to ameliorate her characters' problems. (p. 25)

A further problem in Holland's fiction lies in her attempt to impose her moral values on her adolescent readers. Her eagerness to condemn what she sees as the loss of traditional authority in child rearing, education, and religion often leads her to oversimplification and distortion of character and situation. We can be sure that in a novel of Holland's, a permissive adult will be weak and foolish, while a stern, generally conservative disciplinarian will be presented sympathetically…. Holland's preference for conservative ideology, to the detriment of believable characterization, tilts the balance.

Nowhere are Holland's strengths and weaknesses more apparent than in The Man Without a Face, her most interesting novel to date. Resting on two conflicting sets of inner logic, it is a deeply affecting but nonetheless flawed novel. On the one hand, we have the cautionary tale of Charles, the fourteen-year-old product of a ludicrously permissive upbringing, who must experience the influence of traditional authority in order to develop a sense of responsibility and self-discipline. Character and plot are manipulated in order to illustrate the dangers of permissiveness and the value of discipline. Concurrently, we have the compelling development of a deep relationship between the lonely, fatherless Charles and his isolated, guilt-ridden, homosexual tutor. Holland movingly depicts their tentative groping toward one another and Charles' consequent emotional enrichment. It is only at the conclusion of their relationship, where the imposition of Holland's ideology is substituted for convincing human interaction, that belief falters.

The Man Without a Face makes a two-pronged attack on what Holland views as the obtuseness of those embracing liberal ideas either in child rearing or in politics. The chic inhabitants of the resort island where Charles spends his summers and the progressive New York private schools he has had the misfortune to attend are Holland's targets. Charles' mother is the prime example of those taken in by liberal doctrine. An exaggerated shallowness is the chief characteristic of her ideas, which change depending upon the latest fad or the identity of her latest husband. (pp. 26-7)

The progressive schools Charles attends are filled with teachers who lack any understanding of their students' individuality. Although they pay lip service to the goal of individual development, the teachers approve only of ideas that follow a liberal line….

Holland's distortions of character and idea in the service of her conservative bias leave us unprepared for the delicacy of the Charles-McLeod relationship. But they certainly facilitate her positive characterization of McLeod, a traditional disciplinarian. She need only contrast his reactions to Charles' behavior with those of the other adults depicted….

It is not so much in the fullness of characterization of Charles and McLeod that the novel's strength lies, but rather in the development of their intense emotional relationship and the corresponding enrichment of Charles' sensibilities. (p. 28)

Initially Charles and McLeod feel less than positive about one another. Charles is intimidated by and antagonistic toward McLeod's sternness and reserve, but it is, ironically, just those ostensibly negative qualities in McLeod that permit the withdrawn boy, fearful of suffocating relationships, to move toward him. His aloofness gives Charles the freedom to think about and become interested in him without threat...

(This entire section contains 1544 words.)

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to his emotional integrity. As the barriers between the two begin to break down, McLeod's evident capabilities, coupled with his masculine qualities and keen understanding, draw him into the center of Charles' fatherless universe. The undercurrent of physical attraction Charles feels for McLeod is realized through the romance and mystery of McLeod's characterization, the emphasis on his masculinity, and the constant tension of attraction and repulsion in the development of their emotional intimacy.

Charles' emergence from self-absorption to sensitivity and love for McLeod is movingly delineated. His interest in others' feelings has previously been nonexistent, except where his own selfish interests were immediately concerned…. Since he is not generally given to self-analysis, the early changes in Charles' feelings are appropriately divulged as a series of surprises to himself; then, as he becomes closer to McLeod, he develops a more conscious sensitivity to his tutor's feelings. (p. 29)

Holland uses Charles' dreams to express depths of feeling beyond the boy's ability to articulate or even to understand consciously. Immediately before his first dream, Charles arrives at McLeod's, and, finding his tutor out riding, goes into the stable and romps in the hay. His frolicking has a distinctly sensual quality…. He falls asleep and dreams of attempting to saddle McLeod's horse, which has grown to four times its actual size. The horse gets larger and larger and is about to kill him when the actual arrival of McLeod's frightened, rearing horse merges into the dream and wakes Charles.

The episode presages the undercurrent of physical desire and repulsion that runs through the novel. The coupling of the dream with Charles' sensual feelings as he plays in the barn underlines his desire, expressed in his wish to ride McLeod's frightened horse, to be both like McLeod and one with him. The disproportionate size of the horse and its terrifying attack emphasize Charles' sense that there is something fearfully wrong with his desire for identification and intimacy with McLeod.

Charles' need for McLeod as a substitute for the father he can barely remember is the ostensible subject of another dream, which occurs immediately after an upsetting incident. (p. 31)

Like the earlier dream, this one seems to deal with Charles' unacknowledged and uncontrollable sexual desires. His subconscious knowledge of the ambiguous nature of his feelings toward McLeod would explain both his apprehension that McLeod cannot satisfy his need for a father and his guilty horror at this realization.

Holland further develops the theme of sexual desire in scenes of physical activity between Charles and McLeod. (p. 32)

During the last weeks of Charles and McLeod's relationship, the two have become open, warm, and affectionate. Physical desire may be present, but it is expressed as companionable affection. Charles' mother and sisters have gone away for a while, so Charles has given the run of his cottage to a smelly stray cat he has befriended, whose presence in the house is forbidden. One evening, Charles returns home to find the cat kicked to death by Gloria's boyfriend for having soiled her bed. Gloria is having intercourse on Charles' bed. Distraught, he returns to McLeod for comfort, spends the night in his bed, and has a vaguely described sexual experience there.

This sudden onrush of melodramatic events is used to create a startling denouement which Holland proceeds to wrap up neatly and simply. We are led to believe that Charles deserves much of the blame for the cat's death because of his irresponsibility in allowing it into the house…. Evidently these disastrous incidents are further lessons in the responsibility and self-discipline that had been so lacking in Charles' permissive upbringing. Life is not all bad, however. McLeod conveniently dies of a heart attack, leaving a note forgiving Charles for rejecting him after their night together, and willing him all his belongings. Charles' mother marries her fifth husband, a good man who will make a good father (why he would want to marry her remains a mystery). Charles continues his education at boarding school, presumably a more responsible, self-disciplined person for his experiences.

The cautionary tale has taken over. It is unfortunate that Holland reverts to unconvincing plotting and rather questionable moralism to end her novel. Is a boy who allows an animal he loves into the house equally at fault with a young man who kicks it to death? Can a fourteen-year-old boy be held morally responsible for a sexual act with a grown man who knows himself to be a homosexual, no matter who actually initiated and most actively carried it through? Furthermore, as realistic fiction, The Man Without a Face owes its readers fidelity to human experience; it cannot sweep under the rug the problems it has been dealing with throughout. Having introduced themes rich with ambiguity, the exigencies of the novel demand that they be worked out more fully. How might Charles deal with the complicated emotional and sexual feelings he has developed? What would be a realistic outcome of his relationship with McLeod?

Adolescents, no less than adults, deserve a fully developed fictional experience. If Holland wishes to consider the difficult problems she does, she has a responsibility to explore their implications. Neither the desire to teach nor the wish to provide her readers with a positive ending is adequate reason for over-simplification. In The Man Without A Face more than anywhere else in her adolescent fiction, Holland perceptively raises and partially explores complex questions; but in the end she evades them by lapsing into didacticism and melodrama. (pp. 33-4)

Corinne Hirsch, "Isabelle Holland: Realism and Its Evasions in 'The Man Without a Face'," in Children's literature in education (© 1979, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring), 1979, pp. 25-34.


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